This week, college students across America participated in Amnesty International’s National Week of Student Action to Abolish the Death Penalty. At Yale, members of the University’s Amnesty International chapter coordinated a variety of events that ranged from the entertaining to the informative, all designed to precipitate discourse on and generate opposition to capital punishment. We hope they achieve those goals.
Capital punishment is one of the most controversial and troubling social issues of our time. Nearly a quarter century ago the Supreme Court case Gregg v. Georgia marked the beginning of the modern era of death penalty use in America, but the debate over the moral, ethical and practical acceptability of capital punishment rages on.
At its core, the death penalty throws into conflict the individual citizen’s right to life and the state’s authority to inflict punishment by taking that life away. Some say that the state has the right to do so, that once a citizen has aggressively taken the life of another, he forfeits his own right to life. A more sophisticated view is that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to crime — that potentially violent criminals will choose not to commit crimes because they know they could one day receive a death sentence if convicted of the crime.
Theoretically, the deterrence argument is not an unreasonable one. The problem, however, is that people committing extremely violent crimes — those that could lead to death sentences — are seldom rational actors. Designing a theoretical deterrent based on rational calculation is therefore pointless. Indeed, statistics have shown that the death penalty has little value as a deterrent.
If the death penalty is not a deterrent, the argument that it should be an allowable punishment is an exceedingly hard one to justify. In today’s world of maximum security prisons and no-parole sentences, a life sentence can ensure society that its worst criminals will remain as excluded and harmless as they would be if they were put to death.
There is, however, an important catch: Lifelong prisoners can be set free if evidence is someday found to clear their guilt. If a prisoner is executed, the chance for justice dies with him.
Perhaps what is most distressing about America’s use of the death penalty is how arbitrary — and often how downright wrong — our juries tend to be. Recent statistics have shown that the death penalty may be disturbingly biased against certain races and lower classes. And the Washington Post recently reported that over 100 prisoners had been exonerated after DNA testing, 11 of whom were slated for execution.
Thomas Jefferson once said that it is better to let 10 guilty men go free than to convict one innocent man. Jefferson would doubtlessly agree that to execute that man is decidedly worse.
Sadly, America seems to have lost its way on this issue — capital punishment enjoys widespread support in the United States and has for decades. This is one trend we hope our generation will end.