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My thoughts on the Death Penalty
I’ve made a promise to myself to publish hubs more frequently, and since I’ve discussed political issues in most of my other hubs, I’d thought I’d share my thoughts on other issues that interest me, such as the death penalty.
Although most other industrialized nations have abolished it, the death penalty still exists in most places in the United States, and it even enjoys widespread popular support. For example, the most recent Gallup poll on the subject, taken in October 2011, found that, although the numbers had slightly dropped, 61% of Americans support capital punishment while only 35% oppose it. What’s more, majorities were also found to believe that innocent people were executed within the past five years under capital punishment and that the death penalty doesn’t act as a deterrent, yet the majority support still stands, mainly based on “moral” reasons.
The death penalty has also found America increasingly isolated on the world stage, and some have suggested we join the rest of the “civilized world” and abolish it. Although I oppose the death penalty (for reasons I’ll get into in a moment), I don’t think an appeal to popularity is a particularly compelling argument. Most of Europe also has extremely stringent gun control laws (compared to America), which I don‘t think we should adopt in America. They also often have hate speech laws, which I also don‘t think we should enact here either. Overall, although America is similar to Europe in that we’re all part of the largely civilized, industrialized West, and much preferable to the third world, we’re not the same and shouldn’t be the same. The U.S. has a history of strong suspicion of government, and a tradition of support for liberty, and this still manifests strongly today. This doesn’t mean we can’t learn lessons from Europe on some policies, but it means that we’re different and always have been. Socialist and other radical left-wing parties just haven’t made the inroads in America that they have in Europe, and for good reason.
Still, I do think the United States should join Europe in abolishing the death penalty, and I part ways with my fellow Americans who support capital punishment. One thing that strikes me as puzzling in America’s retaining of the death penalty is that, like expressed above, we have a strong history of suspicion of government, for good reason. If we don’t trust the government to run a health care system, how in the hell can we trust the government to kill somebody? This is particularly troubling when we realize how many innocent prisoners are released from death row every year because of DNA evidence. The idea of the government executing an innocent person should be considered abhorrent by any right-thinking person, and I’m sure some innocent people have been executed since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976 after a brief moratorium in ‘72. That’s my main reason for opposing the death penalty: the possibility of executing an innocent person.
Some conservatives may argue either that this has never happened or that it is exceedingly rare. Regarding the first argument, I’ll recommend a book by Jesse Jackson called, Legal lynching: the Death Penalty and America’s Future, which I’ve recently read. Although I generally dislike Jesse Jackson’s race baiting, I think he makes some good points and provides compelling evidence and anecdotes that show that, despite what some people believe, some innocent people have been executed by the state since 1976, to say nothing of what happened before then. And according to a September 2011 CNN article, over 130 death row inmates since 1973 have been released due to new evidence. Also, a total of 1,267 death row inmates have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Are we really that naïve to believe that none of those executed happened to be innocent? It doesn’t matter how infrequently this happens; it is still a grave injustice, and I fail to see what benefits the death penalty brings that would offset this injustice. Which brings me to my next point.
There is very little consistent evidence that the death penalty works as a deterrent, and the evidence, at best, is very mixed. While some studies do try to show that it does work, the consensus among criminologists is that it doesn’t work. A study in 2008 found that 88% of criminologists do not believe that the death penalty is an effective deterrent. But more importantly than what the “experts” think is that states with the death penalty often have higher crime rates than those without the death penalty. According to the Death Penalty Information Center (which takes no official position on capital punishment), in 2009, the rate of murder in death penalty states was 25% higher than in states without the death penalty, and these kinds of numbers have remained consistent since 1990. If deterrence works with capital punishment, it does a pretty shitty job, to say the least.
The deterrent theory doesn’t make much sense to me anyway. Most crimes are crimes of passion, either influenced by drugs or alcohol, or triggered by spur-of-the-moment anger or impulse. It is difficult to see how your average criminal would stop what he’s doing before committing a crime in order to contemplate the possibility of being strapped to the electric chair sometime in the likely distant future. Not only that, but I suspect many criminals fear spending the rest of their lives in jail more than they do the death penalty. Life imprisonment without parole seems like a pretty hellish punishment to me, and I think some criminals would actually prefer the death penalty to living that hellish life. Richard Ramirez, the notorious satanic serial killer from the mid-80’s, certainly preferred to die rather than spend the rest of his life in prison, as I learned in reading a book about him and I can’t imagine that this is much different than what many other murderers feel. Either way, I don’t think many criminals spend much time contemplating the death penalty. I think criminals worry about more immediate dangers, like being shot by an intended victim who is armed, which is certainly a more immediate danger to them than the possibility of the death penalty. Thus, I think gun ownership is more of a deterrent than the death penalty.
