Last updated on: 9/20/2021 | Author: ProCon.org

Should the Death Penalty Be Legal?

General Reference (not clearly pro or con)

John Gramlich, Senior Writer and Editor at Pew Research Center, in a July 19, 2021 article, “10 Facts about the Death Penalty in the U.S.,” available at pewresearch.org, stated:

“Six-in-ten U.S. adults strongly or somewhat favor the death penalty for convicted murderers, according to the April 2021 survey. A similar share (64%) say the death penalty is morally justified when someone commits a crime like murder.

Support for capital punishment is strongly associated with the view that it is morally justified in certain cases. Nine-in-ten of those who favor the death penalty say it is morally justified when someone commits a crime like murder; only a quarter of those who oppose capital punishment see it as morally justified.”

July 19, 2021

Ian Millhiser, Senior Correspondent at Vox, in a Dec. 30, 2020 article, “The Decline and Fall of the American Death Penalty,” available at vox.com, stated:

“Fewer people were executed in 2020 than in any year for nearly three decades, and fewer people were sentenced to die than at any point since the Supreme Court created the modern legal framework governing the death penalty in 1976…

One significant reason so few people were executed in 2020 is the Covid-19 pandemic — which has slowed court proceedings and turned gathering prison officials and witnesses for an execution into a dangerous event for everyone involved. But even if 2020 is an outlier year due to the pandemic, DPIC’s [Death Penalty Information Center’s] data shows a sharp and consistent trend away from the death penalty since the number of capital sentences peaked in the 1990s.

In total, only 17 people were executed in 2020, a number that would be much lower if not for the Trump administration resuming federal executions this year for the first time in nearly two decades. 2020 is the first year in American history when the federal government executed more people than all of the states combined: 10 of the 17 people executed in 2020 were killed by the federal government.

Only five states — Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, and Tennessee — conducted executions in 2020. And of these five states, only one, Texas, killed more than one person on death row.

The trend away from new death sentences and executions has continued despite two recent significant pro-death penalty opinions from the Supreme Court. The Court’s decisions in Glossip v. Gross (2015) and especially in Bucklew v. Precythe (2019) make it much more difficult for death row inmates to claim their executions violate the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments.”

Dec. 30, 2020

The late Roger Hood, PhD, Professor at the Centre for Criminological Research at the University of Oxford, in an Encyclopaedia Britannica entry, “Capital Punishment,” last edited on Mar. 25, 2021 and available at britannica.com, stated:

“[C]apital punishment, also called death penalty, [is the] execution of an offender sentenced to death after conviction by a court of law of a criminal offense. Capital punishment should be distinguished from extrajudicial executions carried out without due process of law. The term death penalty is sometimes used interchangeably with capital punishment, though imposition of the penalty is not always followed by execution (even when it is upheld on appeal), because of the possibility of commutation to life imprisonment”

Mar. 25, 2021

PRO (yes)

Pro

Jeffrey A. Rosen, JD, Former Deputy Attorney General in the Trump Administration, in a July 27, 2020 article, “The Death Penalty Can Ensure ‘Justice Is Being Done,'” available at nytimes.com, stated: 

“The death penalty is a difficult issue for many Americans on moral, religious and policy grounds. But as a legal issue, it is straightforward. The United States Constitution expressly contemplates ‘capital’ crimes, and Congress has authorized the death penalty for serious federal offenses since President George Washington signed the Crimes Act of 1790. The American people have repeatedly ratified that decision, including through the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 signed by President Bill Clinton, the federal execution of Timothy McVeigh under President George W. Bush and the decision by President Barack Obama’s Justice Department to seek the death penalty against the Boston Marathon bomber and Dylann Roof.

The recent executions reflect that consensus, as the Justice Department has an obligation to carry out the law. The decision to seek the death penalty against Mr. Lee was made by Attorney General Janet Reno (who said she personally opposed the death penalty but was bound by the law) and reaffirmed by Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder.

Mr. Purkey was prosecuted during the George W. Bush administration, and his conviction and sentence were vigorously defended throughout the Obama administration. The judge who imposed the death sentence on Mr. Honken, Mark Bennett, said that while he generally opposed the death penalty, he would not lose any sleep over Mr. Honken’s execution.”

