Editorial: The Morality of Capital Punishment

By Lauren Cohen

As defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary, capital punishment is “the practice of killing people as punishment for serious crimes.” The justification often used for capital punishment is revenge and retribution. Advocates of capital punishment cite biblical references such as “an eye for an eye” and the prohibition against murder in the Ten Commandments. Yet, there are multiple arguments against the use of capital punishment in modern society. I believe it is vitally important to abolish the use of capital punishment. 

With respect to its effectiveness, there is little evidence to suggest that the threat of capital punishment is a deterrent to those committing murder. One of the arguments for capital punishment is that if people know they will be executed for committing a murder, they will be less likely to kill. Unfortunately, most murders are not rational acts in which the killer has weighed the pros and cons of the aforementioned crime. The majority of murders occurring in the United States involve acts against people that are well known to the assailant, such as acts of domestic violence or violence in the workplace. Many of these crimes involve acts of passion or uncontrolled emotion in which the perpetrator has become enraged or hateful to the point where they do not inhibit their aggressive impulses. Personal conflict is at the root of many of these murders. Among the increase of mass shootings, there is little evidence to suggest that the perpetrators gave strong consideration to the possibility of receiving capital punishment since in many cases, the perpetrator planned to die during the attacks. Even if one stipulates that capital punishment provides retribution for the families of the victim, incarcerating an individual for life (or an extended period of time) ultimately has longer term impact on perpetrators. I feel the ability for a murderer to choose whether to take the easy way out (death) or live with his/her life choices has a direct impact on everyone affected by the crime. 

The argument against deterrents is reinforced by the fact that states which prohibit capital punishment have a much lower prevalence of homicide than states which enforce the death penalty. As reported in a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, states with the highest homicide rates are those in the southern United States in which capital punishment is legal. In contrast, states in the northeast and midwest that have large populations but prohibit the death penalty have significantly lower homicide rates. Since 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty (following Furman v. Georgia which ruled it unconstitutional in 1972) executions have occurred in the majority of the states that currently commit capital punishment, as homicide rates remain high. Accordingly, there is little basis for concluding that capital punishment has a significant effect of deterring murder in those states. 

Besides being ineffective as a deterrent, there are a number of other reasons why capital punishment should not be legal in the United States. There is great inconsistency in the way that the death penalty is applied in murder cases. The likelihood of receiving the death penalty is much greater among African Americans than Caucasians. Significant racial biases exist in this regard, raising constitutional issues as to the rendering of equal justice. As conducted in a study by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), African Americans have accounted for a disproportionate 43 percent of total executions since 1976, and 55 percent of those currently awaiting execution, which is much greater than the percentage of African Americans in the population. Murder rates are not significantly greater among African Americans, supporting the conclusion that the administration of justice is being differentially administered by race.

Another compelling argument against capital punishment comes from the fact that there is no reversal of execution. There are an alarming number of cases in which the convict was found guilty of murder but then subsequently, exonerated based on the discovery of DNA, (or other evidence that was considered during the trial) or by the incompetence of public defenders representing the convict during their trial. Once a person is executed, this type of error and injustice cannot be corrected. Over the last several decades, The Innocence Project has been working to support the appeals of individuals who have wrongfully been put on death row. One example is that of Rodney Reed who was wrongfully convicted of rape and murder and spent 21 years on death row before he was finally released. The pioneering work in the use of DNA evidence taken from the crime scene has enabled defense attorney’s like Barry Scheck to demonstrate the innocence of a number of convicted death row inmates. The ACLU, in collaboration with The Innocence Project, has worked to exonerate individuals who have previously been executed but were later determined to be innocent on the basis of genetic analyses. The Equal Justice Initiative also conducts important efforts that lead to the overturning of capital punishment judgements in a number of cases. Furthermore, the economic cost of keeping prisoners on death row where they go through years of appeals far exceeds the cost of incarcerating murders for life, if it is justified. 

When the Supreme Court banned capital punishment in 1972, the basis for the decision was that the death penalty represented “cruel and unusual punishment”. The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution states, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” In the past, executions were carried out through a variety of methods, many which caused extreme and prolonged agony. For example, execution by lethal gas causes extreme pulmonary distress prior to death, while hanging often results in long periods of strangulation before death occurs. The degree of variability across states and even localities makes it difficult to ensure that cruel punishment has not been inflicted. In recent years, states have adopted lethal injection as a way of addressing this problem. Even this mode of execution, however, often results in periods of intense pain if it is not carried out correctly. In addition, there is a lack of consistency in the drugs that are used for this purpose. Perhaps if a completely painless and fool proof form of execution was ever established, the argument regarding cruel and unusual punishment could be partially addressed, though even in this case, a strong argument can be made that any form of killing is cruel. 

Beyond issues regarding its effectiveness, cost, and fairness, there are moral and ethical dilemmas associated with capital punishment. Perhaps the most compelling argument for the death penalty arises from the sentiment that the family of the murder victim deserves justice, and experiences relief once the murderer is executed. While some families feel relief and resolution after the execution, in many cases these emotions are short lived, and the victims’ loved ones typically never feel healed. A related issue is the societal cost of engaging in large scale practices of executions. The United States is one of the few democratic countries (and the only one in western society) to continue to execute people in the modern era. Executing a murderer involves an act of killing another human being. While this may be justified based on the principle of retribution, I believe it remains a primitive response. In Canada, Europe, and most of South America where capital punishment is banned, executions are viewed as barbaric.

Ultimately, does society need to stoop to the level of committing violent executions as a response to the violence of others? The United States is experiencing an epidemic of polarization, violence, and incivility. Executions feed into this cycle of violence. If a society permits violent executions, violence begets more violence. Incarcerations are a more humane and rational alternative. A just society which chooses to ban capital punishment sets a positive example and delivers the message that violence is not an acceptable form of behavior. If one weighs the large number of arguments against capital punishment relative to its primary rationale of providing retribution, efforts should be directed at establishing laws or future Supreme Court rulings that once again ban capital punishment in this country.