Friday ‘Flashblack:’ To Kill Or Not To Kill: What One Politician’s Fight to Abolish the Death Penalty Reveals about Politics, Race and the American Psyche

From October 2011, X3 Magazine



With the recent execution of Troy Davis in Georgia, discussion about the morality of the death penalty as it applies to criminal justice has resurfaced.  Some have challenged the argument that states should have the right to take the life of another human being as punishment for committing crimes, however heinous.  Others have argued that it is an appropriate punishment in some cases and should remain an option for the states to seek as they plan to prosecute.  While these perspectives are totally contradictory, they do have one thing in common.  Both positions bring to light a very serious problem in this country with our politics and with our mindset in terms of how we value the lives of individuals, criminals and victims alike.  

The death penalty discussion is overwrought with emotion so intense that it borders on violence.  However, if you step away from the emotion, and look at the facts, approaching the subject with forethought and logic, you see just how twisted our collective thinking about this issue in America really is.  Here are some facts compiled by the Death Penalty information Center:

  • Thirty-four states, the U.S. Government, and the U.S. Military have laws that permit the application of the death penalty in the U.S.
  • Sixteen states and the District of Columbia do not have a death penalty statute (while New Mexico no longer has the death penalty, they do have two inmates remaining on death row).
  • All of the southern states have a death penalty, and are responsible for 80% of all executions; the south also has the highest per capita murder rate in the U.S.
  • From the time the moratorium on the death penalty was lifted nationwide in 1976, there have been 1271 executions (an average of 36 executions per year, though 1999 had the most executions in any one year with 98).
  • Of the 1271 executed, a disproportionate number of those were African American (African Americans were found to be almost half of those on death row despite only remaining about 12% of the population in the U.S.).
  • The victims in death penalty cases, 76%, were overwhelmingly white.
  • In states where racial discrimination in the application of the death penalty was reviewed, 96% demonstrated such a pattern.
  • The State of Texas has executed more prisoners than any other state with 475 executions to date; the State of Virginia is second with 109 executions to date.
  • In a recent survey, 88% of experts on criminal justice (not the death penalty) do not believe the death penalty deters persons from committing murder.

With facts that are so disparaging why, then, do politicians chose to make the death penalty law?  And why does the country as a whole believe that having such a threat of “justice” makes individuals or potential victims any more safe than would a sentence of life without parole?

“In no case is it about murder, it’s about some murders,” says Connecticut State Representative, Gary Holder Winfield, a Democrat for District 94 in New Haven.  

Holder-Winfield began his job as a lawmaker with the eradication of the death penalty in Connecticut.  As a freshman lawmaker, Holder-Winfield’s position was  to look at the policy and demonstrate to the public that “it does not do what we believe it does…we need to take time to think about it, [the death penalty] doesn’t deter crime.”  

Holder-Winfield’s strategy was to generate press.  He  talked to all the advocates, many of whom didn’t take the freshman legislator seriously.  Then by his own admission, he did something vastly different than those policymakers in the past, who shared his views, had done: he listened.  “I went to every one of my colleagues and asked them to tell me their views and then I left.”  According to Holder-Winfield, this strategy “made them think,” and he realized that he actually had the numbers to “move” the bill forward.

But it wasn’t that easy.  The political fight to abolish the death penalty in Connecticut was about to become complicated by raw emotion in a state that still angered by the most highly publicized crime in its history, the 2007 Cheshire home invasion and the vicious murder of a mother and her two children.

In July of 2007, two men invaded the home of Dr. William A. Petit, Jr., his wife Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and their two daughters Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11.  Dr. Petit was beaten unconscious, his wife was raped and strangled, one daughter was also raped and the two girls were bound and left to die in a house that was then covered in gasoline and set on fire.  Since then, the two men responsible have been captured and charged with murder and a host of other crimes against the Petit’s.  One has been convicted and sentenced to death.  The trial of the second began on September 19, 2011 and the prosecutor is also seeking the death penalty in that case.  

However, at the time Representative Holder-Winfield began his journey in 2009 to get the bill repealing the death penalty in the state to a vote the Petit case hadn’t come to trial.  Many believed that a crime so devastatingly vile was worthy of the death sentence and feared repealing the statute would make a such a sentencing option unavailable by the time the case was tried.  Many of Holder-Winfield’s peers in both chamber of the Connecticut legislature were fearful, as well, and about how support or vote to abolish the death penalty in the State of Connecticut would impact their individual political careers.

