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Arguments against the Death Penalty

Aside from ethical and moral considerations, there are many arguments against the death penalty (Bohm, 2015). A first argument is, as the critiques of Ehrlich’s work asserted, that the death penalty does not deter homicide. For serial killers, capital punishment is not a deterrent (Kelleher and Kelleher, 1998). Moreover, states with capital punishment do not tend to have lower homicide rates than states without capital punishment. A study of different types of police killings for 1976-1989 involving 1,204 officers found no evidence that police are afforded an added measure of protection against death by capital punishment (Bailey and Peterson, 1994). Studies in Canada, England, and other countries also find nothing to suggest that the death penalty is a more effective deterrent than long prison sentences. Although a cause-and effect relationship cannot be inferred between capital punishment and murder rates, Lawrence M. Friedman (1998:214) speculated that capital punishment might work efficiently in some societies “which use it quickly, mercilessly, and frequently. It cannot work well in the United States, where it is bound to be rare, slow, and controversial.”

Opponents of the death penalty argue that prison terms without parole would deter as many potential murderers as capital punishment, even if this deterrent effect might still be very small because most murders are emotional and spontaneous. Trials of capital cases are also more costly and time-consuming than trials for other cases, and maintenance costs for inmates in death row are higher than for inmates in the rest of the prison. An exhaustive system ofjudicial review is required in capital cases. Today, no death-row inmate will be executed until the inmate’s case has been brought to the attention of the state’s highest court, a federal district court of appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court. All these conditions mean that a capital case actually costs much more than a non-capital murder case over both the short term and long term. On average around the United States, a capital case costs between $1 million and $2 million more than a non-capital case would have (Dieter, 2013).

There is also the possibility that an innocent person will be executed. One study showed that some 139 innocent people were sentenced to death between 1900 and 1985 in the United States. Of those, 29 were actually executed (Haines, 1992). Other research shows that 1 innocent person has been convicted for every 20 executions carried out since the turn of the century (Si. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1985:6B). In their 1992 book, In Spite of Innocence, the authors (Radelet et al., 1992) reviewed more than 400 cases in which innocent people were convicted of capital crimes in the United States. Since the 1970s, more than 150 death row inmates have been released from prison after evidence emerged that cast serious doubt on their guilt (Death Penalty Information Center, 2016). Reasons for their wrongful convictions include mistaken eyewitness testimony, the false testimony of informants and “incentivized witnesses,” incompetent lawyers, defective or fraudulent scientific evidence, prosecutorial and police misconduct, and false confessions.

The death penalty is also more likely to affect the poor people of color more than affluent whites (Bohm, 2015). This has to do in part with the quality of legal help available to homicide defendants. Those with court-appointed lawyers are more likely to be sentenced to death than those represented by private attorneys. Court-appointed lawyers in most states are not required to stay on a homicide case after a conviction. Issues for appeal are likely to be raised by different court-appointed attorneys, if at all, for the poor. In a study carried out in Texas in 2000, it was found that people represented by court-appointed lawyers were 28% more likely to be convicted than those who hired their own lawyers. If convicted, they were 44% more likely to be sentenced to death (New York Times, 2001a).

Beyond all these concerns, there is even some evidence that capital punishment actually encourages homicide in certain circumstances. The threat of death penalty raises the stakes of getting caught, and anyone who is subject to death penalty has little to lose by killing again and again, which may be the case with serial killers (Holmes and Holmes, 2010). Criminals who already face death for a previous crime are more likely to kill in order to avoid being captured or to silence possible witnesses. For these reasons, the death penalty has actually been called “the enemy of law enforcement” (Morgenthau, 1995).

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