5 Arguments Against the Death Penalty

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? 


Since the launch of our blog, there has been some progress. Some states have introduced new moratoriums, or abolished the death penalty. We hope the good news continues, and the outlier death penalty is recognized as outmoded, barbaric, and out of pace by all.


In March 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on executions. While the penalty is suspended it is not abolished.


Along with California, Pennsylvania,  and Oregon, have moratoriums.

No Death Penalty States

In March of this year, Colorado repealed the death penalty.

Non death penalty states: Colorado,Vermont, Delaware, Illinois, Washington, Maryland, Connecticut, Alaska, Washington DC, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Death Penalty States

According to Amnesty International, Texas is responsible for 40% of American executions.

Death penalty states: Texas, Oklahoma, Virginia, Florida, Missouri, Georgia, Alabama, Ohio, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arizona, Ohio, North Carolina, Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Indiana, Nevada, Tennessee, Utah, South Dakota, Nebraska, Idaho, Kentucky, Montana, New Mexico, Wyoming,  and Kansas.

Many states make sparse use of their execution chambers. Kansas for example hasn’t had an execution since 1965.

The Virginia Death Penalty

Virginia, both in state and modern history, is a highly prolific executioner. In 1608 the Jamestown colony performed America’s first execution. From 1608 to 1976 Virginia executed 1277 people. From 1982 to its last execution in July 2017, Virginia executed 113 people.

Virginia has killed more prisoners than any other state, and in 1951 made history by executing 5 prisoners in one day.

The last person to die at the hands of the state was William Charles Morva for the crimes of killing a police officer and a security guard. The execution of Morva was controversial, and generated international pleas for mercy.

While being held in a county jail for one year awaiting trial for attempted robbery, his mental health deteriorated. Morva was known for being an eccentric survivalist who walked barefoot in the forest and ate raw meat and pine cones. The young man’s defense maintained he was severally mentally ill, psychotic, and suffering from a serious delusional disorder, and the jury was unable to understand the severity of  his illness. Unmedicated he was not able to properly participate in his defense.

Rachel Sutphin, the daughter of one of the murder victims supported clemency for Morva, and asked Governor Terry McAuliffe to spare his life. In a statement she said that, “I have fought and will continue to fight for clemency for all death row inmates until Virginia declares the death penalty unconstitutional.”

The execution process in Virginia is known to be expedited, and the Virginia Supreme Court has a reputation for resolving appeals very quickly.  The average time from sentencing to death in the state is 7 years.

In recent years Virginia juries have been reluctant to sentence a prisoner to death. As a result, an interesting thing has happened in the state, the death row population has dwindled to 5 prisoners. (By comparison in 1995 the death row population was 57.)

There are a few reasons to account for the refusal to condemn prisoners to death.

  • Improved representation from regional capital defense resource centers.
  • Juries are told that a life sentence means a life sentence without parole

Brandon L. Garrett explores the trends of the declining death penalty in his book End of Its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice.

Garrett denounces the death penalty as a failed experiment. He says of the penalty, “States have tried everything to try to save the death penalty from itself, but the bias, both racial and geographic, is too ingrained. Lawmakers have tried to speed up executions, but have instead seen more delays and botched executions. They have tried to insist on higher-quality proof, and have still seen exonerations of innocent death row inmates.”

The death penalty in Virginia is dying, based on the will of the people. Let Governor Ralph Northam know your thoughts on Virginia’s use of the death penalty.


Governor Ralph Northam
The Way Ahead
P.O. Box 1475
Richmond, VA 23218







The Utah Death Penalty

Not all death row prisoners are executed against their will. Some prisoners opt to drop all of their appeals and become “volunteers.”

One of the most infamous of these volunteers is Gary Gilmore of Utah. A notorious volunteer, he was executed by firing squad in 1977. His was the first execution after the United States Supreme Court reinstated the penalty after a brief repeal.

Gilmore was  immortalized in Norman Mailer’s sprawling epic, The Executioner’s Song, was portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones in a television adaptation of his life story, and was featured in a Saturday Night Live sketch titled, Let’s kill Gary Gilmore for Christmas.

If it weren’t for the death penalty, Gary Gilmore would not be nationally and internationally known. The death penalty can arguably be seen as giving lasting infamy to a criminal, or making them a martyr for their cause, or an out for a prisoner who wants to escape a life sentence of incarceration.

Death row prisoners last words and last meals are recorded for history. For people unopposed to the death penalty, or unconvinced by the argument that killing is wrong no matter who does it, or that believe it is possible to commit an act that cancels out the possibility of any further compassion, hopefully this argument will give pause.

In state and modern history, comparatively, Utah does not execute heavily. Before 1976 Utah executed 43 prisoners. Since the execution of Gary Gilmore, Utah has executed 6 prisoners. Nine prisoners are currently on death row.

The methods of execution in Utah are the firing squad, and lethal injection.

In March 2018 an effort to abolish the death penalty was unsuccessful. In 2016 an abolishment bill was unable to reach the House floor.