Holder-Winfield, at first, had several cordial conversations with Dr. Petit.  “He respected my handling of the issue,” says the lawmaker.  “I was respectful. I knew the victims, the names of his wife and daughters, their ages and always [in discussion] put the victims first.”  However, as the trials grew nearer, those conversations dwindled and eventually ceased altogether.  Despite the ongoing trial of the second killer, Holder-Winfield will introduce another bill to repeal the penalty.

“In policy and presenting the death penalty,” says Holder-Winfield, “we offer it as a resolution, not thinking about how the family of the victim may feel 20 years down the road.  [In public policy] we just seek the resolution at the time, but never come to [the] conclusion that the family will never ultimately have resolution, their loved one is still gone.”

Holder-Winfield also cites how important language is in the movement to abolishing the death penalty is and how that language is presented to the public.  He says that the death penalty is sold to the public as protection for an unknown crime that will likely be committed at any time against every person in society, that we are all potential victims.  He says that the propaganda machine that fuels the media’s obsession and ultimately drives public opinion “assumes that the criminal actually recognizes what the circumstances [of the law and its application] are…most acts of murder are not done with the foresight it takes for one to know that they could eventually be put to death.”  

“Typically it is offered [to the public] this way: death penalty or no death penalty.  But when you ask people what they think about the death penalty versus a sentence of life without parole, then the answer and reaction is totally different, but in discussion, they aren’t offered that option.”

The death penalty doesn’t just only shock people into fear.  In some instances, it also brings forth their prejudices.

Holder-Winfield says that theapplication of the death penalty will “always be discriminatory.  People are charged for sins against the state, not crimes against individuals, but when emotions and fears come into play, it then becomes about the individuals and there is never going to be equality.”

Race is a very complex issue in America.  It is also a very profitable one.  News outlets use it to make money by shocking viewers in to buying a product to “protect” their families.  Politicians use it to get elected.  In criminal justice it’s what Holder-Winfield calls “the replication of the history of this country,”  and that with regard to the death penalty it is “sold as protection to white people against some mysterious dark criminal hiding in the shadows…blacks have been on the wrong side of this thing for years.”

How do the complexities of race play into the application of the death penalty?  

First, consider that the youngest person ever sentenced to death in the U.S. was a Native American boy named James Arcene.  Arcene was convicted for his alleged role in a robbery and murder committed in 1872 when he was just 10-years-old. Arcene was executed at age 23 in 1885.

Next, consider the case of George Stinney, Jr. who was executed in South Carolina, accused of murdering two young white girls in 1944.  According to official accounts, Stinney was offered ice cream in exchange for a confession.  He was only 14 and the youngest person executed in the history of the United States.  This revelation coming in the wake of the Troy Davis execution, the Stinney case has renewed interest as there appears to be evidence the murders were committed by another individual.  

Now, consider the case of Susan Smith, the Union, South Carolina mother who at first accused a black man carjacking her and kidnapping her two young children who were in the backseat.   Smith confessed to murdering her children on November 3, 1993 by letting her car roll into a lake and drowning them.  It has been written that her alleged motive was to rid herself of the children in order to continue an affair with a wealthy man who wanted no children.  Smith was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison.  She will be eligible for parole in 2024.

In Holder-Winfield’s state, as in most others, there is not statewide application of the death penalty.  The sentence request is left to the discrimination of the prosecutor who decides whether or not to pursue it.  This is where the discrepancy lies in the application.  But why have a need for a death penalty?

The why is a far more complex issue.   Some politicians mislead the public into thinking that the death penalty saves taxpayers the money it would cost to incarcerate a prisoner for life.  On average, it costs $40,000 annually to incarcerate one individual.  However, states still spend upwards of $4 million annually just do all the legal work associated with death penalty cases.  In some states this amount does not include the annual $40,000 to incarcerate individuals awaiting execution.

“The money is allocated incorrectly because our thinking is incorrect,” says Holder-Winfield.  He believes that if the investment was made on the front end in education, in reducing poverty, than there would be less need for these types of sentences as crimes because people would be better educated in general.

And that is ultimately what Representative Holder-Winfield has, as a policymaker, has taken up the challenge to do—educate the public when it comes to the death penalty and a host of other issues.  As a community activist, he recognizes the length of time it takes for change and chooses to spend his time talking to the people first rather than the politicians.

“I keep the perspective of the people in mind…you can’t fix a problem when you don’t know one exists.”


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