Why the NAACP’s Robert Rooks is against the Death Penalty

*Cross-posted from The Loop 21

'How Many Innocent People Have We Executed?'

In our 'Pro vs Con' series, we ask two experts to weigh in on a hot button topic. For our first installment, we tackle the death penalty. In the aftermath of Troy Davis, the nation's support of the death penalty has dipped to it's lowest approval rating in 39 years.

Robert Rooks, National Criminal Justice Director for the NAACP, explains why he is working tirelessly to end the death penalty.

What is your stance on the death penalty? Why?

I am against the death penalty for several reasons: One, I believe innocent people have been executed and that is unacceptable. Over 130 people have been exonerated from death row. An innocent life is a price too high to pay when life without parole is an option. No one should be comfortable supporting a system that has taken an innocent life. Two, the death penalty is costly. A death penalty trial costs three to four times more than a trial of life without parole. Three, the death penalty is arbitrary. The sentence you receive is based on where you live and your economic status. Two people can commit the exact same crime and get two completely different sentences—that’s a horrible system to use when taking a life.

Are there any exceptions?

No.

Do you think the death penalty is applied equitably across the races? Why or why not?

It is not applied equally on two fronts: A disproportionate number of African Americans are on death row. I believe the number is somewhere around 42% of people on death row are African Americans. The death penalty is also racially disparate when it comes to the victim, meaning the race of the person who was murdered. A person is more likely to get the death penalty when the victim is white, than when the victim is black, building on an obvious value system that was put in place generations ago.

Would a proven inequity challenge the justice of using the death penalty? Why or why not?

Yes and no. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in McClesky vs. Georgia that the death penalty was racially biased, but also ruled that despite this alarming fact, we should continue the use of the death penalty. I feel that the death penalty should not be used when it is proven that it is applied in a discriminatory manner. Many states have looked at the issue of racial bias, and some, like North Carolina, have passed the Racial Justice Act, which would limit the use of the death penalty. The issue of racism in the death penalty system is one factor in the widespread decline of support for the death penalty.

Do you think the death penalty deters crime? Why or why not? If yes, then please explain how.

No, I do not. States that have the death penalty have similar types of crime, including murder, as states that do not. Research has not shown that the death penalty deters crime.

What role should victims’ rights play in this debate?

For starters, victims of all races should be included in the discussion around what victims need. African Americans are nearly 50% of victims of violent crime, but are often not included as part of the victims’ rights community. This must change. African-American victims have rights and should be able to participate in such discussions. In addition, when polled about support for the death penalty, African Americans’ support for the death penalty is significantly lower than white Americans. Victims have rights and they should have a significant role in crime policy. The only issue is that we need more balanced victims’ voices to weigh in on this discussion.

Is life without parole an acceptable alternative to the death penalty? Why or why not?

Yes, for a number of reasons. One, life without parole has the same impact as the death penalty as it relates to stopping future crime, because it eliminates a person from being able to harm society again. Two, in the event of cases with doubt, if DNA or eyewitness testimony confirm a person’s innocence, there would be an opportunity to reverse the sentence, whereas this would not be possible if the person were executed.

What role should DNA evidence play in the application of the death penalty?

It is already playing a huge role in discrediting the use of the death penalty. Many of the people being exonerated from death row are being exonerated as a result of new DNA evidence. But it is important to note that DNA evidence is not available in all cases, therefore while DNA evidence is helpful in establishing innocence, it should not be the only standard.

Is the risk of possibly executing an innocent person worth taking? Why or why not?

Absolutely not. We now know that Cameron Todd Willingham from Texas did not start the fire that killed his children, yet the state of Texas executed him. This is unacceptable. In the case of Troy Davis, there was overwhelming evidence pointing to his innocence, yet the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis. More than 130 other people convicted of crimes and sentenced to death have been released from death row. One must ask, given that we have had so many innocent people exonerated from death row, how many innocent people have we executed? Executing someone who is innocent is irreversible, and a price too precious to pay for a system that is not only arbitrary, but also subject to human error and bias.

Is the execution of juvenile offenders a reasonable application of the law? Why or why not?

No. People under the age of 18 cannot vote, cannot serve on a jury and cannot join the military, but prior to 2005’s Roper v. Simmons, could be sentenced to death. In that landmark Supreme Court decision, the juvenile death penalty was ruled unconstitutional. In that ruling, the court cited many factors, including but not limited to: new research that concluded that the brain development of minors affected decision making; the fact that at the time, the United States was one of only two nations that executed juvenile offenders; the growing movement of American states that had abolished the juvenile death penalty; and the shift in national public opinion on the practice. It is good to see this shift in public opinion continue against the death penalty for adults. Hopefully, the death penalty for youth and adults will be terminated forever.

In the Troy Davis case, his lawyers argued that recanted testimony was enough to introduce reasonable doubt, and therefore stop his execution. Do you agree? Why or why not?

Absolutely! Recanted testimony coupled with a lack of physical evidence made a strong case for stopping Troy Davis’ execution and demanding a retrial. The Troy Davis case points to a gap or problem with our criminal justice system and limitations within our courts. The recantations of seven of nine witnesses should have prompted a new trial under the law, but the law only required that the courts determine if Troy Davis received a fair trial. Unfortunately in the United States, it is not unconstitutional for an innocent person to be executed. It is only unconstitutional if their trial was not fair. Clearly there are limitations and flaws with our system of justice. If in fact eyewitness testimony was the only thing used to convict, the fact that the Supreme Court of the United States repeatedly looked at the case, but resisted calling for a new trial showed an obvious glitch in the system.

Is there anything else our readers need to know about the death penalty?

We can end the death penalty by 2025, but we need their support. They can join us by visiting www.naacp.org.