Interview about the Death Penalty

I, the editor, recently completed the following interview by email. The interview was used by a college student for a capstone project, but I thought it would be worth sharing my thoughts here. Let me know what you think in the comments.

1. Many opponents of banning the Death Penalty Argue….

It is an “eye for and eye”.
It works as a deterrent to violent crimes.
It can be used as a tool to get people to plead guilty to avoid getting the death sentence therefore saving money for future trials.

What are your thoughts?
I think these arguments can be shown to be flawed. Morally speaking I disagree with “an eye for an eye” because I don’t believe we make things right by perpetrating more violence and traumatizing and punishing another family. The family of the victim doesn’t gain anything through the suffering of another family. To me the moral response to violence is healing and preventing future violence, not reacting to violence with more violence. Currently we see that while attention and resources are being geared towards incarceration, execution, and court battles, the victims are often not receiving the support and resources they need to recover, and their voices, opinions, and needs are seen as secondary or irrelevant to the desires of the prosecutor and district attorney who are motivated by politics and their careers.
The argument that the death penalty deters crime is not backed by modern data. We have seen states in the southern US and countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to execute people at higher rates than the rest of the world, but there continues to be frequent violence in these areas. The death penalty has been used heavily for 30 years now and has not drastically reduced the amount of serial killers, domestic violence related shootings, and mass killings, or deterred the daily gun violence we see here. We began executions again in the US in 1977 and in Texas in 1982, and during that period we actually saw several increases in the US murder rate until the mid 90s, which those spikes happened to also correspond to the Reagan era and many social issues happening at that time. I would argue, and most current data seems to show, that is because the rate of violence is affected by many societal factors such as poverty, lack of mental health services, drug epidemics, environmental factors such as lead exposure, age of the population, and easy access to guns, and not by the threat of execution.
The fact that many countries and states without the death penalty have much lower rates of violence could be a testament to the lack of evidence that the death penalty is an effective or necessary means to prevent violence. Most modern experts discount any deterrent effect and argue that people committing murder either are not thinking about consequences, or believe that they will not be caught or will not end up on death row. My experiences with death row prisoners would support that assertion as well. Ultimately we have seen a fairly steady murder rate for some time, but a drastic drop in the use of the death penalty. This is not due to a lack of horrific and violent crimes, but rather it has been attributed to the reluctance of juries to hand out death sentences and the fact that many prosecutors have stopped seeking it. I believe we are seeing an acknowledgement that this system is not viewed as effective and a push toward rehabilitation and prevention as more favorable policies.

Using the death penalty as a “tool” to get plea deals actually strikes me as part of the flawed ideology that has created an epidemic of wrongful convictions in this country. I have heard several wrongfully convicted people say they were threatened with some version of “confess or get the needle”. I can see how the price of murder trials is an issue for taxpayers. My response would be that we need to stop using the death penalty and to resort to less costly alternatives. Bad convictions are expensive because the taxpayers will pay for restitution, and the costs of more litigation with the wrongfully convicted. Death penalty appeals are very expensive to taxpayers, but are a necessary part of the death penalty process to try to ensure justice. Ultimately, ending that system is a better, more cost effective option than using it as a scare tactic.

2. Many Proponents of abolishing the Death Penalty Argue…

· It is cruel and unusual punishment therefor unconstitutional.
· It is a flawed process and too many people are being wrongfully convicted and executed.
· It leads to false convictions due to people pleading guilty even if innocent in order to avoid getting the Death Penalty.

What are your thoughts?

The death penalty is cruel and unusual for several reasons. One reason is that administration of the death penalty is completely arbitrary. Only a small number of U.S. counties are seeking death sentences regularly. This has always been the case since it was reinstated. We have also seen people held for 30 or 40 years before being executed, and those who face execution over and over again and develop “death row syndrome” because of the trauma it causes. There are issues around mental health and low IQ and whether it is cruel to execute people who are clearly mentally ill or have a limited understanding of things. Several men on Texas Death Row had well documented mental illness before their crimes and they would likely be sent to a mental health institution in many other countries or even in other states in the US with different standards and policies from Texas. Furthermore, the issues with lethal injection, that have stemmed from an EU ban on selling lethal injection drugs to us, have arguably caused many questions about the “humaneness” of the current way of killing inmates. There have been several prolonged executions and other signs that people were in pain or gasping for air when they should have been paralyzed during the execution process.

There is no doubt that people are being wrongfully convicted and that we have executed innocent people, two of those being Cameron Todd Willingham and Carlos DeLuna in Texas. I have personally met about a dozen people who were or are on death row despite strong evidence of their innocence and the struggle that these men and women go through to get exonerated is incredibly difficult and it should be concerning to anyone who cares about justice. There is no morality in promoting a system that kills innocent people. We have over one hundred fifty cases to prove that it is happening.

Just as we have a crisis with the amount of innocent people on death row, the use of the death penalty and other harsh sentencing has created a systemic problem of innocent people accepting plea deals for lesser charges. This is not justice and it is also not fair to the victims when poor police work and political ambitions get in the way of finding the truth and looking at violent cases in an honest way. Instead we are just throwing people’s lives away, dehumanizing people, sometimes lying to victims and not actually providing any solutions or justice in the situation.


3. In my research I found the biggest moral dilemma to be whether the government has the right to choose if a person lives or dies.
What are your thoughts on this?

I do feel that is a major moral dilemma and as someone who values freedom I do see the right of the government to kill as a threat to freedom and democracy. When we look at the context of executions worldwide and in history, they often have greater political implications and go hand in hand with repressive governments. Many abolitionists argue that the U.S. history of lynchings is connected to executions. We can see an underlying theme of race based repression in US executions with their prominence in the South and with the over-representation of black men on death row. So I see this as a major moral issue that is at odds with a free society. Countries like Saudi Arabia and the Philippines show what can happen when we allow the death penalty to be used more widely, which is the targeting of dissidents, sexual or ethnic minorities, and drug addicts, and a collapse of any semblance of fairness or justice. There is also a moral issue with the government ignoring the wishes of victims who are against the policies they promote, whether it is executions, life without parole, or giving a child life in prison. Many victims are in opposition to these policies, whether it is because they forgive the person, or that they believe in rehabilitation, or have religious views that make them against the death penalty. One such group is Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, which actively seeks alternatives to the death penalty and promotes restorative justice options.

4. In my research I have identified proponents of banning the Death Penalty to value the sanctity of life, rehabilitation and justice and opponents to banning the Death Penalty to value safety, security, cost efficiency and justice.
What are some of your values?

I value justice, equity, rehabilitation, healing, accountability, and safety.

5. In my research I have identified that proponents of banning the Death Penalty seem to be obligated to Death Row inmates, their families, the wrongfully accused, & all American citizens especially those who don’t have the money to hire lawyers.
I have identified that opponents of banning the Death Penalty seem to be obligated to victims, their families, future victims, and American citizens.
Who do you feel obligated to?

I feel obligated to inmates and their families as well as victims and future victims, the wrongfully convicted, and all Americans; that is why I try to focus on better solutions to violence that will benefit all of us as a whole. I think we often overlook that victims are sometimes also family to the accused, and that a significant amount of victims oppose the death penalty and sometimes openly fight against executions, so being anti-death penalty is in no way inherently in opposition to supporting victims.

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