I oppose capital punishment. There, I said it. This has not always been my view. In my 20s and even 30s I was all for the ultimate sentence for the most heinous crimes. I figured the planet is probably better off without people like John Wayne Gacy or Ted Bundy hanging around, even if they were in a cell 23 hours a day. And doesn’t a murderer’s execution grant the families of the victims some closure?
But sometime in the 2000s, my view on the death penalty took a U-turn. I began to wonder precisely where the difference lay when talking about killing another person? When taken down to brass tacks, isn’t taking a life the same thing regardless of who sanctions it? Does having the threat of a death penalty deter major crimes like murder? Is it actually cheaper to adjudicate and carry out a death sentence rather than life without parole? Does vengeance for the victim make it ok? These are the questions I will address in explaining my current position in support of the abolition of the death penalty.
Nobody would mistake me for a religious person, but that does not make me less cognizant of some pretty basic tenets of civilized society. One of those is to not take another life (‘Thou Shalt Not Murder’ is either #5 or #6 on the Ten Commandments, depending on your belief system). Killing another person is simply wrong. While a district attorney’s office may be ‘seeking justice’ and a state department of corrections may have benevolent intent when strapping someone onto a gurney and putting a needle in their arm, the result is still the same as the crime that was originally committed: death of another person.
One argument I often hear is that those who commit egregious acts are ‘worthy’ of the death penalty and are just monsters that don’t deserve life. Their existence is simply beneath the 99.9% of us that don’t plot ways to commit murder. Get rid of them the same way you swat a fly that has found its way into your living room. While I am in no way excusing their actions or attempting to give them any exoneration for their crimes, they do, in fact, have a mother and father and may even have sons or daughters. I feel confident that those family members also do not absolve the convicted, but they are still faced with the loss of a life, however flawed that life may have been.
The deterrence question has been discussed at length by advocates on both sides of the capital punishment issue. But polls of top criminologists consistently state that a threat of death does not positively affect violent crime rates.1 In fact, specific data from states that have the death penalty versus those that do not show a decline of murder rates in states that do not have capital punishment.2 While public sentiment is still strongly in favor of the death penalty when asked in isolation (63% in 2014), only 6% of those people state deterrence as the reason for their position. It is also interesting to note that support for capital punishment dwindles to 50% when people are asked to choose between a sentence of death or life with no possibility of parole.3 It is my firm belief that if someone is seriously contemplating murder, they are probably not doing a long term analysis of the pros and cons of such action.
Financially speaking, seeking the death penalty is a huge burden on the taxpayers. Data from many states show that the cost of death penalty cases can be up to twice as much as for non-death penalty cases. This is due to several factors including the number of hours spent on prosecution/defense and the actual length of trial. Add this to the actual cost of incarcerating the convicted on death row as opposed to a maximum security prison and the burden only increases. In California, that difference is $90,000 more per year for a death row inmate.4
This was recently writ large when the Nebraska legislature, which is not considered to be a bastion of progressiveness, voted to abolish the death penalty and overriding Governor Ricketts’s veto of the measure in doing so. Republicans who aided in getting the ban in place “said they believed capital punishment was inefficient, expensive and out of place with their party’s values…”5 Other conservatives opposing capital punishment have cited their party’s long-standing tenet of small government. While the hypocrisy of the small government argument borders on hilarious when other political issues are discussed, I agree with them in this case (and I will address that hypocrisy in future blog posts). Government should not be involved in the business of killing. (For those of you reading that may, at this point, note that wars are also in the government’s purview and, almost by definition, involve killing, I certainly wish wars could be abolished as well. Unfortunately, ending war is probably up there with unicorns, Bigfoot and the Lost City of Atlantis as not being realistic. But one can hope.)
That leaves simple vengeance as justification for capital punishment. It is historically the top reason stated by people in favor of the death penalty (35%).3 It would be foolish of me to claim any understanding of the pain endured by families of brutal murder victims. If I had to face a person responsible for the violent death of a friend or family member, I cannot honestly say I would not want that person to be held to the ultimate punishment. But I can honestly say I hope that I would still hold to the belief that a second death would not pay for the first, or that it would somehow brighten the memory of the loved one.
As a nation, we are in the stark minority (18%) when it comes retaining the death penalty in both law and practice. That puts us in the company of countries like Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, and Iran. We are virtually the only country in the western hemisphere that still carries out the death penalty. Even Cuba, long known for their human rights issues, has a de facto moratorium on capital punishment.6 In my opinion, since any taking of life is wrong, capital punishment does not deter violent crime, and is a huge financial burden to taxpayers, America is long overdue to join the 82% of the global community in abolishing the death penalty.