Death penalty facts and fiction

There was quite an interesting discussion on the death penalty recently in the on-line forum for my distance-ed public policy class.  At this point, I should not be surprised by the misconceptions my students have about the death penalty, but somehow it still really bugs me.  Rather than reply only in that forum, I just thought I would share with a (slightly) broader audience some information on the death penalty.

  • The death penalty is more expensive than life in prison.  Why?  Because we allow lots of legal action and appeals to do our best to make sure that we are not executing innocent people.  If you want to make the death penalty cheaper, you have to accept the greater likelihood that we will execute innocent people.
  • A related point: yes we give people sentenced to death a lot of appeals that often drag on for years.  This is not some frivolous exercise.  This is so we can make as sure as possible that we are not wrongly executing innocent individuals.
  • Despite all our best efforts, clearly innocent people do end up on death row.  Take away their appeals, and you almost assuredly will execute innocent people.  Recently in North Carolina, we had the case of Alan Gell (briefer summary here), who spent four years on death row due to extreme prosecutorial misconduct (for which the prosecutors were barely punished).  Many say that “the system worked,” but I must wonder how many people like Alan Gell ended up on death row but than never got the excellent appelate representation that led to his eventual retrial and acquittal.
  • This one should be obvious, but just because DNA evidence can be 99.99% accurate does not that a verdict based on DNA evidence is that accurate.  Just because a knife with the victim's blood is in your trunk, does not indicate with certainty that you put it there.  It's a great indication, sure, but DNA is just part of a larger puzzle
  • Capital punishment is not an effective deterrent.  For one, most murderers are not actually calculating rational actors.  In fact, one theory suggests that most murderers suffer from brain damage.  The only way to make capital punishment an effective deterrent would be able to use it so widely that you almost assuredly would be executing innocent persons on a fairly regular basis. 
%d bloggers like this: