Answering Pro Death Penalty Arguments

by JoHarrington

I consider judicial execution to be a 'cruel and unusual punishment', which is contrary to international human rights laws.

On January 9th 2012, President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj signed a protocol which abolished the death penalty in Mongolia.

During the previous year, Gabon and Latvia had done the same.

They all joined the two-thirds of the world's nations which consider judicial execution to be a 'cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment', as out-lined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Only 57 countries to go! (And 36 of them are abolitionist in practice, even if they retain execution on their statute books.)

Debating the Death Penalty

Buy this balanced book to learn some of the issues raised by those on all sides of the divide. (Because this one is never just a simple 'for and against'.)

How I Entered the Death Penalty Debate

As a member of Amnesty International, I've relentlessly fought against capital punishment for decades.

Like many children, I was fascinated by the kind of gruesome and unwholesome things that my mother would rather I didn't know about at all. This included dinosaurs, ghosts, murders, zombies, vampires, judicial punishment, werewolves, slavery and Big Foot.

Then I grew up and certain subjects started to be pulled out of that mass. On reflections and more data, some of those bad things probably weren't real. But the rest... oh no, they are happening in the world right now.

My own reading had set me firmly against capital punishment before I even joined Amnesty International. Once I was old enough to do that, then I had an avenue to fight against the death penalty. I most definitely took it.

For well over two decades, my 'pen-pals' have included many of the world's political and judicial leaders. They have received my letters and e-mails explaining precisely why they should not put people to death.

Some of them even responded.

I've also had many ordinary individuals challenge me with firmly pro-death penalty arguments. This is my response to them.

Amnesty International and the Death Penalty

Does the Death Penalty Act as a Deterrent?

No, it doesn't. The childlike belief that you will get away with it over-rides the instinct for survival.

This pro Death Penalty argument maintains that murderers would think twice, if they risked losing their own lives too. It is based on the assumption that everyone wishes to survive; and that the threat of execution plays upon human nature to make people pause before committing a homicide.

Ergo, the presence of the Death Penalty = fewer homicides. The abolition of the Death Penalty = a boom in murders, which would threaten the very fabric of society.

It sounds so feasible that it remains the number one reason why people support capital punishment. Unfortunately, it doesn't hold up at all, once actual evidence is shone upon it.

For a start, consider that until the last century, most of the nations in the world not only had judicial executions on their statute books, but actively pursued its use. Not only did homicide continue to thrive from antiquity until the modern day, but there was no massive rise in cases, once the death penalty was abolished.

Grant McClellan 'Capital Punishment'

In 1959, Grant S McClellan meticulously studied the statistics for capital crimes in the USA. He compared the murder rates state by state, then fixed them against the national average.

His findings were published in 1961, in the book 'Capital Punishment'. His conclusion was that, 'there is strong evidence that the death penalty does not discourage crime at all.' 

The reason was simple.  The American states with the highest level of homicides also enforced the Death Penalty. At the other end of the scale, four of the safest states in which to live had all abolished capital punishment.

"The fact is that fear of the death penalty has never served to reduce the crime rate," McClellan wrote (p 40).

This is certainly a view which has been supported time and time again with similar studies. A study published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (PDF), in 2008, showed that 88% of academic experts did not believe that the Death Penalty is a deterrent of homicide.

Personally, I was convinced by early readings of biographies and autobiographies about the Kray Twins. They committed every one of their gangland killings while capital punishment was active in the British statute books.

It was abolished around the time that they were arrested and went to court. This was a fact which distressed Reggie in particular. He said outright that he would have chosen hanging over life-time imprisonment any day. The former was over more quickly.

But moreover, it allowed him to go out in a blaze of glory, rather than languishing impotently into old age in a cage. Of course, before then such considerations hadn't been an issue.

He'd shot his way through 1960s London in the firm belief that he'd either never be caught or that he'd never be found guilty in a court of law. The Kray Twins were, after all, Britain's answer to the Mafia and juries could be intimidated or bought.

Books Laying out the Case for the Non-Deterrence of the Death Penalty

Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty

A gripping examination of the case for and against capital punishment by a respected criminal lawyer and celebrated novelist. In the words of Harvard Law Professor, Laurence ...

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Capital Punishment on Trial: Furman v. Georgia and the Death Penalty in Modern America ...

In his first book since the Pulitzer Prize-winning Polio: An American Story, renowned historian David Oshinsky takes a new and closer look at the Supreme Court's controversial ...

