On the Resumption of Federal Executions

On the Resumption of Federal Executions

Reflections by our intern, Heejae Jung. Heejae is a sophomore at Vassar and is with us for the fall 2020 semester.

In mid-July, the embers of fireworks were still ingrained in my memory from the celebration of
Independence day and reawakened by the occasional crackling from my neighbors (a new trend to deal with
quarantine boredom). I felt the familiar crinkle of the morning news from my outstretched fingers. The Wall
Street Journal and I had been good breakfast companions since January of 2020–part of my New Year’s
resolution to be more well-read and on top of current events. My first-year advisor at college had told me
once that, “Economics makes the world go round,” and I could now say the same for the news.

Yet unlike any other Sunday, I did not fill my mind with the solace of eggs in American kitchens,
missed social cues from face masks, North Korean defectors discussing the officers’ corruption, or Susan B.
Anthony’s defiance against America’s unrepresentative usage of the pronoun “he” in the law when it came to
voting. That day, one headline seared past all the monthly clutter: “U.S. Executes Second Federal Inmate This
Week After a 17-Year Hiatus.” In the story of Wesley Ira Purkey’s execution for the rape, murder, and
dismemberment of a sixteen-year-old girl despite his impaired rationality as to the reasoning behind his
punishment, it cast a cloud of doubt over the constitutionality of such a permanent and crude judicial
reprimand. The only word that came to mind upon finishing the article was “rage,” one experienced by both
parties. The bereaved victim’s father and the tormented inmate were both severely hurt and wronged: one
enraged by grief for the heinous murder of his daughter and the other tormented by his condemnable
actions, in many ways a byproduct of his childhood abuse and mental illnesses. The back-and-forth dissent
among Supreme Court justices that ultimately resulted in the ending of Purkey’s life did not do either side
any favor.

Cloaked in modern-day euphemisms–“as painless and quick a death as possible”–and drenched in
pathos language–“a danger and harm to society that wastes government and citizens’ taxes”–the defense for
the death penalty has gaping holes no one can fill. I can see no way around the egregious breach of justice
that ending a person’s life entails. Opposing the death penalty does not excuse the criminal, it does not
overlook the victim’s suffering, and it certainly does not misuse the law. It simply acknowledges that one
does not have to endorse killing to rightfully punish inexcusable crimes. I admit to being largely ignorant of
these alternative methods and any historical context that led to the maintenance of this policy. But the tone
of vengeance that accompanies those who talk of a “rightful killing” reflects the lack of mercy and basic
humaneness, all of which do not promote anyone’s well-being. Two murders never make a right. This “eye
for an eye” approach to delivering punishment must come to an end.

Reading this article forced me to come face-to-face with the reality that capital punishment is still legal
and still practiced in parts of the world. It made me question the American legal system and the rightfulness
of its conduct. At the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is “air, food, water, warmth and rest”–who are
we, who is anyone, to deny others such primitive needs? The moment we say another person’s life can rest in
the hands of others, regardless of how harmful that person is, we are endorsing an unethical hierarchy that
gives permission to act upon the idea that certain lives are more important than others. When I celebrate the
Fourth of July, I celebrate America’s independence and its citizens’ livelihood. The bright fireworks grow dull
at the threat of such a foundational basis in this country.

Starvin’ 4 Justice

27 years ago three activists gathered outside the Supreme Court for four days and three nights, Starvin’ 4 Justice


48 years ago, on June 29, 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty was unconstitutional in application, being “arbitrary and capricious.” However, the Court did not rule that the death penalty was “cruel and unusual,” leaving  states free to write new death penalty laws, which many states did as quickly as possible. By 1976, those new laws were being tested in the Supreme Court. Four years and three days later, on July 2, the Court upheld the new death penalty laws in Gregg v. Georgia. The death penalty was once again deemed constitutional. Starvin’ 4 Justice, an annual Fast & Vigil, takes place in front of the U.S. Supreme Court every year. The four days between these two historic anniversaries provide “a natural opportunity for a demonstration of conscience” on the issue of the death penalty.

In an interview with Starvin’ 4 Justice co-founder and renowned human rights activist Rick Halperin, delivered a powerful reminder: “this is not just a struggle to end the death penalty, this is a struggle for the heart and soul of you, your loved ones, your community, your states, your nation. This is a struggle for the fundamental values of this nation.” 

