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History Suggests the U.S. Will Ban the Death Penalty Soon. Why Not Now?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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poster held by execution protesterThere are times when I’m ashamed for my country. Last Wednesday, for example, when officials in a Georgia prison injected lethal poison into the veins of Troy Davis, a black man convicted of murdering a white police officer, Mark MacPhail, in 1989. The case raised the question, as The New York Times put it, of “whether a black person in the South could be guaranteed the same justice as a white man.” A worldwide coalition—including Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former President Jimmy Carter—pleaded for Davis to receive a new trial. Davis steadfastly maintained his innocence, telling MacPhail’s family just before his execution, “I’m not the one who personally killed your son, your father, your brother.”

Critics of capital punishment, such as the Death Penalty Information Center, raise many objections to it. First, there is the issue of biased application; for example, defendants are much more likely to receive the death penalty for killing a white person than a black person. Some death-row inmates have subsequently been shown to be innocent—in more than 130 cases since 1973. On top of that, capital punishment is extremely costly to administer and has never been shown to deter criminal behavior.

Some opponents, especially those motivated by religious concerns, argue that even the most depraved murderer deserves sympathy and mercy. I would oppose capital punishment even if it was applied without racial bias only to the guilty, saved us money and served as a deterrent. And I believe that some murderers don’t deserve our sympathy, because they are monsters, who are beyond redemption and should be locked up for the rest of their lives. My objection to the death penalty stems from my concern not for murderers but for the rest of us. We demean ourselves as a society by killing. Capital punishment makes no sense: to show our abhorrence of killing, we kill. If we want to show our reverence for life, we should not take life.

This sort of moral reasoning has helped catalyze the global, historical decline in capital punishment. As Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker documents in his new book The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking), several centuries ago virtually all nations—including those that prided themselves on being “civilized”—carried out executions often and with gusto. Capital offenses included not only murder but also a wide range of other transgressions, such as theft, heresy, witchcraft, sodomy, bestiality, poaching and cutting down trees. The burning, disembowelment, castration, decapitation and hanging of convicts served as public entertainment. Sometimes every one of these brutal acts was performed on a single individual.

Pinker quotes a passage that the famous British diarist Samuel Pepys wrote in 1660: “Out to Charing Cross, to see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy.” In case we’re not sure exactly what happened here, Pinker explains that Harrison was “party strangled, disemboweled, castrated and shown his organs being burned before being decapitated.”

Today, England and all other European nations except for Russian and Belarus have banned executions, de facto if not legally. According to Amnesty International, “more than two thirds of the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.” In 2008 the General Assembly of the United Nations passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty as a step toward a ban, which according to the resolution would contribute “to the enhancement and progressive development of Human Rights.” The vote was 104 to 46, with 34 abstentions. The U.S., of course,voted against the resolution,.

From an historical perspective, the U.S. is clearly headed toward abolition. Pinker notes that since 1625 the annual per capita rate of executions has plummeted from almost 35 to well under one execution for every million people. Sixteen states have abolished the death penalty, and those that retain it execute only a minuscule fraction of convicted murders. There were a total of 46 executions last year, including 45 lethal injections and one electrocution. Pinker writes that “the American death penalty, for all its notoriety, is more symbolic than real.” Of course, it was quite real for Troy Davis, whose execution—like all executions in this nation—tarnished America’s reputation for moral decency. We know capital punishment is wrong, and that we will abolish it before long. Why wait any longer?

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and UPI


John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. SpatialOrientation 11:53 am 09/26/2011

    Kill the death penalty! Kill capital punishment! Check out our coverage at

    Link to this
  2. 2. ozrkmtndd 1:26 pm 09/26/2011

    First off, this is not a science article, but rather is a philosophical debate. Second, one reason that it is not a deterrent is the endless appeals system. Okay, many homicide’s are crimes of passion, but still the death penalty would act as a deterrent if the penalty were imposed much closer to the actually crime. Jeffery Dahmer deserved to die, and didn’t. I am more on the fence with Mr. Davis’ situation, and would have been happy with life imprisonment.

