by Professor Jen Lynds

University Times Staff

Every semester, students enrolled in my English 121 course discuss the Nathaniel Woods case. Woods received a capital murder conviction in 2004 for his role in the murders of three white Alabama police officers.

But Woods, an African – American, never touched the weapon. Unarmed, Woods was present at the drug house when the three officers arrived to carry out a search warrant. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Alabama is one of 26 states that can execute an accomplice. And so, in 2020, Woods died via lethal injection.

Thirteen years prior, the apprehension of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer took place in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Dahmer, a Caucasian man, murdered seventeen young men from 1978 to 1991. He then consumed their corpses. Notwithstanding the abhorrent nature of the homicides and the magnitude of the offenses, the application of capital punishment was not a viable alternative. Wisconsin eliminated the practice in 1853. 

The inequity and hypocrisy of the two situations are astounding. Woods, a black man in the south, died via lethal injection simply for being at the scene of a murder. Dahmer, a white man who killed in the Midwest, earned sixteen terms of life imprisonment. What message does that send about race and the value of life? You are less valued as a minority and quicker to earn a spot on death row in some parts of our country? Or does your life mean more in a state that enforces capital punishment than one that does not? 

Indeed, race is a significant factor in capital punishment. According to 2023 statistics from the Death Penalty Information Center, 65% percent of death row inmates were African American or Hispanic.   According to the Equal Justice Initiative, African Americans composed only 13% of the American population in 2018. Still, 41% of people on death row and 34% of those executed were African American. 

The causes of this imbalance lie in all American history books. After the Civil War, federal troops occupied former Confederate states. Because of their emancipation, southerners lynched former slaves. 

Occasionally, lynchings included government officials who advocated for lethal execution as a substitute. The resolutions passed. 

From there, support grew and spread. 

Are there reasons to support the death penalty? Is it cost effective? Does it deter crime? 


Multiple studies have repeatedly concluded that states that permit capital punishment do not have any substantiated evidence supporting the notion that it deters violent crimes. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, there is no 

valid proof to support the claim that the death penalty is more successful in deterring crime compared to lengthy jail sentences. The cost of executing an individual is significantly more than that of imprisoning them for life. In order to uphold the finality of capital punishment, the state or federal government must implement rigorous procedural safeguards to minimize the possibility of mistakes.

We know that death brings finality. Could anything be more final than killing an innocent person? According to The Innocence Project, a non-profit legal group that uses DNA testing to free the wrongly convicted, testing has exonerated approximately 190 people from death row since 1973. Most of those freed have been people of color. 

The fundamental point at hand is: why does the government criminalize murder, only to kill its own citizens if a court finds them guilty of the same offense? 

Who decides, and how much longer do we deliberate?