It’s time to kill the death penalty

Capital punishment weaves its way in and out of the news, generally rising to public consciousness whenever the government is deciding whether to kill someone. Most recently, a Massachusetts jury handed down the death penalty for Boston Marathon Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Capital punishment is legal in over half of the states. For the last forty years, the most common method of execution has been lethal injection. However, in recent years the drugs necessary for lethal injection have fallen into short supply for a number of reasons. In particular, the export ban issued by the European Union on the required products and US pharmacists’ reluctance to supply the drugs. Some hopefuls believe that this shortage of drugs may lead to the death of capital punishment. Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts recently learned this the hard way when attempting to salvage capital punishment in Nebraska. On the same day that the state’s legislature repealed the state’s death penalty — in part due to practical limitations on carrying it out — Ricketts announced that he had bought lethal injection drugs from India, only to find out shortly after that it would be illegal to import them.

But sadly, as Oklahoma recently realized following a widely-publicized botched execution involving lethal injection, there is more than one way to kill someone.

In April, Governor Mary Fallin of Oklahoma signed into law a bill that provides the state with a new backup method of execution: nitrogen gas chambers. Governor Fallin was quoted by CNN as saying “I support that policy, and I believe capital punishment must be performed effectively and without cruelty. The bill I signed today gives the state of Oklahoma another death penalty option that meets that standard.” Many countries besides the United States have used gas chambers before, typically to kill livestock, but Nazi Germany, Napoleonic France and North Korea remain the only countries to have ever used gas in the execution of humans. What’s more, uncertainty surrounding the pain and suffering induced by nitrogen gas led some states to ban its use on animals.

Oklahoma is not the first or only state to be exploring alternative methods of execution. Earlier this year, Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed a bill allowing firing squads to be used as Utah’s backup execution method. Governor Herbert’s decision doesn’t come without some sense of history, as Utah is the only state in over a hundred years to have executed someone via firing squad.

The nitrogen gas chambers approved in Oklahoma are still being considered, by some, a humane method of execution. From Slate:

As long as 32 states have capital punishment on the books, there should be a less reliably cruel method of execution than lethal injection. “If we’re going to take a life, then we should do it in the most humane, civilized manner as is possible,” says Lawrence Gist II, an attorney and professor of business and law at Mount St. Mary’s College. “Right now, nitrogen is the best of the available options.”

Needle via Shutterstock

Needle via Shutterstock

This argument is weak on multiple fronts. First, it’s hard to consider gas chambers as anything but cruel and unusual given their historical connotations. Furthermore, by at least acknowledging that we should use the “best of the available options,” are we not also acknowledging that something is wrong? Should we really settle for the “least cruel” method, or should we remove cruelty from the equation altogether? Unsurprisingly, however, most people do not think this way. A majority of Americans, in fact, support the death penalty. The two biggest reasons for this being are the widespread belief in “an eye for an eye” and the somewhat less-prevalent belief that the death penalty saves the taxpayer money. Very few Americans actually believe that the death penalty is a deterrent, and they’re right.

It is somewhat understandable that people will cite the biblical call for equal and opposite retributive justice as a reason to support the death penalty. It appeals to a sense of fairness, albeit a primitive and bloodthirsty fairness (“revenge” is probably a better word). However, as we have learned that it is much more effective to prioritize rehabilitation over punishment in the justice system, and with studies showing that 4% of death row inmates are innocent, this primitive impulse for revenge is both impractical and unfair.

It’s also un-Christian, as Matthew 5:38-42 is very clear about how little Jesus cares for the idea of “an eye for an eye.” Given that support for the death penalty is highest amongst non-churchgoing protestants, it appears that much of the latent support for the capital punishment stems from an uninformed religious impulse.

What’s more, the belief that the death penalty saves taxpayers money is simply wrong. The costs associated with the government killing a citizen are far greater than the costs of keeping that person in prison forever. As Jack D’Aurora writes, describing procedures for death sentence trials in Ohio:

Hearings are attended, at a minimum, by three assistant attorneys general, three attorneys for the inmate, the Lucasville prison warden, the director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, counsel and other officials from the department, Frost and his two law clerks. These people all are paid by either the state or the federal government. Hearings can last from a few hours to multiple days. […] Life sentences without parole would serve us much better, but we are fixated on a process that drains government resources. And to what advantage?

A study by the Kansas Judicial Council found that defending a death penalty case is approximately four times more expensive than defending a case in which the death penalty is not sought. And a death row inmate, like any other inmate, can make an appeal, compounding those costs. Laborious appeals processes were one of the primary reasons why California judge Donald McCartin, who himself sentenced nine people to death, eventually came to the conclusion that capital punishment was “a waste of time and money.” As he told NBC in 2009, “It’s 10 times more expensive to kill them than to keep them alive.”

If the moral grounds on which we carry out the death penalty are shaky at best, and if it is far cheaper to let that person live than it is to kill them, why don’t we let them live? If our justifications aren’t valid, aren’t we killing someone just for the sake of killing? Certainly we have outgrown primitive conceptions of revenge such that we can adopt more effective, efficient and moral ways in which we deal with those who commit serious crimes.

The death penalty is still legal in 31 states. That’s 31 too many.

Jason Anson studies English Literature and Creative & Professional Writing at The University of Wolverhampton in Great Britain. He writes on a number of topics, but pays particularly close attention to animal welfare, civil rights, and social justice.

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