A Conversation About the Death Penalty

Editorial cartoon on botched Oklahoma execution

The death penalty is a very popular talking point in America, however I find it to be an embarrassing one. With popularity comes constant conversation, sociopolitical relevance, and differing opinions. The death penalty is a topic I’ve thought about a lot over the past few years, and my opinions on it have changed several times, the changes come from not only shifts in the political climate, but personal events and outside influence. This is a topic that shouldn’t have such a colossal grey area, but it does, at least for a large majority of Americans. My ideals however lie outside of that in a more defined manner. I believe the death penalty is a massively immoral, inhumane method of punishment, it serves absolutely no function to deter the crimes which it is used on and the use of the death penalty is a huge and unnecessary expense on American taxpayers.

On the issue of morality, my personal opinion is the most relevant factor when making my decision as to whether or not I support capital punishment. I feel it is unjust to take the life of another human being, no matter how evil the crime. Often I’ll hear the argument of child predators, rapists, and murderers, but I’d rather see one of these people spend the rest of their life in a dark room deprived of the societal pleasures and gifts given to them by just being alive. There are people in my life whom I hold in the darkest regards, people who’ve ruined parts of me and my family and have committed awful crimes in the process and have faced no justice. That said, I would be thoroughly unhappy if they got the death penalty if they were to ever face justice in the court system. These people shouldn’t be granted such an easy way out, they shouldn’t pay with their lives, they should pay with their time.

In a study done by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) they found that since 1970, of all 1,538 executions of men and women in 29 different states and 118 different counties, 185 people sentenced to death have been exonerated. That’s 12%, and the number of those who have ended up being executed is around 4%. In a justice system where you’re innocent until proven guilty, how is it fair that men and women can be killed, then later proven to be innocent? Not only was the number of those proven to be innocent so large in a situation where it should be 0, but the cases have also shown constant patterns of misconduct by officials and significant racial bias. Almost 70% of the exonerations involved misconduct by either police, prosecutors, or a list of other government officials. In addition to that, 80% of the wrongful convictions involved some sort of misconduct or perjury/false accusation, and more than half of that 80% involved both. This misconduct also occurred more often in cases involving Black exonerees (78.8%) than white exonerees (58.2%). Black exonerees even spent an average of 4.3 more years waiting for exoneration than white exonerees.

Another big talking point relating to the death penalty is that it’s a crime deterrent. I believe that to be false. If the threat of death was meant to reduce these crimes then why haven’t we seen this decrease? An article by the sun sentinel editorial board tackles this idea head-on. If you look at the murder rate in New York, (a state which has repealed the death penalty), the numbers aren’t even half as high as they are in Florida, (a state which hasn’t repealed the death penalty). Data shows that annual murder rates are consistently higher in states that are still practicing capital punishment than in the 22 without it. If you look into crime rates on a state by state basis, even more, murder rates over 15 years have been slowly going down, like in New York, which had no executions, where states like California, which had 13; and Texas, the nation’s leader, with 447 there’s either growth or consistency in the numbers. To add to this point, a study done by the DPIC in 2009 of top criminologists in the U.S. shows that 94% said there was “little empirical evidence supporting the deterrent theory”, 88% didn’t consider it an effective deterrent, 91% said politicians use it to appear tough on crime, and 75% said it distracts legislatures from real solutions.

Finally, I’d like to look at a study done by the Los Angeles Times, where they estimate that the death penalty has cost roundabout 4 billion dollars since 1978, which is an average of about 308 million per execution. Of course, cases differ in price, due to any number of factors like legal fees, length of a trial, or time spent housing the accused, but regardless, that’s a shocking number, even more so when you consider that’s only one state out of 22 that still use the death penalty. Even with that number, it can cost up to four times more to give someone the death penalty than to have them serve a life sentence. To put those numbers in perspective, that seems to me like saying “Hey, this is America, and the way we treat the most awful and despicable criminals in our society is spending the entire budget of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy on them.”

So what we’ve discussed now is the death penalty is expensive, has and consistently carries the potential to kill innocent people, and doesn’t deter crime, but it’s still a hard topic to work around. If we’re going to answer difficult and profound questions, one of the toughest ones is if someone is guilty of committing a horrible crime and the family of the victim wants the perpetrator executed, do we want to live in the kind of country that gives out to them the right to do that? I would say no, for the reasons I’ve listed here and more, and I feel as though the conversation around this topic will carry on for a long time, but as a citizen of a country, and as a human, I feel that it is unjust to use death as a punishment for crime.

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