In Old Testament times, the death penalty was used as the punishment for murder (Genesis 9:6). But death was also the punishment for a number of other offenses, such as eating leavened bread during the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exodus 12:15), being a stubborn child (Deuteronomy 21:21), picking up sticks on the Sabbath day (Numbers 15: 32-36), insulting your parents (Exodus 21:17), going to the Tabernacle if you are not a priest (Numbers 1:51), and ignoring the verdict of a judge or priest (Deuteronomy 17:12). Today the death penalty is still used in 32 states in America, including the state I live in—Ohio.
In 2007 the American Bar Association released the results of a three-year study of the death penalty. Although the American Bar Association takes no position for or against the death penalty, they issued a moratorium on the death penalty because “the process is deeply flawed.” As a researcher of aggression and violence for over 25 years, I also believe the death penalty is “deeply flawed.” There are at least seven serious problems with the death penalty.
The Death Penalty Models the Behavior it Seeks to Prevent
The death penalty is used to deter killers, but it models the very behavior it seeks to prevent. It teaches the lesson that it is acceptable to kill, as long as the state is the one doing the killing. Hence the term “capital punishment.” This is somewhat paradoxical. As my friend Jed said, “We don't like people who kill other people, so to show everyone how much we don't like people who kill people, we are going to kill people who kill other people. It seems like capital punishment pretty much goes against everything it claims to be for.” The death penalty answers violence with counter-violence. As American novelist Wendell Berry said, “Violence breeds violence. Acts of violence committed in ‘justice’ or in affirmation of ‘rights’ or in defense of ‘peace’ do not end violence. They prepare and justify its continuation.”
You Might Kill the Wrong Person!
William Blackstone, the English jurist, judge, and Tory politician of the 18th century, said, “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” The death penalty is irreversible, so it is critical that it be used on the actual killer. Over 140 people have been exonerated and freed from death row, such as on the basis of DNA evidence. Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, 1,362 individuals have been executed in the U.S. (as of January 16, 2014). It is difficult to know for sure how many innocent people have been executed, but it appears at least 10 have. For example, Carlos DeLuna was executed in 1989 for the 1983 murder of Wanda Lopez in Corpus Christi, Texas. The only eyewitness to the crime identified DeLuna while he was sitting in the back of a police car parked in a dimly lit lot in front of the crime scene. There was no blood, DNA evidence, or fingerprints linking DeLuna to the crime. The actual murderer was a man named Carlos Hernandez, a violent criminal who very similar in appearance DeLuna. Hernandez even bragged about how he had murdered Lopez and gotten someone else to take the fall for him. Family members and friends of Hernandez also confessed that he had killed Lopez. In my view, the execution of even one innocent person is too many. A recent study published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that about 1 in 25 death row inmates is innocent! There are over 3,000 people on death row in America today. Thus, about 123 of them are innocent.
The Death Penalty Does Not Deter Crime
The available evidence indicates that the death penalty does not reduce murder rates. FBI Unified Crime reports show that states with the death penalty have homicide rates 48-101% higher than states without the death penalty. Similarly, an international study of criminal violence analyzed data from 110 nations over a period of 74 years and found that the death penalty does not deter criminals. One reason why the death penalty might not deter criminals is that most murders are committed in a fit of rage, after an intense argument, when people rarely consider the consequences of their actions. Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno said: “I have inquired for most of my adult life about studies that might show that the death penalty is a deterrent. And I have not seen any research that would substantiate that point.”
The Death Penalty Targets The Poor
Of the 22,000 murders that occur each year in the U.S., about 1% result in death sentences. Which 1% depends largely on the effectiveness of the attorney, which often depends on how much money the accused has. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty.” Ginsburg also criticized the "meager" amount of money spent to defend poor people. OJ Simpson's lawyer—who received $5 million for defending him—said, "In the U.S., you're better off, if you're in the system being guilty and rich than being innocent and poor.” There are no billionaires or millionaires on death row.
The Death Penalty Targets People of Color
The American Bar Association three-year study concluded: “Every state studied appears to have significant racial disparities in imposing the death penalty, particularly associated with the race of the victim, but little has been done to rectify the problem.” Other statistical evidence is consistent with this conclusion. Blacks make up 12% of the U.S. population, but they make up 48% of those on death row (55% of those on death row are people of color). The odds of receiving death penalty increase by 38% when the accused is Black. Although 50% murders involve white victims, 80% of death penalty cases involve white victims.
The Death Penalty May Constitute “Cruel and Unusual Punishment.”
The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” According to the U.S. Supreme Court, punishment is cruel and unusual if it is too severe for the crime, arbitrary, is rejected throughout society, and is not more effective than a less severe penalty. The U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that has executed minors under 18-years-old. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty for minors offended "evolving standards of decency" and therefore constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.”