View on Amazon

Ultimate Sanction: Understanding the Death Penalty Through its Many Voices and Many Sides

A unique approach to one of the most divisive and galvanizing subjects of our time: capital punishmentFor nearly 250 years, scholars, legal experts, policymakers, and media ...

View on Amazon

Is Executing Someone Cheaper Than Life Imprisonment?

No. It costs on average an extra $90,000 per inmate to keep them on Death Row, then execute them.

I'll admit that is the question which always makes me recoil deep inside. I will keep calm, because no argument is ever won by screaming with incandescent rage, but I'm sick to the stomach.

Maybe it's that I've made too much of a snap judgement, but all I hear is this: 'the value of a human life should be messaged not in justice, rights and all that twaddle, but in dollars.'

I do not share that opinion; and fortunately I also have the facts on my side. It can be cheap to kill someone, nobody is disputing that. If the individual is sentenced, then immediately taken outside and strung from the nearest tree, then it's very cheap indeed. At least in monetary cost.

The price in the loss of morality and justice was quite astronomical.

Worse case scenario would place a minor in life imprisonment, wherein he or she stays until they are in extreme old age. During this time, that individual would be sharing a cell, eating food brought and prepared in bulk. They would also be working, bringing in a wage which goes directly back into the prison system. (There's an argument that this is slavery through the back door, but few people really care about that one.)

On the other hand, the individual on Death Row is incurring many, many more costs. These include:

  • Extra lawyers, judges, juries and the whole apparatus of the court-room. After all, these sentences usually go to appeal, time and time again, as a stay of execution is sought.
  • Cost of hiring and attendant expenses for bringing in the right lawyers. In American law, there are strict requirements governing the experience and qualifications of lawyers in capital cases. The requisite attorney might not be locally available.
  • The cost of retaining all court-room staff during lengthy appellate pauses. This usually occurs while everyone is waiting for the legally sanctioned lawyer to become free.
  • Scientific and laboratory results. Those representing inmates on Death Row are far more likely to order DNA testing than, for example, blood sample tests. If the result is uncertain, then this can be repeated. Such professional input is very expensive.
  • Paperwork and administrative costs. All of this evidence needs to be typed up, clarified and securely stored.
  • Extra prison staff. People on Death Row are held in individual cells, with guards hand delivering everything from food to toilet paper. That requires a lot more staff than guarding people serving life imprisonment.
  • Execution apparatus. Even once the inmate gets there, then the mode of killing them has to be paid for. These are huge costs, particularly now that countries like Britain have banned the export of drugs to be used in lethal injections. Those with the electric chair aren't faring much better. They have to pay a wage to electricians for a start; while everyone needs to pay doctor's fees, and coroner fees, and lawyer fees, and clerical fees (in both senses of the word), and security fees (there are going to be protesters outside) etc etc etc.

The US State of New Jersey stopped executing people in 1963, because each death sentence cost the tax-payer around $4.2 million ($6,129,405.55 in today's money). A former Californian judge Donald McCartin, who never stinted on sentencing people to death, ultimately called it, 'a waste of time and money'. He noted that it was ten times more expensive to impose the Death Penalty, than to go for life imprisonment.

In short, it costs an estimated $90,000 per inmate to house them on Death Row.

America Without the Death Penalty: States Leading the Way

Buy this book to learn why some states have banned capital punishment. The reasons are often more about economics than morality.

Are Those on Death Row Always Guilty of Heinous Crimes?

No. Hundreds have been found innocent after years on Death Row. Many more may have been executed without the miscarriage of justice coming to light.

Through my early reading of serial killers and all that was dark and dangerous, I encountered the story of Timothy Evans.

It should have been a cut and dried case. He confessed to murdering his wife and baby, so a British jury found him guilty. The judge sentenced him to hang. This duly occurred on March 9th 1950.

There was only one slight technical hitch. He hadn't committed the murders. Shocked, traumatized and in grief, he'd initially admitted it, but then recanted his confession later in court.

Timothy had learning difficulties and had never learned to read and write. He was also Welsh, in an English court, though all concerned would deny that was a factor. The person he named as his chief suspect was a respected English ex-serviceman, who now worked as a War Reserve Policeman.

It took three years for John Reginald Halliday Christie to be exposed as a serial killer. While in prison for the murder of eight woman, John also blithely informed his lawyer that he'd killed Mrs Evans and her baby daughter.

