Around the world, only one-third of all countries still allow the death penalty; the majority of executions occur in the United States, Iran, China, North Korea, and Yemen. Since 1973, over 140 death row inmates in the United States were found innocent and released because of wrongful conviction – during that same time 1,200 people were executed – a 12% rate of error! The death penalty was found to not be a deterrent to crime and states with no death penalty have homicide rates at or below national rates (Amnesty USA). A recent Pew Research Poll found that support for the death penalty has dropped in the US: 49% support and 42% oppose. There were 20 executions in 2016 which is a significant drop since a peak of 315 in 1996. These facts are both sobering and encouraging – depending on one’s particular viewpoint. I think the best way to understand the death penalty is to examine the lives of the people on death row. A great resource for this examination is by reading Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson is a non-profit lawyer who fights for inmates on death row who were wrongfully convicted. To put it simply, death row is many times a political tool that propagates racism, injustice, and systemic bias against those who cannot pay for a proper defense lawyer. My question is why does the United States still have the death penalty?
The logic of the death penalty is all wrong. Why is it right to kill a killer? The action of writing a wrong with another wrong seems like an archaic practice right out of the Medieval Ages. Is the “eye for an eye” mentality the best usage of justice. Is any single action greater than the sum of our parts? Why does the death penalty differ from all other sentences? Why don’t we rape a rapist? Why don’t we abuse an abuser? Why don’t we steal from a thief? All of these scenarios sound ridiculous but don’t they fall under the same logic? We’re killing a killer because it is an equal reaction. Putting this obvious inequity aside, just think of the 12% rate of error that was earlier mentioned. Court systems are inherently flawed because of politics and implicit biases; the axiom “guilty until proven innocent” comes to mind. Defense lawyers are overworked and resources for the poor are stretched so thin that many go to court via Skype. How can we sentence people to death – the ultimate final verdict – in a system that has so many problems? Finally, the death penalty doesn’t deter killers. In many cases, murder is done without premeditation and rational thought is completely absent. The death penalty is an afterthought to a murderer because most people who murder never thought they would in the first place.
So what is the argument for the death penalty? Most people who support it usually overly trust the justice system and believe all convictions are perfect. Also, they believe that it deters crime (disproven above) and that it is not “cruel or unusual punishment” (Over 2/3 of all countries believe it is). What about the revenge component – if someone killed my loved one wouldn’t I want them to experience the same fate? This may sound logical but when victim families are interviewed they many times wish for a life sentence over the death penalty. Why is this? Fist off, it is a long process to execute someone. There are years of appeals and the total amount of court appearances continue to open up wounds for the bereaving victims. Secondly, revenge killing is never as satisfying as one thinks – just reference any major religious text or psychology journal to understand this more. Life in prison is a far greater punishment than any expedited death. Not only does the prisoner have to live locked up, they have to ruminate about what they did. Guilt and rumination are almost always universal (except in some mental-illnesses). Being conscious of wrong doing is the whole point of the criminal justice system – why would we cut that short for the worst crimes? Just think about your own regrets – what felt worse – staring at the ceiling with guilt or falling asleep to escape?