Death penalty panel tackles the topic of race
Following the recent Troy Davis execution controversy, the Washington University Pre-Law Society presented a panel of experts to discuss the practice of capital punishment and whether or not racism plays a role in implementation of the death penalty.
The panel featured Bevy Beimdiek, an adjunct professor of trial practice at the University’s School of Law; Redditt Hudson, a representative from the Missouri American Civil Liberties Union chapter; Rita Linhardt, chairwoman of the board for Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty; and Kit Wellman, professor chair of the University’s Department of Philosophy.
All four said the death penalty is wrong in practice. They agreed that the death penalty works disproportionately against minorities.
Professor Wellman gave a theoretical analysis of the death penalty. He explained that the question of whether or not the death penalty is morally wrong pertains to the question of the rights one forfeits when one commits a crime.
“The question is, obviously, ‘Can you ever forfeit your right to life?’ Some people think that that right is inalienable, that no matter how I behave, I can’t forfeit my right to life,” Wellman said.
Although Wellman does not think one can forfeit his right to life, he understands that some may disagree.
Hudson understands the belief that a person can forfeit his right to life, but thinks this idea can become dangerous when it is applied at the universal level of the justice system.
“I get the reaction of a life for a life. I’ve got two daughters. If somebody right in front of me wants to do something horrifically harmful to them, in that moment, I probably would kill you,” Hudson said. “That’s a self-contained punishment delivery system. The problem comes when we broaden it out.”
Hudson argued that seeking the death penalty as a form of retribution for the victim’s family is flawed because some death row inmates are wrongly convicted.
According to Hudson, 138 people have been exonerated in the U.S. after being convicted through the judicial process in their respective states.
Linhardt said that in her experience, the death penalty does not give the family of the victim peace.
“After some time goes by and they’ve gotten some distance, they realize it wasn’t really healing for them” said Linhardt. “They’ll say, ‘This isn’t how I want to remember this family member.’ In a lot of ways the judicial process is more detrimental to them.”
Hudson said that the system is not equally applied in all cases.
Beimdiek demonstrated this belief by describing the details of five different murder cases and asking the audience to guess whether or not the defendant was sentenced to death.
To the audience’s surprise, defendants, including Todd Shepard, the man who walked up to a University City police officer sitting in a squad car on the Delmar Loop and shot him unprovoked in the head, received life in prison, whereas other defendants, including a mentally unstable schizophrenic who had been in and out of mental institutions, received the death penalty.
Beimdeck used the exercise to show the arbitrariness of administering of the death penalty and how the randomness of its application creates inequality.
She said that prosecutors’ number one factor in deciding whether to pursue the death penalty is the race of the victim. The second is the race of the defendant.
“It’s about perception of value of life,” Beimdiek said. “Middle class white people are perceived by mainstream law enforcement as having greater value than a poor African-American person, because those are the people that go to the polls.”
Wellman said that although the death penalty isn’t a racist institution in theory, it becomes racist because Americans, who have racism subconsciously ingrained in their society, carry it out.
“Take me, for instance. I’m a relatively enlightened guy” said Wellman. “The worry is that even for relatively enlightened folks like me on a jury, if it’s a poor and unattractive black guy that killed an attractive white woman, those subconscious values come into play.”
The panelists agreed that the system is inherently flawed because it is prone to human error.
They looked at other issues surrounding the death penalty, including the fact that a death penalty trial is substantially more expensive than one seeking life without parole. The panelists agreed that the state could better use this money by improving the prison or legal system or creating youth crime prevention programs.
Some students thought the panel was one-sided, because all the panelists were opposed to the death penalty in practice, if not in theory.
“It was definitely informative, but I guess it could’ve been more scandalous if they’d had someone on the panel who supported the death penalty” said sophomore Talia Seehoff.
Junior Anna Hilke, a member of the University’s Pre-Law Society, explained the lack of a devil’s advocate on the panel.
“When we were planning the event and looking for panelists, we realized that the majority of the panel would be against the death penalty, and we didn›t want to bring someone in and have the whole panel be against them,” Hilke said. “We also found that we were hard-pressed to find a death penalty supporter.”