American Reason: When, if ever, is the death penalty a viable form of punishment?

The death penalty debate
The death penalty debate redux — photo via AudioVision Public Radio

The recent sentence condemning Nidal Hasan, and Texas carrying out it’s 500th execution, serve as sobering reminders that this is still a nation that employs capital punishment. Should society continue to condone its use of death as the ultimate penalty?

Vikram Patel: In order to maintain the peace, society has agreed that at times the state should have the ability to deprive individuals of their property or their physical freedom as penance for crimes they have committed. To correct for any mistakes made by the state, we have a system of appeals to allow for a redress of grievances if the state prosecutes the wrong individual. Capital punishment does not allow that redress. Yes, we have a very lengthy appeals process for capital cases, and yes an individual can spend decades on death row, but someone who has been executed has no access to meaningful recourse. The finality of an execution puts it in a category that requires justification beyond that of any other trespass on our liberties. Matt, can you see any possible justification for the death penalty given its risks?

Matt Sowada: I find it interesting that your problem with capital punishment lies in the possibility that the courts might make an error. It feels like such a procedural objection to what is a most profoundly existential decision: society agreeing to end the life of one of its members. I am no pacifist; evil exists in the world and it must sometimes be opposed with the judicious use of fist, blade or bullet. However, such violence can only be morally justified if it confers some mighty boon to society in the form of preserving the lives and health of innocent people. I see only one possible mechanism by which capital punishment might deliver such a boon: that of deterrence.

Suppose the death sentence acted as a perfect deterrent. Imagine if we as a society knew that executing one man, proven guilty beyond any shadow of a doubt, would end all criminal homicides until the end of time. I think it would nearly be a moral imperative for society to execute that man. So I think most people would agree that if the deterrent effect is large enough, society should use capital punishment. Unfortunately for us, the deterrent effect of capital punishment on future crimes is not known, but it must exist at some level. To argue otherwise, you would need to advance that the threat of being killed by the state has never once caused even one moment of hesitation in the mind of a potential criminal. That strains credulity.

So the level of deterrence is the important question here. Proponents of the death penalty must prove not only that the deterrent effect of capital punishment is high, but so much higher than the deterrent effects of lifetime incarceration that it justifies the blood that will be on our collective hands when we accidentally execute an innocent man (if, by some miracle, we haven’t already). I remain unconvinced that the deterrent effects of execution are that powerful.

Vikram: I’ll go one step further and say that if the execution of a single individual could deter all future homicides, then that execution would be moral regardless of their innocence. However, I think we have a better understanding of the deterrence effect of the death penalty in the U.S. as compared to other punishments than you admit. If we look at states that have the death penalty and compare them with states that don’t, we see no meaningful difference between murder rates. Furthermore, murder rates seem to be largely unaffected when a state transitions between having a death penalty or rejecting one. This means that the death penalty has no greater deterrent effect than that of life imprisonment.

Our system of justice also serves as a surrogate role for those who have been wronged. We once lived in a time where “eye for an eye” was the norm and the state was expected to execute someone who had committed murder. Our culture has matured beyond that mindset. Revenge for its own sake is now seen as immoral as far as we understand the cycle of violence inherent to retaliation. Our society has changed and the death penalty provides no benefits for us, at least none that justify its existence.

Matt: Ha, I hadn’t thought of that! I suppose that indulging victims’ families in their desire for revenge would count as a possible societal good in some peoples’ eyes. I’m not among those people, but if I were, the possibility of executing an innocent person would be too great a risk for me to be on board with a “revenge” death penalty. Finally, while I disagree with your notion that the lack of a correlation between states that employ capital punishments and lower statewide murder rates conclusively proves that the death penalty fails as a deterrent, I do agree that the evidence is compelling enough that we should wholly abandon capital punishment.

Matt Sowada and Vikram Patel, former hosts of American Reason, bring monthly political, social, and ethical musing to Little Village.