Florida, the death penalty, and human dignity

As of Jan. 12, The United States Supreme Court declared Florida’s death penalty system to be unconstitutional. This ruling came during the trial of Timothy Hurst, who was convicted of murdering his co-worker in 1998.

Prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling, Florida law allowed juries to recommend the death sentence in capital cases. This recommendation, however, was only used to advise the judge who would ultimately make the final decision after reviewing the facts of the case. Judges were able to disregard a jury’s recommendation of a death sentence and have done so roughly 300 times since the law’s enactment in 1972.

In the case of Hurst, the jury voted in favor 7-5 to recommend the death penalty, without the finding of any solid facts that justified the sentence. This case overturned a previous ruling from 1980 in which the Supreme Court declared the law constitutional.

This ruling is comforting considering Florida’s history with the death penalty. Florida currently ranks second in the nation when it comes to death row inmates, with 390 men and women currently awaiting execution.

Last year, the Supreme Court also issued a ruling declaring Florida’s strict criteria of using IQ tests to determine eligibility for the death penalty unconstitutional.

While these rulings will hopefully prevent arbitrary and uninformed use of the death penalty within the state of Florida, the United States as a whole ought to reexamine its use of this particular punishment. Currently, America is one of only 55 countries in the world still enforcing the death penalty, which is determined by individual states and governors.

There are 31 states in the union currently retaining the death penalty. In contrast, all nations in Europe have completely abolished it, with only Belarus retaining it for use in war-time. Russia issued a moratorium on the use of the death penalty in 1999 as well.

As far as the number of executions go, we rank the fifth highest in world, falling behind countries like China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. When our country is ranked alongside five countries that have consistently horrible track records in regards to human rights, there’s a problem.

To make matters even more concerning, a recent study estimated that 4 percent of people sentenced to death were wrongfully convicted. While this may seem like a negligible amount, any system which allows for the possible murder of innocent people is an immoral one, and one that is not in line with American values, especially when that system costs the tax payers significantly more.

While the Supreme Court often invokes the sanctity of human dignity and the eighth amendment in issues that concern the death penalty, they have never seemed to extend such dignity to people whose government plans on legally killing them. That there have been roughly 1,300 exonerations since 1989 shows that this is not a reliable system.

Luckily, such sentiments are gaining popularity in the United States. Currently, 55% of adults in the U.S. support the death penalty in capital cases, the lowest support level since 1970. This decrease in support has been part of a trend that began in 1990, most likely due to a drop in crime rates, as well as attention to wrongful convictions.

To think we would utilize such methods as means of punishment, considering recent advances in the fields of human psychology and neuroscience, seems barbaric and fails to respect the dignity of humans. This question of human dignity is all the more important considering the shortage of lethal injection drugs here in the United States.

In 2011, the European Union issued an embargo on exporting drugs that would be used for executions, which has paved the way for alternatives previously avoided to be considered again as well as the use of experimental drugs.

A man was put to death in Ohio two years ago using an experimental drug that caused him to suffer for over 11 minutes. In Utah, the legislature passed a bill to allow execution by firing squad and in Tennessee they approved use of the electric chair.

While Supreme Court rulings like Hurst v. Florida seem to scratch the surface, they fail to address a much larger problem.

No one’s life should be left to the discretion of fallible human actors, especially within a system that should promote justice and equality. The fact that this is still a discussion in 2016 is ridiculous and shows America’s lack of appreciation for the dignity of human life in the face of some sort of “righteous” sense of justice and apparent convenience.

But then again, what else is new?