By CJPC Intern Lily Walter
The debate over the death penalty has long been about morality. Those in favor argue that the punishment must fit the crime, and that the taking of the life deserves the loss of one’s life. Those opposed argue that we cannot be the arbiters of who lives and who dies. The taking of a life, even as punishment, is still murder. However, recent years have seen a move towards arguments based on finances, discriminatory practices, and the issue of innocence, with the method of execution gaining focus as well.
The numbers comparing the costs of capital punishment and life in prison are hazy and can be interpreted in different ways. Nonetheless, multiple states have found capital trial costs are much higher than regular murder trials. Capital cases are required to be tried in front of a jury of 12 people-this makes the process longer and therefore more expensive. Also, there are the additional costs of every appeal the defendants are legally allowed to make. According to a study done by Duke, the death penalty costs North Carolina $2.16 million per execution over the costs of sentencing murderers to life imprisonment. The bulk of these expenses simply come from the trial costs.
Since the 1970s, the deep-seated racism within our criminal justice system has become more apparent. The application of the death penalty in capital murder cases has proved to be discriminatory in its nature. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, juries in some states are three times more likely to hand down a death penalty for a black offender than a white offender. The race of the victim matters as well. A study “in North Carolina found that the odds of receiving a death sentence rose by 3.5 times among those defendants whose victims were white.” Finally, the demographics of the death row population show a racial bias as well. 42% of the inmates are black, although African-Americans only account for 12.5% of the U.S. population.
Recently, the argument about the death penalty has shifted to the way we execute people. The first execution by lethal injection was in 1982, and has become the main method since then. Deemed to be more humane than the gruesome electric chair, defendants are injected with a three-drug combination meant to stop the heart without causing any pain. However, the increased number of botched injections has caused greater scrutiny of lethal injection. Some high-profile failed executions where inmates choked and gasped and took thirty minutes to die were brought to the Supreme Court and heard before them. Opponents of the death penalty argue it is cruel and unusual and thus violates the eighth amendment. As prisons struggle to find new alternative combinations, defendants suffer accordingly. Finally, the issue of innocence is perhaps the most compelling argument opponents of the death penalty can make. Since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976, 164 people on death row have been exonerated, meaning their innocence was proved after new evidence was heard. The Death Penalty Information Center found that “from 2000-2011, there was an average of 5 exonerations per year.” The death of one innocent person seems reason enough to look critically at a process not guaranteed to prove guilt. But the frequency with which innocent people on death row are freed should cause a moral reckoning throughout our entire nation.
In the wake of the reform movement of the 1960s and 1970s, a series of court cases were handed down limiting the death penalty. While there are now laws in place prohibiting the execution of juveniles and the mentally disabled, many inmates who fall into these categories still sit on death row. In North Carolina, about 75% of death row inmates were sentenced under laws that are now considered obsolete. Were they to be tried again today, their sentence would be life in prison. Additionally, many sentences have been commuted (meaning they’ve been decreased to life in prison without parole) because the legal representation of death row clients was deemed constitutionally unfair.
No data exists showing that fewer people commit crimes out of fear of capital punishment. Furthermore, in order to demonstrate the effectiveness of a deterrent, we would expect to see lower crime rates in states allowing for the death penalty. Ideally, a high rate of executions would correlate to a lower number of violent crimes, were it an effective deterrent. The data says the opposite. The South account for 80% of all death row executions, but also has the highest murder rate in the country.
The data is convincing. The death penalty is no longer a practical means of either deterring or punishing people. It costs us as a society, both financially and morally. We are guilty of the state-sanctioned murder of innocent people, and it must end. Arguments about deterring others from murdering, or creating an adequate punishment for a horrible crime are no longer acceptable. We know the truth. It should set us, and the thousands of people on death row, free.