By Kerry L. Erisman
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
On March 4, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death sentence for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. On April 15, 2013, Tsarnaev and his brother Tamerlan planted and detonated two pressure-cooker bombs near the finish line of the race. The blast killed three people and also maimed and wounded hundreds of other innocent victims.
The brothers also killed a police officer several days later while they were on the run. While there is little sympathy for Tsarnaev, the Supreme Court’s ruling reinvigorates the debate as to whether capital punishment should continue in the United States.
The Death Penalty Can Be a Valuable Deterrent
I favor the concept of the death penalty. If used effectively, it is a valuable and specific deterrent. If an inmate on death row is executed, he or she will not kill again.
The death penalty also serves as retribution by society, using the “notion that punishment is imposed because it is deserved.” In capital punishment, the death penalty is an “eye for an eye.” Some crimes, like those committed by serial killer Ted Bundy, are so “extremely wicked, shockingly evil and vile” that the death penalty is the only appropriate sentence.
However, now is the time to abolish the death penalty. It’s time to end capital punishment once and for all and eliminate it in the United States. Unfortunately, there are too many troubling trends in how the death penalty is used in the criminal justice system, such as:
- Racial disparities in the imposition of the death penalty
- The chance of executing an innocent person
- The exorbitant costs
Additionally, there are difficult questions such as whether the death penalty actually deters crime and whether murderers may be rehabilitated, even while they serve their sentence of life in prison. Due to all of these issues, a bipartisan group of 57 prosecutors throughout the United States issued a joint statement in February 2022, pledging to work together to eliminate the death penalty.
The Racial Disparities Involving the Death Penalty Are Unacceptable
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) states that the color of a criminal defendant’s skin and the victim’s skin color “plays a crucial and unacceptable role” in deciding who receives the death penalty in the United States. There have been 1,543 executions since 1976. Of those executed, 856 have been white, 529 Black and 129 Latinx; others came from 27 other races.
More than 75% of murder victims in cases resulting in execution were white. Southern states most often carry out death penalty sentences, and Texas is the leader with 573 executions since 1976.
Since 1972, 45% of executions have been carried out on non-white criminal defendants. Contrast that to the fact that the United States population is almost 77% white.
Despite the fact that non-whites account for only 23% of the U. S. population, they account for 45% – almost half – of U.S. executions. What factors are responsible for these troubling numbers? Is racism pervasive in the criminal justice system?
Why is it that 80% of those on death row in the state of Colorado are non-white, while minorities only account for 13% of Colorado’s population? Why is it that currently nationwide almost six out of ten death row inmates are non-white?
The Unacceptable Risk of Executing an Innocent Person
The U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights found that since 1973, more than 186 inmates sentenced to death have been exonerated, based on evidence that proved their innocence. These exonerations were made possible due in large measure to scientific testing advancements.
Similarly, the National Academy of Sciences reports that at least 4.1% of criminal defendants on death row are innocent. How many death row inmates have been wrongfully executed? There are no clear numbers to answer this question, because little research is conducted after execution. “We will never know how many innocent people we have executed,” the bipartisan group of 57 prosecutors said in February 2022 as they called for an end to the broken death penalty.
The Exorbitant Costs of Death Penalty Cases
The death penalty system is far more expensive than housing inmates for life. California, for example, currently has 673 inmates awaiting execution.
Shockingly, California has not executed an inmate since 2006, and no executions are currently planned. Death penalty cases have cost California over four billion dollars since 1978, which includes trials and appeals.
The federal government has 44 death row inmates with no chance of execution for the future. President Biden announced that he is against the death penalty, and the U.S. Attorney General placed a moratorium on all federal executions. The expenses involved in housing these 44 inmates and the never-ending appeals cost millions of dollars.
The Death Penalty Does Not Deter Crime
It was believed for many years that the death penalty deters serious crime and that a criminal will not commit murder out of fear of receiving the death penalty. This idea has repeatedly been proven false by researchers.
For instance, the National Research Council released a report, “Deterrence and the Death Penalty.” The researchers found that studies claiming that the death penalty served as a deterrent are “fundamentally flawed.”
In addition, a study conducted by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) found that the southern states with the most executions have the highest murder rates. By contrast, the northeastern states, which account for less than 1% of executions, have the lowest murder rates in the United States.
Even Murderers Can Be Rehabilitated
Most murderers will and should spend the rest of their lives in prison with no chance of parole. In a September 2021 podcast, Dr. Gary Deel, an attorney and faculty member for the Wallace E. Boston School of Business, believes that capital punishment waves the white flag of rehabilitation. He said, “Okay, there are some people on this planet who will commit some acts that are so irredeemable that we are going to write them off as a society and say that rehabilitation is not an option or a goal for us at any point.”
Rehabilitation should be the focus, however, even for those inmates serving life sentences without the chance of parole. They should receive educational opportunities, be required to work and receive counseling to ensure they serve their time as productively as possible.
It’s Time to Abolish the Death Penalty Due to Its Problems
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who opposes the death penalty, dissented in the Tsarnaev Supreme Court’s decision. He noted that the trial court excluded important evidence that may have been used by the jury as mitigating circumstances. The Court of Appeals then reversed the death sentence due, in part, to these exclusions.
Justice Breyer concluded his dissent by stating that “I have written elsewhere about the problems inherent in a system that allows for the imposition of the death penalty. This case provides just one more example of some of those problems.”
So, despite the fact that I support the concept of the death penalty, I recognize the practical hurdles which make its effective and fair imposition impossible. It is time to eliminate capital punishment from the criminal justice system.
The U.S. is a powerful and civilized nation, but the death penalty does not show our strength. Instead, it has repeatedly demonstrated our weakness, undermining American credibility as a nation supportive of due process and justice.
The criminal justice system desperately needs major changes and overhaul, so let’s begin with abolishing capital punishment. It will make the criminal justice system better, and it will make our country stronger.