Death Penalty in Decline
At some point in the last few years I realized that I could not reconcile my pro-life position on abortion with a pro-death penalty stance. Yes, I understand the arguments that the former does not choose to have their life ended in a medical procedure while the latter does choose execution through their intentional actions. Where I depart from that logic is when I think about the individuals delivering these two actions. While I am morally outraged by the doctor who performs a procedure I believe is murder, I am equally outraged by the state-sanctioned murder of a criminal.
My opposition to the death penalty has only become more firm as technology has overturned more and more convictions in recent years. I simply cannot accept capital punishment with such uncertainty about the verdicts that lead to this ultimate penalty.
“The Department of Justice and FBI agreed Thursday to review thousands of cases in which hair sample analysis methods that modern scientific assessments have deemed deeply flawed may have led to countless wrongful convictions. More than 120 convictions have already been reported as suspicious, including 27 death penalty convictions, according to the Washington Post.
“Since its emergence as a criminal justice tool, DNA testing has exonerated 310 people in the United States after their conviction, revealing key misconceptions about who is guilty and what evidence is probative of guilt.”
I should be clear here in saying that I still believe that jury trials are the most democratic form of justice we could hope for at this time. When someone is convicted or declared not guilty based on all available evidence I gladly accept that verdict for what it is. Where I may differ from most though is in the hope that the government would allow access to newer science when it becomes available. There may be a cost involved, but Megan McArdle has my favorite quote on that subject:
“If they get a DNA test and it proves them guilty, we’ve lost little time or money. If they get a DNA test and it exonerates them, we’ve set an innocent man free. DNA tests would have to cost $1 million apiece for me to consider that a bad bargain.”
As one might expect, there is a fair amount of resistance to DNA testing from prosecutors who might not like their convictions being overturned. What I think is key here is to not blame them when this happens, provided they waged a fair prosecution that respected all available facts. I choose to assume good intent on their part and not to suspect them of suppressing evidence that might prove someone innocent.
All of this talk of DNA testing is part of a much more broad conversation about the death penalty as it becomes less and less frequent in the United States. From NPR:
“In May, Maryland became the sixth state in as many years to abolish the death penalty. Across the nation as a whole, fewer criminals are being put to death. Last year, 43 were executed, down significantly from the peak of 98 back in 1999.
“Plenty of states have the death penalty on the books and prisoners on death row, but have not carried out executions for years.
“California, which has the largest death row population — 727, according to the Death Penalty Information Center — hasn’t carried out an execution since 2006.”
The death penalty is still supported by 63% of the population, however this is surely to change with the dying off of older Americans who remember a time when it was used more frequently and perhaps could fairly be considered a deterrent. Today capital punishment has become so infrequent that it primarily exists as a sideshow. I personally find it almost impossible to believe any potential criminals are considering the death penalty before they pull a trigger. When the system is proven to be flawed and the intended purpose is no longer met, it’s time for society to consider a new approach to punishing the worst of our criminals.