Up until a couple of years ago, I was for the death penalty, not because I had carefully studied the issue, but just because of some primal urge to see “justice” being done. I guess it is difficult to uproot my childhood programming of the biblical “an eye for an eye” sort of justice. Logically, I understood the anti-death penalty arguments but it was all in my head. It was more emotionally satisfying to think that a ruthless murderer or a serial rapist would finally “get what they deserved” and no longer walk the earth.
A second, more practical reason (at least to pro-death penalty advocates), is that putting the person to death saves the government and us taxpayers some money, versus keeping them alive and having to spend for their food and other basic needs.
A third reason for the death penalty is that it acts as a deterrent or a preventive measure, which means that a person about to commit a heinous act will be more likely to refrain from doing it because the penalty would be death instead of just imprisonment.
In a round-table discussion led by my friend, Keith Smith, a retired American educator living in Digos City, we explored these issues. Keith was the former Director of the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) at the State University of NY (SUNY) college of Arts and Sciences. He also had a part-time assignment at a maximum security prison called the New York State Correctional Facility at Dannemora (also called the “Clinton Correctional Facility” or simply “Clinton”). He taught pre-college math and science to hardened criminals convicted of some very serious crimes. It was an interesting discussion as his actual experience and contact with them provided some valuable insight on the topic.
The first issue we addressed was death penalty as a deterrent to crime. The answer to this, which is backed by many studies, is no. For the sake of brevity, I am not going to quote these studies as they are too numerous. Just google “death penalty studies” and you can read all the studies to your heart’s content.
The criminal mind is not so much concerned about “What punishment am I going to receive?” as it is about “Am I going to get caught?” If the criminal thinks he or she can get away with the crime, the actual punishment does not really matter. The real deterrent then, would be stronger police presence, faster response times to crime, and more criminals being caught than getting away.
The next issue of costs came and I was surprised to find out that contrary to the common notion that it would be much cheaper for the state to just kill the criminal than to keep him imprisoned for life, actual data from numerous sources actually show that it is more expensive for the state (around twice to four times as much) to try death penalty cases than life imprisonment cases.
One study in Indiana found that the average cost of a death-penalty case was around $789,000 versus a life-imprisonment case without parole which cost around $185,000. Since death is irreversible, it would actually cost the state a lot of money to provide proof of guilt — that meant hiring more experts, conducting expensive laboratory tests, and so on.
Even with such high costs though, there are still one too many wrong convictions that were discovered too late. In 2014, Scientific American published an article on research done by a team of lawyers and statisticians who examined data on more than 7,000 death penalty cases between 1973 and 2004. The conclusion of that research was that a significant number of death row convictions were wrong.
This brings us to the issue of justice or of the criminal getting what he or she deserves. There were a number of us who still had this sentiment — even Keith himself said there were people he thought didn’t deserve to live after what they did. The thing is, how sure can we be that the person was not wrongfully convicted? Data from first world countries with bigger budgets and better technology than ours show that even their justice system gets it wrong many times. How much better can we fare here, knowing the kind of justice system that we have?
So it now becomes a question of statistics. What margin of error would I be willing to accept for a death penalty convict? 5%? 3%? Or even 1%? If I knew that one out of every 100 would be wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death, that is still one life too many. My answer is zero, and thus I cannot fully support the death penalty.
Besides, as another friend, Gamahiel Tutor expressed, death is too easy an escape for these offenders. Keeping them imprisoned for life is better so that their suffering is longer.
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.