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “The capital punishment system is discriminatory and arbitrary and inherently violates the Constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment. The ACLU opposes the death penalty in all circumstances, and looks forward to the day when the United States joins the majority of nations in abolishing it.” There are five methods currently used to execute people—lethal injection, electrocution, gas chamber, firing squad, and hanging. The firing squad is only used in Utah. The ACLU argues that there are significant problems with each method. Consider just a few examples of several botched cases.
A prisoner generally dies within seven minutes of receiving a lethal injection. Drugs for lethal injections in the United States were obtained from Europe, where the death penalty is illegal. However legal pressures and concerns from manufacturers in Europe have made traditional execution drugs unavailable. Thus, states have been trying experimental drug cocktails for lethal injections. In 2014 there have been a number of "botched executions" involving lethal injections. In an Ohio case, Dennis McGuire received a lethal injection of two new drugs (midazolam + hydromorphone). The drugs took 26 minutes to kill McGuire, as he physically struggled, choked, and gasped for air. In an Arizona case, Joseph Rudolph Wood received the same two new drugs as McGuire, and it took him nearly 2 hours to die. In an Oklahoma case, Clayton D. Lockett received an unknown mixture of "experimental" lethal drugs. He immediately began struggling after the injection was given, and ended up dying of a massive heart attack an hour later. His attorney said: "After weeks of Oklahoma refusing to disclose basic information about the drugs for tonight's lethal injection procedures, tonight, Clayton Lockett was tortured to death." In a 2006 Florida case, Angel Nieves Diaz died 34 minutes after receiving a lethal injection. The needle apparently went through his vein and into soft tissue deep in his arm. Eyewitness reports indicate that Diaz was still moving and attempting to speak (or, perhaps, scream) more than 20 minutes into the execution. In a 2006 Ohio case, it took over 90 minutes to kill Joseph Lewis Clark. Clark could be heard moaning and groaning from behind the curtain. In a 2007 Ohio case, it took over two hours and 10 attempts to kill Christopher Newtown. It took so long that Newton was given a bathroom break. In both the Clark and Newton cases, officials had difficulty finding a vein.
In 1999 Allen Lee Davis was electrocuted in Florida. "Before he was pronounced dead…the blood from his mouth had poured onto the collar of his white shirt, and the blood on his chest had spread to about the size of a dinner plate, even oozing through the buckle holes on the leather chest strap holding him to the chair." Florida Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw said that Davis “was brutally tortured to death by the citizens of Florida."
In 1983, the electrocution of John Evans in Alabama was described in a sworn testimony by his attorney: “At 8:30 p.m. the first jolt of 1900 volts of electricity passed through Mr. Evans' body. It lasted thirty seconds. Sparks and flames erupted…from the electrode tied to Mr. Evans' left leg. His body slammed against the straps holding him in the electric chair and his fist clenched permanently. The electrode apparently burst from the strap holding it in place. A large puff of grayish smoke and sparks poured out from under the hood that covered Mr. Evans' face. An overpowering stench of burnt flesh and clothing began pervading the witness room. Two doctors examined Mr. Evans and declared that he was not dead.” "The electrode on the left leg was re-fastened…Mr. Evans was administered a second…jolt of electricity. The stench of burning flesh was nauseating. More smoke emanated from his leg and head. Again, the doctors examined Mr. Evans. [They] reported that his heart was still beating, and that he was still alive. At that time, I asked the prison commissioner, who was communicating on an open telephone line to Governor George Wallace, to grant clemency on the grounds that Mr. Evans was being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. The request…was denied.” "At 8:40 p.m., a third charge of electricity…was passed through Mr. Evans' body. At 8:44, the doctors pronounced him dead. The execution of John Evans took fourteen minutes." Afterwards, officials were embarrassed by what one observer called the "Barbaric ritual." The prison spokesman remarked, "This was supposed to be a very clean manner of administering death."
In 1989, Alabama executed Horace Dunkins, who had been convicted of raping and killing Lynn M. McCurry, a 26-year-old mother of four. It took two jolts of electricity, nine minutes apart, to complete the execution. After the first jolt failed to kill the prisoner (who was mildly retarded), the captain of the prison guard opened the door to the witness room and stated "I believe we've got the jacks on wrong."
The Death Penalty Costs More Than Life in Prison
Some people may be surprised to learn that the death penalty is far more expensive to implement than life in prison without the possibility of parole. Take the state of California, for example. The California death penalty system costs taxpayers more than $114 million a year beyond the cost of simply keeping the convicts locked up for life. In addition, California spends $250 million per execution. In addition to state costs, there are also federal costs. The federal court system spends approximately $12 million each year on defending death row inmates in federal court. Many death penalty cases involve a long, drawn out, complex, and expensive judicial process.
