Legal controversy continuously flows about whether the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment and prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. One side says the death penalty was carried out when the Constitution was ratified, and it is therefore legal so long as it is no crueler than the way it was done then. It seems to these people that hanging or a firing squad is ok, but drawing and quartering is not. The other side says it is wrong unless there is a 100% guarantee the person being put to death feels nothing, like he is just going to sleep.
This debate is misguided. The death penalty is wrong. It is wrong because it is a “perfect” penalty dealt out by an imperfect system. When I say “perfect” penalty, I mean it is final, 100%, the person is dead regardless of how it occurs.
Last week, I read an article about a man in Louisiana released after 15 years on death row after DNA evidence showed that he was actually innocent. The article quotes Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project stating this man was the 18th person released from death row after DNA evidence showed he was actually innocent. Just yesterday, Texas released the 108th prisoner to be exonerated by DNA evidence after being convicted by a jury and sentenced to death or a long prison term.
Think about it. All these people, who were tried, found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury, sentenced to death or prison, and had their appeals. Some were in line to die. And they did not commit the crime. How many were in the same position and were executed either before DNA was used or simply because no DNA evidence existed that could show their innocence?
How many mistakes are too many? I argue that one is too many. We should not be killing our mistakes. Our system, as hard as we try to make it fair and sure, is imperfect because humans run it and we are imperfect. We should not impose the “perfect” penalty delivered by an imperfect system. I don’t think there can ever be a perfect system, so we should not impose a perfect penalty.
A little research shows that it costs about twice as much to execute someone than warehouse them in prison for the rest of their lives. Why? Lawyers get paid more to defend death penalty cases (some states require two lawyers on any death penalty case) and the taxpayers fund both sides of lengthy appeals. The lawyers get the money. But where does the money go if a person is imprisoned for life? Sure, lawyers get some (always do), but much of it goes to constructing prisons and paying prison guards. I say construction workers and prison guards are a better use of our money.
So, between a perfect punishment being dealt out by an imperfect system, and it being more economical to warehouse those convicted of the most heinous crimes—if for no other reason than not killing our mistakes—the death penalty is just plain wrong.