Years ago, when I was still a teenager, an elderly great aunt of mine was viciously raped and murdered by a person that broke into her house one night. Despite this crime happening in another state, and her being a distant relative I'd never met, I still remember the raw feeling of wanting her murderer to face justice, and to get the death penalty. I grew up in Texas after all, and we lead the nation in executions. The idea that they are a just form of punishment was something I took for granted.
The kinds of capital crimes that can earn a criminal a state-enforced meeting with the Grim Reaper are almost always the worst possible. Very few people I know can feel sympathy for a person that has callously raped, tortured and murdered their way onto Death Row, and that is understandable. It's a lot to ask of a person, perhaps too much.
At the time of my great aunt's murder, I was completely accepting of the death penalty as an instrument of justice. It appealed to my sense of fairness, as the exchange of a killer's life for robbing an innocent of theirs seemed to make sense. Certainly not an "even trade," but the best kind of justice society could hope for in such terrible criminal cases.
As the years rolled on, I began to question my feelings on the matter, primarily because some of the arguments against capital punishment began to make more sense to me than the reasons supporting it. I began to question whether the death penalty was a just sentence for society to impose on those convicted of horrific crimes. I respectfully understand that many people will disagree with me, but several issues kept popping up that changed my mind about supporting the death penalty.
One issue that is difficult to consider when we are talking about the fate of a human life is cost. But one argument that is frequently voiced by supporters of the death penalty is that it costs less to execute a person than to warehouse him in prison for the rest of his life. On the surface, this opinion seems to make sense. If a person committed the crime in his early twenties, the potential cost of a 50- or 60-year prison term could be staggering.
Counter-intuitively, quite a few recent surveys have shown that it's actually less expensive to house someone in prison for a life sentence without parole than it is to execute them. Even sources such as Forbes and Fox News have run recent stories that claim the cost of executing someone is just too expensive, and the years (often, decades) between conviction and the execution of a criminal add up to a hefty final bill for taxpayers. In 2007, New Jersey abolished its death penalty, partially because of financial considerations. Despite spending an estimated $4.2 million for each person sentenced to the death penalty in that state, New Jersey hadn't executed anyone since 1963. The years of legal maneuvers and processes added up.
According to a 2008 study, it costs an additional $90,000 per year to house prisoners sentenced to death in California. While hard data is difficult to come by for the total cost of all death row prisoners in America, it seems obvious that the idea that it's more cost effective to execute a person than to house them for a life sentence is not so cut and dry.
Whether or not it costs more to execute a criminal than to keep them in prison until their natural death is not the main issue I have with capital punishment. I'm convinced that there are too many inconsistencies and problems within our justice system to make the death penalty an option that civilized societies should embrace.
To be quite blunt, the U.S.A. is in a pretty regrettable list of countries that still execute their criminals. While most Western countries have abolished the practice entirely, the United States joins hands with places such as China, Iraq, North Korea, Sudan, Somalia, and Saudi Arabia in regards to continuing to execute people. That's not a list of countries I'm proud to be grouped with when it comes to our justice system.
Even if our international reputation wasn't sullied by the practice, and even if most of us didn't care what people in Western Europe (as an example) thought about our justice system, why would we want to do things the way they do in countries with terrible human rights records? Can't we do better than that? Shouldn't we try?
I've heard death penalty supporters criticize those same countries as being barbaric, but then at other times talk about how places like Saudi Arabia "don't mess around" when it comes to crime. How a thief will get his hand chopped off, and killers are executed. They say that like it's a good thing, but which is it? Barbaric or laudable? You can't have things both ways.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
There are also plenty of troubling statistics which indicate people are more likely to be sentenced to death in this country if they are a minority, particularly a minority with a white victim, and if they are poor. From 1995 to 2000, 80 percent of the federal capital cases seeking the death penalty involved minority defendants. The percentage of whites sentenced to death in cases where their victim was a minority is a drop in the bucket in comparison. Other factors such as the quality of legal representation and the jurisdiction of the trial also seem to be determining factors in who gets sentenced to death, and who does not.
There are many reasons that I've come to change my views about the death penalty, and that inconsistency in sentencing is one of the biggest reasons. The other, and most compelling reason for why I've changed my mind, is the fact that new DNA technologies have exonerated innocent people sitting on Death Row.
Since 1973, there have been 144 total Death Row exonerations, and 18 people on Death Row have been found innocent based on recent DNA evidence alone. This leads me to the conclusion that there are too many inconsistencies and problems with our justice system to have something as permanent as the death penalty in place. There is no telling how many people have been executed for crimes they were innocent of in the past, but while no system of justice is perfect, at least there is the possibility of a wrong being righted if an innocent person is imprisoned and not executed. There is no "do-over" if new evidence shows a prisoner might have been innocent after the state has already completed the execution.
And that's the wall I hit, the one that finally changed my views on the death penalty. I still think dangerous criminals should be dealt with decisively, and don't think they should be coddled. Some people might "deserve" death, but I no longer believe that a civilized society should execute criminals as a function of its justice system. Too many mistakes can be made, and executing the wrong person just makes a tragedy even worse.