Justice John Paul Stevens reviews a book on the matter in the New York Review of Books by David Garland. He posts a very strong argument against:
To be reasonable, legislative imposition of death eligibility must be rooted in benefits for at least one of the five classes of persons affected by capital offenses.
First, of course, are victims. By definition murder victims are no longer alive and so have no continuing interest.
Second are survivors—family and close friends of victims who often suffer enormous grief and tangible losses. The harm to this class is immeasurable; but punishment of the defendant cannot reverse or adequately compensate any survivor’s loss. An execution may provide revenge and therapeutic benefits. But important as that may be, it cannot alone justify death sentences. We do not, after all, execute drunken drivers who cause fatal accidents.
Third are participants in judicial processes that end in executions—detectives, prosecutors, witnesses, judges, jurors, defense counsel, investigators, clemency board members, and the medically trained personnel who carry out the execution process and whom Garland describes as being somewhat embarrassed by doing so. While support of the death penalty wins votes for some elected officials, all participants in the process must realize the monumental costs that capital cases impose on the judicial system. The financial costs (which Garland estimates are at least double those of noncapital murder cases) are obvious; seldom mentioned is the impact on the conscientious juror obliged to make a life-or-death decision despite residual doubts about a defendant’s guilt.
The fourth category consists of the general public. If Garland’s comprehensive analysis is accurate—that the primary public benefits of the death penalty are “political exchange and cultural consumption”—and as long as the remedy of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is available, those partisan and cultural considerations provide woefully inadequate justifications for putting anyone to death.
Fifth, of course, is the class of thousands of condemned inmates on death row who spend years in solitary confinement awaiting their executions. Many of them have repented and made positive contributions to society. The finality of an execution always ends that possibility. More importantly, that finality also includes the risk that the state may put an actually innocent person to death.
What is further interesting in this article is this observation:
What once was a frightening public spectacle now resembles painless administration of preoperative anesthesia in the presence of few witnesses. American officials do not enjoy executions; “they seem, in short, embarrassed, as if caught in a transgression.”
That is, the reason why the death penalty may have served as motivation was the guarantee of absolute terror. People may think twice about committing a capital crime when, if caught, they will be put to death in a horrific, public way. Our being a Western country much different than our terrorist-allied enemies, and that damned Constitution, won’t allow us to draw and quarter a convict anymore. So we satiate our lust for revenge with a medical injection witnessed by a few. And how does this deter anything? What really is the point?
I was always blindly against the death penalty as a Liberal In Good Standing until Tim McVeigh came around. Returning a mass-murdering terrorist to his maker makes sense and I believe served a major catharsis in a wounded nation. I was starting to understand why a death penalty was needed. That is, until…
…we moved to TX and I saw first-hand a death penalty machine completely out of control. Why in G-d’s name does TX feel the need to execute many times the inmates of the next most-active executioner state? And does this help TX in any way [e.g., less capital crime]? No, of course not. It does help TX politicians remain in office, however.
The Willingham case threw me over the edge. If you have not seen the Frontline video, please take the time and do it.
The death penalty is in all but a remote few cases unfair, extremely risky and the payoff is nonexistent. I am not in favor of an outright abolition, but its use should be limited to maybe 4 or 5 a century, at most, and the standards extremely high. Looking at TX, we really need to ask ourselves what has gone wrong.