Askari Abdullah Muhammad, formerly known as Thomas Knight, has exhausted his final appeal. He is scheduled to be executed by the state of Florida on Jan. 7. He has spent 38 years on Death Row.
“Thirty-eight years?” you might ask, and that may lead you to think that legislation Gov. Rick Scott signed in June, named “Timely Justice,” makes sense. Under “Timely Justice” the governor must sign a death warrant within 30 days of the conclusion of a review for clemency, and execution must take place within 180 days.
“Timely Justice” will be timely. It will not be just.
First, there will be errors in executing the legislation: Florida has the highest number of Death Row exonerations in the country — 24 since 1973. Indeed, at present, Florida Death Row inmate Clement Javier Aguirre Jarquin is presenting DNA evidence that seems to signal his innocence. If exonerated, that would make him the 25th.
Second, in mandating the governor to sign a warrant within 30 days, there will be discrimination by ethnicity and class. Forty-five percent of the inmates on Florida’s Death Row are African American or Latino. If national data apply, they are all poor, and most will have been sentenced for crimes against whites (the crimes for which prosecutors earn political benefit by appearing “tough”).
Third, there will be discrimination by geography. A scathing American Bar Association report on the death penalty in Florida reports death penalties come from only a small number of counties, suggesting a definition of justice in sentencing rests with a local state attorney.
A new report from the Death Penalty Information Center demonstrates that this is true nationwide. “Contrary to the assumption that the death penalty is widely practiced across the country, it is actually the domain of a small percentage of U.S. counties in a handful of states — 2 percent in fact. These are generally counties in which a particular District Attorney with a particular agenda holds sway.”
To be sure, states rights is a critical element in America’s federal construct. America glories in the variety of its regions, in the cultural heritage of its citizens and the range of occupations that spring from their geography. We have benefited economically and socially by respecting our differences.
But we can only glory in pluralism as long as it does not infringe on the rights of any group, defame the core values, or damage the presence of the whole. We as a people cannot tolerate systemic injustice. And that is precisely what “Timely Justice” is.
I am not claiming that every person on Death Row is innocent or that every prosecutor is motivated by self-interest. I am also not suggesting that we disrespect the rights of grieving families by not having society bring those who murder before the courts. Nor do I suggest that we abandon our responsibility to make our society safe. On the issue of the death penalty, however, it is clear that states — indeed counties — have proven they are not able to manage capital punishment in a way that is accurate and fair — which is what the Constitution requires.
Twice we have tried to fix a broken system. In 1972, the Supreme Court, convinced by a series of cases in which race, class and geography had clearly influenced judgment, imposed a nationwide moratorium on execution. Using strong language, the justices called the system “arbitrary and capricious” and forbade execution everywhere — until individual states could demonstrate they could manage it fairly. That moratorium lasted four years. Beginning in 1976, states brought forward processes that on paper promised accuracy and fairness. As the situation in Florida proves, that “experiment,” too, has failed.
For the past five years, as a scholar researching leaders for social justice, I have followed the work of Sister Helen Prejean, best known as the author of “Dead Man Walking.” For 30 years, Prejean has been calling Americans to see what is going on in our courts and prisons. Investigating her claims led me to read the data myself; to meet men who spent years in jail for crimes they did not commit; to hear families of victims and of convicts describe their agony, and defense attorneys express their frustration. I have seen journals and letters and death warrants. I have been scandalized by what I’ve seen.
The new legislation will not “fix” capital punishment in Florida; it will make it worse. The only way to “clear out” Florida’s Death Row is to abolish the death penalty and commute existing sentences to life in prison. The Supreme Court must do it. It is time for another moratorium on the death penalty. This one for good.
Susanne Dumbleton is a professor and former dean at DePaul University School for New Learning. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.