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The death chamber at the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville.

CREDIT: Chuck Berman/KRT/Newscom
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On death row: Dylann Roof, 22, committed mass murder in South Carolina

CREDIT: Charleston County Sheriff’s Office via Getty Images

Should the Death Penalty Be Abolished?

In January, Dylann Roof, 22, received a death sentence for the 2015 hate crime killing of nine African-Americans in a South Carolina church. Overall, however, the use of capital punishment in the U.S. has declined in recent years as opposition to it has grown. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled (in Atkins v. Virginia) that the death penalty for mentally disabled defendants violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. And in 2005, the justices barred the execution of those who’d committed their crimes as minors (in Roper v. Simmons).

Here, two experts argue whether the death penalty is too harsh a punishment for any crime.  

YES

When the United States was founded more than two centuries ago, capital punishment was commonplace in the 13 colonies, as well as in England and across Europe. Today it’s becoming increasingly rare.

More than two-thirds of the world’s countries, including virtually all of Europe, have abolished the death penalty. This trend away from capital punishment can be seen in the United States as well. New death sentences and executions in the U.S. continue to decline. In 2016, there were approximately 30 new death sentences—down from a record high of 315 in 1996. Twenty people were executed in 2016, compared with 98 in 1999. The decline in death sentences and executions reflects a growing discomfort with capital punishment.

Support for capital punishment is at a 40-year low. According to some polls, less than half of Americans favor its use. Since 2007, the death penalty has been eliminated in six states, bringing the number that have the death penalty down to 31. And actual use of the death penalty is increasingly limited to a small geographic slice of the nation: Four states—Florida, Georgia, Missouri, and Texas—are responsible for 90 percent of America’s executions.  

The death penalty system is prone to error and discrimination.

We all benefit from a criminal justice system that creates a safer society with less crime. That’s not what the death penalty is doing. Murder rates are lowest in the Northeast—the region with the fewest executions. The South carries out the most executions and has high murder rates. 

Finally, there’s the fact that the system is prone to human error and discrimination. Since 1976, at least 156 people have been freed from death row after evidence of their innocence emerged. And death sentences are more likely to be given if the murder victim is white or if the defendant is poor. 

There are better ways to punish the guilty and keep our communities safe. It’s time for the U.S. to join the international community by abandoning this medieval form of punishment.

 

—DIANN RUST-TIERNEY,

National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

NO

Capital punishment is an extreme sanction that is properly reserved for the worst of the worst: terrorists like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and mass murderers like Dylann Roof.

During the first decade of the 21st century, there were 26 percent more executions in the U.S. than in the last decade of the 20th century. During the same time period, the U.S. murder rate decreased by 24 percent. Several academic studies show a clear deterrent effect from judicious use of the death penalty.

Opponents claim that there are innocent people on death row. While that may be true, it has not been proven that even a single innocent person has actually been executed. The reason is that in every state with capital punishment, convicted murderers automatically go through a series of appeals that result in an average 12-year delay between sentence and execution. Beyond
that, DNA testing can now establish with virtual certainty in many cases whether an individual is, in fact, the killer.

Several studies show that the death penalty has a clear deterrent effect.

On the other hand, there are hundreds of innocent victims who’ve died because we allowed convicted murderers to get out of prison and kill again.

Some claim life without parole is an appropriate alternative to the death penalty. But the looming threat of a death sentence is a key reason many killers agree to accept sentences of life without parole in plea deals.

According to Gallup polls, 60 percent of Americans support the death penalty for a person convicted of murder. This continued support was on display in November: In California, voters rejected
a ballot measure that would have abolished capital punishment in the state, and Nebraska voters rejected the legislature’s move to end the death penalty there.

If we can establish that a killer is absolutely guilty and has a track record that suggests he will seriously hurt or kill again, what do we say to his future victims if we allow him to live? We need capital punishment for those rare cases in which a killer is beyond redemption.

 

—JOSHUA MARQUIS,

District Attorney, Clatsop County, Oregon

By the Numbers: Capital Punishment

    • 31

      NUMBER OF states with the death penalty. The federal courts can also use it.

    • 20

      NUMBER OF executions in the U.S. in 2016. That’s down from 98 in 1999.

    • 2,905

      NUMBER OF inmates on death row in the U.S., as of July 2016.

SOURCE: Death Penalty Information Center

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