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5 Reasons Why The Death Penalty is Wrong

Over 70% of the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty, but it’s still on the books in places like China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. The United States is divided on the death penalty and has a mixture of states where it’s legal, abolished, or halted with governor-issued moratoriums. Since 2019, three states (New Hampshire, Colorado, and Virginia) have ended capital punishment. What do Americans think about the death penalty? According to a 2021 Gallup poll, 54% of those surveyed said they favored the death penalty while only 41% of young adults 18-34 supported it. Why should the United States and other countries that still use executions abolish the practice?

Here are five reasons why the death penalty is wrong:  

Because of the number of botched executions, the death penalty is often inhumane. It also discriminates based on class and race, can be easily weaponized by governments, and is plagued by high error rates. Perhaps most importantly, the death penalty fails in its primary goal as an effective crime deterrent.  

#1. The death penalty is inhumane

CW: This paragraph includes descriptions of a botched execution  

Methods of execution have included firing squads, hanging, the electric chair, and lethal injections. Are these cruel and unusual? Death penalty critics look to The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which is an international treaty intended to prevent actions considered inhumane. While the Convention doesn’t take a clear stance on the death penalty, many believe executions fall under the type of punishment described in the document. For those who believe executions can be performed “humanely,” there’s still the problem of botched executions. Research shows that 3% of executions between 1890-2010 in the US were “botched.” What does it mean to “botch” an execution? It causes severe suffering to the prisoner. Lethal injection has the highest rate of error despite being the most common option. When injections go wrong, it can take a long time for a prisoner to die.  

In 2014 in Oklahoma, Clayton Lockett was subjected to a botched execution. Things started on a rough note while the execution team hunted for a viable vein and realized they didn’t have the right needles. Then, it took at least 16 pokes to get an IV inserted. As the execution began, Lockett was in clear distress. The blinds were pulled closed, so those viewing the execution couldn’t see anymore, and the execution was stopped. Lockett died of a heart attack 43 minutes after the first drug – midazolam – was administered. While it’s not clear if the drug can be blamed in Lockett’s case, sedatives like midazolam have played a role in the increase (8-20%) of botched executions since 2010. Given these facts, the death penalty can easily be seen as inhumane.  

#2. The death penalty disproportionately affects certain groups 

The death penalty is not a good example of blind justice. According to the United Nations, the poor are disproportionately affected by the death penalty on a global scale. There are a few reasons for this, including that they are targeted more often by police, they can’t pay for good lawyers, and they often receive free legal aid too late in the process to ensure a fair trial. In the United States, racial discrepancies are the biggest concern for many death penalty critics. According to research, 35% of people executed in the last 40 years have been Black, despite the fact Black Americans only make up 13% of the general population. Why is this happening?  

When researchers take a closer look, they discover patterns of discrimination based on race. Virginia in particular has been scrutinized for its history, which has roots in early capital punishment laws. White defendants could only be executed for first-degree murder, while a variety of nonhomicide crimes could get enslaved Black defendants executed. Between 1900-1969, Virginia executed 73 Black men for nonhomicide crimes, while 185 were executed for murder. In that same time frame, no white person was executed for a nonhomicide crime while 46 were executed for murder. In 2021, Virginia abolished the death penalty, citing the state’s history of racial disparities. Nationally, mountains of research show racial bias in how the death penalty is applied.  

#3. The death penalty can be used as a tool for control, not justice 

In theory, the death penalty is only meant to punish the most serious crimes, like murder. However, in places around the world, governments use executions for non-lethal crimes. According to Amnesty International, 2021 was an especially disturbing year for executions as countries weaponized the death penalty against protesters, minorities, and other political enemies. In Myanmar, where the military took over, tribunals took place without the right to appeal. Around 90 people were sentenced to death, many of them protesters and journalists.  

