Practiced for much, if not all, of human history, the death penalty (also called capital punishment) is the “execution of an offender sentenced to death after conviction by a court of law of a criminal offense,” according to Roger Hood, professor at the Centre for Criminological Research at the University of Oxford.
Amnesty International lists the United States as just one of 55 countries globally with a legal death penalty for ordinary crimes as of May 2023. Another nine countries reserve the death penalty for “exceptional crimes such as crimes under military law or crimes committed in exceptional circumstances,” according to Amnesty International. Meanwhile, 112 countries have abolished the death penalty legally and 23 have abolished the punishment in practice. Read more history…
Pro & Con Arguments
The death penalty provides the justice and closure families and victims deserve.
Many relatives of murder victims believe the death penalty is just and necessary for their lives to move forward.
Jason Johnson, whose father was sentenced to death for killing his mother, states: “[I will go to see him executed] not to see him die [but] just to see my family actually have some closure… He’s an evil human being. He can talk Christianity and all that. That is all my father is. That’s all he’s ever been, is a con man… If he found redemption, that doesn’t matter, that’s between him and God. His forgiveness is to come from the Lord and his redemption is to come from the Lord, not the government. The Bible also says, ‘An eye for an eye.’”
Phyllis Loya, mother of police officer Larry Lasater who was killed in the line of duty, states, “I will live to see the execution of my son’s murderer. People [need] closure, and I think it means different things to different people. What it would mean for me is that my fight for justice for my son would be complete when his sentence, which was [handed down] by a Contra Costa County jury and by a Contra Costa County judge, would be carried out as it should be.”
While some argue that there is no “closure” to be had in such tragedies and via the death penalty, victim families think differently. Often the families of victims have to endure for years detailed accounts in the press and social media of their loved one’s gory murder while the murderer sits out a life sentence or endlessly appeals their conviction. A just execution puts an end to that cycle.
As Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor explains, “The family of each murder victim suffers unspeakable pain when their loved one is murdered. Those wounds are torn open many times during the following decades, as the investigations, trials, appeals, and pardon and parole board hearings occur. Each stage brings torment and yet a desire for justice for the heinous treatment of their family member. The family feels that the suffering and loss of life of the victim and their own pain are forgotten when the murderer is portrayed in the media as a sympathetic character. The family knows that the execution of the murderer cannot bring their loved one back. They suspect it will not bring them ‘closure’ or ‘finality’ or ‘peace,’ but there is justice and perhaps an end to the ongoing wounding by ‘the murderer and then the system.’”Read More
The death penalty prevents additional crime.
If not a deterrent to would-be murderers, at the very least, when carried out, the death penalty prevents convicted murderers from repeating their crimes.
“Perhaps the most straightforward argument for the death penalty is that it saves innocent lives by preventing convicted murderers from killing again. If the abolitionists had not succeeded in obtaining a temporary moratorium on death penalties from 1972 to 1976, [Kenneth Allen] McDuff would have been executed, and Colleen Reed and at least eight other young women would be alive today,” explains Paul Cassell, former U.S. District Judge.
Kenneth Allen McDuff was convicted and sentenced to death in 1966 for the murders of three teenagers and the rape of one. However, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the death penalty nationwide in 1972 (Furman v. Georgia), leading to a reduced sentence and McDuff being released on parole in 1989. An estimated three days later, he began a crime spree: torturing, raping, and murdering at least six women in Texas before being arrested again on May 4, 1992, and sentenced to death a second time. Had McDuff been executed as justice demanded for the first three murders, at least six murders would have been prevented.
Considering recidivism rates, how many more murders and associated crimes of kidnaping, rape, and torture, among others could have been deterred had the death penalty been imposed on any number of murderers?Read More
The death penalty is the only moral and just punishment for the worst crimes.
Talion law (lex talionis in Latin), or retributive law, is perhaps best known as the Biblical imperative: “Anyone who inflicts a permanent injury on his or her neighbor shall receive the same in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The same injury that one gives another shall be inflicted in return.”
The word “retribution” comes from the Latin re + tribuo, or “I pay back.” In order for those who commit the worst crimes to pay their debts to society, the death penalty must be employed as punishment, or the debt has not been paid.
“Retribution is an expression of society’s right to make a moral judgment by imposing a punishment on a wrongdoer befitting the crime he has committed,” says Charles Stimson of the Heritage Foundation. Therefore, “the death penalty should be available for the worst of the worst,” regardless of the race or gender of the victim or perpetrator.
Thus, “retributionists who support the death penalty typically do not wish to expand the list of offenses for which it may be imposed. Their support for the death penalty is only for crimes defined as particularly heinous, because only such criminals deserve to be put to death. Under lex talionis it is impermissible to execute those whose crimes do not warrant the ultimate sanction,” explains Jon’a F. Meyer, professor at Rutgers University. “The uniform application of retributive punishment is central to the philosophy.”
As Robert Blecker, professor emeritus at New York Law School, further clarifies, “retribution is not simply revenge. Revenge may be limitless and misdirected at the undeserving, as with collective punishment. Retribution, on the other hand, can help restore a moral balance. It demands that punishment must be limited and proportional. Retributivists like myself just as strongly oppose excessive punishment as we urge adequate punishment: as much, but no more than what’s deserved. Thus I endorse capital punishment only for the worst of the worst criminals.”
