Why Flint's water crisis should give death penalty supporters pause
Having represented a death row prisoner who grew up in Michigan — who I am firmly convinced might not have committed his crimes had he not been subject to lead poisoning during his formative years — I strongly encourage all death penalty supporters to look at the water disaster in Flint and reconsider their stance.
Writer Carimah Townes detailed some disturbing facts about lead poisoning’s devastating impact in a recent report for Think Progress:
Lead poisoning causes mental retardation, shortened attention spans, and other behavioral disorders in children. It specifically damages the section of the brain that manages impulses and emotions. And recent research has linked childhood lead poisoning to violent crime. A study of children in Chicago found a shocking correlation between aggravated assault rates over time and exposure to lead. A similar study of young adults in Cincinnati who had lead poisoning in their blood as babies and small children, had a higher risk of arrest depending on how much lead they were exposed to.
Scholarly publications, as well as articles published in several news outlets over the last few weeks, have all come to the same startling conclusion: Lead exposure in early childhood has the very real consequence of exponentially magnifying the chances that an innocent child — probably poor and probably black — will someday grow up and land in a jail cell.
This is the crux of what activist Robert Ruiz wrote in an article for The Examiner a few years ago. Ruiz explained the link between lead poisoning, mental illness and the prison-industrial complex:
Exposure to lead results in all types of abhorrent, aberrant behavior noted in those who disproportionately swell the minority population of our prison industrial complex. In poverty stricken areas — almost all of the South of this nation for certain — it is pervasive.
But it’s even worse than that: A poor, disenfranchised child of color, exposed to excessive lead in the United States during their childhood, could, just like my former client, as easily wind up on death row as he (or she) could serve time behind bars.
Michigan became the first English-speaking territory in the world to abolish capital punishment in 1847 [except treason, though no one was ever executed for that] . . . . In 1962 a constitutional convention passed a proposal to abolish the death penalty for all crimes[.]
Does this mean that the poor minority children of Flint, Michigan — who are suffering from the ignominious failure of political leaders and governments to take swift action to protect them and their water — are out of the woods?
Does it mean we don’t need to worry that any of these innocent children, some of whom have been irreparably harmed, will someday land on death row?
Obviously, the answer to that question is no.
My client is not the only son or daughter of Michigan victimized in early childhood by excessive lead exposure to be on death row in another state, but I do pray he is the last, and, even more, I pray that the United States will abolish the death penalty for reasons like this. With these facts before us, isn’t it morally imperative to do so?
Stephen Cooper is a former federal and D.C. public defender. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.