Unfortunately it was all a bit late for Timothy Evans, who was already in his grave. He eventually received a full post-humus pardon. Though his greatest contribution to the issue was the fact that his much publicized case was used to turn British public opinion against capital punishment. A moratorium began on the mainland just over a decade later, with a ban in effect from 1969.

Learn more about John Christie and Timothy Evans

Buy these films and books to discover more about the case which ended the death penalty in Britain.

Of course, it would be nice to think that Timothy Evans represented a rare occurrence, or that it's an historical case, which couldn't happen today.

Since 1970, in the United States alone, 140 people have left Death Row. They were all completely exonerated of the charge(s) which had placed them there. Some of them had served up to thirty years for a crime which they did not commit.

But bear in mind that these show only those whom the system caught. It's believed that many more go to their deaths without the miscarriage of justice ever coming to light.

The most recent person to walk free was Gussie Vann from Tennessee. He had been on Death Row since 1994, sentenced to death for the sexually motivated murder of his own daughter in 1992.

On September 22nd 2011, he was cleared of all charges, after forensic evidence was produced which proved his innocence.

Documentary film-makers are set to launch an anti-death penalty campaign. They will travel across the USA interviewing those exonerated of all crimes.

List of Exonerated Death Row Inmates

This list contains names of people who were found guilty of capital crimes and placed on death row who were later found to be wrongly convicted. Some people were exonerated posthumously. This list includes individuals who were sentenced to death and had their sentenced overturned by acquittal ...

Books about Miscarriages of Justice

Buy these testimonies to learn how the innocent can and have been sent to Death Row.
False Justice: Eight Myths That Convict the Innocent

Former Ohio Attorney General crusades against wrongful conviction and shows how citizens can prevent this terrifyingly common miscarriage of justice.“Wrongful criminal ...

View on Amazon

Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong

On January 20, 1984, Earl Washington—defended for all of forty minutes by a lawyer who had never tried a death penalty case—was found guilty of rape and murder in the state of ...

View on Amazon

Surviving Justice: America's Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated

Beverly Monroe spent seven years in prison for murdering her companion of thirteen years; even though he had killed himself. Christopher Ochoa was persuaded to confess to a ...

View on Amazon

Is the Death Penalty a Humane Way to Die?

Those being executed get time to put their affairs in order and say goodbye to their loved ones; which is more than their victims had!

There is a literary device, often used in novels about time-travel, which is guaranteed to cause readers to recoil in horror.

The time traveler knows the exact date and time of their own, or somebody else's death, and they speak it aloud. It was used poignantly in Audrey Nittenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife and Connie Willis's All Clear. It was used ruthlessly, as revenge, in Diana Gabaldon's Voyager.

We all live in the certainty that one day we will die. The great kindness of the universe is that none of us usually know when.

But those on Death Row do. They will have heard the date, time and mode of execution read out in a court of law, with witnesses to attest to its truth. The scenes which caused such disquiet in the novels have now become reality. The same psychological effects persist, only this time it's not in an author's imagination. It is very much in the real world.

The argument is, of course, that they deserved it. They committed (presumably, unless they are actually innocent) a heinous crime. This mental torture is therefore their just desserts. Proponents of the Death Penalty play with their prey like a cat swiping at a mouse.

Endless appeals can drag this scenario out for decades. They sometimes end with the victim being cleared of all charges. As for the rest, they go to the execution chamber, at the appointed time, on the appointed date, to die in the appointed way. They've known for years that it will happen; and they've been kept in a cage until it does.

Is the Death Penalty a humane way to die? I don't think so at all. But to demonstrate this, I will individually examine the methods of execution being used in the world today. That way, you can make up your own mind.

Methods of Execution Used by the State in 2012

Examining the murky history and gruesome use of death by needle as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.
Examining the murky history and gruesome use of hanging as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.
Examining the murky history and gruesome use of asphyxiation as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.
Examining the murky history and gruesome use of beheading as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.
Examining the religiously motivated and gruesome use of stoning as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.

Books About the Reality of the Death Penalty

Even when the executions aren't botched, they are always brutal to witness.
Updated: 07/19/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 04/15/2014

They would even get a pay cheque and commendations for it.

I think you know my answer to the Aristotle question. :)

frankbeswick on 04/15/2014

What you have said, Jo, about execution being a cover for a serial killer is so blindingly obvious that no one has ever said it. It is terrifying that serial killers could be promoted by the state. Aristotle believed that the state should encourage virtue. Does employing an executioner encourage virtue?

