Supporters of the death penalty often posit arguments that cite retribution for violent crimes as being instrumental in justice. However, several studies and research have show that taking the life of another human being through capital punishment only perpetuates a cycle of violence. Furthermore, other research has shown that flaws in our justice system has led to innocent being prosecuted, guilty being set free, and a plethora of other biases being present during capital punishment cases.
Outlined below are the top 10 reasons that the death penalty should be abolished.
10. Moral Hypocrisy
The late and great Indian leader, Mahatma Gandhi, once said, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.” There is no arguing that crimes associated with the death penalty–such as premeditated murder–are reprehensible. However, if we are to agree that taking the life of another human being can be categorized as the upmost heinous of acts, how can we justify treating such a crime with a punishment that mirrors the very thing we so adamantly condemn? It is because of this that support of the death penalty can be deemed as moral hypocrisy.
Moreover, current prison conditions have continually reflected racial and socioeconomic biases which make prisoners of lesser privilege more likely to be sentenced with the death penalty than those of wealthy upbringings and substantial careers. Bryan A. Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and professor at the New York University School of Law, visited The Daily Show with John Stewart in October 2014 to discuss the discord between morality and America’s criminal justice system. Stevenson noted that the current criminal justice system operates in a way that is kinder to people who are wealthy and guilty than those who are poor and innocent.
For this reason, it is especially crucial that the death penalty be outlawed in order to acquire true justice. In a country where the death penalty is shown to be inflicted more often on those that are underprivileged and innocent as opposed to those that are rich and guilty, we can not choose to support the death penalty in good conscience.
9. Cruel and Unusual Punishment
Americans were aghast after learning the details of interrogation methods used used by the CIA on terrorism suspects following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. These techniques included:
- Rectal Infusion: An archaic and risky medical procedure developed before IV infusions. It involves the insertion of an enema in order to deliver fluids rectally
- Gun and Drill: This technique involves placing a pistol near a suspect’s head and operating a drill as a way of threatening execution
- Waterboarding: An interrogation technique which simulates the experience of drowning by detaining a suspect and pouring large quantities of water over their face
- Chaining: Many detainees were chained while being imprisoned in a detention facility called “Cobalt”. NPR notes that one suspect died from hypothermia during this imprisonment
- Nudity: Suspects were subjected to humiliation by being forced to strip themselves of all clothing while also being held by chains or shackles
If we can be horrified by these acts which were used on suspected terrorists (most of which did not lead to death), how can we condone punishment of death for suspected criminals in America?
Moreover, the death penalty is proven to be unconstitutional. The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution states that the use of “cruel and unusual punishment” should be prohibited. If we can consider the aforementioned methods of torture “cruel and unusual”, the punishment of death must also be considered unconscionable.
8. Crime Rates
There is no evidence that posits the use of the death penalty as being causal to a reduction in crime. According to the NC Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, the murder rate for the state of North Carolina actually declined following a halt in utilizing execution as a form of punishment. The coalition also points out that, “…most people on death row committed their crimes in the heat of passion, while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or while suffering from mental illness. They represent a group that is highly unlikely to make rational decisions based on a fear of future consequences for their actions.”
Furthermore, a 2014 Pew Research Center analysis found that the population as a whole has been less favorable toward executions than ever, and state institutions have also declined overall in their use of the death penalty. This decline has been congruent with an overall drop in violent crime rates throughout the U.S.
Countless other research studies have shown that use of the death penalty does not deter criminals from committing violent acts, and that states which do not enforce the death penalty tend to have a lower occurrence of crime.
In singer Alanis Morissette’s 1995 hit “Ironic”, she sings the verse “…it’s a death row pardon two minutes too late.” Morissette clearly didn’t know the definition of irony, as she spent close to four minutes describing things that were unfortunate or just plain old terrible. Still, the lyric reminds us of the irreversible consequences that can occur from continued enforcement of the death penalty.
