Reminder – There is Still No Good Reason to Support the Death Penalty
Posted by Enrique on 09.28.2011
The practice of capital punishment in the United States is pretty uncontroversial. On the low end, support for the death penalty for convicted murderers is around 60%, but it's been as high as two-thirds in the last few years. However, a few recent developments have called the death penalty's efficacy into question – last week Georgia executed a man despite serious questions being raised about the veracity his conviction; Texas just eliminated the privilege of death row inmates to select a last meal; and Texas Governor Rick Perry came under fire for the audience applauding his state's utilization of the death penalty at a recent GOP primary debate.
Oh, who am I kidding? None of those developments are causing anyone to reconsider their support for the death penalty. And that's too bad – there is no reason for any sensible person to support the death penalty. If only the U.S. had more sensible people…
The story so far…
As you may be aware, the gentleman pictured above is Troy Davis, or rather was Troy Davis. Mr. Davis was executed by the state of Georgia last week after more than 20 years on death row. His execution went forward even though serious questions have been raised about the witness testimony that was central to Davis' conviction. Several witnesses have recanted their original testimonies and now claim they were coerced by police. Other witnesses have implicated another suspect.
Although there is an argument to be made that Davis is probably guilty, no one other than police and prosecutors in Georgia are certain, and it's not a stretch to say his original jury might reach a different conclusion about Davis' guilt if he were put on trial today.
Reasonable doubt is one thing, but the death penalty leaves no room for doubt at all. If there's even a tiny possibility the person isn't guilty, it would be a monstrous miscarriage of justice for them to be executed by the state. Of course, those who support the death penalty seem incapable of imagining it could ever be misapplied. When asked about his state's track record with the death penalty at a recent GOP presidential debate, Rick Perry was pretty blasé about his certainty that "the ultimate justice" has never once been misused in Texas.
One has to wonder if Perry's absolute confidence in the death penalty is due in part to willful blindness. In 2004, a man named Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for murdering his three children by arson. Five years later, a commission was put together to investigate whether or not there was enough evidence to support Willingham's conviction. When it appeared there were serious doubts about whether the fire was really arson, Perry interfered by replacing members of the commission who questioned Willingham's guilt with his political allies.
It's unlikely GOP voters will hold it against him. That debate clip above got a fair amount of attention for the ghoulish applause by the audience at Texas' enthusiastic application of the death penalty. You'd think the audience at a Republican debate would be a little more skeptical about the government's ability to get anything right, much less get something right 100% of the time. But that's what you have to believe in order to support the death penalty.
I don't mean to be obvious, but support for the death penalty seems to have no rational basis. When I was a kid, people used to say the death penalty is a deterrent. Do people still try to make that argument? Because it's obviously bullshit.
If you look at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's website, they have a handy table that shows the number of executions by year going back to 1982. There have been 11 this year, which is off the pace of 2010, during which 17 persons were executed. There were 24 executions in 2009; back in 2002 there were 33; the highest annual total in the last 20 years was 2000, when there were 40.
It was pretty rare for executions to get into the double digits until the 1990's. There are definitely more executions now than there were 20 years ago in Texas. That seems to be pretty strong evidence capital punishment is not a deterrent. If it were, the number of executions would have declined to zero a long time ago.
Numerous studies have been done that show executing prisoners costs more than life imprisonment. I suppose death penalty supporters would argue the higher costs are because of all that pesky due process that draws out death penalty cases for decades. And that's probably true. But given the number of post-conviction DNA exonerations there have been in the U.S., it would be difficult to argue that less due process would serve the interests of justice.
On a recent episode of Red Eye, writer Dana Vachon said there is only one explanation for why so many of us continue to support the death penalty. It's not a deterrent, it's not cost effective, and it doesn't bring back dead – but it is entertainment for a bloodthirsty mob. And if that's all it is, we may as well embrace it.
Texas recently eliminated the traditional practice of offering condemned men a last meal of their choice. Apparently some guy ordered a ridiculous amount of food—including a triple-bacon cheeseburger, a meat lovers pizza, a cheese omelet, a pint of ice cream, and more—and didn't even touch it. While I can appreciate this guy had a sense of humor in his final moments, Texas officials didn't see it that way. Now death row inmates will get whatever is being served at the cafeteria that day.
Commenting on this story, Vachon suggested we maximize the entertainment value, and instead force condemned inmates to eat their own shit before being executed. We could even put it on pay-per-view. I imagine the buy rate for Timothy McVeigh wolfing down his own feces would compete with whatever WWE is putting out these days. And we should also dispense with this boring lethal injection nonsense. Why not throw them into a shark tank? Or a wood chipper? Or we could have another inmate fornicate them to death with that knife-dildo from Se7en in exchange for a reduced sentence.
None of that would be any more ridiculous than continuing to apply the death penalty for no good reason.
We can all appreciate the idea that sometimes revenge is justified. But while revenge fantasies may be exhilarating, in real life this form of revenge can only be carried out by governments. And since governments can't be expected to get it right 100% of the time, it makes sense to limit their power when it comes to capital punishment. If only conservative were in favor of limited government.