The Death Penalty: Punishment or Crime?
China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States; what do these four countries have in common? In 2005 94% of all known executions took place in these four countries. China led with 1770 executions followed by Iran with 94, Saudi Arabia with 86, and the United States with 60 (Amnesty International). It is disgraceful that a country such as ours, which prides itself on its freedoms and the morality and righteousness of its citizens, shares the company of these dictatorial regimes on a list of barbarism. The death penalty is incompatible with civilized society; it is inherently hypocritical, cruel and unusual, it is often misapplied and it promotes a culture of death. It must be abolished in America if we are to take our place as moral leaders in the world.
America is the last modern western nation with an active death penalty. When we examine the statistics on capital punishment in the United States and the rest of the world we find ourselves listed among the rogue regimes and dictatorships that we consider our enemies. As in the list of nations known to have executed children who were under 18 at the time of their crime: China, Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and at the head of the pack with 19 child executions between 1990 and 2003, the United States (Amnesty International). Nowhere on these lists do we see our western allies, nowhere a U.K., a Canada or Germany, for these nations have long ago abandoned capital punishment. Instead we join the company of the world’s worst human rights violators. It is company that we do not want to keep.
Why is capital punishment so common among autocratic regimes and so rare among civilized democracies? The death penalty is an inherently irrational system. It is based on the lust for revenge rather than any concept of justice or greatest societal benefit. It is useful as a tool of illegitimate power and for the persecution of minorities and the poor, who are grossly overrepresented on death row. It is truly incompatible with a society that respects all men as equal and recognizes the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The death penalty is not only a symptom, but a cause of power abuse and radical regimes, with every execution the nation moves farther from democratic ideals in a self sustaining cycle of murder and abuse.
Capital punishment is ineffective as a deterrent to crime. Although there have been numerous contradictory studies on the efficacy of capital punishment as a deterrent, those that show a deterrent value are often based on econometrics which manipulates results by putting them through complex mathematical models which ostensibly mirror what happens in the real world (Goertzel 23). When one looks at the unadulterated data it is clear that, far from being a deterrent to crime, the death penalty can actually create a “brutalization effect” on society which leads to an increase in violent crime. This trend is clear in the 2004 murder rates (per 100,000 people) among states that use the death penalty, 5.1, and those that don’t, 2.9 (Dieter). In fact the most comprehensive and far-reaching study on the deterrent effect of the death penalty, prepared for the UN Committee on Crime Prevention and Control by Professor Roger Hood supports this conclusion; Professor Hood states “…it is not prudent to accept the hypothesis that capital punishment deters murder to a marginally greater extent than does the threat and application of the supposedly lesser punishment of life imprisonment.” (230).
However, even granting every pro-death penalty argument, the imperfection and the inequality inherent in the system of jurisprudence which imposes the punishment makes death, an irreversibly final punishment, too risky. In the U.S. alone, 123 death row inmates have been released since 1973 after evidence of their innocence emerged, the most recent of which was John Ballard of Florida on February 23, 2006 (Dieter). In this era of DNA technology we are seeing a dramatic increase in exonerations of the condemned. From 1973 to 1998 there were an average of 2.96 exonerations per year, from 1998 to 2003 there have been an average of 7.6 (Dieter). One can’t help but imagine how many innocents have slipped through the cracks. A supporter of the death penalty then, should ask himself whether he would be willing to give his own life to allow executions to continue… one innocent life is too high a price, when the only advantage to capital punishment is the satisfaction of vengeance.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has said “I have yet to see a death case among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court on eve-of-execution stay applications in which the defendant was well represented at trial. People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty.”(qtd. In ACLU). The simple fact is only the poor are executed in America. If a criminal can afford a competent attorney they will not be executed; as for the poor and the minorities who rely on legal aid, innocence is no bar to execution. New Mexico appeals lawyer Don Vernay has said in response to the preponderance of incompetent counsel among death row inmates “People aren’t being executed; they’re being murdered by their lawyers.” (qtd. In ACLU). Often death penalty cases are tainted by prosecutorial or police misconduct, the use of unreliable witness testimony, physical evidence or confessions, inadequate representation and racism.
Although blacks and whites are murder victims in nearly equal numbers of cases, 80% of people executed since the death penalty’s reinstatement in 1973 have been executed for murders involving white victims (Dieter). As of 2002, 12 white defendants have been executed for killing a black victim, compared with 178 black defendants executed for killing a white victim (ACLU). People of color are vastly overrepresented on death row at 55%; while in certain jurisdictions the disparity is even more staggering: the U.S. military at 86%, Colorado with 80% and the U.S. Government with 77% (ACLU). More than 20% of black men who were executed since the death penalty’s reinstatement were convicted by all white juries (Dieter). These numbers unveil a blatant bias in the application of the death penalty and by themselves are enough to justify abolition. The first condition for justice is that all parties are treated equal under the law; if this condition is not met justice will remain an illusion. When we consider the irreversible nature of death as a punishment, realizing that, whatever the method, there is an undeniable racial bias in our penal system, it becomes unconscionable to allow such an extreme punishment to be used.
