Updated: Dec 10, 2020
We do not punish rapists by raping them and we do not punish arsonists by burning down their homes...why then do we punish murderers by killing them? Why kill people who kill people to show killing is wrong?
The Answer from the Right: To achieve
closure for victims and families, act as a deterrent for other criminals, and exact retribution for the state.
The Answer from the Left: State sponsored murder is morally wrong and does not serve as a deterrent. Life without parole is the civilized nation’s response to egregious crimes.
America, a center-right country, has had an up and down love affair with capital punishment but has repeatedly reaffirmed its role in our culture. Capital punishment is currently used by 28 states, American Samoa, the federal government, and the military.
The United States has practiced the death penalty since before its inception except for two brief periods. Due to falling public sentiment and growing legal challenges there were no executions in the U.S. between 1967 and 1977. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all states’ capital punishment statutes converting all death sentences pending at the time to life imprisonment. Subsequently, a majority of states passed new death penalty laws, and the Supreme Court affirmed the legality of capital punishment in 1976. Then again between 2003 and 2020 when federal executions were halted. In July 2019, Donald Trump announced the government would resume executing federal death-row inmates. Since resumption the federal death penalty has been applied 8 times. (There are currently 55 individuals on federal death row.) Just eight states – Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, Texas and Virginia – accounted for all executions in 2017, compared with 20 states in 1999. (There are currently 2553 individuals on death rows.) Internationally, 134 countries have completely abolished the death penalty or are not using it. Eight countries have retained it for use in extreme cases (i.e. war crimes) and only 56 countries use capital punishment regularly. The United States is the only Western country to still use the death penalty.
American’s attitudes about the death penalty have shown a softening in recent years. From a low in the free love days of the mid-1960s to a peak during the crime-ridden 1990s support for the death penalty has been declining. (The number of U.S. executions peaked at 98 in 1999 and has fallen sharply in the years since) For the first time since Gallup began asking the question in 1985, in 2019 a majority of Americans said life imprisonment is a better approach for punishing murder than is the death penalty. According to the Gallup results, when Americans were asked to choose whether the death penalty or life without possibility of parole “is the better penalty for murder” 60% chose the life-sentencing option and 36% favored the death penalty. More recent Gallup polling shows the continued downturn of public sentiment regarding the death penalty:
Morally acceptable Morally wrong
2006 71% 25%
2020 54% 40%
Concern over executing an innocent person was expressed by 84% of those opposing the death penalty and even 63% of death penalty advocates said there’s a risk of taking an innocent life. The Death Penalty Information Center (https://deathpenaltyinfo.org) has identified 18 individuals executed since 1989 for whom there was subsequent strong evidence of innocence. Furthermore since 1973, 172 death row inmates (11% of those executed in that same time frame) were exonerated before their execution date.
There were 15,269 executions in the Colonies/U.S. between 1608 and 2002. The ESPY file contains information about the victims. In about half of those cases the occupation of the criminal was listed. The top five occupations listed accounted for 21% of the executions and were listed as:
1. Slave – 1,748 (11.5%)
2. Laborer – 585 (3.8%)
3. Farmhand – 369 (2.4%)
4. Farmer – 347 (2.2%)
5. Farm Laborer – 168 (1.1%)
The first occupation on the list that would be considered professional was number 20. Physician - 38 (0.25%).
Race is a factor in death penalty cases and attitudes. Between 1976 and 2020 executions for crimes against whites were punished much more frequently than crimes against blacks: White Defendant / Black Victim (21 executions) vs. Black Defendant / White Victim (296 executions). Homicides involving white female victims are significantly more likely to result in a death sentence than homicides with any other victim characteristics. More than 75% of death row residents who have been executed were sentenced to death for killing white victims, even though in society as a whole about half of all homicide victims are black. As of April 2020 death row inmates had this complexion:
Current Death Row Inmates by Race
These statistics cause serious questions about the racial fairness of the death penalty when it is acknowledged that blacks make up only 13.5% of the U.S. population. Either black people are crime ridden and can’t stop killing white folks or something else is afoot, could it be...blatant racism? Studies have shown that racial prejudice emerges as a comparatively strong predictor of white support for the death penalty. The relationship is even stronger in counties with larger percentages of black residents.1
The death penalty is expensive. The costs of executing a prisoner is two to five times more expensive that life in prison. Another cost is our international reputation. Due to our adherence to capital punishment we are viewed by European capitals (as well as others worldwide) as a violent and vengeful country. This anti-American view was put in place when the U.S. continued slavery long after it had been banned in European nations.
If a country had an “emotional-maturity” score, the practice of an “eye for an eye” and a “life for a life” judicial system would be evidence of an immature country. There is a growing tendency to view the use of gas chambers, electric chairs, firing squads, lethal injections and hangings as cruel and unusual (if not barbaric) punishment. Over the next ten years or so our experience with the death penalty, with all its racial inequities, will tell us if we learned the lessons of the George Floyd murder.
1. Soss, J., Langbein, L., & Metelko, A. (2003). Why Do White Americans Support the Death Penalty? The Journal of Politics, 65(2), 397-421. doi:10.1111/1468-2508.t01-2-00006