But that’s not how death penalty supporters see it. “There are some murder cases for which anything else is just not justice,” says Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a victims rights group.
Scheidegger also believes that putting a convicted murderer to death is the only sure way to prevent that person from doing harm again.
“People sentenced to life in prison do sometimes kill again, either in prison or by ordering an execution on the outside, and sometimes they do escape,” he says. “But people who have been executed never kill again.”
The morality of capital punishment has long been debated. Many death penalty supporters interpret the biblical phrase “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” to mean that those who commit murder should meet the same fate.
Death penalty supporters say that capital punishment serves as a deterrent, stopping would-be killers, since they fear the possibility of execution. And many think that putting a killer to death can bring some closure and sense of justice to a victim’s family.
Opponents say killing is wrong no matter who is doing it, even if it’s the government, and that it’s too final a punishment in a world where mistakes can happen. Indeed, since 1973, 162 death row inmates have been exonerated, based on DNA and other evidence.
Opponents also point to statistics that indicate the death penalty discriminates against African-Americans, who make up 12 percent of the U.S. population but more than 40 percent of death row inmates.
Internationally, more than two-thirds of the world’s countries, including all of Europe except Belarus, have abolished the death penalty. According to Amnesty International, the countries that execute the most people are China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. (In 2017, the U.S. ranked eighth on the list.)
“Virtually no democracy in the world has the death penalty, except the United States,” says Jordan Steiker, a law professor at the University of Texas who’s written a book on the death penalty. Most other countries that use capital punishment are autocratic regimes or countries that use it to punish high crimes such as treason, he says.
“The U.S. is such a remarkable outlier in its continued use of the death penalty for ordinary crimes,” Steiker says.