By Cameron M. Bray ’16
Capital punishment has to be one of mankind’s oldest institutions, dating back to the earliest civilizations thousands of years ago.
The death penalty not only violates basic human dignity, but it also fails to deter crime.
Moreover, the death penalty is impossible to administer humanely and, as recent exonerations based on DNA evidence show, it poses the tremendous risk that innocent prisoners will suffer the penalty.
In other words, the penalty is neither practical nor ethical.
The rest of the industrialized Western world largely agrees with this basic fact. When will the United States abandon this archaic practice?
The ancient Hebrews practiced it somewhat; the Torah prescribed the death penalty for an extensive list of capital crimes, including murder, magic, violation of the Sabbath, blasphemy and a motley of sexual crimes.
The Greeks and Romans practiced it, too. Our English word “draconian” comes from the incredibly harsh Greek code devised by Draco c. 621 BCE.
Draco’s laws were so harsh—punishing death for almost all criminal offenses—that they were said to be written in blood.
I mention this to say that the idea to abolish the death penalty is a fairly radical one and a fairly recent one, defying centuries worth of thought.
In fact, support for the death penalty in the United States is at a surprising low, with only 60 percent of Americans supporting it, according to a 2013 Gallup poll.
Since 1994, when support for the death penalty peaked at 80 percent, according to a 1994 Gallup poll, support has dropped 20 percent.
A June Washington Post/ABC News poll found that, given the choice between two punishments for murder, 42 percent preferred the death penalty and 52 percent favored life imprisonment without parole.
Clearly, death penalty support has waned in recent years.
First, let’s address the most common argument by death penalty proponents: The death penalty deters crime.
This thought might seem true at first, but numerous researchers and academic studies have found otherwise.
One study, referenced in a column by the Washington Post, compared the homicides rates of Hong Kong, where capital punishment was abolished in 1993, with those of Singapore, where it is mandatory for murder and other crimes. The Columbia Law School researchers, led by Professor Jeffrey Fagan, found staggering similarities in the homicides rates and failed to find a deterrent effect.
A similar study by John J. Donohue and Justin Wolfers, published by Stanford Law Review, also failed to find a deterrent effect after comparing the amount of violence in U.S. states with and without the death penalty.
Another professor, Daniel Nagin of Carnegie Mellon University, offered the best explanation as to why the death penalty does not deter crime.
“It’s the certainty of apprehension that’s been demonstrated consistently to be an effective deterrent, not the severity of the ensuing consequences,” Nagin said in a 2012 report on capital punishment.
In addition, the death penalty freqently violates the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.
For example, the state of Arizona gruesomely executed Joseph R. Wood III on July 25, making it the third botched execution of this year. It took Wood nearly two hours die, gasping and snorting, as his lawyer pleaded with the judge to suspend the execution.
This is just one of numerous examples of the penalty going awry. With the death penalty, there is the inescapable possibility of error. Numerous individuals over the years have been erroneously sentenced to death.
Unlike any other punishment, the death penalty is irreversible, and a person cannot be exonerated if he is dead.
In fact, the non-profit organization Innocence Project has helped exonerate 321 wrongfully convicted persons through the use of DNA testing since its founding 1992. According to its website, 18 of these “felons” spent time on death row.
In dealing with matters of life and death, we cannot allow the possibility of error. Thus it becomes clear: We must axe the death penalty.