Rick has been an anti-death penalty activist for the greater part of his life, comitted to expanding and guaranteeing human rights to all. In discussing the breadth of human rights agendas, he believes  “the death penalty is not an issue, it is the issue. If human rights was a solar system, the death penalty would be the sun.” Over 70% of countries have already abolished the death penalty. The United States is one of a handful of high resource nations with the death penalty intact, at odds with all its allies and other democracies. Unsurprisingly, Starvin’ 4 Justice has received overwhelming support from around the globe, mounting banners sent to them from countless countries in countless languages. Most succinctly, Rick asserts, “you can put a flag around [the death penalty], an American flag or any other flag, but it doesn’t make it right it. It makes it what it is– immoral.”

While Starvin’ 4 Justice continues for its 27th year in 2020, we are called to action by its co-founder, Rick Halperin. “The only failure when it comes to the death penalty, is the failure to do nothing.”

My Reflections on Tree of Life Tragedy

With Vicki Schieber, Pittsburgh October 2018

To My Concerned Friends,

This past Saturday morning, I was in synagogue, standing next to the Torah. As we were reading of the binding of Isaac, other folks got word of the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. I am fine. That night, I was among scores turned away from a suburban location of the Pittsburgh Central Blood Bank. The community reaction was so overwhelming that they could not store or process all the donations they had already received. Pittsburgh is a remarkable community.

We need to tone down the rhetoric. We must respond with gentle anger, but with a dedication to increase love and understanding in our world, and continue to set a moral example. We don’t need stiffer death penalty laws; we need to see the Divine image in everyone, those with whom we agree and those with whom we do not agree. The Jewish communities of Pittsburgh and around the nation are hurting. We know that there are good and evil in the world. We know there is baseless hatred in the world. No one, no community is immune.

Thank you for reaching out to me and thank you for standing in solidarity with us at this difficult time.



Marshall Dayan is an experienced capital defense attorney and is also an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. He also serves on the board of directors at Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Death Penalty Is Arbitrary

The arbitrariness of the death penalty is one of its worst attributes. If the government is going to carry out capital punishment on its citizens, it should at least be consistent about it. Death
sentences are influenced by geography, race, gender, wealth, and mental illness. No one’s life should depend on what zip code they commit a crime in. Kill someone on the New York side of the New York/Pennsylvania border? You might get life in prison. Kill someone on the
Pennsylvania side? You might get a needle in your arm. Being black, male, poor, or mentally ill plays a shockingly significant role in death sentences. Death rows are disproportionately
non-white, overwhelmingly male, dominated by people who couldn’t afford to hire their own
attorney, and positively overflowing with victims of mental illness. The death penalty is the
harshest punishment the government can inflict on its citizens. It shouldn’t depend on these
arbitrary factors.

Sarah White, Intern

Death Penalty Wastes Too Much Money

This letter was published on February 22, 2018 at GoErie.com

Abolish the death penalty; it wastes too much money

Feb. 13 marks the third anniversary of a moratorium that halted all executions in Pennsylvania. It was enacted by Gov. Tom Wolf in part because of the high cost of the death penalty.

Many people mistakenly believe that the death penalty is cheaper than life in prison without parole. In reality, study after study across the nation has shown that death is far more expensive. A 2016 analysis by the Reading Eagle estimated that Pennsylvania has spent $816 million pursuing the death penalty since 1978. The result? Three executions.

That shakes out to an astonishing $272 million per execution carried out at the taxpayers’ expense. That money could be used to improve education or provide better funding for crime victim services.

The death penalty may look like justice, but in reality it’s a broken and wasteful system that Pennsylvania can’t afford. The moratorium was a step in the right direction. Now we need to abolish the death penalty before we waste any more money.

Tessa Sikora, Pulaski

Death by blackness?

