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There is no purpose to the death penalty

Commentary Editor

Published: Thursday, April 19, 2012

Updated: Friday, August 23, 2013 17:08

Last September, Troy Anthony Davis was killed by the state of Georgia, despite increasing evidence of his innocence, and despite a hard-fought crusade by various NGOs. Many people spoke out against Davis’ execution, acknowledging that there was too much doubt to assume his guilt. Fortunately, Connecticut lawmakers have learned from that outrage and many others and have repealed the death penalty in the state.

I’ve listened to many people argue that the death penalty should be done away with because we can rarely be certain - beyond all doubt - of an individual’s guilt. In spite of everything, the process of trial by jury is personal and fickle. There’s no shortage of recorded failures of justice, and the system is stacked against ethnic minorities and the poor. These should by themselves be defenses for stopping capital punishment.

Yet, the death penalty would be wrong in principle even if these considerations didn’t exist, and even if we could be completely convinced of an individual’s guilt. But if we hold this debate before tackling the ethical question of whether the death penalty can even be defended in the first place, then we’re just haggling over the price: we’ve subtly agreed that the state should have the power of life and death over its civilians, and that there could be some conceivable situation in which it would be right for the state’s executioners to kill an unarmed prisoner on our behalf. I don’t accept this scheme.

I reject the idea that there are people whose crimes are so monstrous that they “deserve” to die in revenge. The idea of revenge is foolish. I don’t believe in a God who must be soothed by payback. And if there is a God, how can we possibly claim to know what kind of “justice” he or she demands? The idea that a murderer must sacrifice his or her life in penance for his or her crime, a life for a life, is an idea that has no place in a rational system of ethics. To take a human life, just because one considers that the person one is killing no longer “deserves” to live, is an egotistic, callous and perverse act. Killing a person in revenge for a murder is not “justice.” It just results in more dead bodies.

The only rational ethical defense for taking life is if it were the only possible way to save others’ lives – say, shooting a rampant gunman who’s about to storm through a classroom. But there’s no evidence that the death penalty deters crime, in comparison with the alternative - life imprisonment. Undeniably, deterrence is impossible to measure exactly. We can’t know how many crimes would’ve been committed if not for a given penalty. But we can say that states with the death penalty don’t experience lower rates of murder, or of violent crime in general.

The lack of a connection between capital punishment and lower murder rates doesn’t prove that the death penalty isn’t an effective deterrent. But the burden of proof ought to lie on the supporters of the death penalty to show that the death penalty does deter crime, not for the rest of us to negate their claim. If you believe that the state should be in the business of killing unarmed prisoners, it’s for you to show that there’s a good reason for doing so. At the moment, there isn’t a good enough reason.

The death penalty serves no purpose which would not be similarly well-served by life imprisonment. As managed in the United States, it’s not even more cost-effective, but even if it were, it would be ugly to take a human life just to save the taxpayers’ money. There’s no foundation on which to argue that the death penalty is needed. And taking a human life without unblemished need is the ultimate barbarity, the ultimate act of needless brutality, and an act that all levelheaded and civilized people should oppose outright.

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