The Inherent Problem With Capital Punishment

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The Inherent Problem With Capital Punishment

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Photo: NCR Online

Grady Trexler, Assistant Opinions Editor

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Let’s make three assumptions about the United States: one, that the judicial system isn’t perfect; two, that security in prisons is getting better and better; and three, that the United States has one of the highest rates of capital punishment in the world.  If assumptions one and two are true, then it would be troubling if assumption three was true as well. It would be immoral to execute an innocent person, but we know that innocent people are convicted; and we can hold violent criminals in jail safely and indefinitely, meaning there is little reason to prefer the death penalty over simple lifetime confinement; so why on earth does the United States seem to love capital punishment?

Assumption one: we know intrinsically that the judicial system isn’t perfect.  Countless studies have proven this point. Business Insider reports that 1,761 people have been exonerated since 1989 on newly found innocence.  The National Registry of Exonerations proudly (or morbidly?) displays on its website banner “CURRENTLY 2,224 EXONERATIONS. MORE THAN 19,610 YEARS LOST.”  University of Michigan professor Samuel Gross found that the wrongful conviction rate for those sentenced to death was 4.1%. Some point to the rising number of exonerations to say that our justice system is getting better, with new DNA technology, so we shouldn’t worry about wrongful convictions, but this misses the point entirely.  There will always be better ways of obtaining and analysing evidence, but they will always be imperfect. Even disregarding everything else, the simple fact is that the weakest link of our justice system is that it is made up of people. Judges and juries will always at some level let their biases get the better of them or make other mistakes.  Which means conceivably, some of the inmates on death row could always be innocent.

Assumption two: prisons are getting more secure.  USA Today reports that between 2009 and 2013, only one prisoner escaped a maximum security prison, and was recaptured within ten days.  And as technology gets better, we get even better at making prisons more and more secure. New York discovered that the total rate of escape had dropped sharply; from 29 escapees in 1983 to 1 in 2013.  This means that arguments for capital punishment about how it is the best way to keep dangerous criminals out of society aren’t compelling enough; if those criminals were locked in up high security prison, an escape would be almost inconceivable.  Combined with the fact that most inmates on death row are there for quite a while anyway without the public fearing their escape, it seems clear that a death sentence doesn’t keep the States any safer than a life sentence would.

Assumption three: the U.S. has one of the globally highest rates of death penalty use.  America is consistently among the top users of capital punishment in the world, ranked among Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran.  Not exactly the most human-rights-friendly nations.

It is deeply troubling to think that we let a government with so many wrongful convictions literally take the lives of convicts. William Blackstone’s famous words ring true: “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”  This is a pillar of American justice; we are innocent until proven guilty, we can appeal our trials, we can make sure that justice will be served correctly.  Life sentences can be exonerated, but the dead cannot be brought back to life.  Regardless of where you stand on the death penalty morally, philosophically, legally, or religiously, we can all agree that killing an innocent person is unjust, so we ought to do away with the death penalty.

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Grady Trexler, Assistant Opinions Editor

Grady Trexler is a junior and the Assistant Opinions Editor. He enjoys the Opinions section because it lets him be biased. Grady enjoys listening to music...

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The Inherent Problem With Capital Punishment