by PADP Board Member Shane Claiborneshane7

The color of your skin shouldn’t determine whether you live or die. But that is precisely the case for Duane Buck, a Texas man facing execution. His case is before the Supreme Court this month.
Earlier this month, the nation’s highest court allowed the execution of another African American man, Kenneth Fults, to take place in Georgia despite the fact that his own defense lawyer referred to him as “nigger” and fell asleep in court. On top of that, one of the jurors in the case, Thomas Buffington said this: “I don’t know if he ever killed anybody, but that nigger got just what should have happened.” Buffington went on to say that the death penalty is “what that nigger deserved.” Kenneth Fults was executed on April 12.
Now the Supreme Court will consider the case of Duane Buck. It’s the next big test of whether the words inscribed on the front of the Supreme Court – “Equal Justice Under the Law” – are a mirage. Mr. Buck’s guilt is not in question. What is in question is whether or not he should be executed for what he did. And what is also in question is whether or not black people are more dangerous than white people.
In Texas, during the sentencing trial in capital cases, the “future dangerousness” of the defendant is considered as the jury determines whether someone should be executed. In Mr. Buck’s case, his own attorneys introduced testimony from a psychologist that Mr. Buck posed a danger to society because he is black. That same psychologist, Walter Quijano, gave similar racially-charged testimony in 6 other Texas cases that resulted in death sentences. All of those death sentences were thrown out and the defendants were given new sentencing hearings – except for Duane Buck who still faces execution.
It gets worse.
At the time of Buck’s trial, Harris County prosecutors were 3 times more likely to seek the death penalty for African American defendants than for similar white defendants. During the same period, Harris County juries were more than twice as likely to sentence African-American defendants to death. Over the last 5 years, nearly 75% of all death sentences in Texas have been imposed on people of color.
Texas and Georgia (where Kenneth Fults was executed) are currently our deadliest states and have accounted for 10 of the 12 executions in 2016. Though Texas and Georgia have accounted for over 80% of the executions so far this year, they are only the eye of the storm.
The contemporary practice of the death penalty cannot be divorced from our history of slavery and racism. As Connecticut’s Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 2015, the court’s treatise made this point: “The 13 states that comprised the Confederacy have carried out more than 75% of the nation’s executions over the last four decades.”
To be blunt, the states where people were being lynched 100 years ago are precisely the states where people, and an inordinate percentage of people of color, are being executed today. To this day, one of the biggest predictors of who gets executed is the race of the victim and the resources of the defendant. We are not executing the worst of the worst but the poorest of the poor… and especially people of color.
The roots of the death penalty are sunk deep in the horrific history of lynching. As lynchings decreased, legal executions increased. Two-thirds of those executed in the 1930s were black. As African Americans fell to 22% of the South’s population by 1950, they made up 75% of the executions. And today – 2016 – even though African Americans make up only 13% of the nation’s population, 42% of death row is black, and 34% of those executed since 1976 have been black.
These stunning realities have created many new leaders in the movement for alternatives to the death penalty. Among those calling for a halt to executions are many conservative legislators and several governors who are for the death penalty in principle but not in practice because of the issues involving racial bias. Even some of the death penalty’s most vocal supporters like Southern Baptist leaders Al Mohler and Richard Land have publicly shared their deep concerns about racial bias in the system.
In light of these realities, Duane Buck’s request for a new sentencing hearing is a moral imperative. His case and the concerns it raises have brought together an eclectic array of unusual allies around the country. In addition to civil rights leaders, clergy, and elected officials, there are also prosecutors, judges, and a former Texas governor (Gov. Mark White) supporting Mr. Buck’s request for a fair sentencing hearing.
Also among the folks asking for justice for Mr. Buck is none other than one of the prosecutors during his trial, Linda Geffin. Her own commitment to justice would not allow her to be silent.
In the nearly two decades he has been in prison, Mr. Buck has been anything but “dangerous.” He has never been written up for a single violation. He has gained a reputation for being a mediator and reconciler, disarming hostilities on the inside even between guards and inmates. The warden has called him a light in the darkness and a blessing to the prison. He’s known as “Preacher Buck” because of the clear way his faith shapes him and compels him to care for others.
Since all this is happening in the heart of the Bible belt, it’s important to remember that the Bible itself gives us stories of murderers that were redeemed. Among the Bible’s most famous figures were three murderers saved by God’s grace – Moses, David, and Paul.
As a devout Christian, Preacher Buck has done everything he can to heal the wounds of what he did. One of the folks who can testify to that is Duane’s step-sister, Phyllis Taylor, who was critically injured during the crime. She is among the many voices saying that execution is not the solution.
I hope you will join me in calling for an end to the death penalty. But even if you don’t – even if you believe in the death penalty – I hope you will join me and hundreds of others in calling for a new, fair sentencing hearing for Duane Buck.
Duane has made his last appeal to the United States Supreme Court. My hope and prayer is that the Supreme Court will fix this injustice once and for all. Let justice prevail.
No one should be killed because they are black.