Capital punishment is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the legally authorized killing of someone as punishment for a crime.” This does not include killing someone in action — it solely involves punishment, after trial and conviction of a crime, by execution. Of the 195 sovereign states that are members or observers of the United Nations, 102 states have fully abolished it for all crimes. Another 6 countries — Brazil, Chile, Peru, El Salvador, Kazakhstan, and Israel — have abolished it for all cases except exceptional circumstances such as war criminals. 50 countries retain capital punishment de jure, but have not used it for 50 years, so it is not used de facto. That leaves 37 countries — China, the United States, India, Iran, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Japan, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Thailand and 24 others — that actively practice capital punishment.

I am arguing, in this blog post, that the position of those 37 countries is deeply flawed — and that capital punishment is a primitive form of punishment that should be abolished. I am going to make the case for abolition of capital punishment.

I’ve polled a few friends of mine and a few people I know about their opinions on capital punishment. The immense amount of support for the death penalty is shocking. Indeed, only four of the thirty-or-so people I’ve asked have said they do not support capital punishment. When asked to justify their position, I have primarily received three justifications for this being the case: (1) some people deserve to die, and justice requires that retribution be done; (2) the death penalty will deter would-be criminals from committing those crimes, aiding society in the process; and (3) it takes a lot of money and resources to keep a person in life imprisonment, while death will significantly reduce the amount of resources. I will refute those arguments in today’s post, in addition to providing my own case against the death penalty.

So I’m first going to tear down all the arguments in favor of capital punishment, and then, in its place, erect a case against capital punishment, thus providing reasons to abolish the death penalty.

Let’s look to the first argument. That argument makes no sense — because it’s merely blind retribution, revenge, which is utterly pointless. There’s no doubt that retribution is a part of the criminal justice system because that’s what societal values ask for, but the harms created by the death penalty (listed below) far outweigh this one.

Next, the death penalty doesn’t deter crime at all. 88% of criminologists polled agree that the death penalty has no deterrent effect. The notion that the death penalty deters homicides relies on a certain econometric model called “rational choice theory.” Rational choice theory is a model that suggests that, in the demand-side and among the common populace, choices are taken based on analysis of costs and benefits. For instance, it would suggest that, if someone were to buy a sandwich, they would subconsciously weigh the costs and benefits of buying the same sandwich, both long term and short term. The same is applied to the death penalty, wherein people suppose that would-be murderers won’t commit crimes because of the fear of death awaiting them. And it is natural instinct for people to think that, because all of us fear death.

The problem is, that intuition is probably false. The death penalty is a long term consequence, but the reality (and, upon thinking through it, we all realize it) is that people typically consider short-term consequences when performing actions and fail to properly weigh the magnitude of those actions. For instance, when a person buys some French fries, that person only thinks of the short-term consequences (immediate pleasure and relief from hunger), failing to consider the fact that it could have potential, long-term adverse effects to their health. The same applies here. When someone commits a major crime, they only think of the short-term consequence, or act impulsively. Dr. Jonathan Groner explains,

“The psychological mind-set of the criminal is such that they are not able to consider consequences at the time of the crime. Most crimes are crimes of passion that are done in situations involving intense excitement or concern. People who commit these crimes are not in a normal state of mind — they do not consider the consequences in a logical way.”

 The American Civil Liberties Union confirms that the majority of homicides are murders of passion, committed under the heat of the moment, and even pre-planned murders tend to be based solely on short-term consequences. To whatever extent that the death penalty deters homicides, other forms of imprisonment serve as an equal deterrent. Indeed, there’s no statistically significant correlation between the death penalty and reduction in crime rates either. Murder rates in states that have the death penalty are not significantly different — or are even higher — in states that don’t have the death penalty. A study by John Donohue and Justin Wolfers finds that there is no correlation that suggests deterrence.