What if an inmate sentenced to death is later found to be innocent of their convictions? What if the uncovering of this innocence comes after a lethal injection has already been administered?
This is much more than a hypothetical. A study titled “Rate of false convictions of criminal defendants who are sentenced to death” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found that over four percent of prisoners sentenced to death in the United States are innocent. The team of researchers analyzed 7,482 death sentences from 1973 to 2004. Out of all these cases, it was found that 1.6 percent were later exonerated, and 4.1 percent should have been exonerated.
If a conviction is ever overturned, it can take decades at the very least. However, there are several documented cases of prisoners being released years after imprisonment. Life sentences serve as a better alternative to the death penalty in order to protect the potentially innocent.
The cost of the death penalty as opposed to a life sentence without parole is exponential. Due to the extra measures taken in judicial proceedings, lawyer fees, extended trials, and expert witnesses, costs end up being higher. A Cost Study by the Sacramento Bee noted that California would save $90 million per year if it were to completely eliminate the death penalty.
An October 2013 report noted some alarming statistics which outline the ways in which costs for death penalty cases are shared by all U.S. taxpayers:
- Boulder County, Colorado’s D.A. Stan Garnett noted that, “Prosecuting a death penalty case through a verdict in a trial court can cost the prosecution well over $1 million dollars…my budget is $4.6 million and with that budget we prosecute 1,900 felonies, per year”
- The costs of these trials are shared by U.S. taxpayers regardless of whether or not their state has enforced the death penalty within that year. According to the report, due to the fact that “…most capital cases emanate from a tiny minority of jurisdictions, this cost is shifted to the majority of Americans who live in areas that almost never use the death penalty…”
- One statistic shows that the average cost of a death sentence during a case is $3 million
- A cost estimate from 1973 to 2011 shows that the cost to U.S. taxpayers for 8,300 death sentences has been $25 billion
Even though the majority of U.S. states do not enforce the death penalty, all U.S. taxpayers are footing the bill for a minority of jurisdictions. In contrast, a sentence of life in prison costs significantly less.
5. Racial Discrimination
Capital punishment cases are rife with racial disparities and injustice. A staggering proportion of guilty verdicts leading to the death penalty have been influenced by the race of the offender. African Americans are particularly susceptible to this discrimination. According to the NAACP, 50 percent of those scheduled for execution between the years of 2001 to 2006 were African American, in spite of African Americans only comprising 13 percent of the nation’s population. In Jan. 2012, The Guardian’s David A. Love also called into question racial bias and the death penalty. He noted that the majority of states which perform executions are those which were once part of The Confederacy. Although times have improved, racism is still an issue in the south more so than its northern counterparts. This is cause for speculation which cannot be ignored.
Furthermore, other evidence has shown that along with African Americans and other minority criminals making up the majority of those executed or put on death row, the death penalty is sought more often for murder victims who could be classified as Caucasian than African American and Hispanic victims. Multiple studies have proven this and been cited by the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
This evidence reflects flaws within our justice system which must be remedied, and even more reason to outlaw the death penalty.
4. Socio-economic Discrimination
Alongside racial discrimination found within capital punishment is that of socio-economic discrimination. Remember the O.J. Simpson trial? What about that of Robert Blake? Both of these celebrities were arrested under murder charges and taken to trial; both were found “not guilty”. What do these two people have in common? They are both exceptionally wealthy.
People with substantial income can afford the best criminal defense team when going to trial, whereas those of low socio-economic status cannot. Verdicts are largely dependent on the quality of one’s defense team, and the price of a good lawyer can equate to that of an entire mortgage. This fact once again spotlights the flaws within America’s justice system that lead to innocent being prosecuted and guilty being set free. Bob Egelko of The Associated Press expounded upon this point in 1994 by noting that death row “is not a place for the rich” and that a slew of practitioners and veteran scholars could not think of any “affluent people” who were subjected to death row or execution.
