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Abolition of the Death Penalty

The US is a member of international groups and assemblies, many of them prestigious – NATO, the UN Security Council, the G8 – but there is at least one group that Americans should be ashamed to be members of: those that employ capital punishment. According to Wikipedia, the US is one of only three developed countries where it is legal, the others being Japan and Singapore. It is illegal across Europe. The only countries that executed more people than the United States in 2008? Iran, North Korea, China and Saudi Arabia, each of which possesses an exemplary record on human rights.

There isn’t very much attention paid to this issue at the national level, as the question is left up to states to decide, although the New York Times recently ran an editorial. It is nonetheless an extremely significant issue. Those of us who live in states that allow it, as California does, have blood on our hands, plain and simple. While certain arguments are convincing points, the full spectrum of evidence and justifications make it clear that the death penalty should be abolished in the United States.

Enormous Costs

Relative to the alternative of life-time imprisonment, the institution of the death penalty is exorbitantly more expensive. Litigation in death penalty cases is $2 million more expensive per trial than cases in which the death penalty is not sought (Boston Globe). In California, the cost of incarcerating a death row inmates is “more than triple the $40,000 annual cost of incarcerating others” (SFGate). According to the Death Penalty Information Center, California’s capital punishment apparatus costs $137 million per year. A reformed system “to ensure a fair process” would cost $232.7 million per year; a system that imposes life-time imprisonment instead of capital punishment would cost $11.5 million per year. The capital punishment system, in California and elsewhere, is extremely expensive. Obviously, this is only part of the case against the death penalty but, when we’re thinking of closing our state parks and reducing medical aid for the poor, all outlays are in play.

Ineffective Deterrence

If the death penalty prevented crime, some would say it’s justifiable. Even if we’re trying as a state to save money, we still need to maintain law and order. Unfortunately, the death penalty does not reduce crime. In a paper (PDF) titled “Does Capital Punishment Deter Murder?” Dartmouth professor John Lamperti takes a look at evidence of the effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent to homicide. His conclusion, after surveying a range of in-depth studies, is that it doesn’t have any statistically significant effect and can even in unique cases increase the incidence of homicides. Deterrence from the death penalty essentially doesn’t exist and thus deterrence cannot be used to justify its usage.

Fallibility of the Justice System

Unlike incarceration, the death penalty is an absolute and eternal punishment. Once it has happened, obviously, it cannot be undone, commuted or suspended. The decisions is final. For those with an awareness of the potential human error in every facet of human life and specifically for the less-than-rare miscarriages of justice that occur in our justice system as well as any other human institution, the finality of the death penalty should give a reason for pause.

In a heart-rending article for the New Yorker, David Grann investigates the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of setting a fire to kill his three young daughters and executed in 2004. Grann’s investigation reveals that the evidence of arson based on “folklore” completely inconsistent with modern fire investigation techniques while one of the main witnesses, an inmate at the prison where Willingham stayed before his trial, was mentally unstable, had a personal motive to lie to prosecutors and later recanted his testimony. In spite of all these cracks in the case, the Texas Board of Pardons as well as Governor Perry allowed Willingham to be killed. There was essentially no evidence that he was guilty. The likelihood that Texas killed an innocent man is high.

According to the Innocence Project, 17 people convicted to death have been exonerated by DNA evidence. 17 innocent Americans would have died were it not for a development in forensic science. Considering that DNA evidence is in fact often not available to provide grounds for exoneration or to affirm guilt, how many other innocent have died? The indisputable reality is that at least a small fraction of the Americans who have been killed because of the death penalty. That is the reality; it is completely unacceptable. The American justice system is predicated in part on the standard of Blackstone’s formulation: better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer. The death penalty makes it much harder to follow this principle, as there is no avenue for redress, even though we must recognize that our justice system is not perfect.

Immorality – Capital Punishment as Surrender

The moral question is, of course, the most profound of any debate of capital punishment. Many esteemed religious and moral doctrines and institutions argue both sides of the debate. My beliefs on the issue begin from the conviction that no one is beyond redemption, that there is at least some kernel of good within every human being. To give up on someone to the degree that would allow us to kill them would be to give up on our humanity. To execute a human is to submit to evil and to surrender the fight against it.

Some argue that those who have killed deserve to die, an eye for an eye. Others argue that the death penalty is justified because it provides victims’ families with closure.  Both of these impulses are misguided. For those who call for an eye for an eye, I would simply ask them to see more clearly the consequences of their actions. What good comes from the execution of a criminal? While killing a convicted murder may give some families a sense of relief or finality, I would encourage them to be the better person, to recognize the pain and suffering that every murder causes, to recognize how every murder tears at the thread of our common humanity.

To anyone who supports the death penalty, I would ask them this: would you press the button that sent the electricity or poison into the person who, according to our justice system, is guilty? That is what our votes do when we vote for anyone who will not repeal the death penalty.


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