The recent case of Andrea Yates reopened an age-old debate about capital punishment. And in this case, as with all capital cases, it is fitting that the sentence of death was avoided. It is a step in the right direction.
Though her crime — drowning her own children — was horrific and upsetting, there should be no time when death is an acceptable punishment, regardless of the circumstances. For serious crimes, life in prison is an appropriate and suitably harsh punishment, and quite simply, there are no compelling reasons that the death penalty should be an option in our system whatsoever.
Many supporters of capital punishment, including President George W. Bush, cite the “deterrence effect” of executions as a primary justification for it. The threat of the death penalty, they believe, discourages people from committing violent crimes for fear of losing their own lives.
If this were true, it might be an interesting argument. But this is simply not the case. In a wide body of literature on this subject, there is no conclusive or convincing evidence that the presence or exercise of the death penalty has any substantial crime-deterrence effect in the United States. Short of living in a repressive police state where summary executions occur even for petty crimes, the death penalty is no more of a discouragement to would-be criminals than, say, life in prison.
Others argue that the death penalty is a cost-reducing measure because it saves the expense of housing an inmate in a prison cell for the remainder of his natural life. Again, this turns out not to be true in practice. The Bureau of Justice Statistics indicates that the average capital crime inmate spends nearly eight years on death row, usually pending automatic reviews, litigation and numerous appeals. This high amount of legal activity all but erases any financial savings to the government. In any case, determining the fate of a life based on the savings of a few dollars is hardly the type of justice system that we should desire.
Another argument used by proponents of capital punishment is that execution of murderers is equivalent justice that provides retribution to the families of the victims. Yet this, too, is flawed logic. Victims’ families grieve over the loss of a loved one, and the essence of this grief will not be mitigated by witnessing another death. In fact, many survivors — including Bud Welch, whose daughter was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing — have said that watching the execution of the murderer has reopened a wound in their lives, adding to the feeling of emptiness and diminishment. If the sentence of life in prison is not severe enough to “satisfy” the thirst for vengeance, then it is unlikely that a death sentence will be any more effective at reducing the anger and hurt felt by victims’ families. This is all the better a reason not to punish one violation of life with another.
All of this has merely served to dismiss the arguments that support the death penalty: it does not substantially deter crime, it is not less expensive, and it will not itself bring peace to families.
Nothing has yet been said of the serious problems associated with the application of capital punishment. Among these, concerns for equity top the list. Is it acceptable that defendants with high-priced lawyers are less likely to be sentenced to death? Is it acceptable that racial or gender bias might enter a jury’s decision, or that mental illness may be overlooked? Or, worse yet, is it acceptable that an error could occur, depriving an innocent person of life? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding no.
The gift of life is the most precious of all, and we must be willing to defend it in all circumstances. Indeed, murder is so heinous because it violates the dignity of life, and life in prison is a severe and fitting punishment. Responding to one death with another merely continues the cycle of killing that our laws are supposed to guard against.
And so, we should continue the call to abolish the death penalty in the United States, joining numerous other nations around the world that did so long ago. In doing this, we will be promoting a consistent ethic of life that upholds the sanctity of life and rejects the taking of another life in any circumstance.
In the sentence of Andrea Yates, this consistent ethic was upheld. Now, our goal must be to maintain this ethic of life in every case.
William Edwards is a senior in Pierson College. His columns appear on alternate Mondays.