2021 also saw an increase in executions in Iran where people can receive death sentences for crimes like drug trafficking, financial crimes, and armed robbery. Same-sex intercourse, extramarital affairs, and “spreading corruption on earth” can also be punishable by death. According to reports, at least 333 people were executed. The number of those killed on drug-related charges was five times higher than in 2020. It’s clear that many governments are not interested in justice, but rather suppression and control. By using the death penalty so arbitrarily, authorities set their own definitions for what’s “unacceptable” in society and what’s an appropriate punishment. It makes citizens fearful and violates their human rights. Allowing the death penalty to exist allows corrupt governments to use executions for their own purposes. 

Want to learn more about the death penalty? Check out these articles. 

#4. The death penalty can’t be undone if new evidence, misconduct, or inferior legal assistance is discovered  

What makes the death penalty distinct from life in prison is that the judgment can’t be reversed. It’s a final punishment. However, what if new information reveals the prisoner was innocent? It’s a disturbingly frequent occurrence. In 2000, Professor James Liebman from Columbia Law School released a study that examined every capital conviction and appeal between 1973-1995. His results found high error rates across the country. More than 90% of the states that give death sentences had overall error rates of 52% or higher. 85% of states had error rates of 60% or higher. A more recent analysis from 2014 collected data from all death sentences between 1973-2004. They estimated that around 1 in 25 of those given a death sentence had likely been incorrectly convicted.  

The Death Penalty Information Center maintains a database of exonerations, which means the person was acquitted or the charges were dismissed completely. Reasons include false confessions, insufficient evidence, perjury, official misconduct, and inadequate legal defense. Data like this exposes how flawed the justice system is and how frequent errors are. It’s not a system we should trust with handing out the death penalty. 

#5. The death penalty doesn’t deter crime 

Many people are willing to admit the death penalty is not a perfect system, but if it deters crime, doesn’t that make it worth keeping? That statement contains a big “if.” Luckily, there’s research we can examine to test whether the death penalty is an effective crime deterrent. The Death Penalty Information Center has information showing that states without the death penalty have a consistently lower murder rate than states with the death penalty. Since 1990, the gap has increased. In 1999, the average murder rate per 100,000 population was 5.5 in death penalty states. In states without the death penalty, the average was 3.6.  

Why isn’t the threat of death enough to deter crime? The answer may lie in human psychology and the minds of those committing crimes. According to an article on Psychology Today, most criminal offenders aren’t behaving rationally when they commit a crime. Mental health, substance abuse, and trauma are common reasons. 43% of those in state prisons have a diagnosed mental disorder. 65% of the US prison population has an active substance use disorder. When it comes to what’s known as “expressive crimes,” which are crimes driven by rage, depression, drug or alcohol use, people are not thinking about the consequences they might face. Trauma and poverty also have links to crime, and punishment does not address these causes. If the death penalty is inhumane, discriminatory, arbitrary, and ineffective, why should it continue to exist? It’s disappearing from legal systems around the world, so it’s time for all nations (like the United States) to end it.  

The death penalty: a reading list  

Interested in learning more about the death penalty? Here’s where to start:  

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption | Bryan Stevenson  

This 2015 book (also made into a film) follows Bryan Stevenson as he establishes the Equal Justice Initiative. The book mostly focuses on Stevenson’s work for Water McMillian, a Black man sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit.  

Dead Man Walking: The Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty That Sparked a National Debate | Helen Prejean  

Written in 1994, this book follows a Roman Catholic nun as she learns about the death penalty in America, gets to know everyone touched by the system, and works through her beliefs.  

Against the Death Penalty | Stephen Breyer 

Now retired Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer makes the case that the death penalty violates the US Constitution, specifically the 8th amendment, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment.  

Right Here, Right Now: Life Stories from America’s Death Row | Ed. Lynden Harris  

A collection of 99 first-person, anonymous accounts of men on death row in the United States, this 2021 book shines a light on the humanity of the people who’ve been sentenced to death. The book is organized into eight life stages from early childhood right to the moment a man faces his execution.  

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About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.