How detrimental can a lack of financial resources truly be to a person facing prosecution? An article fordeathpenalty.org cited that many lawyers who were assigned by the state to poor defendants were often inadequately trained, later suspended and/or disbarred, and that there were even cases where “…appointed attorneys…slept through parts of the trial, or arrived at the court under the influence of alcohol.”
3. Revenge and Forgiveness
Many arguments for the death penalty are based on retribution for the victim of a murder as well as the victim’s family and friends. The desire for revenge is understandable, but it is also based on emotions–particularly those which are heated and are catalyzed not long after a severe incident has occurred. The criminal justice system is not a place where decisions are meant to be based on passion. The decisions made in trials are meant to be based on factual evidence and justice. Furthermore–with sympathy toward those who have experienced the loss of a loved one due to crime–revenge and an “eye for an eye” mentality has not been shown to lead to healing. The death of a convicted criminal will not negate the loss of a loved one. Forgiveness has been shown to be instrumental in healing and health, as well as in moving forward. Have you ever been heated by emotions that you wished ill will on someone? What happened when the anger subsided? The ill will most likely dissipated and then the healing truly began.
Death Penalty Curriculum posed an argument against the death penalty which noted the forgiveness exhibited by Bud Welch, the father of Julie Welch, who was killed in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. “[Killing] is simply vengeance; and it was vengeance that killed Julie,” he said. “Vengeance is a strong and natural emotion. But it has no place in our justice system.”
There are other families and friends of victims who believe the death penalty is unjust. In those cases, how can the death penalty offer solace? It simply can’t.
2. Medical Ethics
Physicians are required at the site of an execution in order for a lethal injection to be administered. Based on a physician’s lawful and ethical responsibility to work toward the preservation of human life, executions’ requirement of medical personnel to be present at the site of an execution and also to administer lethal injections is at odds with the beliefs and stipulations outlined by the American Medical Association. The AMA posits that the following would be considered unethical participation by a physician in a legally authorized execution:
- Any action on the part of a physician which would “cause the death of the condemned”
- Any “…action which would assist, supervise, or contribute to the ability of another individual to directly cause the death of the condemned”
- “an action which could automatically cause an execution to be carried out on a condemned prisoner”
Medical ethics suffers a gross infraction when a licensed physician chooses to forego oaths taken as a medical professional in order to participate in the execution of another human being. However, this does not deter medical professionals from taking part in executions. According to New York Times contributor and clinical professor of law at U.C.Berkeley School of Law, Ty Alper, a litany of doctors have participated in executions for the past three decades with little to no reproach. Alper states that the most severe disciplinary action taken against physicians participating in execution was “…the revocation of AMA membership, which is not much of an enforcement mechanism given that only about 20 percent of doctors are members of the association.”
Enforcement of the death penalty denies the opportunity for rehabilitation. As mentioned previously, many individuals who are charged with crimes that can entail capital punishment are mentally and/or emotionally unstable. Murders occur often in a moment of passion, in conjunction with a psychological disability, or due to substance abuse. These characteristics call for a movement toward rehabilitation rather than execution. Rehabilitation efforts not only help convicted criminals, they help society in understanding the motivations behind criminal actions and can prevent similar crimes from occurring in the future.
Conversely, enforcement of the death penalty will not encourage criminals to become rehabilitated. If an individual knows that their life has a set expiration date, what is the use in seeking rehabilitation? Moreover, there are no facets within the death penalty that aid in reform. Rather, capital punishment perpetuates a cycle of violence and death.
New York Times contributor, clinical professor of psychiatry, and adjunct professor of law at New York University, James Gilligan, stated that, “The only rational purpose for a prison is to restrain those who are violent, while we help them to change their behavior and return to the community.” He expounded upon this point by evidencing research he and a colleague conducted with violent male offenders at San Francisco jails. They found that educational rehabilitation programs significantly reduced violent behavior to the point that violent tendencies became completely null.