Saudi Arabia’s mass execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr and 46 others has sparked tumult in the Middle East and underscored the brutality of the Saudi government. Al-Nimr was convicted of political crimes in a rigged trial by a corrupt judiciary, as were some of the others, who reportedly included juveniles and people with mental disabilities.
Mass executions are something of a habit in Saudi Arabia. While this one was the worst in 35 years, they aren’t uncommon. Nor are the arguments about Western complicity: While professing outrage, Canada’s new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, a progressive on most issues, stated his continuing commitment to a $15 billion arms deal with the desert kingdom despite the killings.
The United States is also standing by its commitments: In 2015 alone, the United States agreed to sell Saudi Arabia $46 billion worth of military hardware. That Saudi Arabia, our closest Arab ally, is one of the world’s worst human rights offenders (it still sometimes executes women by stoning for “moral” violations of Sharia law) seems to be of little consequence to the U.S. government.
However, Saudi Arabia is just one of the world’s worst perpetrators of capital punishment. Shockingly, we’re another. In that context, our complicity isn’t all that surprising.
In 2015, 2,984 convicts sat on death row in the United States, a staggering figure. The number of executions in the United States each year is exceeded only by Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran and China. Clearly, we’re not keeping very good company, and Amnesty International has blasted us for the discriminatory and disproportionate way we condemn people. All of the Western democracies, excluding the United States, have abolished the death penalty; altogether, more than 150 countries no longer use it.
The death penalty as applied in the United States defies constitutional and judicial guarantees of equal justice under the law. An Atlantic article in 2014 reported on the landmark research of University of Iowa Professor David Baldus, who, with associates, studied 2,000 homicides in Georgia in the 1970s and 1980s and found vast racial disparities in sentencing.
Baldus also researched 677 homicides in Philadelphia and determined that blacks were condemned four times more than whites for similar crimes. Baldus’ work, which also debunked the myth that blacks were condemned more than whites because they commit more crimes, was cited by the late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun in finding that “both fairness and rationality cannot be achieved (by) the death penalty.”
A geographical bias, too
The death penalty is also geographically biased. Altogether, 1,157 people have been executed in the South since the death penalty was reinstated, compared with 177 in the Midwest, 85 in the West and only four in the populous Northeast. Sometimes the bias is local: In California, someone convicted of murdering a white person in a rural area is three times more likely to be sentenced to death than someone who commits the same crime in a city, according to researchers Glenn L. Pierce and Michael Radelet in the Santa Clara Law Review.
And The Guardian reported in 2012 that Harris County, Texas, led the nation in executions, accounting for more than one-third of Texas’ 305 death row inmates and half of its 121 black death row prisoners.
Sometimes, the bias is both geographic and racial: No white person has ever been executed for killing a black person in Louisiana, according to a 2015 Loyola University study cited recently in an online article by researcher Josie Duffy.
There’s also the matter of wrongful conviction. Florida, which has been racing ahead with executions under Gov. Rick Scott, a “tough on crime” tea party favorite, has had 26 exonerations, the most of any state. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Florida’s death penalty was unconstitutional because of the way judges can ignore the wishes of juries.
Like Saudi Arabia, we execute the mentally ill and disabled, despite laws against it, according to a report by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard University. It found recently that more than two-thirds of those executed in the United States in 2015 suffered from severe mental disabilities. Several, it said, suffered from “multiple mental impairments.”
We should also consider cost. The death penalty has cost cash-strapped California $4 billion since 1978, according to a study by Judge Arthur Alarcon of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court and associate Paula Mitchell.
Finally, the death penalty has no deterrent value. The FBI Uniform Crime Report for 2014 showed that the South had the country’s most murders despite having more than 80 percent of its executions. Eighty-eight percent of criminologists believe it is not a deterrent, according to the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. And police chiefs surveyed in 2009 by the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center rated the death penalty the least effective way both to reduce violent crime and spend taxpayer dollars.
Like it or not, we are judged by the company we keep. We would be better off joining the ranks of the countries that have abolished the death penalty rather than tacitly endorsing the practices of countries like Saudi Arabia and continuing down our own dubious path.
Martin W.G. King is the former senior writer at the National Crime Prevention Council in Washington.
Several lawsuits brought by inmates and death penalty critics have created a de facto moratorium, so there has not been an execution since 2006. In Wake County last week, however, potential jurors began questioning in the death-penalty trial of Travion Devonte Smith, 23. He is charged with killing Melissa Huggins- Jones, who was found bludgeoned to death in May 2013 in her apartment near North Hills in Raleigh. The trial is expected to start Feb. 1.