10 April 2013: Death penalty isn’t really justice

Death penalty isn’t really justice

Essentially, there are two reasons advocates of capital punishment offer: deterrence, which is objective and measureable, and a fitting, appropriate consequence, which is quite subjective.

If capital punishment worked as a deterrent, America would not be experiencing one of the highest murder rates of industrialized nations.  In fact, one should be able to conclude that with the ultimate form of consequence—loss of one’s own life—hanging like a noose over a potential killer’s head, he/she would hesitate to pull a trigger.  But, alas, that is not the case, for the act of taking someone’s life is not a rational decision as much as it is an emotional one.  And that holds true for state-sponsored killing.

It’s important we understand that there is no correlation or causal relationship between the death penalty and a low murder rate.  With regard to murder rate, of the top 25 states 21 have the death penalty; of the bottom 25, 11 don’t.

In 2011, the average murder rate of death penalty states was 4.7 (per 100,000), while the average of states without the death penalty was 3.1.

In Colorado, a death penalty state that has enforced it once in the past 30 years, the rate was 2.9, having declined since 1996 when it was 4.6.

In contrast, South Carolina, which has executed 43 men since 1976, has experienced a murder rate in 2011 of 6.8 per 100,000.  Its average since 1996 is 7.2.

South Carolina is reflective of the most dangerous section of the country: the religious, conservative South 6.5/100,000 with 1083 executions (2001-2011).  The safest region?  The more secular, liberal northeast, home to several so-called high crime megalopolises (NYC, Boston, Philadelphia) – 4.5/100,000 with 4 executions.

Of the top and bottom five states in murder rate, there are two anomalies: New Mexico, which has no death penalty, ranks third in murder rate, while New Hampshire, which has the death penalty, ranks 49th.  In other words, four of the five most dangerous states enforce the death penalty, while four of five of the safest states do not have the death penalty.

In large part, the murder rate is a cultural phenomenon.  Much like the divorce and STD rates, the South outpaces its northern cousins.

The application of the death penalty is capricious and arbitrary at best.  The Death Penalty Information Center points out the “lack of uniformity in the capital punishment system.”  Even the heinousness of a crime has little bearing on the application.

“Ineffective guidelines and constraints in the capital sentencing process,” states the DPIC, “can result in decision-makers falling back on their prejudices about who are the worst kind of criminals or who are the more sympathetic victims.”

Further, “many factors other than the gravity of the crime or the culpability of the offender appear to affect death sentences, including geography, race, gender, and access to adequate counsel.”

For example, in 2002 Baltimore saw “only one person on Maryland’s death row, but suburban Baltimore County, with one tenth as many murders as the city, had nine times the number.”

Of the 1325 executions since 1977, 453 or 34 percent were black despite the black population of U.S. being about 11percent.

In addition, it is expensive and time-consuming, and the potential for mistake is at times there.  As one recently exonerated, former death-row man said, “You can let someone out of prison but you cannot release them from the grave.

The death penalty is reactive rather than proactive.  In hindsight, might it been a virtuous act to have eliminated Evan Ebel before he allegedly shot prison director Tom Clements?  But then, that would mean being able to read the mind of every potential killer.

So what is justice, a fitting consequence for an offense?  Like the application of the death penalty, the answer is capricious and arbitrary.

With regard to James Holmes, accused of the Aurora theater killings, the Denver Post editorialized, the “DA is mistaking death for justice.”


By rejecting Holmes’s offer to plead guilty provided he get life in prison with no hope of parole, District Attorney George Brauchler has decided to put on a show trial with him in the starring role.

It’s about ego, grandstanding at its worst with the result of putting every family and friend of the victims through another excruciating ordeal and doing nothing to prevent the next massacre.


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