    Ultimately, when someone is committing a cold blooded murder the victim does not get endless appeals, or any other privileges. The killer is the judge, jury, and executioner, and often the means of execution is brutal and no thought about pain, suffering, families etc. Was it a mother, father, good son, college student, etc.? Did they deserve to die? What message are we sending by keeping them alive? A friend of mine’s father was murdered–mistaken identity as it turns out–the killer was out in five. Where is the justice in that?

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  3. 3. zsingerb 1:43 pm 09/26/2011

    Society puts down any creature that is found to be dangerous. A bear that kills. A mountain lion. And a murderer. The death penalty is not meant as a deterrent. It is meant to make us safer by not allowing an animal that has proven it will kill people to stay around. Locked up animals can get out. Even murderers. The death penalty prevents that. Let’s not put ourselves at greater risk because we want to be “kind”. The last two people put to death were both convicted by a jury, and both deserved to be removed from our society, permanently.

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  4. 4. ozrkmtndd 1:55 pm 09/26/2011

    In principle I can agree with zsingerb, but if there is doubt, life imprisonment should be the sentence. Still, the list is endless for people that deserved no better fate than the person that they killed. That Jeffery Dahmer was murdered by a fellow inmate is a justice of sorts, but it is better if the state manages it, and reduces the chances for error.

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  5. 5. dbtinc 2:00 pm 09/26/2011

    I doubt that all those folks opposed to his execution read all of the transcripts from all of the trials and appeals. Everyone involved in those actions over the 20 years of this case came to the same conclusion – that he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Now comes a few people with an agenda who claim that there was reasonable doubt and base it on recantation, blah, blah, blah. The real crime was that he had to sit on death row for 20 + years. As for being ashamed of your country well that’s an opinion to which you are entitled. I’m ashamed of my country for prosecuting two non-sense wars, political chicanery, political paralysis, letting the lobbyists, special interests and unions run the country while giving us the impression that we are a democracy. I could go on …

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  6. 6. bartonlp 2:08 pm 09/26/2011

    Unfortunately recently I am assumed of my country much more than in the past.

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  7. 7. WyldRyde 2:10 pm 09/26/2011

    Horgan: “If we want to show our reverence for life, we should not take life.”

    We should probably also not entertain ourselves with depictions of violence and the taking of life. How does Pinker reconcile our increased exposure to violence and killing via the media with the purported decline in actual violence?

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  8. 8. SkepticalKen 2:14 pm 09/26/2011

    First, as ozrkmtndd pointed out, this is not a science article…but what can we expect from a publication as prone to political motivation as SciAm?

    Second, who says being in prison for 40, 50, 60 years or more is more humane than being put to death. Frankly, if it is, then prisoners are being treated too softly.

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  9. 9. rubtwostix 2:16 pm 09/26/2011

    Great article.
    I also disagree with zsingerb, all it takes is an overzealous prosecutor to kill an innocent man.
    They study all their lives on how to sway 12 stupid idiots into killing the guy in the jumpsuit.

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  10. 10. locathah 2:32 pm 09/26/2011

    “Capital punishment makes no sense: to show our abhorrence of killing, we kill. If we want to show our reverence for life, we should not take life.”

    A fine argument, but unfortunately, complete nonsense. What would you say is a suitable punishment for kidnappers? Surely taking a person away from his family against his will and locking him in a prison cell for years is not the way to show that we as a society disapprove of kidnapping.

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  11. 11. desktop 3:36 pm 09/26/2011

    You must not be from the south. Although I have mixed feelings about the death penalty, I am not 100% against it. There are times when I believe it is needed, just not near the way, or for the reasons, it has been used up to now. But my southern neighbors will not vote it out any time soon. They want it used more often and faster.

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  12. 12. rdholland 3:56 pm 09/26/2011

    Where were all the “I am Lawrence Brewer” shirts last week and why didn’t Jimmy Carter lobby for that guy?

    As for the U.S. and the death penalty, the people that want to get rid of it have a huge problem. We sit by and kill millions of children each year because we have a “right to choose” and if killing Brewer “demeans” us, then how demeaning it must be to suck the brains out of a tiny child’s head all because of nothing more than inconvenience to the mother and/or father.

