Atlanta’s newly elected district attorney on Tuesday Fani Willis, announced that it would call for improvements in the death penalty and hate crimes against Robert Aaron Long, the 22-year-old man charged with the Atlanta-area spa shooting that left eight people dead, including six women of Asian descent.
Death Row is, almost exclusively, a home for the poor.
Willis’ decision to seek the death penalty is the wrong one – both for her in particular and, as recent history shows, in cases alleging bias-motivated violence more broadly.
While Willis might believe, as she said on Tuesday, that this is a case that “justifies” the death penalty, defenders of more than ten years ago showed the dangerous path that such a decision can open for “the disproportionate application” of the death penalty “against the poor” and for “the unequal and racist application of the death penalty”, not to mention the more serious concerns. broad regarding the use of the death penalty. death penalty in all circumstances.
There is a long and well-detailed story showing the dangers posed by the death penalty system to people who cannot afford better representation. According to a statement from Equal Justice Initiative, an advocacy group founded by Bryan Stevenson, “The death penalty is mostly inflicted on the poor who cannot afford to hire an effective lawyer.” Death Row is, almost exclusively, a home for the poor.
As the institute and many others have detailed, race is inextricably linked with the death penalty as well. In particularly clarifying report, the institute studied the history of racial terror lynchings in America and found that their decline “depended heavily on the increased use of the death penalty imposed by court order following an often expedited trial.”
The desire of many prosecutors to seek harsh sentences is a well-documented problem.
Continue until today, and the evidence remains this course – both of the accused person but in particular for the victim – plays a disproportionate role in determining who actually ends up in the death row. Like The Associated Press sums it up clearly, “Since the death penalty was resumed in 1977, 295 black defendants have been executed for killing a white victim, but only 21 white defendants have been executed for the murder of a black victim, although black people are disproportionate victims of crime. “
When Willis was running to become a Fulton County District Attorney in 2020, she made it clear that she saw significant issues with the death penalty, telling the Georgia Justice Reform Partnership that she opposed the death penalty, stating in a forum that “life without parole is an appropriate remedy” and that it “cannot foresee a case” in which the death penalty would be appropriate.
Less than a year later, after winning the office election, Willis found such a situation in the Long affair.
The desire of many prosecutors to seek harsh sentences is a well-documented problem. The practice can be coercive, forcing people to plead guilty in circumstances where they would normally go to trial to withdraw the most important charges. This practice has added fuel to the fire of mass incarceration, filling our prisons with an increasingly aging population.
But here, in a case where accusations of hate-motivated violence are also involved, the practice is particularly ill-suited: the death penalty in America is both historically and currently a skewed system, and uses that most punishment. extreme to pursue prejudices. motivated crime only serves to root this biased system deeper into our lives.
More than ten years ago, this question was played out on the national scene. The 1998 murders of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Laramie, Wyoming, who was left for dead in a remote part of town after a severe beating, and James Byrd Jr., a black man dragged to death behind a pickup truck in Jasper, Texas, were motivators behind legislation strengthening federal sentences for hate crimes.
Using this case to further entrench the death penalty in our country and in our lives does not – and cannot – advance these goals.
After the bill passed the House in Barack Obama’s first year in office, it faced opposition in the Senate and then an amendment from a senator strongly opposed to the legislation. . The amendment was intended to add the death penalty as a possible improvement for certain hate crimes, and it was moved by then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.
Even then, when the death penalty was used more frequently across the country than it is today, the response from groups supporting the legislation was clear: No. The amendment was considered. a “poison pill” amendment sessions that would harm his chances of passing.
A leading advocacy organization that supported the bill, the Leaders ‘Conference on Civil Rights (now the Leaders’ Conference on Civil and Human Rights), organized a letter “strongly” opposed to the bill. amendment of sessions. Signatories included the NAACP and major LGBT groups supporting legislation, including the Campaign for Human Rights and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Action Fund.
“The [Hate Crimes Prevention Act] was first introduced in 1997, but no version of the bill has ever included the death penalty. Sponsors of the bill in the Senate and House and the overwhelming coalition of supporters have consistently opposed adding the death penalty to this bill. groups wrote. “HCPA supporters should oppose this amendment. The death penalty is irreversible and highly controversial – with serious doubts about its deterrent effect and clear evidence of a disproportionate application against the poor. In addition, there are serious and well-documented concerns about the unequal and racist application of the death penalty. “
Although the amendment was included in the Senate version of the bill, groups continued to push for the provision to be removed and it was later removed during negotiations between the House and the Senate on the legislation. The legislation was enacted by Obama in late 2009 without any provision for the death penalty.
Now, more than a decade later, Willis faces a similar question in Atlanta that federal lawmakers and advocates faced in 2010: Should the death penalty be the answer to violence motivated by prejudices?
The answer should now be the same as the one they had concluded then: no.
The March 16 spa shootings must be continued, responsibility for the murders must be sought and the bias effect of the attacks must be addressed. But using this case to further entrench the death penalty in our country and in our lives does not – and cannot – advance these goals.