Weighing the History and Utility of the Death Penalty

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Legally sanctioned executions were taking place in the American colonies by the early 1600s. The first recorded execution in the colonies, for treason, took place in Virginia in 1608. Since those days, some 14,000 people have been legally executed in the United States. Most of these executions took place in the 20th century.  

In colonial days, application of capital punishment paralleled that in England, in which even minor offenses, such as theft, could be punishable by death. Into the 19th century in Great Britain, hundreds of offenses carried the possibility of punishment by death, and public hangings were community events that drew hundreds or thousands of spectators. 

Over the centuries both the United Kingdom and the United States became more “civilized,” taking executions of criminals out of the public square and behind prison walls, and clearing minor offenses from the list punishable by death. That left only first-degree murder, and for a time treason, on the books as a capital crime. 

Racial and social disparities 

There are currently about 2,500 prisoners on death row in the U.S. Of them, 41 percent are Black, 16 percent Latino, and 42 percent white. The racial disparities are obvious: Estimates from 2021 show the general population of the U.S. as just under 60 percent non-Hispanic white, about 13 percent Black, and about 19 percent Latino/Hispanic. 

Most of these death row inmates are poor or mentally disabled. Where states have the death penalty, those sentenced wait an average of 14 years, eight months between sentence and execution. 

Differing perspectives on opposition 

Some scholars point out disparities between opposition to the death penalty in the U.S. and in Europe. American death penalty abolitionists have tended to emphasize the unfairness of the policy: innocents unjustly executed; racial disparities in policing, sentencing, and execution; arbitrary procedures; and steeply rising costs to the state. European opponents more consistently point to the inhumaneness of capital punishment per se.  

But this wasn’t always the case. Scholars also point out that this moral division came about relatively recently: In the 1800s, death penalty abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic highlighted their opposition on both practical and purely ethical grounds, and in terms strikingly aligning with the concerns of human rights activists today. It wasn’t until the 1970s and ‘80s, as public discussion around the issue turned steadily more punitive, that American activists put practical points ahead of moral ones.  

Opposition to capital punishment began to gather force in the 19th century, in both Europe and the U.S. In the 1840s, Michigan abolished the death penalty, and Wisconsin achieved statehood without a death penalty on its books. The horrific mass deaths in the wars of the 20th century led to a groundswell of public opinion in opposition to capital punishment as just one more needless cruelty. 

But now, long after Canada and all the nations of the current European Union have done away with the death penalty, the U.S. remains the only developed nation to continue it. In 1983, the Council of Europe adopted Protocol Number 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which abolished the death penalty among member states. Canada had already abolished the death penalty in 1976, although not without strenuous opposition, even though it had not executed a prisoner since 1962.  

A nation divided 

Today, 24 U.S. states continue to permit the death penalty for first-degree murder. These include 10 of the 11 former states of the Confederacy. Three states—California, Oregon, and Pennsylvania—still maintain the death penalty as a legal option in their statues, but their governors have placed it under moratorium.  

In New York, state high court rulings in 1977 and 1984 effectively struck down the death penalty. But in 1995, Republican Governor George Pataki signed legislation reinstating it. Almost a decade later, the New York Court of Appeals found that legislation unconstitutional, and the last inmate on the state’s Death Row saw his sentence reduced to life in prison in 2007. Even during the years New York maintained a death penalty, no prisoner had been executed since 1963. 

Within five years, New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, and Connecticut followed New York in abolishing capital punishment.  

Most recently, Colorado abolished its death penalty in 2020, and in 2021 Virginia became the first state of the Old Confederacy to do so.  

Costs, benefits, and ethics 

So, is it time for the country as a whole to just let the death penalty go? Proponents of this view cite, among other concerns, the cost of carrying out executions, which includes the cost of protracted appeals.  

In the estimation of the think tank Interrogating Justice, it costs about $37,500 annually to maintain a prisoner in the federal system. On the other hand, the cost of maintaining a death row inmate soars to $60,000 to $70,000 per year.  

The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that the overall cost of the first five federal executions carried out in the year 2020 approached $4.7 million, exclusive of incarceration and pretrial expenditures. And the cost of the average execution in a federal prison is about $1 million.  

But does the death penalty deter homicides? Studies show, both historically and today, that murder rates actually trend lower in non-death penalty states than in those that do allow capital punishment. In the 1980s, experts also determined that abolition had not caused Canadian crime rates to rise.  

Most chilling to the moral sense, since 1973 about 190 people wrongfully convicted and sent to death row have been exonerated.  

Should we allow for capital punishment, though, in the case of certain especially heinous crimes, where there is no possible doubt as to the killer’s identity? School shootings, child murder, serial killings, and other crimes that put a perpetrator outside the normal range of what we think of as the human community? 

That may depend on whether you think someone who commits these brutal acts is capable of redemption, or not. There remains justified outrage that the Parkland school shooter in Florida received a sentence of life in prison due to a non-unanimous jury. Maybe we shouldn’t completely take the death penalty out of consideration. But there are plenty of ways we can make the criminal justice system more fair, more equitable, and more sensible. 

And that’s where every one of us has to really examine both the evidence and our moral compass. 

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