Death Penalty: A Block Away

The death penalty is not a reasonable response to the 2017 terrorist attack in front of Stuyvesant High School. Schools have to do more to help students better understand the U.S. criminal justice system.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

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By Ibtida Khurshed

“It was Halloween [of 2017], and we were dressed up,” Assistant Principal of Pupil Personnel Services Casey Pedrick begins. One of the most awaited days. Students and teachers dressed up. Candy was everywhere and, by the end of the day, even offered to FBI agents. Just underneath Stuyvesant’s Tribeca Bridge— a connection to our safe haven—the deadliest terrorist attack in New York City since September 11, 2001, occurred.

Sayfullo Saipov, an Uzbeki immigrant, drove his pickup truck down the Hudson River Park bike path before crashing into a school bus, killing eight people and injuring 11 others. At first, the scene suggested it was a Halloween prank. But the wildly-bent bicycles and bodies lying along the road proved otherwise. Stuyvesant students had school the following day and were confronted by remnants of the attack. English teacher Katherine Fletcher commented, “It was really weird at school the next day because it still seemed like a crime scene all around the area; you could see the truck that had been the murder weapon… was still out on the street. It was very disturbing. I didn’t have opinions beforehand on whether we should or should not have school, but as soon as we were here, I [felt] we should not be here. It seemed traumatizing to see the crime scene.”

Since Saipov claimed to be influenced by ISIS terrorist videos, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared the act of violence a terrorist attack. This prompted immense fear in both tourists and residents alike. Saipov was found guilty of all 28 counts he was charged for on January 26, 2023. Due to the scale of his attack, he is being tried federally, giving the jury the option of sentencing Saipov to death or life imprisonment. Capital punishment has been on the decline in the past few years; in 1999, 98 people were executed on death row, a considerably larger number than in 2022, during which 18 people were executed. Still, this is 18 people too many.

The jury began hearing evidence on February 6, 2023, to determine Saipov’s punishment. He is the first defendant to face a death penalty trial in the presidential term of President Biden, who has advocated against capital punishment. These trials are especially relevant to Stuyvesant students; we are not only New York City residents but also in extreme proximity to the attack. While students who were enrolled at the time of the attack have all graduated, much of the faculty that witnessed the attack are still at Stuyvesant. It is important to acknowledge that this atrocity will forever be a part of Stuyvesant history. Understandably, teachers avoid discussing the death penalty as it can stir controversy and challenge societal norms. However, these conversations and debates are important to understand why our country needs to change its conservative systems. High schools throughout the country should hold serious discussions regarding the death penalty, its history, and more humane alternatives.

Despite the horrific scale of this attack, the death penalty is not a justifiable punishment; it is immoral and inhumane. Inmates on death row are not always guilty of their crimes, which raises ethical concerns. In addition, there is no way to reverse such an ultimate punishment, and the risk of killing an innocent person is far too high. From 1973 to 2023, 190 innocent individuals on death row were exonerated from all charges. And what about the mental trauma these individuals experienced while facing the death penalty? The excessive amount of time inmates spend in isolation waiting for their execution is inhumane: in the U.S., sentenced inmates often spend over a decade on death row before either being exonerated or executed. Thus, people on death row develop extreme mental stress. As many of us experienced during the pandemic, the effects of isolation are detrimental. It can lead to increased rates of depression, insomnia, and PTSD. Furthermore, isolation can be harmful to individuals close to the inmate. While Saipov’s guilt is not in question, it is still crucial to note that he is being subjected to physical and mental trauma because of the possibility of the death penalty being imposed. And, though supporters of the death penalty argue that it helps deter future crime, there is absolutely no evidence to support this claim. The prison system makes it difficult for ex-inmates to receive rehabilitation meant to dissuade them from repeating crimes. A 2012 report, consistent with current findings, done by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, found that more than 65 percent of those released from California’s prison system returned within three years. To break the cycle, society as a whole has to learn from its previous mistakes and implement policies that put more emphasis on psychological and physical well-being.

Systematically, the death penalty has several flaws—it often discriminates against certain ethnic minority groups and restricts human life to living in an isolated cell for decades. In 1997, David C. Baldus and George G. Woodworth conducted a study on the death penalty rates for all inmates that were eligible for the death penalty. They found that the likelihood of receiving the death penalty increased by 38 percent when the individual accused was Black. This racial discrimination is seen not only in the accused individuals but also in the jurors who influence the final verdict. As of 2022, approximately 2,500 prisoners face the possibility of capital punishment. The death penalty demonstrates a lack of humanity in the United States’s criminal justice system, yet it is still used as a punishment.

There are much more humane and effective alternatives to the death penalty. All European prison systems have abolished the death penalty, and they have lower percentages of recidivism (the tendency of a criminal to reoffend after having left prison). In eastern Germany, juvenile prisoners are dressed in everyday clothes: T-shirts, baseball caps, and jeans. Just the simple act of dressing them in street clothes humanizes them. Furthermore, inmates are encouraged to be responsible for their daily lives as they are allowed to cook their meals, participate in a variety of educational programs, and develop relationship skills with social workers and lawyers. The humanization of these inmates by European prison systems decreases the possibility of mental health crises occurring and allows inmates a possibility of reform. Reform is important because it can reduce recidivism by at least 15 percent and is financially beneficial, as prisons can save money if inmates are not returning constantly. Giving inmates a chance to develop social skills and pursue hobbies is one step toward improving this country’s outdated prison system.

Saipov committed a horrific crime and should receive punishment for his actions. The victims, who were affected both physically and emotionally, deserve justice. However, sentencing Saipov to capital punishment is not the solution. Since most death row inmates end up spending decades alone in prison cells, there is no feasible way for them to maintain their health, a basic human need. A more humane punishment would be to sentence Saipov to life without parole. This way, he would still be allowed to exercise outdoors, receive education, and communicate with others.

No matter what they have done, no one has the moral right to take away another’s life. As such, a prisoner is entitled to basic human decency and will probably respond better to it; being treated inhumanely only results in resenting and detesting the system even more, hence why the recidivism rates are much greater in the United States compared to countries in Europe, such as Germany. As the Saipov case develops further, it is crucial that students and teachers discuss the United States’s federal laws, the criminal justice system, and, as Fletcher said, “the morality and the immorality” of the death penalty.

Though none of the students currently at Stuyvesant experienced the attack, it is still a very relevant issue. However, the attack is rarely mentioned at school. Listening to both sides of the argument can provide students with a broader understanding of the topic and an unbiased education. The criminal justice system is a major part of our democracy; thus, it is crucial for students to learn about the punishments.

It is essential that we learn about events that impact our school. Immediately after the attack, Pedrick helped convert the school theater into a space where students could take a “mental break.” Counselors were available to talk to, Jenga and Uno were set out, and relaxing spa music was played to establish a calm atmosphere. Currently, monthly Building Response Team (BRT) meetings are held to discuss safety protocols and crises happening at the school. The BRT also aims to discuss solutions for handling students’ and staffs’ emotional responses, shining a new light on mental health. It is vital that school communities work together for the benefit of everyone. Learning from what happened on October 31, 2017, as Pedrick puts it, “We can’t have a terrorist disrupt things. But at the time, it felt like the city wasn’t with us. I felt we were alone. They were partying, and we were stepping over bullets that were marked for evidence.” Working together to educate current and future generations is a goal we must emphasize in the upcoming years to transform America’s long history of inefficient systems.