Why I Switched My Position on the Death Penalty

Arkansas executed two murderers on Monday, April 25, the first double execution in 17 years. In fact, Arkansas planned to execute eight inmates in 10 days since its lethal injection supply expires on April 30. The state has not executed anyone in 12 years.

The chain of events in the state dubbed The Land of Opportunity has reignited the capital punishment debate. I used to be for the death penalty, but after a long debate, I switched my position.

I realized I was pro-capital punishment because I never thought about why. Furthermore, I never bothered to understand why people are against the death penalty. It seemed simple: Murderers deserve to die rather than waste taxpayer dollars spending the rest of their lives in prison.

It’s not that simple.

Eye for an eye

One of the most popular arguments for the death penalty is the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” argument. Although the reference is biblical, not all proponents of this logic are necessarily religious. If you take a person’s life, your life shall be taken too.

There is one major problem with this argument: consistency.

First, the “eye for an eye” logic only pertains to murder. Very few people who use this argument apply it to other crimes. We don’t steal from thieves. We don’t beat domestic violence offenders. We don’t rape rapists. The latter two would be considered cruel and unusual punishment. With that said, why is murder the exception? Not very consistent.

Second, only some murder convictions are worthy of the death penalty, not all. And what factors lead to capital punishment vary from state to state, with some having as many as 20 and others having as few as seven. Common factors include robbery-murder, murder-rape and murder of an on-duty police officer.

According to the law, the person who only murdered your child is not eligible for the death penalty. If the murderer were to have raped the child first or stolen their wallet, well, that’s different. The severity of the tragedy of a lost life is based on stolen items, profession or rape. According to the factors leading to capital punishment, some murders are less tragic than others. Those factors are set arbitrarily state by state.

Deterrence

Considering dying is the ultimate punishment, it would seem logical to conclude that the death penalty would prevent people from murdering others. Prison is no five-star hotel, but some people may be willing to kill if that is the harshest punishment they receive.

Unfortunately, studies have proven that capital punishment does not deter heinous crimes.

In a research paper title Prison Conditions, Capital Punishment, and Deterrence, researchers found that prison conditions have a greater impact on criminal behavior than the death penalty.

“Using state-level panel data covering the period 1950–90, we demonstrate that the death rate among prisoners (the best available proxy for prison conditions) is negatively correlated with crime rates, consistent with deterrence. This finding is shown to be quite robust. In contrast, there is little systematic evidence that the execution rate influences crime rates in this time period.”

The only problem with this study is that it advocates for prisons with horrible conditions, which is not consistent with a progressive, democratic society.

A 1999 study titled Capital Punishment and Deterrence: Examining the Effect of Executions on Murder in Texas looked into the efficacy of the death penalty in Texas, which kills more people than any other state. The conclusion: “…this study confirmed the results of previous ones that failed to find any evidence of deterrence resulting from capital punishment.”

As mentioned above, the murder of a cop is eligible for the death penalty. One study, Murder, Capital Punishment, and Deterrence: A Review of the Evidence and an Examination of Police Killings, researched the deterrence factor of capital punishment and police killings. The research found “…no evidence that police are afforded an added measure of protection against death by capital punishment.”

In 1975, Isaac Ehrlich published a study that supports the deterrence factor, The Deterrence Effect of Capital Punishment: A Question of Life and Death. However, this study was immediately criticized in The Yale Law Journal “by explaining how Ehrlich’s analysis produces results which seem consistent with the deterrence hypothesis when in fact they are not.”

Cost effectiveness

Many supporters of the death penalty claim that killing inmates is cheaper than housing them in prisons, relieving taxpayers of a lot of money.

Not so.

In one study conducted by the state of Kansas’s Audit of the Department of Corrections, the Sunflower State found that death penalty cases cost about 70 percent more than those that don’t seek the death penalty. More specifically, the median cost of cases imposing a death sentence was $1.2 million, compared with $740,000 for non-death penalty cases, 85 percent of which the state bears the cost…and that’s before the murderer goes to prison. Appellate cases for capital punishment was more than 20 times that of non-death penalty cases.

It’s not just the state of Kansas. A study titled The Budgetary Repercussions of Capital Convictions reveals that between 1982 and 1997, the extra cost of capital trials was $1.6 billion.

A 2012 study by the Vera Institute of Justice compiled prison cost stats from 40 participating states, with the lowest average annual cost per inmate in Kentucky ($14,603) and the highest in New York ($60,076). The average annual cost per inmate across all states is $31,286.

Therefore, a 50-year sentence would cost taxpayers approximately $1.5 million, or just slightly more than the cost of a death penalty trial before prison. Accounting for the lengthy appeals and the cost of the execution itself, imprisonment is cheaper than pursuing the death penalty.

So why not send them straight to the chair upon conviction?

To start, that is not how due process works in the United States. The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment both address that no citizen shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law. Part of that process is the right to appeal.

Second, depriving the right to appeal can lead to the murder of an innocent person. In 2001, the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law School analyzed the cases of 86 death row exonerees. Without due process, that’s already nearly 100 innocent people killed just so that we can save taxpayers money.

Within those cases, the following factors led to wrongful convictions:

    • Eyewitness error
    • Snitch
    • Government misconduct
    • False confession
    • Junk science
    • Other (hearsay, questionable circumstantial evidence, etc.)

That’s why we must allow a lengthy and costly due process for all convictions, including capital murder.

Capital punishment is illogical

When accounting for the more popular arguments supporting the death penalty, the logic is flawed at best and often times flat-out wrong. The moral issue is inconsistent, capital punishment does not prevent future murders and it costs taxpayers more.

A common response to anti-death penalty rhetoric goes something like this: “If someone you loved was murdered, you might change your mind again.” I’ll concede to the possibility of that being true. But the 180 turn on my stance was a purely emotional response, not logical.

When trying to solve any problem, especially one that involves taking the life of a human being, we need to remove ourselves emotionally. Emotional responses are very rarely logical ones. The enormous stack of research reveals that the only logical response to the death penalty is to abandon it.

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