Death penalty disregards human life

Credit: Simin Li/ Credit: Simin Li/
Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

If there’s anything that these horribly splintered political parties of ours can agree on, it’s the value of human life. Black Lives Matter and Pro-Life protesters raise their signs because of one core, irrevocable conviction that spans any group: human life is precious, and we as a people and as a government have a duty to protect it.

Except, apparently, the lives of criminals. This is a glaring hypocrisy in American idealism: despite our professedly sacred values of the importance of human life, the death penalty continues to be supported and funded by the federal government. Texas alone has executed 538 people since 1976. Executions have decreased in recent years, but the inconsistency in our federal government’s values persists: capital punishment should be abolished, wholly and completely. Waiting for the states to get rid of this cruel practice one by one doesn’t reflect any decisive rejection by our country. As The New York Times reported last week, “For the first time in almost half a century, support for the death penalty has dipped below 50 percent in the U.S.” Americans are realizing the hypocrisy.

It is still appalling, however, that 49 percent of Americans support capital punishment. Some may support it simply because they believe it to be too expensive to keep our worst criminals in prison for life, yet this process of legalized murder is so inefficient and lengthy that the cost of killing someone isn’t very different from the cost of keeping them in prison.

Others may support it as a deterrent to criminals from committing these atrocious crimes, for fear of receiving a death sentence. However, there remains no substantial proof of this — in fact, a group of criminologists at the University of Texas at Dallas conducted an extensive study in 2009 that concluded that there was “no empirical support for the argument that the existence or application of the death penalty deters prospective offenders from committing homicide.” Regardless of the data, it is doubtful that a criminal would hesitate to commit an offense in Pennsylvania, where the death penalty is legal, rather than in New York, where it is not.

Yet, although there is no visible reason for its continuation, the United States continues this archaic practice, in cheerful company with China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. We, with our glittering international reputation, are also invariably used as the justification for the use of the death penalty in countries with poorer justice systems.

We, as Americans, pride ourselves on our high moral standard, the central values of the Constitution that differentiate us from other, less democratic, countries. One of the most essential convictions of the Constitution, however, is that against “cruel and unusual punishment.” This famously vague command has been debated in many contexts, but in this case it is definitive.

Once sentenced, the offender waits for roughly 15 years, through innumerable appeals that circulate and bounce back and forth in the legal system, before the actual execution. They are also usually sentenced to solitary confinement during this time, as opposed to other inmates in the prison. Regardless of the actual punishment, this wait for death, alone, for over a decade, is unarguably cruel and unusual.

The execution at the end is even more so, for despite the efforts to create a ‘humane’ death, there have been many horrible accidents. An unforgettably awful case is that of Clayton Lockett, in which the botched administration of drugs caused him to endure over 40 minutes of agony after sedation.

There are a lot of stories and statistics that can be cited about this issue, but the baseline is this: we, as a civilized nation, do not have the authority to end a human life. It is an accepted belief that life is precious and sacred, and despite the many atrocities that may have been committed, we do not have the moral authority to end it.

It is hypocritical to condemn other countries, and our own citizens, for their executions, while participating in it ourselves.

While the government claims not have the authority to force state governments to end capital punishment, it can still declare a moratorium on the death penalty for federal crimes. As a country that unfailingly defends the value of life and dignity, this would be a powerful message to the rest of the world.