July 27, 2020

Pro

Charles Stimson, JD, Acting Chief of Staff and Senior Legal Fellow of the Heritage Foundation, in a Dec. 20, 2019 article, “The Death Penalty Is Appropriate,” available at heritage.org, stated:

“There are, to be sure, heartfelt arguments for people to be against the death penalty, not the least of which are religious, moral, or other reasons and beliefs. There are also valid arguments regarding the historical use of the death penalty against minorities, especially in the South.

Yet a majority of Americans, quite reasonably, support the death penalty in appropriate cases, and believe that, despite its imperfections, it is constitutional…

But for the death penalty to be applied fairly, we must strive to make the criminal justice system work as it was intended. We should all agree that all defendants in capital cases should have competent and zealous lawyers representing them at all stages in the trial and appeals process.

Any remnant of racism in the criminal justice system is wrong, and we should work to eliminate it. Nobody is in favor of racist prosecutors, bad judges or incompetent defense attorneys. If problems arise in particular cases, they should be corrected—and often are.

That said, the death penalty serves three legitimate penological objectives: general deterrence, specific deterrence, and retribution.”

Dec. 20, 2019

Pro

George Brauchler, JD, District Attorney of the 18th Judicial District in Colorado, wrote in a Mar. 1, 2019 opinion article titled “Coloradans Should Have the Final Say on the Death Penalty (and I’d Hope They Keep It),” available at denverpost.com:

“There are good reasons to maintain capital punishment in our state…

The paramount goal of sentencing is the imposition of justice. 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?

The repeal of the death penalty treats all murders as the same. Once a person commits a single act of murder, each additional murder is a freebie.

That is not justice.”

Mar. 1, 2019 - George Brauchler, JD

Pro

Paul Muschick, columnist, reporter, and editor at The Morning Call, wrote in his June 28, 2018 opinion article titled “Pennsylvania’s Death Penalty System Should Be Strengthened, Not Abolished, Amid Newly Raised Concerns,” available at mcall.com:

“Sometimes, there is no doubt that people are killers because their sins are recorded by surveillance cameras or bystanders’ phones. With that evidence, other than mental illness, there’s no reason not to execute those who commit the most horrific crimes…

While executions are rare, having the death penalty can be a bargaining chip for authorities as they investigate crimes…

It’s also necessary to have capital punishment because some crimes simply are so horrific that any other punishment, including life in a cage, is insufficient.”

June 28, 2018 - Paul Muschick

Pro

Anne Marie Schubert, JD, Sacramento County District Attorney, stated the following in her July 20, 2016 article titled “California’s Broken Death Penalty System Can Be Fixed,” available at sacbee.com:

“In our experience, most survivors want ‘justice’ for the murderers of their family members. Repealing the death penalty will not heal these peoples’ wounds; it keeps them permanently open…

Moreover, victims’ families will always be haunted by the specter that an inmate sentenced to life without parole will suddenly ask the governor to reduce a sentence – as happened recently in the case of a Fresno murderer who waited 36 years and applied for clemency. As long as an inmate sentenced to life without parole lives, the governor could reduce the sentence and a murderer may be released on the streets…

[It] is dead wrong to assert that the death penalty has been conclusively shown not to deter crime. Experience and common sense confirm a deterrent effect.”

July 20, 2016 - Anne Marie Schubert, JD

Pro

Donald J. Trump, 45th President of the United States, stated the following in a May 11, 2016 appearance on Fox & Friends, available at YouTube.com:

“The death penalty. It should be brought back and it should be brought back strong… They say it’s not a deterrent. Well, you know what, maybe it’s not a deterrent but these two [men convicted of killing two police officers in Hattiesburg, MS] will not do any more killing. That’s for sure.”

May 11, 2016 - Donald J. Trump

Pro

The Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Association stated the following in an article on its website titled “Reform, Don’t Repeal, the Death Penalty” (accessed Mar. 10, 2017):

“[G]iving up on the death penalty would mean giving up on justice for crime victims and their families. The prisoners currently on California’s death row have murdered more than 1,000 people. Of those, 229 were children, 43 were peace officers, and 294 of the victims were sexually assaulted and tortured. Having a functional death penalty law will help us protect the public from society’s worst criminals and bring some measure of closure to the families whose loved ones were cruelly taken from them.”

