Christian Watson is a political writer and contributor for Young Voices. He can be found on Twitter at @OfficialCWatson.
In what country might a prisoner lose their life as an outcome of an ill-proven, hotly-contested case? If you thought of totalitarian regimes like North Korea or Iran, you wouldn’t be wrong. But it also happened in Alabama, where Nathaniel Woods was wrongfully executed last week.
Anyone with even basic knowledge of the case can easily sniff out the injustice surrounding Woods’ conviction. The story goes—in 2004, four police officers came to the home of Nathaniel Woods and his roommate, Kerry Spencer. They meant to serve Woods a misdemeanor assault warrant, but, when they arrived, they walked into the “ambush” that prosecutors claimed Woods had set up. Spencer shot three officers and injured the fourth—grounds for the death penalty in most states.
Spencer ended up admitting to the murders, explaining that Woods had nothing to do with it.
So, then, Woods was convicted as an accomplice. In Alabama, that qualifies you for the death penalty. Woods went to trial, and was given poor representation and suffered through botched trial proceedings. Too, there was unheard evidence that, according to Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, would’ve dismantled the “ambush” claim and could’ve helped to acquit him of the accomplice charge.
Nathaniel Woods was killed by lethal injection. And some Alabama officials cheered.
Those same people would say that the death penalty is an effective deterrent to serious crime, and, thus, a legitimate form of punishment. But a mountain of scientific consensus debunks that. A 2008 survey conducted by the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, for example, revealed that almost 90% of leading criminologists don’t believe the death penalty deters murder.
Even if you doubt them, empirical evidence demonstrates that states without the death penalty have significantly lower murder rates than states with it. Why, then, do 29 states still use this ineffective punishment model?
Furthermore, given the irreversible nature of execution, it must be a perfect system in order to actually be just. But the system isn’t perfect—at all. In the United States, the number of innocent people executed is staggering. Newsweek reported that one in every 25 people convicted for the death penalty are innocent. The real number, then, is even higher than that. It can’t include everyone wrongfully killed.
Our immediate solution shouldn’t be to kill, but to pursue a more humane way of dealing with violent offenders—like simple incarceration. After all, when innocent people are convicted and put away, they still have the chance to fight, win and rebuild their lives. In fact, some do so quite successfully. The death penalty systemically denies them that right, which is simply unacceptable for a true justice system. The risk of error is too great to allow this practice to stand.
Unfortunately, Woods isn’t not the only example of someone in America being executed for a crime they didn’t commit—and he certainly won’t be the last. That, of course, runs in stark contrast with the American motif of liberty and justice for all. His execution is a poignant, compelling reminder that the government shouldn’t be allowed to play God—especially with such a tragically bad track record.