Posted By Eric Ethington (Author) on January 22, 2012
Salt Lake City – I don’t know why, but I find my thoughts lingering on the Death Penalty this morning. There isn’t any particular case troubling me, but I wanted to put some thoughts down on why I cannot justify any rationality for state-killing.
I suppose that each of us has felt the need for revenge at some point, whether it be a personal experience where someone has perpetrated some horror against us or perhaps just the effect of watching a monster on the evening news. Rapists, pedophiles, mass-murderers.. the revulsion each of us feels towards them can easily lead us down the path of wishes for violent retribution.
But no matter what my personal feelings towards these individuals are, I consistently find a single thought stopping me short of supporting the death penalty: What if we’re wrong?
There are times when there is no doubt that a person has committed some horrendous act, but those cases are by far the exception and by no means the rule in any criminal trial. More often, the accused person is faced with evidence such as eye-witnesses, which has been shown to be one of the most unreliable sources of information we could possibly rely on.
There have been over 270 documented cases of DNA evidence proving the innocence of convicts well after their trial has concluded and they have been sentenced to prison, many of those have been people who are sitting on death row based on unreliable evidence. Perhaps even more disturbing, there are at least 15 cases (that we know of) where an inmate has been executed only to later be exonerated and proven innocent.
Those statistic alone are enough for me to oppose the death penalty, but let’s also consider our moral obligations as members of the human race. At what point do we have the right to decide, as a society, that one of our own citizens is no longer worthy of life?
Let me be clear, the list of people I mentioned earlier – the pedophiles, rapists and serial killers – I feel no love for them. In fact, some stories which I read in the papers about these people make my physically ill. But at what point did life-in-prison become such a “soft penalty” in our minds?
I believe that we as a society have the right to remove a person’s freedoms, all of their freedoms, if they cause such an extreme measure of harm against others. I feel no ethical quandaries against “life in prison without the possibility of parole,” or even (in certain cases) permanent solitary confinement. But what satisfaction do we as a people gain from state execution? What greater level of safety does the public at large have if a mass murderer is killed rather than locked in a small room for the rest of their life? Does it satisfy justice, or merely our cries for revenge?
I’ve had this discussion many times with people who support the death penalty, and almost without exception the conversation inevitably turns towards money (a rather inhuman subject when discussing the value of human life if you ask me). “You expect us to pay for these murderers to stay in prison for life?” they ask. That’s a fair question. Should we, as tax-paying and law-abiding citizens, be required to foot the bill for a serial killer to spend the next 40 years in prison? But the rational mind must conclude that if we as a people wish to remove this person from our company, then we must also be prepared to cover the requisites for doing so.
And on the same point – wouldn’t it be cheaper just to put them to death – consider this: The cost of putting someone to death is far greater than the cost of putting them in prison for life. Remember that when someone is sentenced to execution, they’re not put to the needle the following day. Each of the 34 death-penalty-allowing states has strict requirements in the law which dictate multiple appeals must be made on the convicted’s behalf prior to the execution being carried out. I suppose you could call it a brief and inadequate nod to an attempt to find assurance the convicted is truly guilty. These additional trials, hearings, motions, and court appearances are incredibly expensive to us, the tax payers. In fact, it’s estimated that in California alone – the cost of their current death penalty system is between $137 million and $232 million annually. However if they were to switch all inmates on death row to a term of life in prison, that number would drop to $11 million annually. All morals and ethical questions aside, ending the state-sanctioned murder of inmates in all 32 states which currently allow it would save us hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
But for me it’s not the numbers I find persuadable, it’s the core of my being which begs me to consider: what if we’re wrong? What if the person we’re about to kill is actually innocent and somehow witnesses were mistaken, or evidence was tampered with, and the courts got it wrong? There are no take-backs with death. There is no margin for human error. Once we have killed someone, all possibility of miscalculation or new findings ceases and we simply have to live with our decision, even if later found to be incorrect.
It never ceases to sadden me that so many states, including my home Utah, allows our blood lust and desire for revenge to outweigh logic, ethics, morals and human value. What if we were wrong?