The recent botching of the lethal injection administered in Oklahoma to the convicted murderer and rapist, Clayton Lockett, has once again catapulted the issue of capital punishment and its morality to the forefront of debate in the US. Lockett took a full two hours to perish, a fate surely worse than the inhumane methods of hanging and beheading that have long been abandoned. Having felt that we were far past such debate here in the UK, I was surprised to learn through conversation with various people that I regard to be forward thinking were considerably more pro-death penalty than I would have thought. With various senior UKIP members calling for a reintroduction of this detestable method of “justice”, I have felt the need to state why this debate should remain closed.
The arguments in favour are almost invariably as follows:
‘Do the most severe offenders deserve mercy?’
‘There are people beyond rehabilitation’
‘It’s far cheaper and easier to kill someone than to keep them imprisoned for life’
‘It deters others from committing serious crimes’
Whilst these arguments may seem perfectly rational, there is a recurring trend of retribution within such reasoning. Whilst revenge is a considerably more seductive notion than rationality to those who have been wronged, an equitable justice system must have a higher precedent then vengeance and vitriol.
An entirely irreversible judgement in an imperfect system of judgement reveals the illogicality behind pro-capital punishment arguments. It is, of course, impossible to create a judicial system that is above the influence of factors such as ethnicity, sex, class and prestige. Data taken from the US proves this beyond reasonable doubt – a 2007 study published by Yale University demonstrated that an African American is three times more likely to receive the death penalty than a white defendant in cases in which the victim is white, highlighting the extent to which racial factors can effect the jury’s decision. Furthermore, since 1976, there have been a total of 1,386 executions in the US, 14 of which have been the execution of women, contributing just 2% of all death penalty cases. A greatly disproportionate figure, considering women account for 10% of murder arrests annually. This data demonstrates that a black man is around 15 times more likely to be executed for the murder of a white man than a white woman who commits the same crime. This is before you take into consideration the influence of highly professional lawyers, the effect of someone presenting themselves well, and other class and regional factors.
(fig 1, source- death penalty information centre)
Whilst potentially the most persuasive argument, the deterrent effects of capital punishment are also greatly misrepresented. The states in which the penalty is not used have consistently lower rates of homicide (see fig. 1), and a 2008 survey of criminologists revealed that an overwhelming 88% believed it has no deterrent effects. The idea that a person that considers committing a heinous crime would be influenced by the future threat of capital punishment is a fallacy. The rational weighing of opportunity cost is unlikely to penetrate the decision making process of an individual committing such a severe crime.
The financial benefits of killing prisoners is also widely misunderstood.The trials are inherently more costly, with the irreversibility of the punishment creating a far more expensive and time consuming legal procedure; for example, in Kansas the defense costs of a case in which the death penalty is a possibility costs on average four times as much as a case in which the penalty is not sought. The Death Penalty Information Centre estimates the cost of a trial that includes the potential for execution in Texas to be $2.3 million, around three times the cost of imprisoning an individual in the highest security prison for 40 years. With some simple statistics, the notion of financial merit through execution can be exposed as, in reality, a counter argument to the use of the death penalty.
Advocating the death penalty demonstrates a distinct lack of faith in the prison system and a disparaging interpretation of human nature. Whilst it is ludicrous to argue the case that every prisoner can be lead to remorse and genuinely see the error of their ways, it is a remarkable piece of closed minded naivety to presume that any human being is immune to the circumstantial trappings of crime. There are, undoubtedly, flaws within the system of rehabilitation, but surely this creates argument for the adaptation of a more effective system, as opposed to the human sacrifice of individuals deemed unsuitable for society. This manner of thinking isn’t just an ill-thought method of dealing with criminals, it is a interpretation of criminals that rules out forgiveness or repentance and encourages the idea of dismissal as opposed to trying to understand the wider reasons behind crime. This sets a dangerous precedent for the wider population and can be highly toxic to the social cohesion of society.
Lastly, the most damning indictment of those in favour of the death penalty is the potential for false convictions. Over 130 men have been released from death row in the light of new evidence since 1973, a statistic which should make the staunchest death penalty advocate pause for thought. Regardless of your personal convictions on the nature of justice, those on death row are human beings – and a society that treats criminals like animals for slaughter is not a civilised one. The arguments that appeal to your vengeance are not the same arguments that should apply to a comprehensive justice system. The same ideas of subjectivity and rationality must be applied.
‘To take a life when a life has been lost is revenge, not justice.’ – Desmond Tutu