In a recent article for the New York Review of Books, United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York Jed Rakoff reviews a new book about the history of capital punishment and asks why, with all of its shortcomings, the death penalty is still imposed by our country’s justice system.
To open the article, Rakoff recounts a personal tragedy: the loss of his brother who, in 1985, was bludgeoned and stabbed to death. Outraged by his brother’s murder, Rakoff says that had the prosecutor on the case recommended execution, he would have “applauded” it. But, many years later, he says, he changed his mind.
According to Rakoff, there are numerous issues related to courts’ imposition of capital punishment—including structural racism, arbitrariness, vague rules, regulatory problems—that should prevent further use of the death penalty in the United States. But, the most serious issue of all, says Rakoff, is that all of these and other problems within the criminal justice can lead to innocent people being executed for crimes they didn’t commit.
Rakoff wrotes:“. . .[T]o me . . . the execution or near execution of the innocent is the factor most likely to deprive the death penalty of its moral force, and thereby its ultimate legal justification. For how can one applaud capital punishment knowing that those executed may well be innocent?”
But, Rakoff explains that even with the ongoing revelations of innocent people who were convicted and sentenced for execution yet, ultimately, exonerated, have not yet purged the American public of its support of the death penalty.
“One can only wonder how many more wrongly convicted, innocent people will have to go to the death chamber before these ingrained attitudes will change for others, as they did for me,” says Rakoff.
Read the entire article here.