Opinion - The 96-percent American Death Penalty

By Dan Schmitt | November 14, 2015 |

During the early European Middle Ages, sometimes referred to as the Dark Ages, justice was often administered via trial by ordeal. Someone accused of a capital crime might be forced to reach down and grab a stone sitting at the bottom of a large vat of boiling water. The arm would then be wrapped in cloth, and in three days examined. If the arm showed no signs of burns, the accused was pronounced innocent. A blistered arm meant the accused was guilty of the crime and in short order put to death. The medieval mind believed that a truly innocent person would be saved by divine intervention.

I can’t imagine anyone today believing trial by ordeal a just, rational system for discovering guilt or innocence, save perhaps Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson. The death penalty, however, is still used in 37 countries including the United States. That puts us in the company of such liberty-loving, fairness-seeking countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea.

But in fundamental ways, the United States is different. Our guiding star is the Declaration of Independence, especially the sentence about the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Countries like North Korea don’t pretend to care about those fundamental rights. And our Constitution and legal system establish very high standards for finding guilt - “no other logical explanation can be derived from the facts except that the defendant committed the crime.”

The two main defenses put forth for retaining the death penalty are that it deters others from committing murder, and it brings closure for the loved ones of murder victims.

But does capital punishment actually do what many people believe? Research suggests that it doesn’t.

Information on death penalty deterrence, put out by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), shows that from 1991 through 2013 the murder rates in death penalty states were consistently higher than in non-death penalty states.

The issue of “closure” is more difficult to qualify and quantify. A 2014 research project done by professors at the University of Minnesota and the University of Texas suggests that the death penalty doesn’t necessarily bring closure to victims’ families. Researchers conducted personal interviews with murder victims’ families in Minnesota, a non-death penalty state, and in Texas, a death penalty state. Family members of murder victims in Minnesota showed greater physical, psychological, and behavior health than those in Texas. They also showed higher levels of satisfaction with the criminal justice system.

When pondering whether the death penalty is a moral and ethical form of punishment, deterrence and closure are only two considerations. Our justice system is certainly fairer that the medieval trial by ordeal, but it is far from infallible. According to an April 2014 Newsweek’s article, since 1973, 144 prisoners on death role in U.S. prisons have been exonerated. That’s one in 25 (four-percent) death row inmates found innocent before being executed. The DPIC has published a list of 10 inmates executed but possibly innocent. According to the center, at least 39 executions have been carried out since 1976 in the U.S. in the face of evidence of innocence or serious doubt about guilt.

The last execution of a California death row inmate occurred in 2006. Since then, various legal challenges have stopped the executions of the 747 inmates currently on death row. Now that California prison officials have unveiled a new lethal injection method that uses only one drug to execute inmates, many supporters of capital punishment hope executions will, once again, occur. Let’s hope it doesn’t. Let’s hope that more reasoned minds prevail.

With most human activities, a success rate of 96-percent would be considered exemplary. But, when we’re talking about executing people for crimes they didn’t commit, that success rate becomes a terrible human tragedy. It’s not a matter of “My Bad” like with most human errors. Perhaps no symbol better represents those inalienable rights Jefferson so eloquently lays out in the Declaration of Independence than Lady Liberty standing proudly in New York Harbor lofting her torch towards the heavens. Every time someone is wrongfully convicted of a capital offense and ends up on death row, that torch becomes a bit dimmer.

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Steve L said...

Obviously, Mr. Schmitt has never had a loved one murdered by a crack head low-life turd with no respect for human life.

How much money does it cost to house a serial killer for 40 years?

With 11 executions spread over 27 years, on a per execution basis, California and federal taxpayers have paid more than $250 million for each execution. It costs approximately $90,000 more a year to house an inmate on death row, than in the general prison population or $57.5 million annually. - per Amnesty International.

$90,000 x 40 years = $3,600,000 per inmate just for death row costs v general prison population costs.

Screw deterence, let's start using our tax money more wisely.

Just a different opinion. I know I'll get roasted, but I've dealt with these families. They have my compassion.

Clarke Farms Neighbor said...

The writer insinuates that the founders of the Declaration of Independence were agents against capital punishment. This just isn't so. Every one of the original 13 colonies and subsequent states all allowed for capital punishment for selected offenses, many for crimes much less heinous than murder. Those sentences were carried out mostly in much more gruesome style than today's gas chamber.

Exposing prisoners to 23 hours a day alone in an 8'x 10' cell with essentially no exposure or interaction with others for 40 years would seem to be more "cruel and unusual" than to have them put to death after a reasonable time for the appeal process to run its course.

But that's just my opinion.

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