A 2012 study estimated that the cost of a death penalty conviction was $1.6 million dollars more expensive than a life sentence without parole.

Governor Gary Herbert has said of the death penalty, “I’ve been a strong supporter for the death penalty for those most egregious and heinous of crimes. That being said, I think that the court system itself has made it so it’s a little bit harder to defend the death penalty. It takes so long. Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Add your voice to the debate! Let Governor Gary Herbert know that you support the repeal of the death penalty in Utah and nationwide!

The Office of Governor Gary R. Herbert
350 North State Street, Suite 200
PO Box 142220
Salt Lake City, Utah 84114-2220

Phone: 801-538-1000
 Toll Free: 800-705-2464

Tweet @GovHerbert

Facebook @GovGaryHerbert




The Texas Death Penalty

Ask anybody to guess which US State executes the most people, and they will probably name Texas. That is true in modern history, but hasn’t always been the case.

Before 1976, Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and North Carolina all had more executions than Texas. New York state led that time period with 1277 executions compared to Texas’s 755.

From 1982 to its last execution in July 2018, Texas has executed 553 prisoners. In comparison, the second top state for executions, Virginia, executed 113 prisoners, and the third state, Oklahoma, executed 112 prisoners, the fourth, Florida, executed 96 prisoners, and the fifth, Missouri, executed 88 prisoners.

There are now 243 prisoners on the state’s death row, including 6 women.

Harris County, Texas, was infamous for being responsible for executing 126 people, or almost 25% of all executions in the entire state. That changed when the county elected the reformed minded prosecutor Kim Ogg in 2016.

DA Ogg has said of the death penalty, “With other sentencing options and with an increased knowledge of science and technology, Americans feel responsible as jurors in a way they didn’t in the past because there’s more information to be considered. So I think attitudes toward the death penalty are changing.”

There have been several controversial cases in Texas of executions of people that are considered by many to be innocent.

Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted and executed for the arson deaths of his 3 young daughters, with now discredited science, in a house fire that many experts believe was accidental.

Columbia Law School students have set forth a case that Carlos DeLuna was executed in 1989 in a case of mistaken identity.

In October 2017 Texas executed 38-year-old Robert Pruett. Pruett was sentenced to 99 years in prison at the age of 15 for a murder his father committed, and sentenced to death at age 20 for the murder of a prison guard.

Author Cara H. Drinan said of the case, “We failed Robert Pruett in not addressing his childhood poverty, abuse and neglect; we failed Robert Pruett in treating him as if he’d been as culpable as his adult father when he was 15; and we failed Robert Pruett by immersing him in a culture of prison violence at 16. We can and must do better by our children, even when they commit a crime.”

Texas has a controversial law of parties, where a person can be executed when they are not responsible for an actual killing. In the case of Jeff Wood, he was sentenced to death, for sitting in a truck while his friend robbed and killed a convenience store clerk. A jury ruled that Wood should have anticipated the murder, but he maintained he didn’t know his friend was armed or planned to commit robbery.

Texas and Oregon are the only two states where the jury is compelled to speculate on “future dangerousness.” A study found that of 155 Texas cases experts were wrong 95% of the time in predicting the future danger of a defendant.

There are many flaws and areas of concern in the Texas death penalty. Let Governor Greg Abbott know your thoughts!

Even if the system was without flaw, it takes more strength to be merciful. A government that kills its own people is brutalizing. In the 21st century how can killing be done to show that killing is wrong?

Write Governor Greg Abbott

Office of the Governor
P.O. Box 12428
Austin, Texas 78711-2428

Phone, email, and contact Governor Abbott at




Nashville, the famed city of country music, is also the home of the state’s execution chamber.

The 2007 execution of Philip Workman resulted in the unexpected gift of free pizza for the homeless. For his last meal Workman asked that vegetarian pizza be donated to any homeless people near the prison, but the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution refused the request. In response local homeless shelters were flooded with donated vegetarian pizza on the day of his execution.

Before 1976, Tennessee executed 335 prisoners. Tennessee executed 6 prisoners between 2000 and 2009. The current death row population is 62.

In 1838 according to the Death Penalty Information Center, Tennessee became the first state to do away with mandatory death sentences for murder convictions.

The death penalty was abolished in 1915, but reinstated 4 years later.

In 1965 an effort to abolish the death penalty was defeated by one vote. In response Governor  Frank Clement gave clemency to every prisoner on death row.

While the Southern state has shown signs of being progressive in the past, that might not be the case with the current governor.

In 2014, Governor Bill Haslam signed a law allowing Tennessee to use the electric chair if the state can no longer find lethal injection drugs.

In the 1990’s it was thought that the Supreme Court would find the electric chair unconstitutional after a condemned man’s hair caught on fire.

The governor of Tennessee is the sole person who can grant clemency to a prisoner facing death. Governor Haslam has said that when the time comes he will consult with experts and pray.

