As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Ezekiel 33:11
I remember very clearly the state of terror that gripped the East Coast during fall of 2002. I was only just entering high school then, but the atrocities taking place along the Eastern Seaboard were so jarring to me. The atrocities I’m speaking about are the murders committed by John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, who shot 13 people and killed 10 of them. Last night, Muhammad, dubbed the “D.C. Sniper,” was put to death last night via lethal injection in the state of Virginia for the heinous crimes he committed.
The question I want to focus on is whether the death penalty is ever justified, even for decidedly evil people like Muhammad. In 2008, the United States put to death 37 people, the fifth most just after North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China. That’s quite the distinguished neighborhood we’re in, to say the least. Each of these nations (including the U.S.) is known for their human rights violations, which should not come as a surprise. The U.S. is surpassed only by Pakistan for the most prisoners on death row awaiting their “imminent deaths” that can take up to 20 years to come. All of the West, with the exception of the U.S., has outlawed capital punishment. The United States is the only developed nation, outside of Japan and Singapore, to still execute people. In the EU, Article 2 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union outlaws the barbaric practice.
The conservative right in this country has always perplexed me with their unwavering commitment to the sanctity of life when it comes to the unborn but, at the same time, almost reflexively support the state’s right to murder human beings. This is evidenced by the fact that an overwhelming majority (95% last year) of executions in the United States occur in the South, with Texas being the leader.
Some may state that my use of the word “murder” here is unfair, biased, etc. However, let’s consider the conditions under which people are being killed by the state: the person is incapacitated, restrained, and no longer a threat. Let’s say someone invades your house, but you are able to capture him and tie him up. You are not then allowed to shoot the person once you have him under your control. That would be murder. Specifically, murder is the unjustified “killing of another human being with intent.” Therefore, capital punishment is unambiguously murder. In order for this to be so, we must explain why it is unjustified.
Now that we’ve seen that we are in isolation within the West on this issue, that conservatives are the biggest supporters and perpetrators of capital punishment, and that this constitutes murder, let’s try to evaluate some of the claims. One of main justifications given for capital punishment is the so-called “deterrent effect.” If the state puts to death a murderer, this disincentivizes (deters) would-be murderers because they are fearful of being put to death by the state if they are caught. Of course, this has been the justification for all sorts of draconian practices. “If we want to stop a practice, we can murder whoever does it and it will stop.” (If we want to stop robbery, why don’t we just impale robbers, as Draco did?) As one might expect, this theory falls flat on its face as soon any empirical data are examined. The “deterrence effect” is a myth. A review of the scholarly literature by Bailey and Peterson published in the 1997 book “The Death Penalty in America” (Chapter 9) emphatically affirms there exists no “deterrent effect.” Just a cursory survey shows that murder rates are higher in states that have the death penalty than in those that do not. That’s the correlation. What’s the causation? Well, there are obviously many factors, but one interesting one is what’s called the “brutalization effect.” This hypothesis says that when the state kills human beings, it sends the opposite message that it intended: the deliberate killing of human beings is acceptable and there exists no inherent sanctity in life. In effect, the death penalty brutalizes society and homicide rates go up. That is to say, executions dehumanize people and sends the message that human beings are mere instruments. Interrupted time-series analyses from Oklahoma have found a brutalization effect for homicide of strangers. Older studies find a similar effect in New York and Arizona.
Supporters also claim executions create a “specific deterrent,” i.e. those put to death are deterred from committing future crimes because they are dead. We could therefore claim that if we wanted to stop a robber from robbing again, we could kill him. Does anyone accept that argument? No one does. Moreover, life in prison for murderers is also a “specific deterrent” (as well a general deterrence). There is no reason to take the unnecessary step of execution.
