Friday, 2 March 2007

Death penalty’s risks too many

Death penalty’s risks too many

Michael Blakely - Columnist
Thursday, March 01, 2007 issue

The death penalty, as I discussed last week, is a challenging moral dilemma that presents a stark dichotomy between reason and emotion. On one hand, my heart cries out for retribution for heinous crimes that often place people on Death Row. On the other hand, I find myself unable to discover a good reason for the death penalty’s continued existence.

I have found that the death penalty must be justified on one of two grounds: retributive justice or deterrence. These principles, however, seem a precarious basis on which to build an argument for the death penalty. There is no true proof that the death penalty deters future crimes, and I fail to see how the government has the right to seek retribution, especially when it is requiring payment in blood.

When the arguments in support of an action fail, the issue should be resolved. However, as this was not enough even to convince myself, it seems necessary to enumerate the reasons why the death penalty is immoral and impractical.

There are three legitimate arguments against the death penalty. First, the financial benefits of decreeing life without parole instead of execution. Second, the arbitrary nature of the death penalty and the potential innocence of those convicted. And, finally, the seemingly chicken-hawkish warning against excessive governmental power because of fear of deterioration of principles and leadership.

Many death-penalty apologists claim that it is better to execute murderers than to spend tax dollars supporting the dregs of society. This claim would be more credible if it were based on reality. According to a Duke University study, North Carolina spends $2.16 million dollars more per execution than supporting those serving life without parole. Also, as was reported in the Palm Beach Post, Jeb Bush could save Florida $51 million per year if he would start punishing first-degree murderers with life without parole. So, we could all save a little green, as well as a little electricity, by abolishing the death penalty.

Beyond the financial benefits, we should be wary of the practice that has killed both Jesus and Socrates, perhaps the most famous examples of wrongful death. Anybody who has paid any heed to executions in recent years has heard the rumblings over innocence lost. Innocent people have rotted on Death Row for over a decade before our incompetent system managed to stumble across the truth.

Given the value that our society places on human life, and the potential of our human judicial systems to err, it seems readily apparent that the death penalty does not belong in a democratic state. The loss of one innocent life is not worth the “just” punishment of a million murderers.

I expect to be called a chicken hawk and fear monger for this next reason, but I find the most troubling aspect of the death penalty to be that the government holds a license to kill. While many of you may find it absurd to be fearful of random executions or fabricated charges underneath the U.S. Constitution, things have a tendency to change. We have seen throughout history that presidents like to draw additional power to themselves, from Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus to Bush’s Patriot Act.

While I hate to draw upon the snowball argument, power can continue to build until it grows beyond our limits. It is not wholly unfeasible to imagine a day where, during wartime, a president decides it necessary to strengthen treason charges and make war protests punishable by death.

As far-fetched as this argument seems to be, remember that the death penalty offers no real benefits and quite a few risks. It is best to err on the side of caution and not endow the government with the capacity to carry out the execution of its citizens.

After all, how can we trust out government with the primary responsibility of protecting life, and yet endow them with the power to remove it from us as well?

Michael Blakely is a junior in philosophy. He can be reached at

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