The Morality of the Death Penalty

From Balkinization:

There seems little doubt– to me at least– that the death penalty, if applied consistently and predictably enough (so that there is a real chance that it would be applied to a potential criminal defendant) will deter all sorts of crimes. It will deter murder. It will deter embezzlement. It will deter jaywalking. The fact that various economic studies (as noted in this NYT article) suggest this correlation should hardly startle anyone. People don’t like to die, even if the death is painless, and informing people that there is a credible chance that they will die at the hands of the state if they perform a certain activity, all other things being equal, is likely to reduce the level of that activity.

The deterrence argument isn’t convincing to Jack Balkin. He’s not completely against the death penalty (in spite of his initial sarcasm), but he is instead in favor of severe restrictions. His reasonings for restrictions are almost purely moral. But, I find the moral arguments (while accurate) totally unworkable politically. Killing a killer just doesn’t strike most Americans as “wrong”.

My argument against the death penalty is more practical. In the end, we can’t ever be 100% sure that the accused ACTUALLY did it. We can know beyond a “reasonable doubt,” we can have truckloads of evidence, we can have witnesses coming out of our ears, but none of that is unequivocal. It is fundamentally impossible to prove something like that with complete accuracy. And that means that if you have the death penalty, no matter how thorough your justice department is, you WILL periodically kill innocent people. Period. It is inescapable.

And that reason alone demands that we abolish the practice. Hey, if someone killed someone I love, I’d want to personally tear their throats out with my bare hands. But, that isn’t the point. It’s irrelevant. What is relevant, is that our country cannot be in the business of killing the innocent, no matter how accidental that killing may be.


8 responses to “The Morality of the Death Penalty

  1. Obviously mistakes have been made. Most of the killing of the innocent happens because of sloppy investigations and convictions by an inept, ignorant, lazy, incompetent, stupid group of police, lawyers and judges. It is amazing that we put up with it. No one ought to be executed unless the crime can be proven beyond any doubt. Heresay, circumstantial evidence and someone’s wish to get the case out of their inbox is not enough.

  2. Great post – innocence is one of the main problems with the death penalty.

    For instance, a Northwestern University study shows that as many as thirty nine people have been executed in the USA in the face of extreme doubt about their guilt.

    Since 1973, there have been 130 exonerations – ie 130 death row prisoners have been released because of innocence. There have been 1,136 executions since 1976. That’s one exoneration for every eight executions. Not good!

    When averaging the murder rates in all states with the death penalty versus those without it, death penalty states have murder rates 42% higher than non-death penalty states. So it’s not a deterrent, it’s opposite.

    And I’m not even going to go into the morality of a state strapping someone to a gurney and poisoning them with drugs that cause so much pain that in some parts of the USA it is illegal to use the same drugs for animal euthanasia. Then of course there’s the condemned family, who are just as innocent as the victim’s family. And the millions of dollars (mostly in pre-conviction costs) of taxpayer money used to commit executions.

  3. Thanks for the reply Josh. You’re right, the morality of strapping someone down and feeding them poison is “sketchy” at best.

    As for the deterrence (or lack there of) argument, Mexico is now toying with the idea of reinstating the death penalty as a deterrent. They should heed the lessons learned here. (I don’t know what the “simple” solution to Mexico’s wildly high murder rate would be, but it isn’t execution).

  4. i strongly believe that the death penalty sould be abolish cause the state show not have the right to take the life of another and it is also going against the commandment that saus do not kill………………….
    remrmber there are more tan one ways to hang a dog without putting a rope arround their necks…………….

  5. Maintaining the stance that something should not be done because innocents could possibly be executed is not a good enough reason to me.

    Say an innocent man is involved in a car crash with a government vehicle, an innocent man is killed by the mistake of the government, however no one would argue against the use of government transport or trucks…

    I strongly feel that pointing out the fact that there is a potential for a innocent to be killed, while its a horrible truth, can be applied to anything.
    I feel that there no needs to be a different argument made against the death penalty before people begin to change their minds. And I’m not talking about the constitution, since when did the U.S. government become the standard for universal law. Im talking about the overall morality of the Death Penalty i could care less about some ones interpretation of the constitution, to me that is irrelevant and conceivably has no definitive answer as you will never convince one side of the interpretation of the others viewpoint.

    The rates of and numbers of blacks, whites, and purples matters not to me. That seems to point towards a flaw in our judicial system not in the morality of the Death Penalty.

  6. King, the argument is precisely one of the practicality of the death penalty as opposed to its morality in the ideal case. It is one thing to say that if we could guarantee that the person to be executed was indeed guilty of murder (or something equivalent) then it may or may not be moral to do so. But we’ll never know that for sure. So then the question ceases to be about the death penalty proper and instead about the morality of risking the government sanctioned murder of innocent people we only THINK did the crime.

    And I’ll also need to dissagree with you on your equating the crashing of a government vehicle with the intentional killing of a person. The driver of the government vehicle didn’t INTEND to kill someone with it, nor did the government INTEND to kill someone with it. In stark contrast, when we set someone up for execution, the government FULLY intends to kill them. Your analogy would wash away any difference between murder and accidents.

  7. I also strongly dissagree about executing death penalty wherever in the world it is. Because in doing such thing, you also show (i mean you were likely agree to kill person innocent or sinful)that killing is a good thing depend on the situation. but it is not. Even that person is sinful they have their right to live because god gave them the gift of life. Its just that they commit sin intentionally or accidentally. Inspite of this all WE DESERVE 2nd CHANCES. If God can Forgive and forget, theres no reason of not doing same thing or “WHY WE CANT”? In realizing things on your own YOU HAVE to PUT YOUR FEET on TO THEIRS.

  8. HOPE you understand my point…….

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