Give Life a Chance: A Case against the Death Penalty
Throughout the course of American history, capital punishment has been the epicenter of heated controversy in an ongoing debate surrounding the nature of retributive practices in our criminal justice system. And yes, the very mention of capital punishment—or the more common, “death penalty”—is sure to galvanize factions on both ends of the spectrum. Capital punishment, like a litany of other contentious “social issues” (think abortion, gay marriage, the War on Drugs, etc.) remains a topic that most would rather forego discussing. For those who choose to engage in some sort of discussion, many often resort to the same old rote habits of simply trying to best another’s argument instead of participating in a genuine discourse. Bearing that in mind, allow me to present (in as civil a manner as possible) my case against the death penalty.
Capital punishment, as a global practice, has existed since ancient times dating back to the time of the Mesopotamians. The Code of Hammurabi, nearly 3,500 years ago, was the first official legal codification of the death penalty that allowed for its application in twenty five different cases—including both serious (murder, rape, etc.) and minor (petty theft, adultery) offenses. Through centuries of wars, religious strife, arbitrary persecution, and a historical complacency for retributive justice, the death penalty saw many iterations ranging from widespread use to outright abolition. On November 30th, 1786, Tuscany became the first modern state to formally abolish the death penalty. As of 2012, 141 nations have completely abolished the death penalty, while in the same year, 174 nations were considered “execution free.” Today, the United States remains the only G7 nation that still practices capital punishment. Its practice aside, capital punishment raises serious ethical questions that shake the very foundations of not only American, but global judicial systems around the world: Why does capital punishment disproportionately affect minority populations? When, if ever, is it permissible to willfully take the life of another? Does capital punishment overstep the bounds of the powers endowed to civil authorities? While the complete answers to each of these questions is unambiguously complex, because of its irrevocable effects, poor ability to deter violent crime, and lack of moral solvency, the death penalty ought to be completely abolished in both the United States and in “retentionist” nations around the globe.
Capital punishment in the United States has a complex history dating back to 1608 in the Jamestown settlement in contemporary Virginia. An alleged agent for the Spanish Crown, Captain George Kendall was sentenced to death by firing squad for espionage in 1608—the first recorded execution in British North America. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, in total, the United States has conducted over 15, 746 executions since 1700. Between 1973 and 2009, 4,942 inmates sat on death row, while nearly 144 of those in twenty five states were later exonerated. The National Academy of Sciences goes further in finding that “at least 4.1% of people on death row could be wrongly convicted.” Indeed, while the term “could” may be grounds for some doubt, authors assert that “this is a conservative estimate” given the lack of legal resources necessary to extensively research the dearth of capital cases on federal and state dockets. While 4.1% may at first glance seem minimal, consider that according to research conducted by Bela Shayevich and Matthew Blake, over 85% of those death row inmates between 1977 and 2005 “did not legally appeal their death sentences” due to prohibitive legal costs and limited resources. The American Civil Liberties Union goes even further to note that on a national scale, “at least one person is exonerated for every 10 that are executed.” A glaring truth makes itself abundantly evident in lieu of these figures: capital punishment has a real, concrete impact on the lives of innocent people. A classic rebuttal often will point out that, sure, while some people are wrongfully executed, the vast majority are heinous criminals who made a deliberate choice to break the law. Such an argument at first glance is tempting to accept in order to rationalize the basis for capital punishment. Yet a closer analysis reveals the inherent flaw in this position. Firstly, unlike the approximate 10,000 individuals wrongly convicted of a crime every year in the United States, people who are issued a death sentence (and then go on to get executed) have no form of legal recourse once they have been executed. Indeed, a shrewd proponent of capital punishment could point to the extensive appeals process available to individuals during the time before they face execution while on death row. Again, the statistics sing a different tune. According to a 1994 survey, the “amount per hour that death penalty lawyers were compensated” was a mere $11.75—a strikingly low salary considering the input labor required to file, research, and argue a client’s case before an appeals court. A similar study, also from 1994, estimates that a Kentucky attorney representing a death penalty client has a 25% chance of later being disbarred or resigning in order to avoid disbarment. In essence, reality demonstrates that while legal recourse may exist in the interim prior to execution, quality of representation and a lack of resources create serious impediments in the appeals process. As such, (as previously mentioned) nearly 85% of death row inmates between 1977 and 2005 did not legally appeal their sentences. How many of these inmates were innocent? How many were guilty? How many were the result of a glaring miscarriage of justice or an overzealous prosecution? In an admittedly imperfect judicial system, mistakes will of course be made. Unfortunately, such mistakes are irrevocable once a person has faced the ultimate fate of a death row inmate. But even if we can stomach the impact capital punishment has on innocent lives, it must surely be cheaper than life imprisonment and an excellent deterrent to violent crime, right? Well let’s take a look.
