Abolish Death Penalty in 4 Simple Steps

In the aftermath of Troy Davis, activists say they're closer than ever.

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When Troy Davis was executed at a Georgia state prison in September, several hours after the Supreme Court deliberated (and denied) an emergency appeal, people around the world looked on in shock. Activists, convinced that there was too much doubt surrounding his murder conviction, including the fact that seven of nine witnesses later recanted their original testimony, had rallied for weeks, months and years on his behalf.

While many of those advocates are working to keep the name "Troy Davis" alive, in his emotional death they are also focused on another goal: abolishing the death penalty. With a global movement galvanized around the Davis case -- which reflected the arbitrary nature of the death penalty, as well as the role that race and class often play in executions -- they contend that now is the prime moment to surge forward in stamping out the practice.

If it seems like the death penalty and an American penchant for "eye for an eye" justice are here to stay, here are reasons that leaders on the issue say its abolition is possible.

1. It's been done before, practically.

Despite the common assumption that the death penalty has been a constant throughout American history, the practice has fallen in and out of public favor, with a spotty presence over the years. In the wake of 1972's Furman v. Georgia case, which involved a black man convicted of armed robbery and murder, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that death sentences are handed down arbitrarily, thus violating the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment. The high court suspended capital punishment in the country from 1972 to 1976, with no executions during this period.

The door was left open for a comeback, however, by the argument that the death penalty could be constitutional if it were applied equitably. In 1976, as states returned with new laws designed to fix these concerns, the by-then more conservative Supreme Court ruled that the country could use the death penalty again.

"But it's no less arbitrary and capricious now than it was in 1972," Laura Moye, Death Penalty Abolition Campaign coordinator for Amnesty International, told The Root. "It's really up to the justices to take a hard look, and right now there's too much of a comfort level with the brokenness of the system."

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Even so, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church and longtime anti-death penalty activist, is encouraged by the fact that the practice is used less frequently. Texas, which leads the nation in executions, executed 17 people in 2010, down from 40 in 2000. "It's been all but abolished in the United States before, and it can happen again," he told The Root, though he conceded that moving the needle of public opinion will be difficult at a time of high unemployment and "the mindset of scapegoating the other," as people struggle for basic needs. "It's going to be hard fought, but the momentum is moving in that direction."  

2. It may all come down to 10 states.

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