This article is the second of a two-part series on PolicyMic examining the role of the death penalty in the modern world.
In Part One of this article, I examined the reasons to support the institution of capital punishment. In this part, I will go through the major counterclaims against the death penalty. By doing so, I will separate fact from fiction and further strengthen the case for capital punishment.
One of the most frequently used counterclaims against capital punishment is the exorbitant cost put on society. It is true that the cost of putting someone to death in the United States is three times the cost of keeping someone in jail for life. However, this form of tunnel-vision reasoning becomes immediately threatened when placed in the broader context of American policy. The U.S. has never imposed a price ceiling when the goal is to protect civil society. Since World War II, the U.S. has been known for its massive military complex spending more on military expenditures than the next several dozen combined. The military expenditure budget further supports an extrajudicial system of targeted killings and assassinations, a system estimated to cost $5 million for a done-predator and $500,000 for every missile strike. I am not expressing my support for these expenditures but simply showing the existence of costlier institutions — policies that arguably make our society less safe than capital punishment.
The extravagant cost of capital punishment does no more than highlight the evident systematic failure of our own penal system. Such costs can greatly be reduced by simply limiting the appeals process and shortening the duration of death row. Currently, the average time spent on death row is 10 years with some persons spending over 25 years before a final ruling.
The second but more important counterclaim deals with cases of exoneration. In other words, cases in which innocent individuals are wrongly accused and sentenced to imprisonment or death such as in the case of the Memphis Three. Just as with any public policy, we must add important defensive caveats which would not affect the timely execution of the policy. To avoid cases of exoneration, capital punishment must only be used in cases "beyond all doubt" of certainty. With the advent of DNA cross-linking technologies, and high quality surveillance systems, such cases of near-certain conviction do exist. Examples include cases of massacres, terrorism, and public displays of killing.
The argument that this institution should be abolished, for fear of abuse, should not stand on merit. By applying the same logic to other examples, would it be rational to drive an automobile if thousands are killed every year? Or is it sensible to grant jobs when there'’s the potential for sexual harassment, labor, scandals, or race discrimination? Rather, we must promote the frequency of an overall just institution, to encourage reform, efficiency, and the effectiveness of its deterrent effect.
The the last resort of all adherent abolitionists rests on the morality claim. This has been the ultimate question I have wrestled with personally as well as with my closest civil-libertarian colleagues. Do two wrongs make a right? Is the killing of a human ever justified?
Upon first glance, it appears to be a valid reason in the courts of law under justifiable homicide. However, without the death penalty another systematic failure appears representing a crude form of survival-of-the-fittest tactics. As our laws stand, society endorses the right of an individual to protect his or her life to the extent of justifiable homicide. Yet, politicians and intellectual liberals will not endorse retribution by capital punishment. Nor would non-aggressors endorse putting to death the murderer who killed the man failing to defend his life. In essence, our penal system does not provide complete justice to slain victims. Rather, our judicial system places the burden on the individual to defend one’s life without the guarantee of upholding the victim’s right to life or giving complete retribution to the victim’s family.
Most Americans, and libertarians for that matter, believe that the punishment should fit the crime, i.e. that punishment should be proportional to the crime involved. The theoretical justification for this is that an aggressor loses his rights to the extent that he has violated the rights of another human being. In my view, the murderer loses precisely the right of which he has deprived another human being: the right to have one's life preserved from the violence of another person. The murderer therefore deserves to be killed in return.
Moreover, there are many Americans that believe capital punishment to be within the realm of morality. But they are still opposed to the death penalty for the mere fact that it is adjudicated by the state or federal government. I’d like to turn the table on these types of abolitionists, and ask “Is it morally justified to sentence an individual to life imprisonment?” What about in cases where the criminal prefers death over life, or even refuses to eat on a daily basis? Surely, the state has no more of a claim to a prisoner's body being sentenced to life imprisonment as opposed to capital punishment?
In all cases, it should be the victim — not "society"— who should bring charges and decide on whether or not to exact punishment. "Society" has no right and therefore no say in the matter. To emphasize the opinion of Murray Rothbard, “So long as it continues to do so, it (society) should act as nothing more and nothing less than an agent for guarding and enforcing the rights of each person — in this case, of the victim.”
In order to absolve the state from an unpredictable nature when dealing with the death penalty, I support Rothbard’s solution: The use of an individual’s will. “The deceased can instruct heirs, courts, and any other interested parties on how he would wish a murderer of his to be treated. In that case, pacifists, liberal intellectuals, et al. can leave clauses in their wills instructing law enforcement authorities not to kill, or even not to press charges against a criminal in the event of their murder; and the authorities would be required to obey.”To conclude part 2 and this series, I focused on arguments against capital punishment, namely cost, accidental conviction, morality, and the role of the state. The examination of all counterarguments shows that capital punishment has not been used in an efficient manner due to systematic failure in our penal system. Furthermore, my examination of morality shows that capital punishment is not only a just institution, but that in many cases, the state is morally required to obey the will of an individual. In a free world, the will of an individual may then be able to reserve the necessary use of capital punishment.