    Davis and Brewer had a choice too. And they chose poorly. If the author and others want to talk about “moral decency”, then they have to explain why it is morally decent to kill an innocent child but not someone like Brewer. Think about this. Really think about it. How can a society allow millions of children to be killed and not expect people to think that killing someone like Brewer or Davis is no big deal. They deserved to die much more than the child in a mother’s womb. If a mother can kill her child and I am supposed to accept that, then I have no problem accepting the killing Davis or Brewer. I just consider a very late term abortion.

    We have made killing mundane. And we have made an industry of it at the same time.

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  13. 13. mmth 7:31 pm 09/26/2011

    If we kill even one innocent person, we are as guilty as any murderer–perhaps more so, because we do it as a society under the name of “justice.” I’m not surprised that Justice Thomas refused to consider an appeal, and I wonder whether he bothered to ask any other Justices for an opinion. He seems to be one of the “originalists,” who believe that whatever was the practice in the time the Constitution is still the law of the land–so capital punishment is OK. (Apparently he hasn’t thought about slavery.)

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  14. 14. Postulator 5:54 am 09/27/2011

    Justice systems, properly designed, are not about punishment. They are about justice and rehabilitation. There’s no rehabilitation if the convicted criminal is dead.

    Even worse, advances in criminal forensics have seen many convicted criminals released, as proof emerged that they could not have committed the crime for which they were convicted. How do you release someone you’ve killed? Or do you just put up with the occasional mistake (bearing in mind that one day it could be you)?

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  15. 15. jgrosay 11:06 am 09/27/2011

    Yeah !: the death penalty women have the freedom to apply to their offspring while it’s still inside their wombs must be inmediately banned !. No group can survive destroying the basis that keeps its species alive and growing. A death is a death, whatever the size and age of the victim is. A deliberately sought death is killing, although the legal names and punishments for it may vary.

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  16. 16. Geopelia 4:23 pm 09/27/2011

    As a young teenager in Britain in World War Two, I was taught how to kill Germans if they invaded, after Dunkirk.
    Whether or not I could have done so, I had no doubt that it would be the right and proper thing to do.
    Also, in those days Britain hanged murderers.

    The only problem I have is with whether the person found guilty is really innocent. Here in New Zealand there have been mistakes and innocent people have spent years in jail.
    Yet someone who stabbed a girl over 200 times, with no possibility of mistaken identity, has only been jailed and may even be released some day.

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  17. 17. Postman1 5:21 pm 09/27/2011

    mmth- In case you didn’t know it, the U S Constitution IS the law of the land.
    The problem, as stated by others, is the decades that pass between conviction and punishment. In the days when conviction meant swift carrying out of the sentence, It Was a deterrent. We need to limit the time for the appeals process and empty the backlog on death rows. We also need limits on plea bargaining and early paroles, but the real problem with our society, is the entitlement generation which refuses to take responsibility for their actions. That is an all different ball game.

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  18. 18. christinaak 9:43 pm 09/28/2011

    it is true that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent, but that is completely irrelevant. the taking of a life for profit or for some malicious purpose is worthy of capital punishment as a matter of justice. wrongfully adjudicated death sentences can be all but eliminated (IF NOT ENTIRELY) by barring death sentences in cases where eyewitness testimony is the deciding evidence. also lawyers have screwed up our appeals process which is why the death penalty has become so expensive. appeals on procedural grounds should be restricted and more consideration should be given to appeals which are based on exculpable evidence only. the fact that there may be racial disparity in sentencing is not an argument against the death penalty, but rather an argument in support of an increase in the sentencing of more white people to death. christina knight

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  19. 19. dudleysharp 9:25 am 01/17/2012

    Dear Mr. Hogan:

    Your presentation is, unfortunately, quite common.

    You depend upon anti death penalty sources, as if they are accurate, when not.

    I would encourage you to fact check in the future – something I suspect that you do in your science articles.

    Here are some fact checked rebuttals to the information in your article.

    If you have any questions, please let me know.

    Sincerely, Dudley Sharp,

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  20. 20. dudleysharp 9:27 am 01/17/2012

    Troy Davis & The Innocent Frauds of the anti death penalty lobby
    Dudley Sharp

    The Troy Davis campaign, like many before it (1), is a simple, blatant fraud, easily uncovered by the most basic of fact checking (1).

