The Execution of John Muhammad

November 10, 2009

UPDATE:  Virginia Governor Tim Kaine has denied John Muhammad’s request for clemency.

This evening Texas and Virginia, the two most prolific executing states in the USA, are both slated to carry out lethal injections.  Texas has scheduled an execution for Yosvanis Valle – a Cuban national – while Virginia is preparing to put to death John Allen Muhammad, known by most simply as the “DC sniper”.  The crimes for which John Muhammad is known inflicted serious trauma not just on the victims  and their families but on the entire Washington DC area.

But we at Amnesty International oppose the death penalty in all cases without exception.  Like torture, the deliberate killing of prisoners is a fundamental violation of human rights.  No human being, no matter how unsympathetic or how heinous the crimes for which he has been convicted, should ever be subjected to the kind of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment that both torture and executions represent.  There are lines that we as a society should simply not cross, or lines that we should not cede to our governments the power to cross.  And there have to be better ways to respond to traumatic crimes than with violations of basic human rights.

Beyond these human rights concerns, there are some other issues that make the execution of John Muhammad problematic.  Evidence of severe mental illness was not presented to the jury during the sentencing phase of his trial.  Virginia Governor Tim Kaine has been presented with this evidence and could still recommend clemency on that basis. 

If both these execution do proceed as scheduled, they will be the 44th and 45th executions in the country this year.  Yet also this year, 9 men have been exonerated from US death rows.  That means that for every 5 people executed, one person has been found innocent of the crime for which he was sentenced to die.  That’s a spectacular failure rate for a system that employs an irreversible punishment.  This year also saw the revelation that in 2004 Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham for setting a fire that, as it turns out, was probably not arson at all.  The fact is, as long as our criminal justice system is run by fallible human beings, mistakes will continue to be made, and along with punishing the guilty and the “worst of the worst”, we will also be sentencing to death, and occasionally even executing, the innocent.