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Death to the Death Penalty

April 8, 2012

The Connecticut Senate voted this week to abolish the death penalty in that state.  The House is expected to follow suit, and Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy promises to approve the legislation.  For future murder convictions, the bill provides for life imprisonment under specified, harsh conditions.  Oddly, although Connecticut has executed only two inmates since 1960, the bill does not apply to the 11 prisoners currently on Connecticut’s death row.  Apparently it is easier to repeal the death penalty for crimes that remain abstract than for actual crimes that have led to actual convictions.

Connecticut will thus become the 17th state to abolish the death penalty – 15 by legislative repeal and two by judicial ruling.  In addition, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and a whole slew of United States territories have no death penalty.  And two death penalty states – Kansas and New Hampshire – have executed no prisoners since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

Death penalty opponents make a number of arguments, some utilitarian and some moral:  the fiscal costs of capital punishment; the irreversible nature of the death penalty and the inevitable risk of executing an innocent person; the disproportionate execution of racial minorities, the poor, and members of other socially marginalized groups; the disproportionate execution of those who kill affluent white victims; the ambiguous evidence of any deterrent value of capital punishment; the constitutionally “cruel and unusual” nature of the death penalty; the morality of intentionally taking a life; the religious sanctity of life.

My own opposition to the death penalty is most firmly rooted in two arguments.  First, not only do I believe that the death penalty does not deter crimes; I believe that state-sponsored violence actually encourages violence.  When we execute a person, we do it with the most careful deliberation:  in the coldest blood.  When we execute a person, we teach that killing can be righteous; that the intentional and violent extinguishing of a human life can be right.

I believe that people learn that lesson, and that societies that accept capital punishment are more violent than those that abolish capital punishment – just as societies that accept corporal punishment are more violent than those that abolish it.

Just a dozen states account for more than 87 percent of American executions since 1976.  All of those states have “right-to-carry” laws permitting their citizens to walk the streets with firearms.   All but one of those states have “stand your ground” laws permitting a person to kill an attacker even if the person knows that safe retreat is possible.  I find no coincidence in those correlations.

Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma alone account for more than half of American executions since 1976.  If capital punishment deters crime, those states should be much safer than states without the death penalty.  Virginia falls slightly below the national murder rate; Texas falls slightly above; and Oklahoma falls well above.  The overall murder rate in American states with the death penalty is consistently slightly higher than the overall rate in states with no death penalty – even as individual states move back and forth between the two categories.

Second, I don’t like the company we keep as a death penalty country.  Half the countries of the world have abolished the death penalty, and an additional quarter have death penalty laws but have executed no prisoners in at least ten years.  In 2010 and 2011, Amnesty International reported 5,185 executions by 25 countries.  Only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and North Korea executed more prisoners than the United States did.  We executed more people than Iraq, and more than Libya, Syria, Bangladesh, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan combined.

The only countries that execute more people than we do are bloody, totalitarian regimes we should not emulate.  Our long history of capital punishment has made us neither safer nor better.

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