Being Rich on Death Row

If you’re wealthy and you find yourself on death row, it’s a pretty good situation. You get gourmet food, a luxury bed, and all the satellite TV you want. Hold on, sorry, I got caught up in the whole fake news trend. Here’s the reality: If you’re rich, you won’t find yourself on death row. Execution by the state is a poor man’s fate in a game “played with clearly loaded dice.”

A bias against the poor is built into the system from start to finish. Here are just a few ways researchers have found:

– Poor people are more likely to be arrested and charged than wealthier people.
– Poor defendants are more likely than wealthier defendants to be found guilty of similar crimes.
– Poor people have to count on public defenders with heavy caseloads and less economic incentive to work hard on their behalf.
– During sentencing, poor people receive harsher penalties than wealthier people.

In addition, capital cases tend to be high visibility and high stakes for the state and the district attorney, and winning is paramount, so asking for the death penalty becomes an option better saved for poor people with no resources.

Amnesty International USA Chair Rick Halperin says, “Capital punishment is class warfare against the poor. It doesn’t approach anything associated with justice. It is about money, race and power.”

The United Nations recently voted on a non-binding resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty. Of 198 UN member countries, 115 voted in favor of the resolution, 38 voted against, and 31 abstained. It’s no surprise the United States voted against it. The United States is one of only 11 countries known to have carried out executions in each of the past five years. China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United States are the only five countries in the world currently executing more than 25 people per year.

Those who are inclined to claim the United States is the greatest country on earth should consider these words of Nelson Mandela: It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

Capital punishment not only discriminates against the poor, it is also barbaric and inhumane in itself. As more countries around the world abolish this practice, the United States relinquishes its claim to greatness, as well as its righteousness, with each year it keeps executing its citizens. And do not propose that we merely take steps to make the system more fair. Around the world and throughout history, poor people have found themselves on death row, and rich people have not. Measures to change this do not change it. Unless you really believe poor people – merely because they are poor – deserve to be executed while rich people in the same circumstances do not, it’s time to take a stand. Start here.


  1. I got a dream, to follow justice and peace against capitalism.

    Your quotation from Nelson Mandela, “Those who are inclined to claim the United States is the greatest country on earth should consider these words of Nelson Mandela: “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones,” is very appropriate to discribe the most important issue in capitalism, the criminalization of the poor; while there is evident that poverty is a crime, due is the result of greeding and arrogance of those who are rich on the sacrifice of people, using the economy-political power to impoverishing others by taken their lands, their force of labor, the soul of their creativity, their time, and their healthy life with their families, the workers.


  2. In late September I went to a conference where I heard someone named Dr. Jenny McBride speak. She walked up to the pulpit (it was a Christian conference and took place in a church), and began with these words: “A year ago today, the state of Georgia executed my friend Kelly Gissandener.” She went on to share about her experience of walking alongside the first woman on death row in Georgia, and the heartbreaking injustice of it on so many levels. I remembered hearing about Kelly, and I remember tweeting things with #KellyOnMyMind, but then the whole topic of the death penalty drops off my radar again. Thanks for this reminder, and also for the clear starting point for taking a stand. I believe in redemption, and abolishing the death penalty seems like an obvious move for an Easter-faith person.


  3. I agree with Kathy with regards to the timeliness of this post. I too was disturbed by the recent execution which sounded absolutely barbaric and inhumane. Like so much else in life, the poor suffer more than the wealthy. In the justice system having money often means the difference before life and death.

    I struggle with the death penalty. There are some crimes so heinous that I wonder what the optimal justice would be. However, when I look at cases where innocent people have been sent to death or spent years languishing in jails because they could not afford representation I cannot support this as a means of justice. There are too many questions, too much doubt, too much inequity.
    Thank you for bringing attention to this issue.


  4. Your post is timely, since the execution of Ronald Burt Smith has been weighing heavily on my heart. The Alabama inmate underwent excruciating torment during his ‘painless’ execution for the murder of a convenience store clerk. I think it took 13 minutes before he died, during which he appeared to be in agony.

    His crime was cold-blooded and heartless. Doubtless the relatives of the victim still mourn. But I wondered how on earth Smith’s tortured death could bring them any consolation. Wouldn’t that just grind the hurt in deeper?

    It just doesn’t equate. Murder + murder doesn’t equal justice, no matter how much we long for such a simple equation.

    I understand that there are people who are such a danger to us that they must be kept apart. However, since I would never be willing to serve as an executioner, I can’t ask anyone else to assume that role.

    And that a disproportionate number of people so condemned are among the poorest of the poor, is so telling isn’t it? It’s just a one-way train, as I think you quoted someone saying before. The end is violent death, and you don’t even get to choose to buy your ticket or not. It’s issued to you at birth.

    Thank you for making that link so very clear. I’m still of a divided mind regarding the death penalty, but this is one more piece to consider – and a poignant argument for overhauling the entire mess.

    Justice may be out there somewhere, but clearly this ain’t it.


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