Column: The death penalty: Life's unanswered question
Sep. 23, 2011
The opinions expressed by The Maneater columnists do not represent the opinions of The Maneater editorial board.
With the recent execution of Troy Davis, the realness of the death penalty is on the minds of many. Death by lethal injection is still used as a last-resort punishment in the majority of states for charges ranging from capitol drug trafficking to first-degree murder.
The death penalty in its rawest form is an eye-for-an-eye philosophy. It’s been around as long as we (humans) have, literally, but it has some gaps in its history.
Many major countries have abolished the death penalty: China from 747 to 759 (I guess it didn’t stick?) and Japan from 818 to 1156. There was a public statement against it in 1395 in England.
In the United States, the death penalty was declared unconstitutional from 1972 to 1976 due to the Furman v. Georgia case. It was re-applied in 1976 with more limited warranty due to the Gregg v. Georgia case. The Troy Davis case also took place in Georgia. Hmmm.
If I had to boil it down to one word, and I don’t, then there’s only one to explain public stance on the death penalty: unsure. Thomas More even mused about it in 1516 in his book, “Utopia,” about a Utopian society, with no firm conclusion.
I’ve been having conversations with friends and acquaintances about this for three days now, and the perspectives are so varied that there’s no way there could be a conclusion. How do you judge something you’re so far from but could be so close to? It’s a sticky spot.
If there’s one thing I’ve heard people agree on, it’s fear. Why don’t you throw pies at your teachers? You don’t want bad grades. Why don’t you walk when the police are running after you? You don’t want to get caught. You refrain from doing certain things because of the consequences.
So, the consequences need to be equal to the action, right? If you’re convicted of murder, there needs to be a real consequence, and I guess life in prison just doesn’t cut it sometimes. That’s why the death penalty is there. But is that necessary?
And is it worth it? The margin of error on this thing is pretty high. The Death Penalty Information Center has released a list of eight inmates that were “executed but possibly innocent,” a small number in comparison to the 39 cases “with compelling evidence of innocence or serious doubt of guilt” compiled in a study by Northwestern University on wrongful accusation.
There have been 1,269 executions in the U.S. since 1976. So if you do the math, that’s one innocent person killed per 159 guilty with the DPIC stat, or one innocent person in every 33 with the Northwestern stats. Either way, I don’t like the odds.
In conversation, a friend of mine made the point that she’d rather kill one innocent person for however many guilty because it works out, statistically — a greater good approach. But I think that argument can only be maintained by the eight or 39 people who were executed accidentally.
If you were walking into the room where your life was going to end, would you draw any condolence from the fact that, numbers-wise, you have to die? “Well, guys … I crunched the numbers twice. Looks like it was just inevitable.”
So, is it worth it? If the U.S. were a baseball team, would we play the pitcher who threw balls a little too often, or would we look for something better?
I think fear is almost necessary as a motivator and a deterrent, but maybe there’s another way to instill fear. I don’t know exactly how (shit, I’m already scared enough of life in prison). What I do know is that error isn’t okay when it comes to life and death, especially if the life isn’t yours to play around with. There aren’t any re-dos.