The number of deaths resulting from capital punishment have reached an all-time low since 1991. Despite much of the chaos we see today, only 23 prisoners have been executed in 20171. A Gallup Poll conducted in October of 2017 shows that 55 percent of Americans support capital punishment for cases of murder, a five-point drop from the October 2016 results2. Indeed, support for capital punishment has reached an all-time low in 45 years. The time has come where Americans are starting to see capital punishment as a practice that is detrimental to a free and moral society.
My biggest concerns about the use of capital punishment are the ways that innocent lives have been harmed by it, and the moral, economic, and constitutional dilemmas in its methods. My beliefs are rooted in Blackstone’s Ratio and Benjamin Franklin’s interpretation of it, saying that it is better to let one hundred guilty persons escape than to let one innocent man suffer. Life is something that cannot be given back to those who were innocent and executed. I have no trust in the government exercising capital punishment and taking a human life. Our judicial system, known for its racial and socioeconomic biases and failures to appoint resourceful lawyers to defendants3, is far too flawed to make these decisions, and power in the wrong hands can lead to the loss of individual liberty.
One such case where an innocent life was taken by government execution is the death of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was accused of arson and the death of his three daughters.
Despite experts’ claims that the fire was accidental, Texas lawmakers refused to grant clemency or even delay the date of the execution. After Willingham’s execution, investigators concluded that the fire was not caused by Willingham, proving that the methods conducted by the state’s trial expert were flawed. This is only one of the four percent of innocent lives taken by capital punishment4.
Despite this, some may argue that those who have committed the most heinous crimes should face execution. While this may seem logical, it is constitutionally wrong and economically harmful.
The 8th Amendment of the Constitution prohibits the practice of “cruel and unusual punishment.” Lethal injection, a method of execution pushed by Bill Wiseman, an Oklahoma House of Representatives member in 1977, was claimed to be just “sleep, then death.” The process involved a “three-drug protocol,” which would paralyze prisoners, put them in an unconscious state, and induce cardiac arrest5. This seems like a less severe and reformed way of conducting capital punishment. However, the possibility of barbiturates failing to take effect, along with paralyzed prisoners suffering through the effects of lethal injection, make it an extremely cruel and very unusual punishment.
Multiple concerns over the sedatives being used in the process question the constitutionality of lethal injection, especially if those executed experienced any unusual pain. However, the 2015 Supreme Court Case, Glossip v. Gross, based off of the 2008 case, Baze v. Rees, concluded that the use of a sedative, named midazolam, for lethal injections would not violate the 8th Amendment as long as executioners continued to follow the protocol6.
In 2006, Angel Nieves Diaz was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by lethal injection. The injection of chemicals was done incorrectly, going into his tissue rather than his circulatory system, which caused Diaz to suffer for 34 minutes. An autopsy team found chemical burns under Diaz’s arms from the mishandled injection7. Wiseman claimed that this method was silent and quick. Diaz’s case proved it more than just that.
In terms of costs, capital punishment increases spending and causes financial burdens, running contrary to the beliefs of fiscal conservatism. Independent studies conducted in Oklahoma found that the costs of capital cases in the state are 3.2 times more than those of non-capital cases8. New Mexico found that the costs of bringing back the death penalty for three kinds of homicide would amount to $7.2 million over the first three years9. This is because more time, trials, and effort are required to conduct cases involving the death penalty as compared to non-capital cases. Knowing how inefficient our government is with its own programs, I am reluctant to stand behind it in determining who can live and who has to die.
The moral and economic standards of our country are at stake with the continuation of capital punishment. Despite how some of us may feel when we see some the most despicable crimes committed, we the people have to hold ourselves to the standard of not only our morals, but our Constitution, and to remain skeptic of the legal powers that determine life or death.
1 DPIC Year End Report 2017 (Death Penalty Information Center, 2017) https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/YearEnd2017
2 Jones, Jeff, and Saad, Lydia. Gallup Poll Social Series: Crime (Gallup News Service, 2017), 2 https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/files/pdf/GallupDeathPenaltyTopline171026.pdf
3Bright, Stephen B. Race, Poverty, the Death Penalty, and the Responsibility of the Legal Profession. (Seattle Journal for Social Justice, May 2002).
4 Williams, Kenneth. Why and How the Supreme Court Should End the Death Penalty. (University of San Francisco Law Review, vol. 51, no. 2, June 2017), 271.
5 Crair, Ben. And the Damage Done. (New Republic, vol. 245, no. 11, 30 June 2014), 28.
6 Glossip v. Gross. 2015.
7 Crair, Ben. And the Damage Done. (New Republic, vol. 245, no. 11, 30 June 2014), 28.
8 Collins, Peter A, et al. Appendix IB: An Analysis of the Economic Costs of Capital Punishment in Oklahoma. (Apr. 2017), 225.
9 Downs, et al. Fiscal Impact Report: Reinstating the Death Penalty. (New Mexico Legislature, 2 Feb. 2017), 1. https://www.nmlegis.gov/Sessions/17%20Regular/firs/HB0072.PDF
Bright, Stephen B. Race, Poverty, the Death Penalty, and the Responsibility of the Legal Profession. Seattle Journal for Social Justice, May 2002, digitalcommons.law.seattleu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1263&context=sjsj
Collins, Peter A, et al. “Appendix IB: An Analysis of the Economic Costs of Capital Punishment in Oklahoma.” Apr. 2017, p. 225.
Crair, Ben. “And the Damage Done.” New Republic, vol. 245, no. 11, 30 June 2014.
Downs, et al. “Fiscal Impact Report: Reinstating the Death Penalty.” New Mexico Legislature, Feb. 2017. https://www.nmlegis.gov/Sessions/17%20Regular/firs/HB0072.PDF
“DPIC Year End Report 2017.” Death Penalty Information Center, 2017. https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/YearEnd2017
Glossip v. Gross. 2015.
Jones, Jeff, and Saad, Lydia. “Gallup Poll Social Series: Crime.” Gallup News Service, Oct. 2017. https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/files/pdf/GallupDeathPenaltyTopline171026.pdf
WILLIAMS, KENNETH. “Why and How the Supreme Court Should End the Death Penalty.”
University of San Francisco Law Review, vol. 51, no. 2, June 2017.