by Matthew Boardman
The death penalty—should it remain, undergo reform or be abolished? Currently, 32 states, Washington included, enforce the death penalty. The leading cause of concern in regard to capital punishment is the petrifying question: what if the person is innocent?The risk of punishing an innocent is too great for the death penalty to continue as it currently exists. There are some cases in which guilt is known beyond all doubt. Multiple witnesses, video evidence, victim testimonies—they all make for a strong case. Regrettably, not all of those sentenced to death row have such incontestable cases against them.
“Since 1973, 150 [inmates] have been exonerated and freed from death row,” according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC).
New technology has exonerated people who were sentenced to death row in seemingly airtight cases. Ideally, this same technology and refined legislation could eventually prevent any innocent individuals from being mistakenly condemned.
Unfortunately, such a hope is not yet a reality. Mankind’s imperfection has resulted in past mistakes, and it ensures that mistakes will occur again. Is it then ethical to utilize the death penalty knowing that an error could be made? Is the punishment of the worst of humanity worth the minute risk of killing an innocent?
Ethically, the answer must be no, at least for the time being. Evidence can be manufactured, witnesses can lie or be mistaken and bias can misconstrue facts. It is better for those who are known to be guilty to spend life in prison without parole, and risk an innocent sharing that penalty, than risk an irreversible mistake. The chance of taking the life of an innocent morally outweighs the desire for punishing those believed to be guilty.
There are some crimes when the death penalty seems to be the only justifiable punishment. It may be safe to say “a child rapist and murderer does not deserve to live,” is a statement most people would agree with. However, in taking a murderer’s life, what divides the executioner’s actions from those of the murderer? The means and motivation are different, yet the end results are the same: life is taken. Does the collective society’s condemnation morally justify the taking of a life? Is that a decision one human being can make for another?
Perhaps. If there are absolute morals, unjustifiably taking a life is surely a violation of them. Nevertheless, as stated earlier, the shadow of doubt over guilt prevents capital punishment from being ethically practiced.
One argument in favor of capital punishment is that it preserves appreciation for the value of life. If the most heinous crimes are condemned as being unforgivable and only punishable by death, then life will be respected. Such is part of the argument that the death penalty is a deterrent to violent crime.
Since 1991, states without the death penalty have had consistently lower murder rates than states with the death penalty, according to the DPIC.
Correlation does not always signify causation, but the fact has led some to argue that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent.
Be that as it may, the death penalty should be used in matters of crimes against humanity. People who are responsible for genocide cannot be allowed to live because they have a global impact. They influence what is deemed permittable across nations and time. As such, the heinous acts they commit, which are known to be theirs beyond all doubt due to the scale, must be punished for the sake of mankind’s collective well-being. Genocide is a crime that affects all of humanity socially, psychologically and morally.
The United States stands as one of 58 nations, the majority of which are in the Middle East and Asia, that continue to utilize capital punishment, according to the DPIC. Nearly all of Europe has abolished the death penalty in law or practice, as have Canada and Australia.
The U.S. is a sovereign nation that is not required to align its laws to those of other nations. That said, the decision of nations similar to the U.S. in cultural values and customs should be cause for consideration.
What of the costs of the death penalty? A study published by Seattle University on Jan. 1, 2015, found, “it costs more than $1 million on average to seek the death penalty in a given case than to seek life without possibility of parole.” The total average costs of the death penalty to the judicial system are about 1.4 to 1.5 times more expensive than cases originally seeking life without parole sentences.
The difference in costs is shocking. One might expect the reverse to be true, as inmates with life sentences must be housed for far longer. Nevertheless, in the examination of 147 cases of aggravated-first degree murder, the study found that the cumulative costs of Death Penalty Sought cases exceed those of Death Penalty Not Sought cases. Factors used to calculate the figures included average jail costs, average defense costs, average trial level prosecution costs and court, police/sheriff and miscellaneous costs.
It is important to note that the study exclusively examined cases that were death-penalty eligible. The possibility of sentences was limited to capital punishment or life without parole, so the cost comparison is not invalidated by including other, less expensive sentences.
As a whole, the study shows that the death penalty is not cost effective. Some have argued if the auxiliary costs of DPS cases were instead directed to law enforcement agencies, police departments could use the additional funding to take preventative measures.
Although $1 million seems to be a notable figure, dispersing it among law enforcement agencies across the state would dilute its potency. For the money to be effectively reallocated, it would have to be distributed among the areas of greatest need.
In practical terms, the death penalty is simply not effective. It has not been proven to act as a significant deterrent to violent crimes and, surprisingly, life without parole is less expensive than the death penalty, at least in cases of aggravated first-degree murder.
Some criminals may deserve to die for their actions, but the death penalty cannot be ethically practiced by imperfect humans. In a moral and civilized society, the risk of error must overrule the desire for revenge or justice. Ideally, the death penalty could be refined to perfection, so only crimes against humanity wherein guilt is beyond any doubt would perpetrators receive capital punishment. New technology can and has improved the credibility of evidence, and is leading towards a future in which certainty of guilt may be a possibility.
At the moment, such is not yet the reality. Until that time, the abolishment of the death penalty in civil cases is the most sensible and conscientious conclusion.
Contact Matthew Boardman at firstname.lastname@example.org