Three Questions

The sentencing phase of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the Boston Marathon bombings trial puts the death penalty back in the spotlight. Should he be sentenced to death or imprisoned for life?

There are three questions which must be answered when applying the death penalty. First, is the penalty being applied uniformly and fairly? Second, is there some utilitarian purpose served by the execution? Finally, do we have the moral authority to put another person to death?

Is penalty being applied uniformly and fairly?  Are some people more likely to be sentenced to death than others?  Is there a possibility that we might be executing people who are innocent of the crimes for which they have been charged?  The answer to both questions is overwhelmingly yes.  There is no doubt that if you are poor, you have greater chance of being given death penalty.  There is no doubt that if you are black, you have greater chance of being given death penalty.  There is no doubt that co-defendants charged with the same crime often receive different penalties.  There is no doubt that you have a greater chance of being sentenced to death in the South and West of the US than in the Northeast.  The Innocence Project, which pays for advanced forensics testing, including DNA testing, of death row inmates has overturned more than 300 wrongful convictions in the past 14 years. The conclusion is clear–our application of the death penalty is a lottery, biased strongly against many of us.

Is there a utilitarian purpose for the death penalty?  The most common cited reasons for execution are deterrence, money and revenge.  It has been extraordinarily hard to prove or disprove a deterrence effect of death penalty laws. Note, however, that most capital crimes are crimes of passion, where the attacker is not thinking about their actions.  Or the crimes are committed by people simply too stupid to control their actions or think about the future.  A hallmark of intelligence is the ability to control impulses.  If you can’t control your temper, you are not going to be able to do a rational trade study between your current actions and future consequences.  Finally, many murderers simply don’t care, either about their victims or themselves.  Such people are unlikely to give much thought to penalties of any kind.  In short, there is no clear evidence of a deterrent effect from the death penalty and little reason to expect such an effect to exist.

Another argument for the death penalty, albeit a callous one, is that it saves money.  It does, indeed, cost money to jail someone for life. Executing them could be argued as a budgetary action.  In one particular category, however, namely convicted terrorists such as Tsarnaev, executing such people runs the risk of making martyrs out of them that serve to goad on others. Perhaps it is better to have them simply disappear from the stage.

Ultimately, most of the backing for the death penalty is based on simple revenge. While an eye for an eye was part of a decidedly progressive code in Hammurabi’s time, times have changed. When, for example, was the last time you watched two gladiators battle to the death?

Do we have moral authority?  The ultimate question is whether governments of men have the moral authority to put their citizens to death, a question that is a private one for each of us.  I will note that is strange that those who argue most vehemently for the sanctity of an unformed, unborn fetus have no apparent problems murdering fully formed adults.  There appears to be an unexplained inconsistency here.

Life is complex. When you are absolutely sure of something, you are almost surely oversimplifying. In a world in which mass murders and public beheadings are common YouTube fodder, we have to decide what kind of people we want to be and what kind of world we want to live in.  Too often we make knee-jerk reactions instead of more considered rational deliberations.  We deserve better.

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