As a fresh arrival to Bowdoin a year ago, I was struck by the passion exhibited for the case of Troy Davis, a man convicted of killing a police officer in Savannah, Ga. Davis was held on death row for 15 years and maintained his innocence throughout. Countless people across this country and around the world protested on his behalf, but all of these voices did not stop his execution, which went ahead on September 21, 2011.
The activism I saw at Bowdoin on behalf of Troy Davis was a welcoming sight indeed. It would be even more welcoming to see such energy devoted to the impending execution of every death row inmate, whether or not his or her innocence is called into question. Of course, this requires us to stand up for men and women who have perhaps committed unspeakable acts—many of whom, we are told, “deserve” to die.
But there is no such thing as “deserving” death. We cannot claim to be civilized if crimes are responded to in this manner. Taking a life for a life is simply the law of the jungle. It is the worst possible form of revenge, designed not to ensure the protection of society, but rather, to satisfy a primeval need to take an eye for an eye. When the government steps in to commit what it considers a legal killing, it becomes no better than the murderer whose life it will take.
Capital punishment hurts society, as it allows for a “quick fix” that does not deal with the root of the problem, but instead leaves us all with the illusion that because so-called “justice” was done, no further discussion is needed. Many who argue for the death penalty’s preservation claim it is a useful deterrent against crime, in spite of evidence proving that this is far from the case.
In a forum on the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) website, the organizaion comments, “states [with] death penalty laws do not have lower crime rates or murder rates than states without such laws.” The United States has a homicide rate that is at least five times greater than that of any Western European country, all of which lack the death penalty.
In any case, a majority of homicides are committed without premeditation, according to figures from the Census Bureau.
These crimes are committed in moments when the mind loses control. What these statistics don’t reveal are cases involving the many other Troy Davises of this country—those who are convicted of murders that they didn’t commit. The fact that there is a risk, no matter how small, that the state could kill an innocent person should already be a risk too great.
Justice is anything but infallible: a 1987 study in the Stanford Law Review details 350 cases “in which defendants convicted of capital crimes...in many cases sentenced to death, [were later] found to be innocent.” Procedures to protect against arbitrary sentencing and discrimination are lacking, to say the least.
Amnesty International, a human rights advocacy group, commented in a 2007 report that capital punishment is discriminatory, especially toward minorities and the poor. Sentencing is anything but consistent, according to defense attorney Diana Holt in a March issue of The Atlantic. Whether the accused gets death depends “on geography, the elected official with the power to seek [the death penalty], the color of [the accused’s] skin, gender, the color of the victim’s skin, the victim’s gender, wealth of any of those, poverty of the defendant, mental health of any of those, and judges with agenda.” Surprisingly, even these factors aren’t enough to dissuade the many supporters of this primitive and barbaric form of retribution.
Cold economic truths are far harder to refute.
Across the United States, many state governments have found that the cost of keeping the death penalty is prohibitively high. A study sponsored by Kansas calculated the death penalty to cost 70 percent more than that of a comparable case ending with a jail sentence. Five executions have occurred in Maryland since 1978, each costing the state roughly 40 million dollars. In California, a report by U.S. Ninth Circuit Judge Arthur Alarcon and Professor Paula Mitchell of Loyola Law School found that “California has spent more than four billion dollars on capital punishment since 1978.” Death row costs the state nearly 185 million dollars every year, yet the state has been “forced” to cut back on other essential services because it chooses to keep in place this useless form of punishment. Even Fox News had to admit: “the cost of killing killers is killing us”. This money could be diverted to support programs that actually benefit society; it is instead being wasted on a form of punishment that has little to show for itself.
Opposition to the death penalty is neither a sign of weakness nor of lenience to crime. It shows instead that one will not devalue human life and dignity; that you, unlike the murderer, know better than to do that.