Thirty-five years after the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment and approved new sentencing criteria to make it less random, a new report has found that receiving the death penalty is still as arbitrary and unfair as being "struck by lightning."
A number of factors unrelated to the crime, including race, geography and money, influence the sentencing of capital punishment as much as, if not more than, the severity of the actual crime, according to the study released Wednesday by the Death Penalty Information Center.
Defendants who kill white victims are far more likely to be sentenced to death than those who kill black victims, the study found. Further, a vast majority of U.S. executions occur in only a handful of states; the quality of defense a defendant is able to afford affects his chances of receiving the death penalty; and county budgets are often a deciding factor in whether a district attorney will seek the death penalty or not. A number of these cases are overturned on appeal and assessed very differently the second time around, suggesting the decisions are often unjustified.
"The lingering problem with death penalty is that it is applied unevenly and unfairly," Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told HuffPost. "It's not always a matter of the worst crimes getting the worst sentences. Those that have fewer resources or don't get great lawyers or don't have someone reinvestigating are going to end up getting the death penalty, while the worst crimes sometimes get good representation and don't."
As an example, the DPIC report pointed to the case of Gary Ridgway, a serial killer in Washington State who pled guilty to murdering 48 people in 2003 and was given a life sentence in exchange for detailed confessions about the victims. By contrast, Teresa Lewis, a mentally disabled woman in Virginia who stood by as two men shot her husband and son, was handed the death penalty while the two murderers received life sentences.
A national poll conducted in 2010 by Lake Research Partners showed that the unfairness of death sentencing is a top concern among voters who oppose capital punishment. Two-thirds of voters said they would prefer alternative punishments for murder, such as life without parole, over the death penalty, and 69 percent of respondents said they disagreed with the death penalty because of how unevenly it is applied.
Having the death penalty costs states a significant amount of taxpayer dollars, even when the states barely use it. The DPIC report estimates that only one person is executed for every 326 murders, which suggests that the death penalty is handed down too sparsely to be effective as a deterrent or as retribution.
"The constitution requires fairness, not just in lofty words, but also in daily practice," the report concludes. "On that score, the death penalty has missed the mark."