In all of the United States, there is a place that you never want to be, and it stretches across several states. This place is commonly referred to as Death Row. It is an exclusive place, for the most dangerous of criminals (mostly rapists and murderers). There are people that argue, not only do they deserve it, but that it prevents future crimes. Others argue that it is wrong for people against murder to believe that you can justifiably kill a person. So the question is, which one of these groups has the moral high ground?
This sounds like it is almost no contest. At least most people do not want to live in a world where murderers and rapists can be unpunished. This is because, that would indicate that this behavior is acceptable, so punishment is justifiable. But now I ask, what kind of punishment is justifiable? Is death truly the one that is best for society at large?
Let’s start with a closer examination of the arguments in support of the death penalty. According to a presentation given at the University of Richmond, they stem from the belief that nothing is more sacred to an individual than their life, therefore losing it is the ultimate punishment. Again, this appears to be common sense. Supporters go on to argue that murder rates are lower in states that have the death penalty because of its deterrence, and that the more executions there are the less murders there are. As with all hypotheses, the ones just mentioned require testing.
In the same University of Richmond presentation, the murder rates of states with the death penalty were compared to those of states without the death penalty. For the first hypothesis, they compared Texas (a death penalty state) to Michigan (a non-death penalty state). Recall that this difference should cause Texas to have a lower crime rate than Michigan. But, according to this presentation, from the year 1970 to the year 2000 it was Texas having more crimes, except for the year 2000 (by only .8 per 100,000). And when Texas was higher in murder rates than Michigan, it was by much more significant margins, reaching 6.7 more per 100,000 at one point.
But, one could argue that this would not be a good sample for fifty states, so there was another test. This one was between Virginia (a death penalty state) and Massachusetts (a non-death penalty state). This went further in disproving the first hypothesis, as Virginia’s murder rate stayed consistently, and significantly, above that of Massachusetts.
But what about between states that have a death penalty? The second hypothesis states that the states that use this punishment more aggressively will have less crimes punishable by death. Take for example, Missouri and Montana both of which have the death penalty, with Missouri being the more aggressive with it. Like the first hypothesis, the second one does not appear to hold, because Missouri had significantly higher murder rates than Montana from 1976-2004. Now let’s give hypothesis 2 the same sampling as for hypothesis 1, and see the results from another pair of states, for instance Oklahoma vs. Pennsylvania. Again, both of these states have the death penalty, and Oklahoma has had a larger number of executions from 1976-2004. According to the hypothesis therefore, Oklahoma should have a lower rate of murder than Pennsylvania. Even though this test has closer results than the Missouri vs. Montana test, Oklahoma still had a higher rate of murder than Pennsylvania from 1976-2004, which goes toward disproving the second hypothesis.
To recap, the two fundamental hypotheses to support the use of the death penalty as a way to improve society have been disproven on two occasions each. Can it be said that the higher rates are 100% attributable to the death penalty with 100% certainty? I doubt that, but these tests still prove to me that the death penalty cannot be declared as absolute a remedy as much as supporters believe it could. In addition to these tests, on a personal note, with the inclusion of DNA evidence, we have revisited some crimes far in the past, crimes for which people had been executed. As it turned out, these people were innocent and it is way too late to repair the damage. As opposed to other punishments, once the death penalty has been carried out, nothing can be done.
These constitute the issues I have with the death penalty, it does not work for society, and if somebody is wrongly convicted of a capital crime, not only is the real offender still out there, but now the legal system itself would soon kill an innocent person. There is no doubt that murderers and rapists should be punished, but now I ask should we do it with murder? A well-respected wise man once said, “an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.”