California recently voted on proposition 62, which is a referendum to abolish the death penalty in the state. This proposition was rejected in a state known for its liberal viewpoints and somewhat softer mindset on punishment, which seems paradoxical, however, when our baser instincts are taken into consideration, it isn’t all that perplexing.
Early History of the Death Penalty
The death penalty in some form or another has been a part of the justice systems scattered around the world for all of our recorded history. Its history in America started early. In 1607 the first colonists had landed in America, and by 1608 the first death sentence had been handed out.
Things have evolved and states have adopted their own policies, but the death penalty has remained federally legal in the US for our entire history outside of a brief period from 1972-1976 when the Supreme Court case of Furman v. Georgia outlawed the practice. However, it was quickly overturned in 1976 in the case of Gregg v. Georgia.
The death penalty has always been something accepted as necessary to rightfully punish the worst in society. You hear of grotesque, almost unimaginable crimes committed against young children by cruel and heartless individuals, and even the most empathetic and forgiving among us begin to experience the desire for capital justice.
Another commonly held reason is the danger some inmates can pose to other inmates or the guards who watch over them in prison. An exceptionally dangerous person can take several lives, and in that respect, the death penalty may seem to be the most logical option given a utilitarian mindset. These mindsets are very valid responses both emotionally and logically. I used to hold both beliefs strongly but recently have changed my viewpoint on the subject.
The Innocence Project is a group that is dedicated to reversing false convictions, usually based on new evidence or DNA evidence that has finally been tested and brought up on appeals. They have helped free thousands of wrongly convicted people who could return to their families and lives, free of an otherwise miserable fate.
The fact is there are mistakes made in the justice system no matter how hard the most idealistic among us try to prevent it. That doesn’t even factor in corruption or incompetence, which are both unavoidable flaws of human nature. This forces anyone supporting the death penalty to confront a reality that is uncomfortable to accept, we have executed and will continue to execute wrongly convicted people.
Since 1976 when the death penalty was reinstated we have executed roughly 1400 people. This means roughly for every 10 people we have executed the last four decades, we have had to let a person free after 11 years once we found out they were actually innocent. There simply is no way I can be convinced we have not executed innocent people, and will not continue to make those mistakes, which is hard to stomach when you confront it.
I considered this reality a considerable amount the last couple years and realized I could no longer support the death penalty. This isn’t some compassion based viewpoint with a foundational view that all life needs to be protected and given the chance for change.
This is an acceptance of the flaws in our system and my refusal to accept the fact that an innocent person could lose their life because of that system. It is simply inexcusable for me to accept a single innocent American life being taken by an electric chair or a lethal injection, knowing full well that some of those killed have just experienced the worst injustice a fair and free society could inflict.
I couldn’t imagine being taken from my home, from my family, carted into a courtroom, sentenced, and then have my death be put on display for the victims of a crime I didn’t commit, to give them a closure that isn’t real. The fact that the possibility exists for that scenario to transpire is just too great a risk for the emotional or utilitarian gain. It does too much harm to our values as a society, and I think it’s time that we stop accepting it as normal.
This is obviously a very emotionally charged subject with convincing reasoning on both sides of the issue.
What do you think about this subject? Is the justice of punishing the truly horrid crimes of society worth the possibility of injustice? Let us know in the comments below, and don’t forget to share, keeping the discussion going.