    The case for Davis’ guilt is overwhelming, just as were his due process protections, which may have surpassed that of all but a few death row inmates.

    The 2010 federal court innocence hearing found:

    ” . . . Mr. Davis is not innocent: the evidence produced at the hearing on the merits of Mr. Davis’s claim of actual innocence and a complete review of the record in this case does not require the reversal of the jury’s judgment that Troy Anthony Davis murdered City of Savannah Police Officer Mark Allen MacPhail on August 19, 1989.” (2)

    “Ultimately, while Mr. Davis’s new evidence casts some additional, minimal doubt on his conviction, it is largely smoke and mirrors.” (2)

    “As a body, this evidence does not change the balance of proof that was presented at Mr.
    Davis’s trial.”(2)

    “The vast majority of the evidence at trial remains intact, and the new evidence is largely not credible or lacking in probative value.” (2)

    None of this came as a surprise to anyone who actually followed the case, in contrast to the Save Troy Davis folks who were, willingly, duped.

    1) a) “Troy Davis: Worldwide anti death penalty deceptions, rightly, failed”,

    b) “Troy Davis fairly convicted, not ‘railroaded’ ”

    2) “Innocence Hearing”, ordered by the US Supreme Court, US DISTRICT COURT, in the SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF GEORGIA, SAVANNAH DIV.,RE TROY ANTHONY DAVIS, CASE NO. CV409-130

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  21. 21. dudleysharp 9:30 am 01/17/2012

    Mr. Davis,

    You quote:

    “The (Davis) case raised the question, as The New York Times put it, of “whether a black person in the South could be guaranteed the same justice as a white man.”

    Typical NYT nonsense.

    White murderers are twice as likely to be executed as black murderers, in the South.

    Please review:

    Rebuttal to the death penalty racism claims
    Dudley Sharp

    1) “Death Penalty Sentencing: No Systemic Bias”

    2) “The Death Penalty and Racism The Times Have Changed”, Washington Post reporter Charles Lane, The American Interest, Nov/Dec 2010,


    4) Race, Sentencing and the death penalty.


    5) McCleskey v Kemp, the infamous race based death penalty case decided by the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS)

    Baldus’ database and work in McCleskey was quite poor.

    Read Federal District Court Judge Forrester’s rejection of Baldus’ database for McCleskey.

    A more thorough review is provided by Joseph Katz, who did the methodological review of the Baldus database, which was rife with errors and problems. I have it, if you care to research.

    In addition, SCOTUS totally misunderstood the math involved. They ignorantly wrote: “defendants charged with killing white victims were 4.3 times as likely to receive a death sentence as defendants charged with killing blacks.”

    Totally inaccurate. It was by odds of 4.3 times, or an odds multiplier of 4.3, which can mean a variable as low as 2-4%, as opposed to the 330% difference represented by 4.3 times. SCOTUS blew it big time on this.

    These two articles, below, give a good explanation of a core problem with Baldus, in the McCleskey case and another of his reviews.

    1) “The Math Behind Race, Crime and Sentencing Statistics”
    By John Allen Paulos, Los Angeles Times, July 12, 1998

    2) See “The Odds of Execution” within “How numbers are tricking you”, by Arnold Barnett, MIT Technology Review October, 1994


    In addition, review the race, ethnicity and crime statistics, here:

    For the White–Black comparisons, the Black level is 12.7 times greater for homicide, 15.6 times greater for robbery, 6.7 times greater for rape, and 4.5 times greater for aggravated assault.

    For the Hispanic- White comparison, the Hispanic level is 4.0 times greater than the White level for homicide, 3.8 times greater for robbery, 2.8 times greater for rape, and 2.3 times greater for aggravated assault.

    For the Hispanic–Black comparison, the Black level is 3.1 times greater than the Hispanic level for homicide, 4.1 times greater for robbery, 2.4 times greater for rape, and 1.9 times greater for aggravated assault.



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  22. 22. dudleysharp 9:37 am 01/17/2012

    The 130 innocents claims by DPIC has been a well known deception, as to “innocents” discovered and released from death row. This deception has been reviewed in detail and publically, at least since 1999.