Of course, no discussion of the issues raised by capital punishment would be complete without addressing the problems of morality and ethics which it raises. America is a melting pot of cultures, traditions and religions from all over the globe, but the vast majority of its citizens claim to be guided by a system of religious beliefs. Chief among the virtues extolled in the world’s religions is respect for others and the golden rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This rule, and the heart of spirituality, is broken by a system of murder for murder. Almost every major religion condemns killing in all of its guises. The New Testament states “Whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (Matthew 5:39) and “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you,” (Matthew 5:44) and cautions “Judge not, that you be not judged.” (Matthew 7:1). The Hindu Bhagavad Gita says “Self-restraint and sacrifice, harmlessness, absence of wrath, peacefulness, compassion to living beings, forgiveness, these are his who is born with the divine properties.” (Ballou 68). The Buddhist Dhammapada says “He who, seeking his own happiness, punishes or kills beings who also long for happiness, will not find happiness after death.” (Ballou 137). The Tao Te King cautions “Return love for great hatred. Otherwise, when a great hatred is reconciled, some of it will surely remain.” (Ballou 551). And perhaps most succinctly, the Old Testament states “Thou shalt not kill.” (Exodus 20:13). These are the words of the world’s most enlightened prophets, saints and sons of God, and they are all incompatible with the death penalty. As a nation of morality and ideals, we cannot ignore our conscience. It is the height of hypocrisy to pay lip service to these concepts, yet cast them aside when it really matters, when lives are on the line.
Within the last several months there have been a series of court appeals challenging the method of lethal injection as cruel and unusual punishment. Several doctors testified that the series of chemicals injected into the condemned man (a tranquilizer, a paralyzer and a heart stopper) could cause extreme burning pain which the condemned could not express because he was paralyzed. This case is now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, but it brings up an interesting contradiction. Since the beginning of capital punishment in America, lawyers have filed challenges to certain methods of execution which they claim are too painful or unnecessarily cruel. The courts have heard these challenges, and in many cases abolished certain methods in favor of others which are ostensibly less cruel. Yet the cruelty of the death penalty is not foremost in the physical pain that the condemned man feels, it is in the actual taking of his life, the snuffing out of a human being who is capable of change and therefore, possibly rehabilitation and even constructive benefit to society. We hurt not only the condemned, or his family and friends and loved ones, we hurt all of society by incrementally sacrificing a human life’s potential on the altar of revenge. There is a reason that doctors do not perform lethal injections, if they did they would lose their license. All doctors have taken an oath to “do no harm”, an execution violates this oath not because of the physical pain that might be felt, but in the nature of ending a life, it is a harm to the condemned it is a harm to justice, it is a harm to reason, it is a harm to society.
If the United States were to abolish the death penalty, the available data predicts a corresponding drop in the national murder rate. In Canada, for example, the murder rate has declined with the abolition of capital punishment from a rate of 3.09 (homicides per 100,000 people) in 1975, one year before the abolition, to 2.41 in 1980 and 1.73 in 2003 (44% lower than 1975 and the lowest rate in 3 decades) (Dieter). By carrying out executions, our government promotes a culture of death, they give credence to the proposition that vengeance is justice and an eye for an eye is justified. The inherent hypocrisy of murder as punishment for murder betrays the notion that killing is always wrong. This notion is strengthened in a country with no death penalty, respect for life is taught by example rather than through lip service, and a culture of life is restored.
The benefits of abolition are manifold. Most research agrees that the financial cost of a single execution is about four times that of a life sentence, in our justice system (Coop). Imagine the ways that money could be better spent, on education, on feeding the poor or fighting disease, on defense and safety, on political reform, on police and emergency workers, on environmental protection, in a million more worthwhile and life-affirming ways. An America without the death penalty could stand proudly before its neighbors and speak with authority on international issues of human rights; it is a country with the moral authority to call the world’s tyrants to task without having to dodge counter accusations. An America with no death penalty is one step closer to the America laid out in its founding documents, in which all citizens are endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it is ultimately a safer, more civilized, more equal and more compassionate nation of which we can all be proud.
The American Civil Liberties Union. Inadequate Representation. October 10, 2006. http://www.aclu.org/capital/unequal/10390pub20031008.html
Amnesty International. The Death Penalty. October 10, 2006. http://web.amnesty.org/pages/death penalty-index-eng
Ballou, Robert O. ed. The Portable World Bible. Middlesex. Viking Penguin. 1976.
Coop, David. Anti-Death Penalty Information. October 10, 2006. http://davecoop.net/adp.htm
Dieter, Richard et al. The Death Penalty Information Center. October 10, 2006. http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/
Goertzel, Ted. “Capital Punishment and Homicide: Sociological Realities and Econometric Illusions.” Skeptical Inquirer” July 2004: 22-25.
Hood, Roger. The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective. Oxford. Clarendon Press, third edition. 2002.