Over 100 years ago, the electric chair replaced hanging as the most common method of capital punishment in the United States because people believed death by electrocution was more humane.
But Steven Hawkins, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said no method of execution is humane.
“There’s no polite way to kill a human being,” Hawkins said. “It’s as simple as that.”
About 15 students attended a Pierson Master’s Tea Thursday with Hawkins and listened to him discuss his work as an anti-death penalty lawyer. Hawkins, who previously served as an assistant council to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said capital punishment in America has several serious flaws.
He said there is a 14 percent error rate in capital convictions and that death penalty is a terrible injustice because of race and class discrimination.
Christopher Jordan ’04 said he came to the tea because he agreed with Hawkins and wanted to hear what Hawkins had to say.
“I disagree with the death penalty and it has become a racist measure in this country,” Jordan said.
Pierson Master Harvey Goldblatt said he believed the tea served a valuable purpose.
“[It is important to have] urban teas, about social justice in America and around the world,” Goldblatt said.
Hawkins said race and class play a large role in capital trials.
In the state of Georgia, he said a defendant is four times more likely to receive the death penalty if the victim of the crime is white than if the victim is black. And Hawkins said race plays a role in jury selection in many states.
A second issue is class discrimination. Hawkins said many defendants in capital trials do not have the means to hire adequate counsel. He said that of those currently waiting on death row, 95 percent could not afford their own counsel and 55 percent are people of color.
“Those without the capital get the punishment,” Hawkins said.
America and Japan are the only two industrialized countries who execute the mentally retarded, and Hawkins said Europe strongly opposes our policies regarding the death penalty.
While Hawkins said a current Gallup poll found that 68 percent of Americans support the death penalty, he believes 50 to 60 percent of those people have questions about it. He said these people are the ones he is targeting with his advocacy.
“[There is a] growing movement towards moralism, [and we are] on the way to abolition,” Hawkins said.
He said that in polls taken in California, New Jersey and North Carolina, 68 to 72 percent of those polled are in favor of a moratorium on the death penalty.
Hawkins addressed common arguments in favor of the death penalty.
“The deterrent value of the death penalty is the weakest argument of all,” Hawkins said. He said that after Canada abolished the death penalty in 1976, the murder rate in the country decreased.
Hawkins also discussed the case of people like Osama bin Laden.
“There is always somebody who becomes evil incarnate, who is said to be the person who surely we must execute, but very few people on death row fit that description,” Hawkins said. “Most are Seven-Eleven robberies gone sour.”
In the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, both Goldblatt and Hawkins said the nation must address the myriad social and human rights issues our country faces. Hawkins said his advocacy against the death penalty is particularly pressing.
“[This is the] great civil and human rights issue of our time,” Hawkins said.