Impact of Executions on Jurors, Justices, Governors, and Executioners
Any discussion of the death penalty should also consider the potential psychological impact of executing another human being on the jurors, justices, governors, and executioners involved. One writer concluded "Jurors are unrecognized victims of the death penalty." The Capital Jury Project interviewed 1198 jurors from 353 capital trials in 14 states and and found that 81% of female jurors and 18% of male jurors regretted their decisions, and 62.5% of female jurors and 37.5% of male jurors sought counseling after the trial.
Often a death row inmate requests a last minute stay of execution, which is either granted or denied by the nine U.S. Justices of the Supreme Court. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that making such decisions was the "hardest part of the job I do." Justice Lewis F. Powell said he had "come to think that capital punishment should be abolished, because it serves no useful purpose." Justice Paul Stevens concluded, "Arbitrariness in the imposition of the death penalty is exactly the type of thing the Constitution prohibits." Justice Sandra Day O'Connor also added her voice to the "growing chorus of skepticism about the administration of capital punishment in the United States.”
The last hope a death row inmate has for a stay of execution is a grant of clemancy (for life in prison) by the state's Governor. California Governor Edmund "Pat" Brown had to make this decision about 59 inmates, and granted clemancy to 23 of them. He said, "the longer I live, the larger loom those fifty-nine decisions about justice and mercy that I had to make as governor. They didn’t make me feel godlike then: far from it; I felt just the opposite. It was an awesome, ultimate power over the lives of others that no person or government should have, or crave. And looking back over their names and files now, despite the horrible crimes and the catalog of human weaknesses they comprise, I realize that each decision took something out of me that nothing—not family or work or hope for the future—has ever been able to replace." Illinois Governor George Ryan granted clemancy to all 167 inmates he decided on because he regarded the criminal justice system as “fraught with error and [which] has innumerable opportunities for innocent people to be executed." Governor Pat Quinn, also from Illinois, said: "As a state, we cannot tolerate the executions of innocent people because such actions strike at the very legitimacy of a government. Since 1977, Illinois has seen 20 people exonerated from death row. ... To say that this is unacceptable does not even begin to express the profound regret and shame we, as a society, must bear for these failures of justice."
Corrections officers actually carry out the executions, and 31% of them suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In comparison, 20% of Iraq veterans suffer PTSD. Lewis E. Lawes, who supervised 303 executions in New York, wrote, “I shall ask for the abolition of the Penalty of Death, until I have the infallibility of human judgment demonstrated to me.” Donald Cabana, who served as a corrections officer in Missouir, Florida, and Mississippi, said you "do not have the right to ask me, or any prison official, to bloody my hands with an innocent person’s blood. Not in the name of justice, not in the name of fairness." Ron McAndrews, a corrections officer from Florida and Texas, said: "[T]hose of us who have lived through an execution know just what the death penalty does to those who must perform it. In my tenure as warden, I helped perform three electrocutions in Florida and oversaw five lethal injections in Texas. In both places, I saw staff traumatized by the duties they were asked to perform. Officers who had never even met the condemned fought tears, cowering in corners so as not to be seen. Some of my colleagues turned to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain of knowing that a man had died by their hands. I myself was haunted by the men I was asked to execute in the name of the State of Florida. I would wake up in the middle of the night to find them lurking at the foot of my bed. One of them had been cooked to death in a botched electrocution. I stood just four feet away watching flames rise out of his head, hearing the electrician ask me, ‘Is that enough? Should I continue?’ It wasn’t until I left my post as warden that I finally sought counseling for the trauma I had been through."
The family of a 14-year-old African American George Stinney Jr.—who was executed in 1944 for allegedly killing two white girls—has asked for a retrial in light of new evidence. Stinney's trail lasted only 3 hours, and the all-white jury issued a death sentence after only 10 minutes of deliberation. This case illustrates some of the major problems with the death penalty (e.g., it is irreversible, it targets poor people, it targets people of color).
Five countries in the world account for 80% of state killings: (1) China, (2) Iran, (3) Iraq, (4) Saudi Arabia, and (5) the United States. The other five countries in the top 10 are: (6) Pakistan, (7) Yemen, (8) North Korea, (9) Vietnam, and (10) Libya. The U.S. State Department recognizes 194 independent countries around the world, and the death penalty is banned in 140 of these (72%) as of May 2103, including Russia. As an aggression and violence researcher for over 25 years, I think it is time for the U.S. to join the other 140 countries that have banned capital punishment. Murder is a terrible crime that is never justified and should always be punished. However, I believe that the punishment should be life in prison without the possibility of parole, rather than the death penalty. Life in prison without the possibility of parole keeps the public safe from killers, while eliminating the risk of an irreversible mistake.
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