Why the Death Penalty is Immoral

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As those who know me are aware, I typically see the world in various shades of gray. Very rarely is there anything that can be classified as strictly right or wrong; for example, most people would agree that stealing is wrong. But, in the case of a parent, who, by no fault of their own, has found him/herself unable to provide food to their starving child and steals food out of desperation, I think it is safe to assume that most people would agree that this instance of stealing does not bear the same ethical weight as, say, robbing a bank at gun point.

However, there is one issue in particular in which I can find no gray area, no way by which to justify or excuse its existence. And that is the death penalty.  The very idea of a method of punishment that kills people who kill people because killing people is wrong is, to put it bluntly, stupid. It is irrational, illogical, and barbaric and it has no place in a civilized society. Moreover, the margin for error is too great. Far too often, innocent people, like Troy Davis, find themselves on death row for crimes they did not commit. Now, proponents of the death penalty might argue that this rarely happens or that improvements in modern technology will eliminate the occurrences of  such instances of injustice. To them, I have a few points that I would like to make:

1) Human error.
Sure, it is true that advancements in modern technology have improved the ability of forensic teams and crime scene investigators to test DNA samples and better determine if the evidence can be linked to the accused. Furthermore, thanks to these improvements many falsely accused and wrongfully convicted individuals have been exonerated. According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), since 1973 more than 130 people on death-row have been exonerated as a result of DNA evidence; most of these have been between 2000 and 2007, at an average rate of 5 per year.

As good as that might sound, it becomes less impressive when one considers the sheer volume of appeals cases that have been found to contain such egregious errors that the accused were given entirely new trials. According to a 2000 study by Professor James Leibman of Columbia University Law School, from 1973 to 1995, thousands of capital sentences were reviewed and of them sixty-eight percent , about seven out of every ten cases, were discovered to contain serious prejudicial errors. The study goes on to state that in the cases in which death was the punishment, “courts threw out 47% of death sentences due to serious flaws” and “a later federal review found ‘serious error’ – error undermining the reliability of the outcome- in 40% of the remaining sentences.”  

Furthermore, technological improvements are not infallible and human error will still occur. From mismanagement of the crime scene to mislabeling the evidence to improper storage; all of which can contaminate or damage the evidence, leaving it useless or leading to inaccurate results. Moreover, DNA evidence is not always available and, as this ACLU report states, in many cases “because of the nature of the crime, DNA evidence cannot identify the murder.” Whats more is that at this time, post-conviction DNA evidence is  not admissible in all states , and some states only allow it in certain circumstances. Therefore, the claim that improvements in DNA testing will eliminate false convictions is, as DPIC states, simply not true.

2) Mistaken Identity.
As stated above, DNA evidence, when available and put to use,  is not fool proof and, despite improvements, innocent people are still wrongly convicted.  In the instances in which DNA is not available or simply not used, one thing on which investigators and prosecutors rely is eye-witness testimony. Unfortunately, this is one of the least reliable methods for determining a person’s guilt. The reason being is that our visual memories are just not as dependable as we would like to think they are. Numerous studies have been done on the accuracy of eye-witness accounts of events and have found that, well, people pretty much suck at remembering details.

According to a 2009 report by 60 Minutes‘ Lesley Stahl, of those convicts who have been exonerated by DNA evidence, nearly three-fourths of them were initially sent to prison based solely upon the testimony of an eye-witness. This is what happened to Ronald Cotton, the subject of the CBS report, who was unjustly convicted of raping two women in 1984 based upon the testimony of one of the victims, Jennifer Thompson. Since the report is provided above I will not go into much detail about it; suffice it to say: Thompson made a conscious effort to memorize every possible detail about her attacker, from his facial features to the sound of his voice and still she managed, unintentionally, to identify the wrong man and, ironically, to fail to recognize her actual attacker, Bobby Poole, even when he sat before her in a court room three years later. The reason for Thompson’s error resulted not from any flaw of character on her part, but on the fact that the human memory makes mistakes. It is fallible, prone to suggestion, and easily manipulated.

