The death penalty debate transcends predisposed political boundaries and becomes a debate over morality. The debate usually starts by establishing that most Americans agree that if a person commits a heinous act, like murder, society demands they be punished either by execution or by spending the rest of their life in prison. The tension arises over the morality of the death penalty for three reasons. First, how does our justice system make sure the death penalty is only given to people who are guilty? Second, is the death penalty cost effective? And lastly, is the death penalty morally permissible for even the worst criminals?
The first question about the effectiveness of the American justice system has strong arguments both for and against the death penalty. Many anti-death penalty advocates highlight the large number of wrongful convictions that result in a death sentence. Since 1973, of the 1,542 convicted people who were sentenced to death, 186 have been exonerated and released from death row (EJI). Another study revealed that for every 9 people executed, 1 person was exonerated (EJI). One particular case that highlights the wrongful conviction of a death row convict is that of Walter McMillian, a man who was falsely convicted after a false and coerced confession from another convict due to prejudice over his race and economic status (EJI). To retort these statistics, death penalty advocates rely on 2014 data published by the National Academy of Sciences that estimates that only 4.1% of convicts are exonerated, meaning that 95.9% of death row convicts are guilty (Witness to Innocence).
Though the wrongful execution of convicts is a major concern for Americans, many also fear the systemic racism that results in a disproportionate number of black people being sentenced to death row. A national study done from 1995-2000 found that 72% of the cases approved for the death penalty by the attorney general were minorities (ACLU).
The second debated argument over the death penalty is whether it is truly cost effective. Though the cost is not a determining factor in the morality of the death penalty, it is undoubtably an important factor for many Americans. Studies have shown that it is 10 times more expensive to execute someone than to keep them in prison for their entire life (EJUSA). Sterling Goodspeed, a former district attorney in Warren County, New York once said “I think I could prove to you that I could put someone in the Waldorf Hotel for 60 to 70 years and feed them three meals a day cheaper than we can litigate a single death penalty case” (EJUSA). Those who support the death penalty often argue that there is a deterrent effect for crime rates as a direct result of executions, but recent data has proven this theory to be untrue, with death penalty states actually having higher crime rates (Amnesty International).
The final most debated aspect of the death penalty is the morality question, which is more difficult to argue than one might think. A common phrase used by pro-death penalty advocates is “an eye for an eye”, referring to the book of Exodus that says that the punishment should fit the crime, which, ironically, is condemned in later doctrines. Beyond the eye for an eye mentality is the belief that society has a moral obligation to protect its citizens, and that the only way to truly protect citizens is to execute the convicted murderer. The anti-death penalty argument is more complicated, with some believing that not even the worst criminal should receive the death penalty and others believing the judicial system only needs reform to minimize the wrongful or discriminatory executions. Advocates who oppose the death penalty often argue that it strips the person of their fundamental right to life, which is inhumane. Though many supporters of the death penalty believe the person forfeited that right when they committed murder, those who oppose the death penalty believe life is a fundamental human right.
Though most of the country may still support the death penalty, the argument for ending capital punishment is extremely compelling after examining the flaws in the American justice system, inefficient costs to the taxpayer, and cruelty of the moral argument. The death penalty threatens the moral code of humankind by eroding the criminal justice system and seizing the fundamental right to life, all while taxing the American people for an inhumane cause.
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “Race and the Death Penalty”.
Amnesty International. “The Death Penalty and Deterrence”.
Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). “The Death Penalty”. https://eji.org/issues/death-penalty/
Equal Justice USA (EJ USA). https://ejusa.org/resource/wasteful-inefficient/
Witness to Innocence. “About Innocence”. https://www.witnesstoinnocence.org/innocence
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