Every once in a while, I do some serious thinking - not often, mind you, and even when I do, it is not some subject that all of you would find interesting.
Lately, in my work as a criminal defense attorney, I have had the opportunity to review the opinions of about 200 people on various subjects, but specifically, on their thoughts about the death penalty. It always gives me pause when I hear that people seriously believe the death penalty is a deterrent to crime in their area and therefore is a valid reason to kill a fellow human being. The only valid, real deterrence is to the person killed. He will no longer be a threat to you, me or anyone in our society. That is not a bad thing. However, if we are going to support a policy as serious as taking a person’s life because he or she took another person’s life, then we should be frank with ourselves.
There are generally two reasons why people support the death penalty. The first, for revenge. Think about the Casey Anthony case. This is the case in Florida where the young mother is in jail awaiting trial for her baby daughter’s brutal, cruel murder. She was photographed dancing and partying during the period of time her baby was missing, that is, before the authorities found her little decaying body in a local woodsy area. Now, I am certainly not saying that we should believe that she is guilty prior to her trial. But, if - and that is a big “IF” - she is found guilty, it would be hard not to think that she deserves to die. Then again, there has to be something inherently wrong with her. I am not a mental health expert and have no clue what it is, but I can assure you that she is not a normal young mother who was concerned about the safety of her child. She has a warped screw somewhere. I presume her mitigation specialist and mental health expert will find it. Maybe the jury will hear about it and find that she was/is incompetent/insane or will find some other reason to lessen her culpability. But, the point is, her case is a prime example of a “revenge” killing by the State.
Another reason why people support the death penalty is that they believe having this a law in their state deters deranged people who may be bent on committing heinous crimes. Think of Ted Bundy and other serial killers we have had roaming around among us in the United States. We certainly do not want those people out and about, possibly threatening our lives and the lives of our loved ones. The death penalty will certainly deter people who get a kick out of killing other people, right? Wrong.
There have been several studies about the effects of the death penalty on crime in the United States, some of which claim that the death penalty does have a deterrent effect. There have also been several academic critiques of this research.
Dr. Jeffrey Fagan of Columbia University describes numerous serious errors in the recent deterrence studies, including improper statistical analysis as well as missing data and variables that are necessary to give a full picture of the criminal justice system. He claims that evidence which shows that executions can exert a deterrent effect are flawed and unreliable.
Stanford Law Review published an article that examined deterrence studies. The article stated “aggregating over all of our estimates, it is entirely unclear even whether the preponderance of evidence suggests that the death penalty causes more or less murder” (58 Stanford Law Review 791 (2005)).
While doing some Google research, I found a lengthy study that showed the average murder rate per 100,000 people living in states that had the death penalty was 5.5 %, while the average murder rate of states without the death penalty was 3.1%. To summarize, in reality it does not appear that having the death penalty will make us safer as a society. People who are prone to commit crimes will not avoid committing those crimes just because the state where they live has the death penalty.
Why do we have the death penalty? Why do we say it is “fair” and “just” that we kill another person because that person killed someone else. How do we reason that it is the right thing to do? My answer is revenge. It is the only honest response to this question. We kill to avenge the unwarranted, senseless killing of another person in our community.
But, is that enough? Will that pass muster in our minds if we all were to start having some serious thoughts about this issue? Personally, my answer is “no”. However, I also know that some of you will quote the Bible - “an eye for an eye”. Isn’t that simple revenge? I doubt it.