“Sometimes, justice is dismissing a charge, granting a plea bargain, expunging a past conviction, seeking a prison sentence, or — in a very few cases, for the worst of the worst murderers — sometimes, justice is death…A drug cartel member who murders a rival cartel member faces life in prison without parole. What if he murders two, three, or 12 people? Or the victim is a child or multiple children? What if the murder was preceded by torture or rape? How about a serial killer? Or a terrorist who kills dozens, hundreds or thousands?” asks George Brauchler, District Attorney of the 18th Judicial District in Colorado. The nature of the crime, and the depth of its depravity, should matter.Read More
Not only is the death penalty not a deterrent to crime, it is very expensive.
Advocates for capital punishment long argued that it deters crime, other criminal acts, but according to the ACLU, “There is no credible evidence that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than long terms of imprisonment. States that have death penalty laws do not have lower crime rates or murder rates than states without such laws. And states that have abolished capital punishment show no significant changes in either crime or murder rates.” 
“People commit murders largely in the heat of passion, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or because they are mentally ill, giving little or no thought to the possible consequences of their acts,” the ACLU continues. “The few murderers who plan their crimes beforehand… intend and expect to avoid punishment altogether by not getting caught. Some self-destructive individuals may even hope they will be caught and executed.”
Further, the death penalty is significantly more expensive than life-without-parole, the oft-shunned alternative penalty. The death penalty system costs California $137 million per year while a system with lifelong imprisonment as the maximum penalty would cost $11.5 million, an almost 92% decrease in expense. The statistics are lower but comparable across other states including Kansas, Tennessee, and Maryland.
And this money has to come from somewhere, most often at the expense of taxpayers. In Texas, executions are funded “by raising property tax rates and by reducing public safety expenditure. Property crime rises as a consequence of the latter,” explains Jeffrey Miron of the Cato Institute.Read More
The death penalty is steeped in poor legal assistance and racial bias.
The Equal Justice Initiative explains that the “death penalty system treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent,” resulting in the punishment being ”mostly imposed on poor people who cannot afford to hire an effective lawyer” while “people of color are more likely to be prosecuted for capital murder, sentenced to death, and executed, especially if the victim in the case is white.”
The American Bar Association sets minimum qualifications for capital case lawyers, yet most death penalty states do not require lawyers to meet even those requirements, leaving defendants without the means to hire a private lawyer to face the court with inadequate counsel.
Further, erroneous eyewitness identifications, false and coerced confessions, false or misleading forensic evidence, misconduct by police, prosecutors, or other officials, and incentivized witnesses taint death row cases.
For every eight people on death row, one of them has later been found innocent.
The death penalty is inconsistently applied and most often applied to Black men who have killed a white person. While Black people made up only 13% of the American population in 2018, 41% of people on death row and 34% of those executed were Black.
This inequality should not be surprising considering the roots of the death penalty. Bryan Stevenson, capital defense attorney and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, refers to the death penalty as the “stepchild of lynching.”
As journalist Josh Marcus explains, “Following the end of the Reconstruction period, which saw federal troops occupy the former Confederate states and enforce new legal and constitutional protections for Black people, lynching surged in the late 1800s, until it became all but a daily occurrence across America. Lynchings sometimes involved government officials like local law enforcement, and government officials began arguing for capital punishment as an alternative. It would still satiate the public’s appetite for violence against Black people, but under the auspices of the law, which at the time allowed for explicit racial segregation in all areas of life.”
A survey of executions found that 80% of executions occur in former Confederate states and mirror historic lynching sites.
“We should be beyond the point of killing people for killing people. It’s so archaic,” concludes Rachel Sutphin, whose father Eric, a Deputy Sheriff in Virginia, was killed by an escaped prisoner who was, in turn, executed by lethal injection.Read More
The death penalty is immoral and amounts to torture.
Many religions, from Catholicism to Judaism, not only oppose the death penalty but also call for its worldwide abolition.
“Murder is calculated, unjustified and intentional taking of life. When we, under the supposed color of law, deliberate, decide, and plan the purposeful extinguishing of human life, we commit murder. The death penalty is murder,” explains Rabbi and former Assistant Ohio Public Defender Benjamin Zober. “We are commanded, ‘justice, justice, shall you pursue.’ (Deut. 16:20) We cannot do this by taking lives, acting in anger, or vengeance, or by creating more bloodshed, trauma, and pain…. There is a world in every person, every life…. ‘Anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world.’ (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5).”
Robert Schentrup, brother of 16-year-old Carmen who died in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, in 2018 says, “This is the part where pundits on TV will invoke the name of my sister to support the murder of another human being. This is the part where people try to convince me that vengeance should make me feel better and that it will bring me ‘closure’ so that ‘I can continue to heal. But I do not … care, because my sister is dead, and killing someone else will not bring her back.”
Further, while the death penalty ultimately takes a life, the condemned person is subjected to what is otherwise considered physical and psychological torture before death. As law professor John Bessler explains “The death penalty, in fact, always and inevitably inflicts severe pain and suffering rising to the level of torture. That’s because capital charges and death sentences systematically threaten individuals with death (and, when death warrants against individuals are carried out, kill), with torture—prohibited by various domestic laws in addition to the bar in international law—considered to be the aggravated form of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.”
Certain methods of execution are especially tortuous: consider the 2024 nitrogen hypoxia execution of Kenneth Smith, which inflicted an intense struggle for air before he died 22 minutes after the execution began. In the United States, cruel punishment is explicitly banned by the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.Read More