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It was this month in 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled capital punishment was both cruel and unusual, especially due to some states’ “capricious and arbitrary” ways of employing the death penalty.  The Court ruled race placed too large a role in determining who lived or died.  It didn’t stop there, says A. Harrison Barnes, attorney and founder.  The Court recommended new legislation be instituted so that the death penalty might someday become constitutional again and went on to say legislation should directly address racial problems regarding capital punishment and that new guidelines should be put into place.  This, of course, wasn’t what opponents of the death penalty wanted, but for many, it was a start.  For those with legal careers, it would mean big changes in the way people were prosecuted and punished, says the founder.

Then, in 1976, a substantial new study revealed over 65% of Americans not only supported the death penalty, but wanted it made constitutional again.  The Supreme Court heard the majority loud and clear and after having been satisfied of the changes it had strongly encouraged some four years earlier, the death penalty was once again deemed constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.  This was yet another major shift in the American justice system and A. Harrison Barnes says the division of Americans who were for or against capital punishment only grew.

Interestingly, the first execution only a year later was commissioned via the firing squad.  Gary Gilmore, a Utah killer, faced the squad and in a split second, his life was over.  Still, many groups, including Death Penalty Focus, a group committed to abolishing the death penalty once and for all, insist racism is still too big a priority of those deciding the lives of others.   Further, it also reiterates the many who were convicted and executed, only to be found innocent later due to DNA or other evidence not available prior to the execution.  Currently, nearly 130 people across the country who were facing execution dates have been found innocent and not only taken off death row, but released from prison completely exonerated.  Many lawyers have chosen to work for groups that take another look into those cases where the evidence wasn’t as strong and those that DNA can help better prove innocence or guilt.  According to A. Harrison Barnes, there are over 3,300 prisoners who are on death row awaiting conviction.

It becomes difficult to reconcile those who adamantly insist the system is racist, especially since almost 45% of those currently on death row are white.  African Americans follow with slightly less than 42% of the total death row population, followed by Latinos (11.3%), Native Americans (1.10%) and Asian (1.10%).

With so much crime in today’s headlines, each story more evil than the one before, the odds of the death penalty being deemed unconstitutional again in the near future are practically nil.  Still, law students graduate every year from the best schools in the country and most are decisively for or against this final punishment.

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