The Death Penalty – What Is It Good For
by Ted Miller
(originally published June 2017 in Tumbleweird)
On December 23, 1991, Todd Willingham ran out of his burning house frantically screaming that his three young girls were burning up. The wooden house was quickly engulfed in flame and all three girls died from the fire. Willingham was subsequently accused of murder, convicted in the deaths of his children, and sentenced to death. He was executed in 2004, maintaining his innocence until the end. Since then, investigations have shown that witness testimony was questionable, forensic evidence was flawed, and the fire was accidental and not arson. In all likelihood, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for a crime he did not commit. How many other innocent people have been executed?
Last month, Arkansas rushed to execute death row inmates before their supply of a key lethal drug expired at the end of April. Assembly line executions to ensure justice under the law. But what kind of justice? What good does this barbaric practice of executing criminals do for our society? Does it act as a deterrent? Is it less expensive than life in prison? Is it fair? Is it just?
The United States is among a dwindling number of countries that have yet to abolish capital punishment. The countries with the most executions each year include China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, North Korea, and the United States.
Although some argue that the death penalty is an effective deterrent against certain crimes, the evidence does not support such a conclusion. The South carries out over 80% of the executions in the United states, yet has the highest murder rate of any U.S. region. That doesn’t correlate to deterrence. Whether a murder is pre-meditated or an act of heated passion in the moment, it is ludicrous to think the murderer spends any time at all considering whether they will face execution as a consequence of carrying out their crime. In fact, a 2009 article published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology found that 88% of expert criminologists believe there is no empirical evidence that executions reduce crime. And as Jimmy Carter reminded us in his April 2012 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, “the homicide rate is at least five times greater in the United States than in any Western European country, all without the death penalty.” The death penalty as a deterrent is myth.
The monetary costs associated with capital punishment are significantly more than those for similar cases where the death penalty is not sought. A January 2015 study published by Seattle University showed that for the 147 aggravated first-degree murder cases in Washington State since 1997, the average costs when the death penalty was sought were over one million dollars more expensive for each case than for similar non-death penalty cases. This was true even when including the cost of life imprisonment. When Governor Jay Inslee declared a moratorium on executions, he stated “the costs associated with prosecuting a capital case far outweigh the price of locking someone up for life without the possibility of parole.” States which still impose capital punishment spend tens of millions of dollars each year on death penalty cases with no corresponding reduction in crime for that cost.
Moreover, the death penalty is not applied fairly. Since 1973, more than 155 people were released from death row for any number of reasons: faulty evidence, problems with the conduct of the trial, prosecutorial misconduct, defense ineptness, witness reliability, or other factors. In most of these cases, the individuals were innocent. Indeed, as in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, there are many cases where innocent men have been put to death with evidence later indicating it was not possible for them to have committed the crime for which they were sentenced to die.
One-hundred-fifty-five people wrongly convicted and sent to death row. Is it acceptable to sometimes execute innocent people? Is that really an acceptable cost to society? I’ve always agreed with Sir William Blackstone’s 18th-century principle that it is better for ten guilty persons to go free than one innocent suffer. That is the way of a just and fair society – protect the innocent. And with the death penalty, an innocent person executed by mistake is an atrocious action by the State that cannot be undone.
Statistics show that race is a significant factor in application of the death penalty. Black defendants are several times more likely to receive the death penalty than white defendants in similar cases. For crimes where the victim is of a different race, a black defendant with a white murder victim is fifteen times more likely to be executed for their crime than a white defendant with a black murder victim (deathpenaltyinfo.org). This disparity is hardly an indication of an even application of justice.
The death penalty is expensive, ineffective as a deterrent, barbaric in its application, and unfair. There is no rational or compelling reason for the government to kill someone for any crime, no matter how terrible and heinous. Vengeance or retribution is an inadequate argument and cannot undo the harm already done. Criminals should be held accountable without putting them to death. Life in prison is a harsher and more appropriate sentence than a quick and painless death.
We as a society should be beyond an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Thirty-one states, including Washington, still have capital punishment on the books. It’s time for the United States to join the rest of the modern world and abolish the death penalty.
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