Why the Death Penalty Isn't the Problem

In 1991, Troy Davis was convicted of murdering an off-duty police officer and sentenced to death by the state of Georgia. In the years following, many of the witnesses whose testimony led to the conviction of Mr. Davis recanted their version of events. Davis' case moved through the appellate court system throughout the past 20 years until he was executed by the state of Georgia Wednesday evening.

A public outcry, based on the recantations, arose over the execution of Davis by those who seek to abolish the death penalty. PolicyMic pundit Evan Mascagni recently highlighted a few of their arguments, including: (1) capital punishment costs more than life imprisonment; (2) our enemies use capital punishment, while our allies have abolished it; (3) capital punishment disproportionately affects black convicts. Other abolitionists argue that many innocent people have been killed as a result of it. Mascagni concludes: "I have a hard time understanding why the majority of Americans still support the death penalty. Maybe they are simply uneducated about the real effects of this cruel and barbaric form of punishment (or maybe they have a fetish for vengeance)."

I don't think Mascagni is doing its proponents’ arguments justice, nor do I find his arguments against the death penalty convincing. To see why, consider this: on the same day, white supremacist Lawrence Russell Brewer was executed by Texas. Brewer was convicted in the infamous dragging case, in which James Byrd, a black man from East Texas, was tied to the bumper of a truck by Brewer and two friends, and dragged for 3 miles. At the end, what was left of Byrd's shredded remains was dumped between a black church and a nearby cemetery. As far as I know, there was no public outcry by death penalty abolitionists over Brewer’s execution. That may be because many of the criticisms that abolitionists levy against the death penalty are not about the death penalty itself, but the moral difficulties involved in punishment and the justice system in general, which can be further examined during a masters of social work.  

But let us consider Mascagni’s arguments anyway. First, the death penalty is more expensive than life imprisonment without parole, not because of the cost of lethal injection, but because their appeals are prioritized in the appellate system. In my view, this counts in favor of capital punishment — the justice system works harder in capital punishment cases than elsewhere. But even if it did not, we should not decide what constitutes a just punishment based on how expensive the punishment is alone.

Second, while many other nations have banned capital punishment, it does not mean we should do the same. Morality is about more than going along with the crowd.

Third, it is true that death row inmates are disproportionately black and that many convicts, in the past, have been proven innocent. But is this a problem with the form of punishment, or the justice system’s effectiveness at convicting guilty parties? Black Americans are not just overrepresented as death row inmates. They are overrepresented in the entire criminal justice system. Is not it also grossly unjust for innocent convicts to be sentenced to be confined to a cell for life and, in many cases, beaten and raped on a regular basis? Is this not just as cruel and unusual as a lethal injection? 

The imperfections in the criminal justice system raise serious questions about the permissibility of punishment, but most abolitionists are not arguing for eliminating the justice system altogether. Instead, we should take these criticisms seriously and work to improve the system as best we can. When new evidence arises, we should reexamine it along with the other facts of the case and avoid making hasty decisions. Other reforms should be on the table as well. However, we should recognize that the likelihood that the justice system will be perfect is quite small. This means that the injustice of an innocent person being convicted won’t go away any time soon. 

At least until Minority Report becomes reality.

Photo Credit: World Coalition Against the Death Penalty