As a teenager in the 1990s I was very excited about voting for the first time. I exercised my civic duty, and voted for a fringe party with a platform promising to have a national referendum on reviving the death penalty. The party lost, and no longer exists. Canada hasn’t used capitol punishment since 1962, and it was formally abolished in 1976. When I became a volunteer with the Death Row Support Project and signed up to write to prisoners on death row, I was on the fence about the punishment. I thought it could be warranted, in extreme cases, like Ted Bundy for example. Now, I don’t think it should be used at all in any case. Writing for the Death Row Support Project newsletter, and researching the topic has illuminated for me that the practice has no place in modern society, especially in the United States.
1. It’s not a deterrent
That fearing the punishment of death would stop murder seems more of a philosophical debate than a practical or acceptable reason for a state government to kill someone in the name of its citizens. I might speed, so for public safety it’s warranted to give tickets to crack down on speeders. Even with a risk of a penalty, it might be worth it for me if I was really in a hurry. If I could be assured that I would get away with it I would 100% never murder someone; would you?
There is no evidence to support that the death penalty acts as a deterrent on murder. In fact, many states that don’t have the death penalty have lower murder rates than states that do.
What does it say about the US people that the state and federal governments run active death chambers in the name of its citizens? The death penalty is a complex and emotional topic, but we need to consider what is the justice system for? Does a punishing and brutalizing justice system make society any safer?
2. All murders are terrible
All murders are terrible. They can’t be ranked on a scale of bad to worse. The death penalty is a punishment delivered on the whim or agenda of the District Attorney’s office, and the state governor. When you look at people that are executed there is a famous phrase among advocates, “Those without the capital get the punishment.” Prisoners on death row are often unable to afford a lawyer. Or they have mental illness or other developmental delays that make it difficult or impossible to participate meaningfully in their own defense.
As for executing “the worst of the worst,” people that have not received a death sentence include the Green River serial killer, the Unabomber, the BTK serial killer, and the Aurora, Colorado, movie theatre killer.
In South Carolina, a man confessed to killing 7 people, including a notorious quadruple slaying at a motorcycle dealership. He kidnapped and killed additional people, and was holding a woman captive at the time of his arrest. The prosecutor didn’t bother to go for a death sentence because he couldn’t guarantee the killer would be executed. If this killer isn’t the “worst of the worst” will the state decline to prosecute death penalty cases based on that crime not being prosecuted? Will they commute the sentences of everyone on South Carolina’s death row whose crimes aren’t as “severe” as that one?
All murders are heartbreaking, and heinous. If murder is wrong, the state taking a life is also reprehensible.
3. Innocent people are sentenced to death
According to the Equal Justice Initiative, 185 have been exonerated since 1973. This is one of the most compelling arguments against the punishment. The justice system is not perfect. In fact, the US justice system is rife with flaws, errors, and discrimination.
Among the exonerated, is Rodricus Crawford. He was a young father (age 23), wrongly convicted and sentenced to death after his baby died of pneumonia. The prosecutor in the case, Dale Cox, was a zealous supporter of capital punishment, and once joked to a reporter that he tore the New Testament out of his Bible.
For more on Rodricus, please read the stories written about his case in the New Yorker.
Many people believe that innocent people have been put to death, including Cameron Todd Willingham in Texas.
4. The death penalty is traumatic for prison staff
Do two wrongs make a right? If killing is wrong than how does the state killing someone prove that murder is wrong? Is it reasonable to expect prison guards and staff to walk a person to their death? Strap someone down to be killed? Or inject them with chemicals to stop their breathing and their heart from beating? Is it acceptable to give a governor the power over life and death?
The crimes committed by those on death row are often horrific. But the act of requiring an innocent person as part of their job to help in putting someone to death is both cruel and unusual. It can be difficult to know how you will react to a situation until it is over, and many studies show that correctional officers who participate in executions suffer from extreme guilt, and experience mental health issues, anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
5. It creates more suffering
Death penalty cases are long and arduous journeys from the trial, to sentencing, to appeals. Many prosecutors promise that putting an offender to death will give closure to the friends and families of the victims. But if the friends and families don’t support the death penalty, or they don’t think it’s what their loved one would have wanted, the prosecutor doesn’t always support this choice, and pivots to the argument that the punishment is necessary for justice.
The death penalty creates more victims. The family and friends of the offender also must suffer the death of their loved one.
Is justice about revenge and retribution? As the phrase says, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”
Do you want your government killing in your name?
The death penalty is playing God. No one is perfect enough to render such a judgement on another. It’s wrong for a person to say that another person is irredeemable. It is impossible to kill someone in a way that is painless and humane. Some states condemn people as young as 18 to death. In other states offenders are no longer a threat when it is their turn to die, and are incapacitated from dementia or are wheelchair bound.
With the practice of investigating mitigation, we can see that many people subject to execution are broken. Many have suffered unspeakably horrific abuse as children. Many have brain damage and severe mental illness. They grew up in abject poverty. The jury is asked to look at a person’s whole life, and to see the factors that led them to commit the crimes they are accused of. It in no way excuses their crime. It asks for mercy. What does it say about us if we are merciless?