The death penalty debate: when emotions and facts collide

Dylann Roof being sentenced to death has rekindled the debate about the death penalty.

No matter where you stand it is a divisive issue that, on a basic level, comes down to an argument between facts and emotion.

But before we dive into it, a few things:  

  1. You either are for or against the death penalty. You can’t be against the death penalty in general, but in favor of it in certain cases. That means you’re pro-death penalty. Most things in life allow for a gray area, but this issue is a dichotomy. There is no middle ground – you can’t have it both ways.
  2. I think it is important to point out that Dylann’s punishment should not be more severe based on the fact that he murdered people of color. I don’t agree that race, gender, orientation, or other characteristics should ever affect the severity of a sentence. It’s not a consistent means of enforcing punishment and allows our emotions, rather than facts, to guide policy.
  3. We can all agree that this is one of the most adorable gifs in the history of gifs:

But more to the point, you should have the decency to be incensed that a fellow human took the lives of other fellow humans. The fact that Dylann’s victims were specifically chosen based on their skin color may make his crime more abhorrent from a societal perspective. However, our judicial system should not consider this as a justification for a more severe sentence.

There is very valid discussion surrounding the dangers of wrongful convictions (with groups like the Innocence Project doing great work in this area), though this certainly isn’t a concern in Dylann’s case. Innocent people have been exonerated posthumously, which itself should deter us from seeking the death penalty.

Regardless if you are for or against the death penalty, public opinion overall is changing to be against it, according to the Pew Research Center. What’s more, we can all agree that society’s fundamental goal for people like Dylann is to keep them sequestered and eliminate any chance of them having access to the general public for the rest of their lives. In terms of the death penalty debate, this means that we either want Dylann to waste away in prison for the rest of his life, or we want to fast forward a bit to the part where he dies.

So at this point, I don’t think it’s intellectually honest to treat the debate around the death penalty as a moral decision. We’ve already completed any moral questioning that would need done. We have decided that the convicted person should be removed from the rest of society, never to again rejoin it. It’s simply not a valid argument to say that they deserve to live their complete natural life because they are humans. At the same time, it is equally as invalid to say that we should exact vengeance and do to them what they’ve done to others. When we say this, we are inserting our emotions into the equation, which causes judicial inconsistency. The judicial system can and should be uniform in how it applies punishments. If we factor out emotion as a guide for whether or not we should deliver the death penalty, this leaves us with the only aspect of the death penalty decision that is truly unbiased: money.

Facts

A Duke University study found that it cost North Carolina about $2.2 million more to prosecute a homicide as a death penalty case than not. This is due to factors such as a longer trial, more staff required by the state to prosecute, more appeals, and longer stays for the perpetrator in a special location of the prison (and extra security there, too).

A study in Idaho found that it took over 40 times longer to work through appeals on death penalty cases than it did on appeals for life sentences. This time may be better spent working on other cases, rather than devoting extra time solely due to the desired outcome of the sentence itself.

Possibly the largest example of money being wasted on death penalty cases is in California. In California, the average time from sentencing (not the trial, sentencing) to execution is 25 years. That means someone who was sentenced when the Wayne’s World movie came out or when Nirvana was great would likely be executed this year. California has only carried out thirteen executions since 1976, despite having over 700 inmates on death row, each one costing the state an extra $90,000 a year to house.

The only other argument in favor of the death penalty which might make sense is that it serves as a deterrence to crime.This idea seems to be rooted in logic: if you know that you could be killed by the government if you kill someone else, then maybe you won’t kill anyone? That’s a logical argument, but it makes the mistake of assuming a murderer is thinking logically in the first place. Leading criminologists agree that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent.

Often, politicians who take a pro-death penalty stance portray themselves as being “tough on crime,” because that’s what feels right to many of their supporters. It’s a quick response to a complex problem that doesn’t require much further explanation. It’s pandering that is based on emotions, not facts. (Ignoring facts in favor of emotion sounds like an eerily familiar problem, no?)

I still wrestle with the idea of being pro- or anti-death penalty. I don’t like the idea of people dying, but also we’ve relegated those with life sentences to die while in captivity already. But my emotional side wants vengeance, so I understand that side of the argument, too. As a society, we need to do our best to make decisions based on facts and evidence. Emotions are what make us human, but our emotional bias is something we need to be aware of.

Even if you ignore the facts behind the death penalty, basically what you’re saying is that you want the government to be able to murder its own people to deter people from murdering other people. That makes as much sense as spanking your child to teach them to not hit other people.

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