Image Source: https://www.usatoday.com/
A few years ago, I was teaching a college-level ethics course when I met a student named William Peeples Jr. He was a voracious reader, an elegant writer, a deep and creative thinker and a supportive classmate who always lifted up the voices of those around him.
He exuded a joyful love of learning that was infectious in the classroom, motivating all of us to fully embrace the powerful force education can have on a human life. I’ve been a professor for more than 20 years, and Peeples was not only one of the best students I’d ever taught, he also left an indelible mark on me as both a person and an educator.
But it turns out that Peeples wasn’t supposed to be in my classroom at all. In fact, he was supposed to be dead. In 1990, Peeples was sentenced to death in a Cook County, Illinois courthouse for killing his next-door neighbor.
If former Illinois Gov. George H. Ryan hadn’t ended the death penalty — commuting all death sentences to life sentences — William would have been executed, never finding his way into my course at Stateville Correctional Center.
Peeples is now a member of the Northwestern Prison Education Program, which is the only program in Illinois that provides a comprehensive, degree-granting liberal arts education to people who are incarcerated. Except for the daily reminders of being in a maximum-security prison — the bars, the handcuffs, the guards — the community created over the years is just like any other you might find on a college campus: Students discuss Shakespeare, engage in collaborative policy work, write plays and poetry, take chemistry exams — and gradually transform as people. As Peeples himself says, “The knowledge of what it means to be ‘human’ awakened in me true remorse for the harm I have done to others.” In other words, as he learned, he changed.
Peeples was in his 20s when he committed the crime that put him on death row. But his ability to change makes it clear that the Supreme Court ruling in Roper v. Simmons, which made it unconstitutional to impose the death penalty for crimes committed before the age of 18, should be extended to adults.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy held that “the reality that juveniles still struggle to define their identity means it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character.” Even if there are such things as “irretrievably depraved characters” in this world, seeing who Peeples is today, 30 years after his death sentence, makes clear that we are hopelessly unreliable at picking out who has them. Given this fallibility, the United States needs to do what is now long overdue — fully abolish the death penalty.
The Trump administration is on an unprecedented federal execution spree. After a nearly two-decade hiatus, federal executions resumed in 2019. The federal government is slated to execute 13 people in Trump’s final six months as president. Indeed, the Justice Department recently created new regulations that allow additional methods for federal execution — including firing squad and electrocution — in a rush to put to death everyone scheduled.
There are many arguments for why these executions should be halted immediately.
Studies show that the application of the death penalty is racially discriminatory. Indeed, a black defendant is four times more likely to receive a death sentence than a white defendant. And if the victim is white, the execution rate is 17 times higher.
Yet more than 170 people who were later found to be innocent have been released from death row since 1973.
More generally, studies show that the death penalty fails to act as a deterrent, is more costly than life sentences, and, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, is arbitrarily and capriciously administered.
But Peeples points us to a further, deeper consideration for death penalty abolition: the power of radical change in the lives of human beings.
Prison education has been shown to dramatically reduce recidivism: The rates drop from more than 60% to 14% for those who obtain an associate degree while incarcerated, 6% for those who obtain a bachelor’s degree, and about 0% for those who obtain a master’s degree.
The death penalty is purportedly reserved for the “worst of the worst” or those with “irretrievably depraved characters.” But this is based on a myth that humans generally have a fixed character. Prison education has been shown to, quite literally, transform lives. Later in Roper v. Simmons, Kennedy writes, “When a juvenile offender commits a heinous crime, the State can exact forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties, but the State cannot extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity.”
This potential clearly exists in people who commit crimes after the age of 18 as well. Indeed, the mere fact that the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive brain functions, is not fully developed until around the age of 25 shows that nothing magical happens on someone’s 18th birthday.
Even more importantly, however, understanding our own humanity is a lifelong project, one that just about all of us have the potential to invest in. For Peeples, the knowledge of what it means to be “human” was awakened in him in a college classroom, well into his 50s. The State thus got it massively wrong with the assessment of his character and potential. William is now a student, a published author, a playwright, a classmate and a mentor to countless younger men at Stateville who find hope in his wisdom and compassion.
He has sparked in me a deep recognition of the enormous potential that is encompassed in the full span of being human, and of our ability to reimagine what is possible. Had the tide not turned in Illinois, the State’s mistake would have led to the irreversible loss of a deeply treasured life.
POLICING THE USA:A look at race, justice, media
As our nation reckons with the systemic racism, inequities and moral failures of our criminal legal system, it is long overdue for us to turn our attention to the death penalty, beginning with the immediate call to end the federal executions Attorney General Barr has planned for the coming weeks.
A racially discriminatory, expensive, ineffective and arbitrarily and capriciously administered practice, the death penalty does nothing but promote injustice. Moreover, we need to confront our radical inability to determine today who someone will be for a lifetime. Since character and potential lie at the heart of when the death penalty is regarded as appropriate, our own epistemic limitations provide a decisive and urgent reason to abolish the death penalty.