    The 130 (now 139) death row “innocents” scam

    “Exoneration Inflation: Justice Scalia’s Concurrence in Kansas v. March”, by Ward Campbell, Supervising Deputy Attorney General, California Department of Justice, p 49, The Journal of the
    Institute for the Advancement of Criminal Justice, Issue 2, Summer 2008,

    “The innocence tactic: Unreliable studies and disinformation”, reports By United States Congress, Senate, 107th Congress, 2d Session, Calender no 731, Report 107-315. The Innocence Protection Act of 2002, (iv) The innocence tactic: Unreliable studies and disinformation, p 65-69,

    “The Innocent and the Shammed”, Joshua Marquis, Published in New York Times, 1/26/2006

    “The Myth Of Innocence”­, Joshua Marquis, pu­blished in the Journal of Criminal Law & Criminolog­y – 3/31/2005, Northweste­rn University School of Law, Chicago, Illinois

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  23. 23. dudleysharp 9:40 am 01/17/2012


    All prospects of a negative outcome deter some. It is a rational and factual truism. People are deterred from many things, every day.

    There have been 28 new studies finding for deterrence since 2000.

    1) 28 recent studies finding for deterrence, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation

    2) “Deterrence & the Death Penalty: A Reply to Radelet and Lacock”

    3) “Death Penalty, Deterrence & Murder Rates: Let’s be clear”

    4) This is out of date, but corrects a number of the misconceptions about deterrence.
    “Death Penalty and Deterrence”–confirmed–seven-recent-studies-updated-61204.aspx

    5) “The Death Penalty: More Protection for Innocents”

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  24. 24. dudleysharp 9:42 am 01/17/2012

    The death penalty deters: A review of the debate
    Dudley Sharp

    1) Anti death penalty folks say that the burden of proof is on those who say that the death penalty deters. Untrue. It is a rational truism that all potential negative outcomes deter some – there is no exception. It is the burden of death penalty opponents to prove that the death penalty, the most severe of criminal sanctions, is the only prospect of a negative outcome that deters none. They cannot.

    2) There have been 28 recent studies finding for death penalty deterrence. A few of those have been criticized. The criticism has, itself been rebutted and/or the criticism doesn’t negate no. 1 or nos. 3-10.

    3) No deterrence study finds that the death penalty deters none. They cannot. Anti death penalty columnists Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune states, “No one argues that the death penalty deters none.” Yes, some do, But Zorn is correct, the issue is not “Does the death penalty deter?”. It does. The only issue is to what degree.

    4) About 99% of those murderers who are subject to the death penalty do everything they can to receive a lesser sentence, in pre trial, plea bargains, trial, in appeals and in clemency/commutation proceedings. Life is preferred over death. Death is feared more than life. No surprise. Would a more rational group, those who choose not to murder, also share in that overwhelming fear of death and be deterred by the prospects of execution? Of course.

    5) There are a number of known cases of individual deterrence, those potential murderers who have stated that they were prevented from committing murder because of their fear of the death penalty. Individual deterrence exists.

    6) General deterrence exists because individual deterrence cannot exist without it.

    7) Even the dean of anti death penalty academics, Hugo Adam Bedau, agrees that the death penalty deters .. . but he doesn’t believe it deters more than a life sentence. Nos. 4-6 and 10 provide anecdotal and rational evidence that the death penalty is a greater deterrent than a life sentence. In addition, the 28 studies finding for deterrence, find that the death penalty is an enhanced deterrent over a life sentence.

    8) All criminal sanctions deter. If you doubt that, what do you think would happen if we ended all criminal sanctions? No rational person has any doubt. Some would have us, irrationally, believe that the most severe sanction, execution, is the only sanction which doesn’t deter.

    9) If we execute and there is no deterrence, we have justly punished a murderer and have prevented that murderer from ever harming/murdering, again. If we execute and there is deterrence, we have those benefits, plus we have spared more innocent lives. If we don’t execute and there is deterrence, we have spared murderers at the cost of more innocent deaths.

    10) Overwhelmingly, people prefer life over death and fear death more than life.

    “If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call.”

    John McAdams – Marquette University/Department of Political Science

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