A misguided pursuit for justice: A case for abolishing the death penalty

An eye for an eye. Fight fire with fire. One good turn deserves another. There are countless aphorisms to the effect that every action can and should be reciprocated with an equal counter-reaction.

In reality, things really shouldn’t work that way. An eye for an eye makes the world blind. Fighting fire with fire will not get you nearly as far as a reliable bucket of water, and one good turn deserves nothing more than a little acceptance of the fact that sometimes that’s just the way the world works.

A pragmatic view of the world understands that such an action-reaction philosophy is doomed. And that is why I do not believe in the death penalty.

Actually, there are lots of reasons, aside from my moral tendencies. Let us look at the facts. In addition to the fact that having the death penalty has not been proven to lower homicide rates, in America, the institution of capital punishment in the United States is both racist and alarmingly inefficient.

The whole point of capital punishment is to keep murderers off the street. To allow us to sleep at night, to feel that our neighborhoods are safe and free of serial killers and psychopaths. Too bad having the death penalty doesn’t do that. Authors John Sorenson, Robert Wrinkle, Victoria Brewer and James Marquart examined executions in Texas between 1984 and 1997. They speculated that if a deterrent effect were to exist, it would be found in Texas because of the high number of death sentences and executions within the state. (During President George W. Bush’s years as governor in Texas, he signed over 100 warrants for the execution of prisoners on death row.)

Using patterns in executions during the study and the relatively steady rate of murders in Texas, the authors found no evidence of a deterrent effect. The study concluded that the number of executions was unrelated to murder rates in general, and that the number of executions was unrelated to felony rates. The death penalty wasn’t proven to scare potential murderers into more peaceful pursuits. It doesn’t deter crime. It wasn’t proven to actually solve anything at all.

Even more disturbing than killing people without achieving anything is taking a long, hard look at just who it is we are killing. It would be one thing if we were unbiased in the practice of killing people who kill people in order to show that killing people is wrong. But not only is the death penalty hypocritical, it is also racist.

The University of North Carolina released a study based on data collected from court records of 502 murder cases from 1993 to 1997 and determined that race plays a disquietingly significant role in who gets the death penalty.

The study found that defendants whose victims are white are 3.5 times more likely to be sentenced to death than those with non-white victims. The odds that race plays a role in sentencing are supposed to be zero. Instead, it turns out that the race of the defendant — and perhaps even more importantly, the victim — is a determining factor. Regardless of whether someone supports the death penalty, he or she cannot support a discriminating form of it.

Then there is the fact that we screw up a lot when it comes to putting people on death row. Since 1973, when the death penalty was nationally reinstated, 99 people in 24 states have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence. In the state of Illinois alone there were 13 inmates released from death row based on concrete evidence of their innocence. That number alone caused the state’s governor to declare a moratorium. Most of the falsely convicted prisoners were condemned on what later turned out to be forced confessions.

So just to review, we sentence people to death with the idea that we are just giving them a taste of their own medicine. Nevermind that the jury tends to reach a racist conclusion based on faulty evidence. Nevermind that killing them in the name of preventing future murder is a double lie; first, it does not positively lower homicide rates, and second, it involves the murder of the inmate. All the facts and studies aside, what really makes this institution wrong is the fact that we have no right to decide whether someone deserves to live or die. We have no right to determine the value of human life.

Yes, murder is wrong. Yes, it is horrible, lamentable and despicable, and people who commit murder should not be allowed to exist in free society. First, we should make sure that we convict people based not on the color of their skin, but the concrete and indisputable evidence of their guilt. Second, we should not aspire to play God and pretend to know whether someone deserves death. We cannot possibly subscribe to an eye-for-an-eye mentality. If people are guilty, if they have violated someone’s right to life, then punish them. Go ahead. Lock them up, make them chop rocks all day, put them someplace where they are surrounded by pictures of their victims, whatever. Punish them all you like. But do not take something that was never yours to give.

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