Another typical argument introduced at this point involves the cost effectiveness of executions for violent criminals in place of life imprisonment. Again, the numbers point in a different direction. According to the Kansas Judicial Council, “defending a death penalty case costs about four times as much as defending a case where the death penalty is not considered.” Forbes go on to cite the Washington State Bar Association that estimates “death penalty cases are estimated to generate roughly $470,000 in additional costs to the prosecution and defense versus a similar case without the death penalty; that doesn’t take into account the cost of court personnel.” The same article goes further to note that public defenders spent about “44 times more time on typical death penalty appeals than on a life sentence appeal, while New York State projects that death penalty [cases] cost $1.8 million per case.” The costs do not stop in court. On average, death penalty prisoners are more expensive to house at a rate that is two to three times greater than for general population prisoners. In real terms, the State of California—historically one of the most extensive users of the death penalty—spent $137 million annually on death row inmates, compared to $11.5 million spent on lifetime incarcerations. Together, between 1978 and 2011, the death penalty has cost California an estimated “$1 billion, [while] total costs outside of incarceration were another $3 billion.” Such behemoth costs are not indicative of an efficient and equitable system. Instead, as the ACLU notes, the costs confirm that the death penalty represents an egregious waste of taxpayer dollars. Again, proponents of capital punishment will often point out that if the appeals process were shorter and less bureaucratic, costs would go down. However, as mentioned earlier, the terminal nature of the death penalty, as it exists, has irrevocable damage on innocent lives. Narrowing appeals options would only risk to further exacerbate the problem and potentially increase the rate at which innocent people meet a grim and unjust fate.
The other major argument often cited in support of the death penalty regards its function as a deterrent to crime. The logic follows that the threat of death will force potential criminals to ponder their actions and their consequences prior to acting. Assuming this to be true, states that widely use the death penalty must have the lowest violent crime rates in the country. Interestingly, the opposite is indeed true. According to the FBI, “states with the death penalty have the highest murder rates.” Similar to the long term effects of mandatory minimum sentencing laws in the advent of the War on Drugs, lack of awareness of potential penalties coupled with a far more complex criminological psychology strangles the logic of violent crime deterrence in its crib. That is why in 2008, the FBI reported that in the 14 states without capital punishment “homicide rates were at or below the national rate.” Moreover, proponents of the death penalty often overlook the real panacea to crime: social improvement and economic opportunity. According to the ACLU, “the vast majority of law enforcement professionals surveyed agree that capital punishment does not deter violent crime; a survey of police chiefs nationwide found they rank the death penalty lowest among ways to reduce violent crime. They ranked increasing the number of police officers, reducing drug abuse, and creating a better economy with more jobs higher than the death penalty as the best ways to reduce violence.” At the end of the day, the solutions to violent crime take far deeper roots in social inequalities and impeded opportunity. Don’t get me wrong: this is not a call to ignore the vicious nature of certain criminals, nor is it an advocacy to give a murderer a slap on the wrist and a consolation entitlement package. Rather, such problems can be considerably mitigated and/or avoided IF the necessary steps are taken by policymakers to move beyond partisan bickering and enact legislation that improves community cohesion and creates better opportunity.
Let’s take a major step back from the statistics and politics for a moment. A question that often gets thrown around at some point or another is “sure, but what about the really really bad people? The ones who did rape and murder? The ones who are without a shadow of a doubt guilty? This raises the age old question of whether it is ever permissible to willfully take the life of another. Often, proponents of capital punishment will assert that the guilty offender deserves to be executed and has sacrificed his or her right to life. The problem in acquiescing to such a mentality perpetuates a culture of violence and retribution that is contrary to our fundamental values as a democratic society. In other words, the egregious acts of another do not give license to anyone to then perpetrate the same offense, even if said individual is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Where do we derive the authority to take the life of anyone? How can we reconcile our role as keepers of justice when we stoop to the level of the offender? Pope Francis in an international convention for death penalty abolitionists in Rome proclaimed that “the commandment ‘Thou shall not kill’ has absolute value and concerns both the innocent and the guilty,” he said. Even criminals “maintain the inviolable right to life.” Indeed, respect for life is not an exclusively Christian, or even theistic, phenomenon. No statistics or empirical studies can ever quantify the magnitude of a human life, even when that life may be perceived as worthless or unworthy of living. As such, capital punishment has no role in a civilized society that espouses a philosophy of life, liberty, equality, and a pursuit toward happiness. That in mind, capital punishment ought to be speedily eliminated.
 Nations that still practice the death penalty (most for ordinary crimes)