For me, the “freedom” and “liberty” we celebrate on Independence Day are not mere words. I’ve put my life on the line to defend them as a member of the U.S. Army who served in Iraq.
Americans set high standards for themselves. When we fall short of those standards we should speak up.
Why does a country as great and as free as ours continue to have the death penalty?
As an American of Arabic heritage, I’ve spent years living in the Middle East, first as a civilian and later as a soldier, where most of the governments are dictatorships and theocracies. Most live under tyranny and the justice systems are awful.
As a representative democracy with founding principles designed to protect everyone’s rights, the United States is not supposed to be anything like the governments I saw in the Middle East. But when it comes to capital punishment, we become too similar to those oppressive states.
As a person who loves liberty, obviously someone’s guilt or innocence is important, particularly if they’re facing execution. When I began to explore the pros and cons of the death penalty, I was astonished to learn that more than 150 people have been released from death row because of wrongful convictions.
If there is a law that allows for even the slightest chance of killing an innocent, then that law is not good. The justice system, oftentimes, is not so much about a law itself, but rather who enforces it. People are fallible, we make mistakes, and sometime people’s motives are suspect.
Bottom line, there is no reversing an error after a death sentence is carried out.
Human life is far too precious, something driven home to me in my military experience. As a combat medic in Iraq I cared for others, nursed them back to health, and tried to save lives regardless of race, creed, or religion.
But I‘ve learned that in our country people of color and those living in poverty disproportionately receive death penalty, compared to those with status, influence, and wealth.
This is patently unfair and un-American.
No state is worse than my own, Florida. We lead the nation in death row exonerations (26) with their innocence often discovered decades after they were sentenced to die. Despite this, a few years ago Florida lawmakers thought it would be a good idea to speed up the death penalty process and passed the so-called Timely Justice Act. Not surprisingly, Florida is one of only three states that doesn’t require a unanimous jury verdict when sentencing someone to death.
This doesn’t make any sense.
But if Florida is the worst, Nebraska has recently shown us how even red states can change on this issue, when lawmakers from left and right joined forces in May to repeal that conservative state’s death penalty.
A system that can deprive even one innocent person of life and liberty, compromises liberty for us all. This Independence Day, let’s embrace the principles and values that bind us as a nation and commit ourselves to ending the death penalty once and for all.
Mohammed M. Shaker is the State Chair of Florida Young Americans for Liberty and is a former U.S. Army Combat Medic (82nd Airborne Division stationed at Ft. Bragg, NC) who did a tour of duty in Iraq 2009-2010. Follow him on Twitter @