As this 1999 report by the Stanford Journal of Legal Studies, by Laura Englehardt, which was based upon a lecture by Barbara Tversky, Professor of Psychology, and Law Professor, George Fisher demonstrates, human beings have a “propensity to remember erroneously events and details that did not occur.” The report references a study done in the 1970’s by Elizabeth Loftus, Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington, in which test subjects were shown images of cars at either a stop sign or a yield sign. The test subjects were then asked a series of questions about the images they had seen. During the questioning, experimenters purposely substituted “yield sign” when questioning those test subjects who had been shown the stop sign, and vice versa. What resulted was the test subjects reported having seen the wrong image. In other words, the people who saw a stop sign reported seeing a yield sign, and those who had seen a yield sign reported seeing a stop sign. However, as the report goes on to state, even without the interjection of false information from third-parties, our memories are distorted from the moment they are made and, as we recount those memories, they become more and more distorted.

For this reason, mistaken identity is a real and serious problem and, as mentioned above, results in false convictions more often than not.

3) Justice is blind.
There is a reason that Lady Justice is depicted as she is: blind-folded, holding balanced scales in one hand and sword in the other; it is meant to be a symbolic representation of that act of justice itself. A system that is supposed to be firm but fair, and always objective and impartial. Sadly, for many, symbolic is all it is because the reality of the legal system is one of blind bias, unfair conviction rates that disproportionately affect non-whites and the poor, and of cruel and unusual punishments handed down by people, who far too often have only partial information.

In 2005, DPIC released its study on the problem of juries deciding life and death cases with only partial or faulty information. The report found several flaws with juries, among which was the way in which juries are selected and, of course, the quality and accuracy of the information that they are presented. According to the report, the sex and race of a potential juror are key factors in whether or not they are selected to serve on the jury in capital punishment cases. The reason for this is that blacks and women are more likely to oppose the death penalty. Those chosen to serve on such cases are more likely to be “pro-prosecution and conviction-prone,” while those who are not chosen are rejected based upon personal beliefs against the death penalty. This, of course, is problematic because it weights the jury in favor of the prosecution thus denying the accused his/her Constitutional right to a fair trial.

Equally problematic, and for the same reasons, is the other finding stated in the report, that of purposefully withheld information and failed investigations. According to Section II of the report (see page 8), prosecutors sometimes deliberately withhold critical information from jurors and defense attorneys fail to investigate. From 2000 to 2005, such misconduct lead to 121 instances of convictions being overturned and the accused exonerated of all charges. In 2000 alone, thirty-seven people were released from death-row; misconduct by the court was cited as the reason in sixty-two percent of those cases.

4) It is unconstitutional.
This one requires little discussion as it is matter of fact. As per the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution, the law of our land, no one shall be made to suffer cruel or unusual punishment. There are few things more cruel and unusual than institutionalized death.

In conclusion, as a civilized society, which is what we would like to believe ourselves to be, we can certainly devise a better way by which to punish truly heinous crimes. Life imprisonment being one of them. Furthermore, if we are indeed a nation built upon Christian principles as so many people, many of whom advocate the death penalty, claim then we absolutely cannot allow capital punishment. As Jesus himself said, “let you who is without sin cast the first stone.” This is not a call to be non-judgmental as so many people wrongly interpret it to mean, but a direct command against the death penalty because that is what stoning was under Biblical law, a death sentence. Furthermore, killing a killer because he/she killed someone robs the person of their opportunity to seek redemption and find salvation; and isn’t that the whole point to Christianity? Salvation of all? (hint: the answer isn’t “no”).

Do not misunderstand, I sympathize completely with the victims of heinous crimes, and with their families. I dread the thought of serious harm being done to those I love. But killing the person who may or may not have done the crime will not bring back those lost, nor will it truly alleviate our pain. And, even if we can decrease the margin of error to such a point at which for every one-hundred or one-thousand people who are correctly convicted, one conviction is false, it is still a price too high to pay. Isn’t it enough that an innocent life, that of the victim, was lost and their loved ones are grieving? Must we, for the sake of satisfying our own desire for vengeance, sacrifice more innocents and cause more loved ones to grieve?

No. Vehemently and unapologetically I say, no! The death penalty is wrong. Period. As the evidence shows, the potential for error is too great and occurs far too often to justify its existence. It is time to dispense with the brutality and find a better, more civilized way.

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