As far as I can consider myself an adequate judge of the character of men, Ray Krone is one of the best I have ever met. To share a beer with Ray is to share a beer with a simple, honest man born and raised in small-town America. He owns a few motorcycles, never hesitates to loan money to needy friends and likes to go to diners where he can order a Reuben with extra crispy tater tots. Ray is exactly the sort of person you would never expect to be accused of violently murdering a waitress in the bathroom of an Arizona bar. Nevertheless, Ray was accused of capital murder and given the death penalty for a crime he didn’t commit.
While Ray spent 10 years in prison fighting for his freedom through the appellate courts, the real perpetrator — a registered sex offender who lived less than four blocks from the murder site — remained free. For me, Ray’s story raises a terrifying question: If someone as honest and good as Ray can be sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit, can someone like me be sentenced as well? The unfortunate answer is that the capital punishment system in America is so irrevocably broken that there is no good reason why you or I can’t be condemned to death for a crime we didn’t do.
This is exactly the message Ray delivered last week in a lecture sponsored by my club, IC Human Rights. Ray’s experience is far from an anomaly. Since 1976, there have been 1,289 executions in the United States, and 140 people have been exonerated from death row. Undoubtedly, there have been innocent people put to death during that time, or at the very least, individuals whose guilt was seriously questioned at the time of their execution — recall the execution of Troy Davis. But for those retributivists who walked out of Ray’s lecture unmoved by his testimony, still supporting the death penalty, I want to offer more points for your consideration.
In 96 percent of states with the death penalty, there’s a pattern of race-of-victim discrimination or race-of-defendant discrimination. A 2005 study by Glenn Pierce and Michael Radelet published in the Santa Clara Law Review found that someone who kills a white person in California is more than three times more likely to receive death than if they killed a black person, and over four times more likely than if they killed a Latino. Additionally, 98 percent of chief district attorneys in death penalty states are white, while only 1 percent are black.
Secondly, administering the death penalty costs roughly three times more than imprisoning someone for life, and it doesn’t deter criminals any more than life without parole. According to a 2009 survey conducted by Michael Radelet and Traci Lacock, 88 percent of the top current and former academic criminologists reject the notion that the death penalty lowers homicide rates. The Southern U.S. accounts for 80 percent of all executions, and it has the highest murder rate of all the U.S. regions.
It is shameful that America is the only western country that continues this barbaric and retrograde practice. Our deliberate refusal to listen to the Ray Krones of the world and face the realities of our failed capital punishment system fuels the delusion that humans have the ability to construct a just, nonarbitrary, nondiscriminatory and error-proof capital punishment system. As Supreme Court Justice Henry Blackmun wrote in 1994, it is time we stopped “tinkering with the machinery of death … for the path lessens us all.”
Nate Crider is a senior music and philosophy major and president of IC Human Rights. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org