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

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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

 

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

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