Some suggest that the reason serial killers are not afraid of the death penalty is because it is applied so infrequently nowadays, with endless appeals and waiting times, that it undercuts its potential value as a deterrent. First off, if the death penalty were applied more frequently and quickly than it already is, then there is no question that even more innocent people would be executed. Would I be willing to sacrifice those lives based on the debatable and scientifically dubious premise that the death penalty deters? No.
But I have to confess that even if I believed deterrence did work, I still wouldn’t support the death penalty. If deterrence works, and that is a big if, I imagine it would only work if our criminal justice system became much more authoritarian than it already is, such as in the vein of Middle Eastern countries where people are stoned to death for adultery or sodomy. I think perhaps deterrence works in those kinds of authoritarian countries where people genuinely fear for their lives from their government, if they say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing. But who the hell would want to live under a government like that, especially anybody in America or the West in general?
Overall, the fact that the death penalty, even where legal, is applied often infrequently and is barred by endless appeals, is a very good thing, because it at least tries to ensure that we won’t execute an innocent man. But the only way to be absolutely sure is to abolish the death penalty.
My position on the death penalty has evolved over time somewhat. I have always been skeptical of the death penalty, but in the past, I supported it, albeit only for the most extreme criminals and only when there is absolutely no doubt of guilt. But it’s really hard to ever be sure with absolute certainty.
In the past, I was also skeptical about moral arguments against the death penalty. I felt that guilty murderers really deserved to be executed, so they would feel the pain their victims felt. I’ve changed my opinion somewhat on that issue. I now think there is something morally wrong with the death penalty. And if most people really didn’t think there was something wrong with it, we wouldn’t be trying to make executions more “humanitarian” or more civilized. In the past, people could be executed by torture or drawing and quartering. As we’ve grown more modern, we try to make executions more humane, moving up from hanging and lethal gas, to things like the electric chair, and finally to the current “humane” death of lethal injection. The fact that we care about this suggests that deep down, we’re all uncomfortable with killing, even killing the most reprehensible murderer. What difference does it make whether we do that by drawn and quartering or lethal injection? The latter method may cause less pain, but it is still taking a life. I’m convinced if executions were shown on national television, more people would start to oppose it. Most of us are uncomfortable with killing, even in many situations where the killing was justified, like self defense. Also, I suspect another reason the death penalty is so infrequently applied nowadays is because of people feeling ambivalent and uncomfortable about the whole thing, many times not even wanting to admit it to themselves. Many prison wardens who witness the death penalty generally oppose it, and I can understand why.
Still, despite this evolution of opinion, I perfectly understand why many people would think someone like Ted Bundy or Timothy McVeigh deserves to die. I’m certainly not sad that they’re gone, and when it comes to criminals like this, I generally experience some doubt about my new position. Still, my bottom line on this area is also that the death penalty doesn’t really accomplish much of anything either. It doesn’t accomplish anything that life imprisonment without parole wouldn’t accomplish except satisfy people’s need for revenge. I understand the sentiment, but it should be noted that not all relatives of murder victims believe in killing the person who murdered them either, so “victim closure’ really doesn’t say much of anything. The victims are still dead, and I doubt a dead criminal will in all or even most cases really provide victims of crime with the closure they need.
Finally, I do hope that eventually all states abolish the death penalty. I say states because, despite my objection to the practice, I think this should probably still be a state issue. The U.S. Constitution doesn’t say that the death penalty is unjustified, and I’m somewhat hesitant to embrace “living constitution’ theories. I’m also somewhat hesitant of the federal government intervening in state policy. I think the federal government should override state laws when they are in clear violation of the constitution, such as a college campus speech code or a ban on handguns, the latter of which is why I support the Heller v. District of Columbia decision. Even then though, I have some reluctance to compel states to do something they oppose. Even though the state of Texas’ current death penalty regime, for example, is pretty abhorrent, I still think this should probably be a state issue.