The recent repeal of the death penalty in the state of Maryland has again brought the vexing issue of capital punishment to the forefront. One of the more pressing issues surrounding the death penalty is the lack of equality in how it is applied. One case in the state of Georgia, which received little media attention several years ago is symptomatic of this issue.
Mark McClain at first glance does not appear to be a potential cause celebre for those opposed to capital punishment. White and with no doubt surrounding his guilt, the fact the he was executed should none the less raise just as many questions about the death penalty as issues surrounding racial bias or innocence. To answer why, we must first look back to the year 1972. No one had been executed in the US for 5 years when the Supreme Court in the case of Furman vs Georgia found that the mandatory use of the death penalty as then applied was unconstitutional. It brought an end to capital punishment as then applied until states reformed their statutes, with no executions carried out for a further 5 years. Writing for the majority, Justice Potter Stewart stated on the death sentences being appealed “these death sentences are cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual.” Such arbitrary sentencing practices were central to the Supreme Court striking down capital punishment. Hence, in the case of Gregg vs Georgia 4 years later, when the Supreme Court found that new, more nuanced capital punishment statutes were Constitutional, the view was taken that something had changed. But as the McClain case demonstrates, the reality is different.
Mark McClain was convicted and sentenced to death for murdering a Domino’s pizza manager, Kevin Brown in 1994. The fact that the murder was committed in the course of a robbery made the murder death penalty eligible. McClain went to trial the next year and was convicted and sentenced to death. This was in spite of his attorney’s attempts to preclude a death sentence on the basis of unfairness. By year’s end, their argument seemed to be very valid. As the Atlanta Journal Constitution noted in the lead up to his 2009 execution, 55 people were convicted in Georgia of armed robbery murders. In 16 such cases, prosecutors sought the death penalty. Mark McClain was the only person sentenced to death. If that is not being struck by metaphorical lightning, then what is?
This article is not so much intended as a strictly anti capital punishment piece. But it should raise questions about the system currently in place. For those for capital punishment, it should raise serious questions about the efficacy and fairness of a system which can produce such aberrations, and raise serious questions about necessary reforms. For those against, the McClain case can be viewed as yet further symptomatic of a broken system where location, race and socio-economic background are as much factors as the details of the crime in whether or not one faces the death penalty. Regardless, hopefully it prompts serious contemplation of a more banal, but just as important issue in relation to sentencing.