Last month, headlines blared, “U.S. Death Penalty Support Lowest in More Than 40 Years.” Based on that pronouncement, one might assume that an overwhelming number of Americans oppose the capital punishment. That assumption would be wrong.
If anyone actually read past the provocative headlines and read the actual data, 60 percent of Americans still support the death penalty. I happen to be one of them.
This is an increasingly unpopular position among African Americans in politics and media, as I am reminded whenever I reference the issue on social media. But that doesn’t mean the position is wrong, something I was reminded of again when white supremacist serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin was granted a stay of execution on Tuesday even though he’d murdered 18 people because of racial or religious reasons. (Or, I should say, 18 that we know of.) That number doesn’t include the many he injured, including civil rights leader and presidential confidant Vernon Jordan. Franklin was eventually executed Wednesday morning.
There are plenty of passionate and compelling arguments against the death penalty. Among them: It is disproportionately applied to racial minorities, our criminal-justice system is imperfect and capital punishment doesn’t deter crime. Yet when I’m confronted with a criminal like Franklin, none of those arguments convince me in the slightest that it is not a fitting punishment for his crimes, or that our world or criminal-justice system benefits from having him remain alive.
In the paper today, I was faced with two contrasting stories that perfectly embodied the contradictions of our criminal-justice system. On one page of the New York Post website was the story of Derrick Deacon, a black man finally freed after 25 years for a murder he did not commit. On the other page was Charles Manson, the notorious ringleader of a group that murdered a number of people in 1969, including actress Sharon Tate.
Although the article on Deacon focused on his celebration of his freedom, the article on Manson focused on the fact that he is now marrying a 25-year-old woman. He is alive because the state of California abolished the death penalty shortly after he committed his crimes, so the unrepentant, murderous racist (Manson once believed in an impending race war) remains alive to enjoy privileges, like marriage, that his victims never will.
Does it concern me that Derrick Deacon could have faced death had he been in a state with the death penalty? Of course. But it also concerns me that any innocent person could languish behind bars for 25 years for a crime he did not commit. That is an argument not for abolishing prisons but for improving the system that determines who ends up in prison.
That is precisely how I feel about the death penalty. Just last week it was revealed that supporters of George Stinney, the youngest person legally executed in U.S. history, are striving to get him a new trial—nearly 70 years after his so-called execution, which was really a lynching that included the formalities of a trial.
The 14-year-old was convicted of murdering two young white girls on the basis of what is widely believed to have been a forced confession. As a testament to the injustice of it all, his family was threatened with violence and fled the state before the start of his one-day trial, leaving George alone to face almost certain death.
I don’t ever want to see another George Stinney wrongly convicted and wrongly executed, just as I don’t want to see another Derrick Deacon wrongly imprisoned. But those stories are an indictment of an unjust system of justice, not the punishments themselves. Furthermore, advancements in our criminal-justice system, such as DNA evidence—along with the role that technology is increasingly playing in providing innocent people with verifiable alibis, while also making it easier to confirm criminal activity—make me more confident in the system we have today.
Is it perfect? No. But can we now put stringent barriers in place so that innocent people are not executed? Absolutely. For instance, if DNA evidence had existed, and been required, during George Stinney’s trial—in addition to, obviously, many of the rules of law we now take for granted, like a jury of one’s peers—he might still be alive.
But the tragedy of his death in no way makes me wish that Joseph Paul Franklin were enjoying another day on this planet. As Franklin said himself in a recent interview, “Yeah, I actually believe that I deserve [to be executed]. I ain’t going to deny it.”
I wholeheartedly agree, which is why I shed no tears and lost no sleep over the news that Franklin had finally been put to death.
Keli Goff is The Root's special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.