But what if executions deterred? It is the utilitarian argument that killing human beings is okay because it may save the lives of would-be victims from would-be murderers. Since it is utilitarian, it is concerned with the consequences of actions, not the principles on which they are based. It follows from this theory, if we assume executions deter future crime, that the execution of innocent prisoners is in fact moral because it deterred future crimes. That is one of the many “repugnant conclusions” that practitioners of utilitarianism must accept. Further, if we are truly committed to deterring future crimes, we should be impaling or burning prisoners at the stake, which would surely deter would-be criminals. But no one accepts this, because it is an elementary moral principle that humans are not mere tools for creating some desired end. We accept that there are things we simply do not tolerate as moral beings, even against the most reprehensible of people.
It might be argued that it simply isn’t the case that innocent people would be executed. This is also another interesting argument coming from the conservative right; for all their contempt and distrust of government, they also almost reflexively assume the judiciary gets it right and the criminal justice system is inherently efficient and just. The sobering fact is that, “since 1973, 139 people in 26 states have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence” (source). This fact alone, that the criminal justice system in the United States is prone to errors of enormous consequence, demolishes any conceived justification for capital punishment (if we agree putting innocent people to death is wrong). Unfortunately, once prisoners are executed, there is no longer any effort to examine their guilt. The aforementioned source mentions at least eight executed prisoners whose guilt has been seriously doubted. They also note two people who have pardoned or exonerated after their execution.
Furthermore, the use of capital punishment is discriminatory. The race of the victim murdered is the greatest predictor of whether the person who committed the murder will be executed. According to a 2003 report by Amnesty International that explores the role of race in the judicial system, “Blacks and whites were the victims of these murders in almost equal numbers. Yet 80 per cent of the people executed since 1977 were convicted of murders involving white victims.” The report also finds that minorities are also underrepresented in juries, which may skew the result of convictions and sentences. Explains Justice Scalia, “the unconscious operation of irrational sympathies and antipathies, including racial, upon jury decisions and (hence) prosecutorial decisions is real, acknowledged in the decisions of this court, and ineradicable.” Justice Scalia neglects to mention, however, that the death penalty is not ineradicable. In the words of Senator Feingold, “We simply cannot say we live in a country that offers equal justice to all Americans when racial disparities plague the system by which our society imposes the ultimate punishment.”
In the United States, this “ultimate punishment” is most often manifested in lethal ejections. In their dubious quest to find more “humane” and efficient ways to kill human beings, practitioners of executions have settled on a lethal cocktail of drugs meant to swiftly and painlessly kill its victim. The effectiveness of this practice has been highly criticized. It is argued that the anesthetic used, a short-acting barbiturate, quickly wears off and leads to a very painful death for the prisoner. The prisoner, however, is unable to communicate this pain as the pancuronium bromide, a paralytic muscle relaxant, has paralyzed the prisoner. The attempts to make executions look like medical procedures have had, in Dr. Groner’s words, the purpose of making them “socially more acceptable.” A 2007 study found that current procedures “may not reliably effect death through the mechanisms intended” and that prisoners may in fact be fully aware and suffering painful asphyxiation rather than the intended cardiac arrest. To wit, a prisoner named Angel Diaz who was put to death in 2006 required two doses of the lethal cocktail because the first was insufficient to kill than man within 35 minutes. A list of further botched executions can be found here.
Additionally, from a purely economical standpoint, executions are more costly than life in prison. Eliminating the death penalty could save the public hundreds of millions of dollars, which could be better spent on public safety and efforts that actually succeed in reducing murder and other crime. Saving money alone should not be the sole purpose of abolishing the death penalty, but if we accept the argument I have made above then we get the benefit of increased efficiency and a better utilization of scarce resources.
A natural question that remains is, Why does capital punishment still exist in the United States? There may well be a rational explanation, which is that “The death penalty has served the political class at great expense to the greater society.” Politicians benefit from supporting the death penalty because it helps them win elections. It will only be after the American public realizes, as they increasingly are, that death penalty is inherently wrong that policymakers will stop clinging to the antiquated practice.
As we remember the moments of terror that shocked the nation seven years ago, let us reflect on the statement of those who protested the execution of even the most reprehensible kind of person: “We remember the victims, but not with more killing.”