Capital punishment is defined as the legal infliction of death as a punishment, or the death penalty. The United States is one of a decreasing number of countries who still practice capital punishment, using methods such as lethal injection, electrocution, gas chamber, hanging, and firing squad. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the first known execution in the United States was carried out in 1608. During the Revolutionary War, capital punishment was widely accepted. After war 11 colonies wrote new constitutions which all authorized capital punishment. In 1790, the First Congress enacted legislation that implemented capital punishment for the crimes of robbery, rape, murder, and forgery of public securities. During the nineteenth century there were 1,391 documented executions. The death penalty continued as an acceptable practice in the United States until 1967 when a national moratorium was enacted while the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of the death penalty. In 1976 new death penalty laws in Georgia, Florida, and Texas were upheld by the Supreme Court and the moratorium was thereby lifted. Currently, there are currently over 3200 people awaiting execution in the 34 states that still practice capital punishment. However, the controversy over the death penalty still continues.
One of the most common arguments presented by proponents of the death penalty is that it deters crime and therefore saves lives. This argument is based on studies conducted by economists who compare the number of executions in different jurisdictions with homicide rates over time (Liptak). The results of these studies indicate that murder rates tend to fall as execution rates rise. Based on these studies, economists predict that for each inmate executed, 3 to 18 lives are saved. According to Liptak, economists believe this is simple economic theory: as the cost of an activity rises, the frequency of the activity will decrease. However, legal scholars doubt whether potential murderers are thinking rationally enough to consider the cost of their actions. Dr. Jeffrey Fagan of Columbia University, a national expert on deterrence, concluded that "there is no credible evidence that the death penalty deters murder more than a sentence of life without parole" adding on the disparities of the results of deterrent studies, "When hypothesized deterrent effects of executions are so unstable over time, one must reject a hypothesis of deterrence" (Dieter, 4).
As Liptak explains, the chances of being caught, convicted, sentenced to death, and executed are very remote as only about 1 in 300 homicides results in execution. In addition, statistics do not support the idea that the death penalty results in fewer murders. In Canada, for example, which has not executed anyone since 1962, the murder rate has been parallel to that of the United States. Dieter (4) offers more compelling evidence that the death penalty does not deter homicide. According to Dieter (4), states that do not use the death penalty have consistently lower murder rates than states that do use the death penalty. Dieter (4) explains further that about 80% of the executions occur in the South which has had the highest murder rate of the four geographical regions. Conversely, the Northeast has the lowest murder rate, but performed less that 1% of the executions in the United States. Quoting John J. Donohue of Yale Law School and Justin Wolfors of the University of Pennsylvania, Dieter (4) writes, "Our estimates suggest not just a 'reasonable doubt' about whether there is any deterrent effect of the death penalty, but profound uncertainty."
A second, and perhaps more compelling, argument offered by death penalty supporters is that it provides closure and justice for the murder victims' families. According to Rakha, "prosecuting attorneys, politicians, and journalists commonly refer to how executions allow family members to 'move on' from their pain, providing a sense of relief that justice was finally served." However, this is not what family members usually experience. Between 1978 and 1993 Donald McCartin was a judge in the Superior Court of Orange County, California. During that time he presided over 10 murder cases in which he sentenced the convicted men to die. He became known as the "hanging judge of Orange County," a distinction he admits he accepted with pride (McCartin). However, as of the time of the writing of his op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times, not one of those convicted had been executed. He relates the particular case of Rodney James Alcala, who was sentenced to death in 1979 for kidnapping and killing a 12-year-old girl. McCartin explains that "had I known then what I know now, I would have sentenced Alcala to life in prison without the possibility of parole." What he knows now is that more than 30 years later, rather than closure and justice, the victim's family has endured appeals and writs and retrials. McCartin adds that asking victims' families to endure years of being dragged through the courts in pursuit of the ultimate punishment is a cruel lie and urges that we stop perpetuating this lie to victims' families.
Even if the executions were carried out in a timely manner, Rakha explains that this would still not provide closure for victims' families. Rakha quotes Stanford University psychiatrist David Spiegel, "witnessing executions not only fails to provide closure but also often causes symptoms of acute stress." Rakha adds that closure is achieved only through grief work which includes the families acknowledging and bearing their loss through the use of counseling, victim assistance programs, and support networks.
The most compelling testimony against the idea that the death penalty provides closure and justice comes from the family members of victims. The Baltimore Sun reports that in many states the families of victims are arguing for the end of capital punishment. In Connecticut, for example, 76 family members of murder victims wrote to the state legislature urging them to repeal the death penalty, saying it is "a false promise that goes unfulfilled. And as the state hangs on to this broken system, it wastes millions of dollars that could go toward much-needed victims' services." In Illinois, Jennifer Bishop and Kathleen Bishop Becker, the family members of three murder victims wrote, "The offender becomes a household name and the victim is forgotten. We are denied legal finality. The state ends up spending millions, which are then not available to help victims or family members."
In fact, the cost of executing prisoners is one of the strongest arguments against the death penalty. The Death Penalty Information Center provides the following facts on the costs of executions:
The California death penalty system costs taxpayers $114 million per year beyond the costs of keeping convicts locked up for life. Taxpayers have paid more than $250 million for each of the state's executions.
In Kansas, the costs of capital cases are 70% more expensive than comparable non-capital cases, including the costs of incarceration.
In Maryland, an average death penalty case resulting in a death sentence costs approximately $3 million. The eventual costs to Maryland taxpayers for cases pursued in 1978-1999 will be $186 million. Five executions have resulted.
The most comprehensive study in the country found that the death penalty costs North Carolina $2.16 million per execution over the costs of sentencing murderers to life imprisonment. The majority of costs occur at the trial level.
Enforcing the death penalty costs Florida $51 million a year above what it would cost to punish all first-degree murders with life in prison without parole. Based on the 44 executions Florida had carried out since 1976 that amounts to a cost of $24 million for each execution.
In Texas, a death penalty case costs an average of $2.3 million, about three times the cost of imprisoning someone in a single cell at the highest security level for 40 years.
If, as has been argued in this paper, the death penalty does not deter crime and it does not provide closure and justice for victims' families, there are much better uses for this money. For example, in Texas, a state with the third highest death row population, a budget crisis is forcing huge cuts in education. Commuting all of the death sentences to life without parole would provide additional funds for education, victims' services, or other ways to prevent crime. In California, another state with budget concerns and the state with the largest death row population, Judge McCartin urges "let's use the hundreds of millions of dollars we'll save to protect some of those essential services now threatened with death."
In addition to the financial cost of the death penalty, it has been argued that it is administered unfairly. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 12.3% of the population is African-American, yet the Death Penalty Information Center reports that 35% of the defendants executed since 1976 and 41% of the inmates currently on death row are African-American. The Death Penalty Information Center presents the following studies regarding race:
In 96% of the states where there have been reviews of race and the death penalty, there was a pattern of either race-of-victim, or race-of-defendant discrimination,…