“We need to kill more people,” said a man responsible for at least four deaths in the past five years. “… [R]evenge is important for society as a whole.”
Are these chilling words from the manifesto of a mass murderer or an ISIL insurgent? Actually, these telling statements were recently uttered by Dale Cox, one of the nation’s most efficient death penalty prosecutors. When put in Cox’s blunt terms, the motivations behind the death penalty become clear: revenge and bloodlust. With Cox’s words in mind, if our nation seeks to be a fair arbiter of justice and a moral example to the world, we must end the death penalty without delay.
But that fight will not be easy. The Supreme Court ended an otherwise fruitful term with a barbarous ruling in the case Glossip v. Gross. Five justices found the execution drug midazolam neither cruel nor unusual — the same drug behind a number of horrendous botched executions that Justice Sonia Sotomayor LAW ’79 described as “the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake.” To add insult to (literal) injury, the majority also decided that the burden is on the prisoner to find an alternative execution method, failing which the state can essentially kill him or her by whatever method it wishes.
But other events of the summer offered some hope. Here in Connecticut, while Governor Dannel Malloy and the legislature had ended death sentencing, 11 prisoners remained on death row for past crimes. But in August, the state Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in all cases. Meanwhile in Nebraska, a state as conservative as Connecticut is liberal, a supermajority of the right-leaning legislature voted to repeal the death penalty in May. “The death penalty today is a broken and ineffective government program,” wrote a group of Nebraska conservatives. “The time has come [for repeal].”
Indeed, conservatives of all stripes should oppose the death penalty. For the libertarian, capital punishment is big government at its worst, allowing the state to meddle not just with taxes, but with lives. For the fiscal conservative, study after study has shown the death penalty to cost far more than life sentences. In one study, the death penalty costs up to 10 times more than sentencing criminals to life behind bars. For the religious conservative, capital punishment violates the values of many faith traditions. As Pope John Paul II preached, “the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.” I applaud those in the pro-life movement, particularly at Yale, who realize that a true pro-life stance necessitates opposition to the death penalty.
People across the political spectrum can agree that capital punishment is inaccurate, ineffective and racially biased. Astonishingly, over 150 death row inmates have been proven innocent and officially exonerated in the past 42 years — though even one would be too many. Scores of studies and the American Society of Criminology concur that the death penalty fails to deter crime. Sometimes, it even has the opposite outcome, desensitizing people to death via the “brutalization effect.” And on top of all this, state after state has uncovered systemic racial biases in death penalty sentencing. For instance, a University of Washington study found black defendants three times more likely to be sentenced to death than whites, all other variables controlled, and a Government Accountability Office review of 53 different studies conclusively showed that those who killed white victims disproportionately receive the death penalty.
Maybe, just maybe, these astounding statistics would be excusable if the punishment could be revoked. But the death penalty can’t admit its mistakes. Of course, the crimes of the truly guilty on death row are unimaginably horrible. Homicide violates the most basic tenets of our society and causes untold trauma for the victim’s loved ones. But if we collectively condemn those who take a life, why should our government stoop to the same level? How can our nation have written into its laws that the appropriate response to one killing is another? Surely homicidal criminals deserve severe punishment, but to have the death penalty in a democracy puts blood on all of our hands.
Yet since we live in a democracy, collective action can remove this national moral stain. With states across the nation reconsidering their stances, the time is ripe for action. If you hail from a state where the death penalty has already been done away with, urge your federal representatives to do the same.
In 1994, Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun came to realize the horrors of capital punishment, declaring “from this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.” While his statement rings powerfully to this day, it is not enough. Two decades later, we cannot just sit back and “no longer tinker.” We must actively dismantle the machinery of death, or it will continue to grind on.
Jacob Wasserman is a senior in Saybrook College and vice president of the Yale College Democrats. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org