The time will come on August 9, when Governor Haslam will decide the fate of Billy Ray Irick, the first execution he will face as governor, and the first scheduled execution in Tennessee in almost a decade.

Let Governor Haslam know your feelings about the death penalty, and let him know that it is in his power to not participate in the machinery of death.


1st Floor, State Capitol
Nashville, TN 37243




(615) 741-2001



TWEET @BillHaslam

South Dakota

With a population under one million, South Dakota does not have a history of executing large numbers of prisoners.

The state abolished the penalty for the first time in 1915.

To highlight the Old West style of justice executions can represent, the first person executed by the state of South Dakota was the man who killed Wild Bill Hickok in 1877.

From 1877 to 1913 the state executed 14 prisoners all by hanging. There was one execution by electric chair in 1947. From 2007 to 2012 there were 3 executions all by lethal injection.

There are currently 3 prisoners on South Dakota’s death row.

One prisoner Charles Rhines is fighting his sentence because he believes he was sent to his death by a homophobic jury. 

Spark a dialogue for change! Let your government representative know how you feel about South Dakota’s  use of the death penalty.

For more information support South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty at https://www.sdadp.org/#home

South Carolina

After focusing on death penalty states with a governor moratorium on executions: Colorado, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington, we are returning to our run down of death penalty states. Next on our list is South Carolina.

South Carolina executed 43 people between 1985 and 2011. The method of execution is lethal injection, and the electric chair which was last used in 2008.

From 1608 to 1976 the state executed 641 prisoners.

Today’s death row population is 41.

According to the South Carolina Department of Corrections the youngest person executed in state history was 14. The young boy, George Stinney Jr., was executed in 1944 and exonerated in 2014.

In the recent controversial case of multiple murderer Todd Kohlhepp, the serial killer was spared the death penalty in exchange for a guilty plea and life sentences because in the words of the case’s prosecutor, the state,“doesn’t have a functioning death penalty.”

Governor Henry McMaster is nevertheless a death penalty supporter, and has said, “In order for us to proceed with justice in South Carolina, we must be able to carry out what the law has mandated.”

McMaster is even a fan of shield laws, enacted to allow distributors of death penalty drugs to remain anonymous.

Let Governor Henry McMaster know how your thought on justice, and South Carolina’s use of the death penalty!






The Honorable Henry McMaster
State House
1100 Gervais Street
Columbia, South Carolina 29201



Washington State

UPDATE: Washington has abolished the death penalty!


In 2014 Governor Jay Inslee, a former supporter of the death penalty, declared a moratorium on executions stating that any death penalty cases advanced to his offices would receive a reprieve. The governor hoped his decision would open up a necessary dialogue on the issue.

Governor Inslee said of the penalty, “There are too many flaws in the system. And when the ultimate decision is death, there is too much at stake to accept an imperfect system.”

On a recent vote to end the death penalty in the The Pacific Northwest states the governor commented, “When I put a moratorium on the use of capital punishment in 2014, I hoped it would create space for a discussion about the unequal application of this law, the enormous costs of seeking this punishment and the uncertainty of closure for victims’ families. I hope Washington joins the growing number of states that are choosing to end the death penalty.”

From 1902 to 1963 Washington executed 105 prisoners. From 1993 to 2010 the state executed 5 prisoners.

Washington was the only state where hanging was used as a method of execution. (Prisoners had the option to choose hanging or lethal injection.)





Governor Jay Inslee
Office of the Governor
PO Box 40002
Olympia, WA 98504-0002







Pennsylvania is a death penalty state with a current moratorium on executions.

From 1608 to 1976 the state executed 1040 prisoners. In the same time period only Virginia and New York State had more executions.

From 1976 to 1999 Pennsylvania executed 3 prisoners. All 3  were volunteers.

Today the death row population is 169 prisoners.

In 2015 Governor Tom Wolf announced a moratorium on the death penalty that will remain in effect until he reviews a long awaited report from the the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment. Unlike states with similar task forces, he also wants time to address the findings of the report.

In his statement on the matter, Governor Wolf declared, “This moratorium is in no way an expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing heinous crimes. This decision is based on a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust, and expensive.

“This unending cycle of death warrants and appeals diverts resources from the judicial system and forces the families and loved ones of victims to relive their tragedies each time a new round of warrants and appeals commences. The only certainty in the current system is that the process will be drawn out,expensive, and painful for all involved.”

Despite the moratorium, and the fact that many prisoners have languished on death row for decades Pennsylvania district attorneys continue to seek the penalty.

There has also been push back and challenges against the governor’s decision. In 2015 The Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the governor’s right and constitutional authority to not sign off on putting prisoners to death.

The Department of Corrections continues to issue notices of execution. When these cases come up the governor grants a temporary reprieve.

Does this waiting game really serve the people of Pennsylvania? Can the recommendations of a well-meaning task force to anything to “fix” a broken system?

Consider sharing your thoughts with Governor Wolf.




Office of the Governor
508 Main Capitol Building
Harrisburg, PA 17120