Last month, Virginia became the last US state to abolish Capital punishment. This is a historic milestone, given that Virginia, which carried out the most executions in American history, is now the first Southern state to abandon the practice. Along with Virginia, 23 states now have banned death penalty, and 11 others have not executed anyone for at least ten years. Until July 2020, the federal government had not executed anyone in 17 years. In the mid-1990s, when support for the death penalty peaked at 80%, some years saw more than 300 Americans condemned to death; since 2015, however, that number has not exceeded 50.
It is not only the frequency of executions that has decreased, it is also the public approval of the death penalty. With a little more half of Americans in favor, its approval is currently the lowest since 1966. Surveys carried out over the past three years show that 60% of Americans, a record high, prefer life in prison to the death penalty, while only 54% consider the death penalty to be “morally acceptable” and only 49% believe it is. ‘it is applied fairly.
With record approval rates and declining state requests, why does the United States remain the only liberal democracy to prosecute judicial executions?
In fact, a Supreme Court ruling from 1972 did to cease capital punishment, condemning it as unconstitutional. But it was restored just four years later, after states formally revised their sentencing laws – updates that haven’t unequal asks who originally caused the suspension. Despite that in decline use, many states continue to allow or even actively use the death penalty, and there has been a recent peak in its federal application. Former President Donald Trump, who expressed strong support for the death penalty during his campaign, authorized 13 executions during the last 6 months of his presidency.
The death penalty has withstood evolving international human rights standards and changing public opinion at the national level and remains a staple of the US justice system. This suggests that while Biden’s anti-death penalty stance may temporarily help stop the use of the death penalty, it is sure to meet resistance if it seeks to abolish it altogether. However, whether moral or practical, the reasons for ending the death penalty are numerous and compelling. America must finally join its international cohort to definitively abolish judicial execution.
Cruel, unusual and unreliable: moral issues
In 2015, a majority among those who support the death penalty said it was morally justified in murder cases, while also readily acknowledging the risk of wrongful convictions and executions. Pleading for the murder of one person in response to the death of another seems like a logical mistake, especially when you consider the very real risk of wrongful convictions. In fact, 185 people were exonerated on death row over the past half century, and there are many case where “solid evidence of innocence” did not emerge until after the execution of the sentenced party. It is neither fair nor prudent to execute these irreversible decisions, especially when the system that makes them is so imperfect.
In addition, the system is deeply biased, mainly along racial lines. People of color make up a disproportionate percentage of total executions since 1976, and represent a majority detainees currently sentenced to death. Black Americans in particular are probably receive death sentences, and those most likely to have them executed. But the racial imbalances do not end there. Despite the fact that only about 50 percent of murder victims are white, 75 percent of cases resulting in a death sentence have white victims. Given this clear and substantial bias in favor of whites in the application of the death penalty, it is perhaps not surprising that there are also racial differences in its support. From 2015, the support-opposition report Death penalty among black Americans was almost exactly the opposite of that for white Americans: 63% of white respondents supported judicial executions, while 57% of blacks opposed. Over 75% of black respondents said white offenders were less likely to be sentenced to death, but only half of all survey participants said racialized minorities were unfairly disadvantaged in applying the death penalty, with white respondents being much less likely to recognize systemic racial bias.
Finally, capital punishment comes with pain, which means that it could constitute cruel and unusual punishment, which is unconstitutional. In recent decades, nearly all U.S. executions have taken place via lethal injection, which is meant to be quick and painless. However, there have been dozens of botched executions by lethal injection, resulting in prolonged and painful death. Even when performed correctly, lethal injection is widely and increasingly considered inhuman. Concerns were raised in 2008 about the probability that prisoners executed in this manner experience significant pain which they are unable to communicate to their torturers, given the particular combination of drugs used. Recent research supports this, suggesting that lethal injection death tends to be a far cry from the quick and painless death many imagine. Instead, evidence from inmate autopsies suggests that dying this way is akin to asphyxia or drowning, which would make the lethal injection agonizing and terrifying, rather than offering a relatively peaceful death.
Ineffective and costly: pragmatic concerns
Capital punishment in the United States is ineffective in reducing crime and incredibly expensive. There are long standing and widespread consensus in the scientific community that the death penalty is an ineffective deterrent for violent crime. A significant number of ordinary people share this belief – including about half of those who supported the death penalty in the 2015 investigation mentioned earlier. This undermines the argument for the death penalty that judicial executions make society safer by setting the example of violent offenders.
In addition, the death penalty costs much more than life without parole – an expense borne by the taxpayer. There is an abundance of additional costs, mostly legal, in death penalty cases. Due to the seriousness of the stakes, death penalty trials are much more complex and can take four times as long as those for whom the prosecution recommends life imprisonment. Capital cases take longer to be judged and are complicated by the need for more rigorous jury selection, thorough gathering of evidence, and consultation with various experts, which is costly. Due to socio-economic disparities in the justice system, most death row inmates cannot to afford their own lawyers and must be represented by a state-appointed lawyer, so that the state pays for both the defense and the prosecution. In most cases where prosecutors seek the death penalty do not actually result in a death sentence, so the high costs of capital trials are often a waste of taxpayer money: extra money is invested in a larger trial. complex and longer which ultimately produces the same result. cheaper trials that aim for a life sentence in the first place. Where criminals are sentenced to death, there are calls following the initial test, which further increases costs. At this point, the majority of death sentences are reversed. And even when the sentences are upheld, little are never actually performed; most death row inmates end up serving a life sentence, although more expensive imprisonment in the death row. Ultimately, this means that in the vast majority of cases, the costs for 1.5 times higher in death penalty cases, while the end result is the same as if a life sentence had been requested and imposed from the start.
If the flawed moral justification, the uncertainty in conviction, and the failure to deter crime were not convincing enough, the high financial costs of capital punishment are the last nail in its proverbial coffin. If death sentences are ultimately a waste of public money, even the most ardent supporters of the practice should have serious doubts. It is also important to ask whether a system that punishes crimes and provides redress to victims of such blatant inequality can really be considered “justice”. I think the answer is clear.
The death penalty must end and the time has come for the Biden administration to take this essential step. The abolition of the death penalty is long overdue. But now, as America struggles to cope with the economic ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic and to cope with the long and painful legacies of racism and lingering societal discrimination, ending this deeply problematic system could represent a small not towards healing.
Characteristic picture: “File: SQ Lethal Injection Room.jpg“of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is in the public domain Going through Wikimedia Commons.
Edited by Selene Coiffard-D’Amico