JoHarrington on 04/15/2014

Executioners don't choose to do it. Not any more. We're well past the days of public hangmen. What happens (in the US) is that prison wardens are asked to inject the condemned. Prison wardens are not trained medical staff, but doctors can't do it. They took an oath to 'first do no harm'.

I always thought it a little suspect that people would want to do that anyway. It would be the perfect cover for a serial killer.

Tara on 04/14/2014

Killing anyone cannot be easy, but I think killing in war is different. My grandfather was also in the war. He was a pilot so he didn't actually know how many people he killed. But it still bothered him because he was killing people who, like him were fighting for there country. However like soldiers executioners make the world safer. Maybe that is why they choose to do it

The expression "crime of passion" implies that he felt a strong passion (love, anger, jealousy) caused him to commit the crime. Ferguson's victim meant NOTHING to him. Some experts believe that a person can be fully aware of what they are doing even if he doesn't remember it later. Either way, he chose to drink and his young victim paid for HIS decision with her life. He should pay with his. No, it won't bring his victim back, but maybe it can give her family some peace.

JoHarrington on 04/09/2014

Me too! Me too!

frankbeswick on 04/09/2014

Thanks for this information, Jo. It confrms my own feelings that I would never want to kill anyone, however horrid or guilty they were.

JoHarrington on 04/09/2014

Tara - We're all good. Though it does seem slightly obscene for us to be picking over that poor girl's murder like this. Mind you, it matters within the context of the debate, so let's go there.

To me, cold-blooded means sober, in full control of your faculties, able to make a considered judgement within the knowledge of what's right and wrong, then doing it anyway. Premeditating a murder generally fits into this category.

It's all opposed to 'crimes of passion' (heat of the moment); impaired judgement; not knowing, nor able to know, the difference between right and wrong; diminished responsibility; an accident; or/and under the influence of drugs, alcohol or a dominant personality.

I'm not claiming that Jeffrey Ferguson was innocent, nor that his actions should go unpunished, but the man killed was not the same man who committed that murder. One had a brain pickled by alcohol and the other hadn't.

What if, in killing 50 Jeffrey Fergusons and Charles Mansons, you also kill a Timothy Evans? Then it's the law and the system that killed the innocent person. There's way too much room for error in capital punishment for my liking.

Frank - I've read many accounts of people going into therapy after acting as the executioner. In most cases, there is a 'dummy' fitted into the method, so that a team of executioners don't know for certain which of them was the killer. It's still traumatic though.

frankbeswick on 04/08/2014

Do we wonder about the impact of the execution on the executioner? I know that this is not the same situation, but my grandfather, who killed a German soldier in the war [in combat] never got over the trauma of killing someone and used to have nightmares about the event. This was a killing in the hot blood of battle, but what is the impact of cold blooded, premeditated killing in an execution? Do you have to harden your heart and desensitize yourself just to cope with what you have done? Must you desensitize yourself before you execute? How do you cope with having killed someone?

Tara on 04/07/2014

I'm sorry too, I must have missed your message in my inbox.

Jeffrey ferguson kidnapped, raped and murdered a 17 year old girl (the article I read said 17). I'm sure she screamed and begged for her life as she was being tortured. Drunk or not the murderer knew the girl was suffering he knew her family would suffer. But his pleasure was more important than all of this. I call that cold-blooded. We can't just pardon everyone who claims to have found Jesus.

The number of people killed by convicted killers may not be high. Incarceration is good but it leaves room for error. The murders that I mentioned are proof of this. The law is to protect the innocent from the guilty. I think the law has a responsibility to protect the innocent over the guilty even if this means killing 50 jeffrey fergusons or Charles mansons to protect 1 innocent person.

JoHarrington on 03/27/2014

Sorry Tara, I've been away for a week, hence the silence this end. I should have mentioned that I was going, but I didn't anticipate being away for so long!

Missouri's just killed a clean living, religious man. Ok, Jeffrey Ferguson was an alcoholic at the time he horribly murdered a 13 year old girl, but that's hardly cold-blooded. He was off his face.

You raise a good point with the murder of prison guards. But I maintain that you're over-stating the situation somewhat. If every Death Row prisoner habitually killed his or her guards, then there would be no-one left working in those wings. Plus what about those serving life imprisonment in states without the death penalty, who never do murder others? Like, for example, Charles Manson.

With the death penalty, there is a guaranteed kill taking place. Without it, we're still talking in potentialities always. It's a terrible thing what happened with that family and Randy Greenaway, but that's still an exception rather than the rule. I hope that lessons about security systems were learned, so that there's no chance for it to repeat in the same way.

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