The Death Penalty Doesn’t Justify Itself
Updated: May 19, 2021
The federal government has made its list and checked it twice. In October 2007, a Kansas City court found Lisa Montgomery guilty of murdering a pregnant woman. So this year she’s getting a lethal injection for Christmas. She’ll be the first woman to receive a state execution in 67 years—a brutal sentence for a heinous crime.
Fortunately, in modern America only the most horrific crimes like this will land a person on death row, right?
Wrong. In reality, not all people killed by capital punishment are guilty of the crimes for which they’ve been convicted. A 2014 study found that at least 4.1 percent of defendants sentenced to death in the US are innocent. Between 1977 and 2019, the US has executed 1,512 people of which an estimated 62 were innocent. Talk about a monstrous crime!
By allowing the death penalty to continue, we tacitly endorse state-sanctioned premeditated murder.
You read that right: premeditated. The United States government doesn’t kill because of passion or mental illness. Instead, our justice system systematically eliminates people they deem unfit for life.
Our legal system is far from perfect. We can certainly depend on it to secure convictions, but determining whether or not someone committed a crime is a lot easier than establishing their motive. Who decides which motives for murder deserve death and which don’t?
Well, currently, the justice system judges the motivations of the convicted arbitrarily, and can be swayed by things as fickle as race, gender, public outcry, or how recently the presiding judge ate lunch.
If our legal system is guilty of convicting and executing innocent people, how can we trust it to make value judgments about the mental illness and past trauma that lead to crime?
In Montgomery’s case, as her attorney Kelley Henry pointed out, Montgomery was a perpetrator of a heinous crime, but she was also the victim of multiple crimes herself. “Lisa Montgomery has long accepted full responsibility for her crime, and she will never leave prison,” Kelley Henry stated. “But her severe mental illness and the devastating impacts of her childhood trauma make executing her a profound injustice.”
Montgomery’s past abuse and mental illness don’t undo or make up for her actions, but they certainly muddy the water over her sentence. Isn’t she something of a product of excruciatingly hard luck? If so, is her execution just?
This question is one that’s been debated by oh-so-many philosophers and psychologists for years and years. We don’t really have an objective answer, and we probably never will. With that in mind, don’t we risk unjustly taking human life by continuing to carry out the death penalty in the United States?
The past tells us as much. After all, the government has readily taken the lives of those accused of actions that are simply out of line with the state’s wishes. In fact, the state used to hand down capital punishments for crimes such as homosexuality and adultery. Thomas Jefferson was considered progressive when he called for the mere castration for gay men instead of death. Right now, treason and drug trafficking could earn someone a place on death row. As culture changes, so do our laws. By allowing the government the power of execution today, we risk the future—and the possibility that the government could pass unjust laws. Do we want to bet our lives and the lives of our children on the whims of lawmakers?
By continuing to implement the death penalty, we are risking innocent lives and freedoms—and for little discernible benefit.
The death penalty doesn’t deter crime. According to Nobel laureate Gary Becker’s model for criminal behavior, people willing to take large risks—risks like murder and assassination—are not deterred by the harshness of punishment, but the certainty of getting caught and facing that punishment. And those committing crimes of passion or insanity are hardly considering the cost. In all instances, a prison sentence is just as effective a deterrent as the needle.
Simply double-checking may be good enough for Santa’s naughty and nice lists, but when the state is determining whether someone lives or dies, they need more certainty than even the highest burden of proof can offer. That’s why one of the best gifts the system could give us this year would be to put the death penalty to rest—once and for all.
This article first appeared in Free the People on November 12, 2020.