Capital Punishment is Never Justified
by Ted Miller
(originally published April 2020 in Tumbleweird)
On March 5, 2020, the State of Alabama executed Nathaniel Woods for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Everyone involved in his case agreed that he did not kill the three Birmingham police officers he was convicted of murdering. The man who actually pulled the trigger, Kerry Spencer, who is still on death row for the murders, repeatedly claimed that Woods had nothing to do with it.
"Nathaniel Woods is 100% innocent," Spencer wrote in an open letter. "I know that to be a fact because I'm the person that shot and killed all three of the officers that Nathaniel was subsequently charged and convicted of murdering. Nathaniel Woods doesn't even deserve to be incarcerated, much less executed."
But Nathaniel Woods was executed anyway. Did he deserve to die? Did his death serve any purpose?
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 people have been unfairly sentenced to death? How many innocent people have been executed? Even one is too many.
On October 18, 2018, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled in State v. Gregory that the death penalty in our state is unconstitutional. The court wrote:
“The death penalty is invalid because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner. … As noted by the appellant, the use of the death penalty is unequally applied—sometimes by where the crime took place, or the county of residence, or the available budgetary resources at any given point in time, or the race of the defendant. The death penalty, as administered in our state, fails to serve any legitimate penological goal; thus, it violates article I, section14 of our state constitution.”
Washington State no longer imposes the death penalty, but twenty-five other states still do.
Does capital punishment serve any good in society? Does it deter crime? Is it fair? Is it just?
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. The Northeast with less than 1% of executions has the lowest murder rate. That doesn’t correlate with deterrence.
Whether a murder is pre-meditated or an act of heated passion in the moment, it is unlikely the murderer spends any time at all considering whether they will face execution for 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 the cost of life imprisonment was included. 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 165 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. 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.
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.
As cited in the Washington Supreme Court ruling abolishing the death penalty, 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. This disparity is hardly an indication of a fair and even application of justice with respect to race.
Some argue that there are crimes so heinous that the perpetrator deserves to die, that vengeance is somehow justified at the hands of the state. But revenge should never be the basis for punishment under the law. The law should be applied evenly and fairly to hold a criminal accountable. Accountability and revenge are not the same. The state has no place in executing vengeance.
The death penalty is expensive, ineffective as a deterrent, barbaric in its application, and unfairly applied. 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 can be held accountable without putting them to death.
And the risk of making a mistake are just too great.
Johnny Ross, who at sixteen was wrongfully sentenced to death and served seven years on death row before his case was overturned, said, “We cannot trust a system that makes mistakes to decide who lives and who dies.”
Johnny is right. The system that imposes the death penalty can’t be trusted and serves no useful purpose. It’s time to abolish capital punishment in the United States.
Note: data is from deathpenaltyinfo.org unless otherwise indicated