On Tuesday evening, several hundred Yale students and faculty braved the sweltering heat of Woolsey Hall to hear Reverend Al Sharpton advocate for abolishing the death penalty in a debate hosted by the Yale Political Union.
Sharpton — a Baptist minister, civil rights activist and radio host who was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 — spoke passionately against the death penalty, refuting many common arguments in its favor. After Sharpton spoke, representatives from different parties within the YPU continued to debate both sides of the resolution, “Hang the Death Penalty.” When the final tally was taken at the end of the event, there was a clear majority in favor of abolishing capital punishment.
Sharpton began his argument by relating a personal story about meeting a death row inmate who requested that Sharpton be there to observe the inmate’s final moments. Sharpton said this was an emotional experience that reinforced his conviction that the death penalty is morally wrong.
“We are not preventing anything, and we are not providing justice,” he said. “We cannot answer murder with murder.”
Sharpton emphasized that in the United States court system, black people are disproportionately more likely to receive the death penalty than members of other demographic groups. The death penalty helps uphold a racist judicial system, he said.
Sharpton also addressed the negative consequences of the death penalty. Pointing to statistics on death row prisoners who are proven innocent, Sharpton argued that even one wrongly executed person would be too many. The death penalty should not exist so long as there is the possibility of innocent death, he said.
He also said that states without the death penalty have a lower rate of murder than states with the death penalty.
When Sharpton’s speech drew to a close, Michael Lemanski ’16 of the YPU Party of the Right took to the podium. Arguing in favor of the death penalty, Lemanski said society has the ability to determine the seriousness of a crime. The death penalty may have its problems, but it is not inherently broken and can be improved, he said.
Likewise, Eric DeVilliers ’17, a member of the YPU Federalist Party argued that the death penalty should not be abolished. According to DeVilliers, the death penalty is actually more merciful than lifelong incarceration because condemning someone to a life in prison is tantamount to “amputating people’s souls.” Giving someone the death penalty thus enables that person to avoid the suffering of long-term imprisonment, he said.
Furthermore, DeVilliers said that the death penalty is an appropriate punishment because it forces criminals to evaluate their life choices during their final hours and realize that their fate is a consequence of their crime.
In contrast, Spencer Weinreich ’15, a member of the YPU Party of the Left, stated that the death penalty is “society-sanctioned murder.” Rather than providing justice, an execution merely displays the power of the state, he said.
Ella Wood ’15, a member of the YPU Independent Party, argued that society should focus on prisoner rehabilitation rather than the death penalty.
Audience members interviewed responded positively to the debate.
Alice Zhao ’18 said she appreciated hearing Sharpton speak and enjoyed seeing how much he interacted with the Yale students and vice versa.
Mark DiPlacido ’15, the YPU president, said the union was pleased with the turnout and energy of the debate.
“Al Sharpton is an interesting, controversial figure who offers experienced insight in this much-needed debate regarding the death penalty,” added Zachary Edelman ’16, the vice president of operations for the YPU.
Edelman said that recent events — such as the shooting in Ferguson, Mo., and the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York City this summer — have brought the controversial relationship between the justice system and blacks to national attention. Sharpton was able to provide an important perspective on that relationship, he said.
Sharpton currently hosts his own radio show, “Keepin’ It Real With Al Sharpton,” on WWRL.