A few years ago, Dereck Davis was walking home from work when some men came up, held a gun to his kidneys and robbed him. He held that anger inside for years. Years later, as a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, when the issue of repealing the death penalty was introduced, Davis’s traumatic experience compelled him to speak out loudly against repeal.
But on March 15, while the repeal bill was being debated on the floor of the State House, Del. Davis surprised many with his support for abolishing the death penalty.
Davis saw that the delegates arguing for capital punishment came from a place of anger, and he saw his own anger reflected in them. He realized, in his words, that “You can’t make laws out of rage; you have to have a calm spirit.”
Del. Davis, a member of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland, voted along with 43 of 44 Black Caucus representatives and 82 total representatives to repeal the death penalty in Maryland. The bill is now at the desk of Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is expected to sign it in early April. With his signature, Maryland will become the sixth state in six years to abolish the death penalty.
Many people of good conscience initially support the death penalty from a visceral place. But, as Del. Davis realized, once you calm your spirit and look at the facts, there is no turning back.
First, there is the fact that the death penalty is racially biased in its application. Since 1977, murders of Blacks and Whites have occurred at nearly equal rates, but 80 percent of people executed under the death penalty were convicted of murdering a White victim. Meanwhile, 43 percent of current death row inmates nationwide are African American.
Capital punishment also wastes valuable resources. In Maryland alone, the death penalty cumulatively costs $186 million over a 20-year period –money that could have been spent solving unsolved homicides. All of this despite a lack of conclusive evidence that the death penalty deters crime.
Finally, it is an undisputed fact that you cannot bring a person back to life if you later discover they are innocent. Since 1973, 142 death row inmates nationwide have been sentenced to death and later exonerated thanks to new evidence, technological advances, or the simple fact that the truth has a way of revealing itself. These include people like Maryland citizen Kirk Bloodsworth, who sat in the Maryland House Gallery as the delegates debated death penalty repeal. Initially sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit, Kirk spent 9 years behind bars before going free. Since then, he has been dedicated to making sure that never happens again.
But all these facts fall on deaf ears without advocates to repeat them, educate people and mobilize coalitions around repealing the death penalty. In Maryland, it took the leadership of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland, NAACP Maryland State Conference President Gerald Stansbury, state Sen. Lisa Gladden, Del. Samuel Rosenberg and so many others. It took the bravery of Gov. O’Malley to sign the bill into law. And it took the open-mindedness of delegates like Derreck Davis to move our state, and this nation, forward.
The death penalty repeal movement is gaining momentum nationwide. Colorado and Delaware are both considering repeal legislation, which would make them the 18th and 19th states nationwide. In both states, the Black Caucus can play a leading role. Once 26 states have abolished the death penalty, we can make the argument in front of the Supreme Court that the death penalty is not only cruel – it is also unusual.
Del. Davis understands where death penalty supporters come from. Some see the retributive aspect of capital punishment as a form of justice. But he realized that we have to fight past the urge for vengeance. We have to look the facts in the face and realize that the death penalty is flawed, ineffective and racially biased.
And if we can get enough people to understand that, then in a few years we can repeal the death penalty in the United States once and for all.
Benjamin Todd Jealous is president and CEO of the national NAACP. Del. Aisha N. Braveboy is chair of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland and represents the 25th Legislative District in Prince George’s County.