Justice for All?

Yesterday a man named Troy Davis was executed by the state of Georgia.  This may not seem significant to the unacquainted, but in September the debate over the death penalty has reignited.

It all began with the Republican debate on Sept. 7th, where to loud cheers presumed Republican presidential front runner Gov. Rick Perry proudly acknowledged that he had overseen 234 executions in Texas.  This is truly an astronomical figure and as the New York Times editorial, “Cheering on the Death Machine” notes, this should be troubling.

There is certainly something pure about the search for justice in response to horrifying crimes.  But Mr. Perry’s reaction and the response of the crowd is nothing but appalling.  The constitutionality of the death penalty was reaffirmed when the Supreme Court ruled in Gregg v. Georgia, but as a nation we must re-evaluate what it means for a state to execute its own citizens.  It’s a practice based on a primal thirst for vengeance, not on good or just policy.

With Texas leading the way, the United States has taken quite fondly to executing its citizens.  In the world the U.S. ranks 20th per capita and 7th in total executions, flanked by Egypt and Iraq.  Wonderful company to be sure, but there is a reason no other free society comes within sight.  Every argument for the death penalty is based on false assumptions.

Does the death penalty serve as a deterrent? The idea itself is folly as I doubt serial killers and cold-blooded murders are dissuaded by the threat of execution.  A survey of law enforcement officials and criminologists found little support for this theory, and according to crime statistics it hasn’t worked.

Is the death penalty fair?  I would laugh if this weren’t so serious.  A study in Texas has found that the death penalty has been applied unevenly and disproportionately, and it should come as no surprise that race has often played a factor.  The death penalty should be reserved for only those monsters who are better off dead than alive, but of course the record in Texas has been anything but.  Sure rape is a horrifying and terrible crime, but is execution justified?  The Supreme Court doesn’t think so.

Does the death penalty bring closure to victims?  Anything but!  With the lengthy appeals process inmates languish on death row long after they have been convicted.  Troy Davis was executed for a crime committed in 1989.  The drawn out process of performing an execution causes continuing anguish.

Is the death penalty economical? Numerous studies have found that states could save millions by abandoning the death penalty in favor of life imprisonment with no parole.  This may be surprising given how expensive jail is, but it turns out lawyers are even more expensive and States spend easily over a million tax-payer dollars every time the death penalty is pursued.

Is the death penalty moral?  All of the previous arguments are predicated on the assumption that everyone that has been executed by the state was guilty.  We  know almost certainly that is not true.  These executions are not handed down with CSI like levels of certainty.  Often there is doubt, like with Troy Davis, which prompted former FBI director William Sessions to call for a stay of execution due to, “Serious questions about Mr. Davis’ guilt, highlighted by witness recantations, allegations of police coercion, and a lack of relevant physical evidence, continue to plague his conviction.”  Many times former prosecutors and justice officials have intervened to try to prevent a miscarriage of justice.  Of course Davis was ultimately executed and I do not know the details of the case, but the presence of reasonable doubt highlights the moral failure of the practice.

Death cannot be undone and our justice system is far from perfect.  From our insanely high incarceration rates, to the numerous found innocent after years of imprisonment, the risk is far too great.  It is an obligation of the State to protect its citizens and imprison those found guilty of crimes, but innocence is not protected through State sponsored murder.  The social contract is not preserved by the death penalty.  Instead liberty is eternally threatened by it, only risking further damage to families and life.

Rick Perry and that Republican crowd may not have any concerns about the death penalty, but any reasonable person should.