The third argument fails too. In fact, the death penalty costs more than other forms of punishment. Why? Two reasons: (1) liberal judges that oppose the death penalty always try their best to not give it as punishment, which requires significantly more lawyers and resources in the court; and (2) when it comes to the death penalty, there needs to be some level of certainty as to whether a person is guilty (though even that isn’t successful in determining accuracy, often), so a lot of resources are spent. A study by Sherod Thaxton found that a single capital case (i.e. a case where the death penalty is being considered) costs $2 million more than any non-capital case. Indeed, even the resources spent on life without parole are less than the resources used up by the death penalty. Research finds that, since 1978, $4 billion taxpayer dollars have been spent on the death penalty in the state of California alone. That’s $308 million per execution. Indeed, the cost of (a) a capital case, combined with (b) the cost of keeping a prisoner on death row, is greater than the total cost/resources spent on life imprisonment.

Thus, the arguments usually presented in favor of a death penalty are unsound. Now, let’s move on to my own case against the death penalty: why the death penalty should be abolished.

First, capital punishment causes psychological damage. The death penalty causes significant psychological harms to people other than those convicted of the crime in question. The first people affected by capital punishment are the executioners — people who are responsible for carrying out the execution. Executions require a team of executioners to oversee what’s going out and to carry out the execution itself — no machine can accomplish this on its own. But the experience of killing another human being is incredibly traumatic. Jerry Givens, a former executioner from Virginia, explains:

“I performed the execution. So you might suffer a little. I’m going to suffer a lot, because I performed the job.”

Empirical research shows that executioners can suffer from paranoia and clinical depression as a direct effect of executions. Because carrying out an execution is painful.

The psychological trauma faced by the family of the executed is also immense. While, generally, there is collateral damage caused by any punishment, the level of damage caused by an execution is far beyond that. Children whose parents have been executed face severe psychological harm and are often socially ostracized as a result. Researchers Robert Cushing and Susannah Sheffer found that the family of the majority of executed inmates faced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Second, the application of the death penalty is inhumane to people who’re executed as well. It’s definitely worse than life in prison. People on death row often face severe psychological distress and experience suicidal tendencies, in what is called “death row syndrome.” Conditions on death row are terrible. Methods of execution are also often grossly inhumane or torturous. India uses hanging — a form of execution which fractures the spinal column and leads to death by slow, painful asphyxiation. While the method of hanging used — the measured long drop — is more humane than others, it still can lead to botched executions. Indeed, in the United States alone, there have been 43 botched executions since 1982… and the United States uses more humane methods than India does. So, quite simply, the death penalty is immoral.

The problem extends beyond this. It being “immoral” might not be sufficient reason to abolish it for some people. The problem lies in concentration of power in what seems to be an oligarchy. How much power do we wish to give to societal structures and the state which consists of a small group of people that most of us haven’t even met? In a democracy, power is spread evenly, and exists at the grassroots level. We shouldn’t give the power to torture people to death to a power structure consisting of officials we haven’t even met.

Third, the death penalty causes the deaths of innocent people — men and women who were merely at the wrong place in the wrong time, and, as a result, had to face the brutality described above under the power of the public’s own elected government. According to the National Academy of Sciences, globally, 4.1% of those on death row are innocent of their crimes. And, from the start of the 20th century, 0.5% of all those executed were innocent. Take the case of Jesse Tasero — an innocent man executed for a crime he didn’t commit, in what inmates reported to be a torturous electrocution.

The issue of erroneous application of the death penalty is one that has been seen in India as well. Led by ex-Supreme Court judge P.B. Sawant, 14 former judges sent separate letters to the President of India pointing out that in 15 years (from 1996 to 2012), the death penalty had been erroneously given to fifteen people, of whom two were hanged.

So keeping the death penalty is allowing an entity of officials most of us haven’t even met to possibly cause the death of innocent people. It gives the power over life and death to a group of faraway elected officials. That’s not a world we should live in.

Lady Justice seated at the entrance of the Palace of Justice, Rome, Italy. Public Domain. Source: Wikipedia.

As such, I have proven that (1) the commonly presented arguments in favor of capital punishment are unsound; and (2) capital punishment has serious harms that justify its abolition. In the words of St. Augustine, “An unjust law is no law at all.” Since the death penalty is such an unjust law, as proven above, it is no law at all, and should be abolished.

Recommended Reading: 

  • Christopher Hitchens. “Staking a Life.” Lapham’s Quarterly. Web. Retrieved 28 July, 2016.