By Khalilah L. Brown-Dean
(Originally published by the New Haven Register on Thursday, August 13, 2015)
Today the Connecticut Supreme Court issued a groundbreaking ruling that capital punishment violates the state constitution. Although legislators voted in 2012 to prohibit death sentences for future convictions, the court’s decision means that the 11 inmates currently on death row will not be executed.
As a professor, I have spent over 10 years analyzing and quantifying the impact of crime and punishment. The death penalty does nothing to keep us safer — the statistics make that point abundantly clear. Yet we hold on to this system, and turn a blind eye to its fatal flaws.
I long have understood these flaws from the detached perspective of a social scientist. But in 2011, I came to understand the flaws in a much more personal way. On Feb. 20, 2011, my 21-year-old cousin, Brian Anthony Patterson, was gunned down while attending a party. A 19-year-old stood over Brian, and pumped nine shots into his body as others scrambled for safety.
Brian was a star scholar athlete. He was a son. A beloved big brother. And a cherished cousin. Brian’s life mattered. The man who murdered Brian was sentenced to 31 years in prison. At no point did the thought of losing his own life, prevent him from taking Brian’s. There is simply no deterrent factor to the death penalty.
There are those who say that the death penalty is about bringing closure for victims’ families. But the arbitrary way in which we decide which lives are more important, leaves us with a system that is far from just. We know that there are disparities based on class, race, geography, and gender when it comes to who is more likely to receive a death sentence.
To families whose innocence has been shattered in an instant, every loss is heinous. None less painful than another regardless of the circumstances.
In 2012, I joined with other families across the state to share our stories of loss at press conferences, in meetings with legislators and public officials, and perhaps most importantly, those who firmly support capital punishment. We met with religious leaders, law enforcement officials, civic organizations, and everyday citizens to fight against a system that is irrevocably broken.
We spoke out against the millions of taxpayer dollars spent on death penalty cases. And how that money could be better spent on providing restitution, counseling, support, and violence prevention programs that support families and community. Some told us that the answer is to shorten the appeals process. But we know that 151 people have been released due to new evidence. Rushing an execution doesn’t bring peace. Instead, it only raises more doubt. This is not about being soft on crime. It’s about being smart on crime and consistent in our values. As families who fight to honor the beautiful lives that were taken from us, we cannot be complicit in taking the life of another.
In April 2012, I sat in the Senate chambers alongside other families and exonerees as Connecticut became the 17th state in the country to end capital punishment. At no point did we try to speak on behalf of all victims and their families. No one can do that, and no one should attempt to do that regardless of what side of the debate they’re on. Our mission was simple. To say in our own voice and on our own terms that the death penalty in Connecticut does nothing to address the profound sense of loss that we feel.
Who we are as a state, and as a nation, depends on our ability to extend humanity to others. Even as they deny it, in themselves. For when we fail to do so, we become that which we despise. That which we reject. That which we condemn.
Whether at the hands of a brazen 19-year-old at a party driven by rage, or at the hands of the state, there is simply no justice in taking the life of another.