Mar. 10, 2017 - Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Association (LAAPOA)

Pro

Bruce Fein, JD, General Counsel for the Center for Law and Accountability, in an American Bar Association website article titled “Individual Rights and Responsibility – The Death Penalty, But Sparingly” (accessed June 17, 2008), offered the following:

“Abolitionists may contend that the death penalty is inherently immoral because governments should never take human life, no matter what the provocation. But that is an article of faith, not of fact, just like the opposite position held by abolitionist detractors, including myself… The death penalty honors human dignity by treating the defendant as a free moral actor able to control his own destiny for good or for ill; it does not treat him as an animal with no moral sense, and thus subject even to butchery to satiate human gluttony. Moreover, capital punishment celebrates the dignity of the humans whose lives were ended by the defendant’s predation.”

June 17, 2008 - Bruce Fein, JD

Pro

Steven D. Stewart, JD, Clark County Prosecuting Attorney, in an Office of the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s website section (accessed Apr. 5, 2017) and titled “A Message from the Prosecuting Attorney,” offered the following:

“Along with two-thirds of the American public, I believe in capital punishment. I believe that there are some defendants who have earned the ultimate punishment our society has to offer by committing murder with aggravating circumstances present. I believe life is sacred. It cheapens the life of an innocent murder victim to say that society has no right to keep the murderer from ever killing again. In my view, society has not only the right, but the duty to act in self defense to protect the innocent.”

Apr. 5, 2017 - Steven D. Stewart, JD

Pro

Cass R. Sunstein, JD, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard University Law School, in a Mar. 2005 Stanford Law Review article cowritten with Adrian Vermeule and titled “Is Capital Punishment Morally Required? Acts, Omissions and Life-Life Tradeoffs,” wrote the following:

“[O]n certain empirical assumptions, capital punishment may be morally required, not for retributive reasons, but rather to prevent the taking of innocent lives. In so saying, we are suggesting the possibility that states are obliged to maintain the death penalty option.”

Mar. 2005 - Cass R. Sunstein, JD

Pro

Atul Gawande, MD, MPH, Associate Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School, in a Mar. 23, 2006 New England Journal of Medicine article titled “When Law and Ethics Collide — Why Physicians Participate in Executions,” wrote the following:

“I have personally been in favor of the death penalty. I was a senior official in the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign and in the administration, and in that role I defended the President’s stance in support of capital punishment. I have no illusions that the death penalty deters anyone from murder. I also have great concern about the ability of our justice system to avoid putting someone innocent to death. However, I believe there are some human beings who do such evil as to deserve to die. I am not troubled that Timothy McVeigh was executed for the 168 people he had killed in the Oklahoma City bombing, or that John Wayne Gacy was for committing 33 murders.”

Mar. 23, 2006 - Atul Gawande, MD, MPH

Pro

David B. Muhlhausen, PhD, Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Data Analysis of the Heritage Foundation, in an Aug. 28, 2007 Heritage Foundation website article titled “The Death Penalty Deters Crime and Saves Lives,” wrote the following:

“While opponents of capital punishment allege that it is unfairly used against African–Americans, each additional execution deters the murder of 1.5 African–Americans. Further moratoria, commuted sentences, and death row removals appear to increase the incidence of murder… Americans support capital punishment for two good reasons. First, there is little evidence to suggest that minorities are treated unfairly. Second, capital punishment produces a strong deterrent effect that saves lives.”

Aug. 28, 2007 - David B. Muhlhausen, PhD

Pro

Louis P. Pojman, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at West Point Military Academy, in an essay titled “Why the Death Penalty Is Morally Permissible,” from the 2004 book edited by Adam Bedau and titled Debating the Death Penalty: Should America Have Capital Punishment? The Experts on Both Sides Make Their Best Case, wrote:

“Public executions of the convicted murderer would serve as a reminder that crime does not pay. Public executions of criminals seem an efficient way to communicate the message that if you shed innocent blood, you will pay a high price… I agree… on the matter of accountability but also believe such publicity would serve to deter homicide.”

2004 - Louis P. Pojman, PhD

Pro

Parmatmananda Saraswati, Co-ordinator of the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha, in an Oct./Nov./Dec. 2006 Hinduism Today article titled “Capital Punishment: Time to Abandon It?,” wrote the following:

“Capital punishment is allowed under Hindu tradition. Lord Rama is the embodiment of dharma, yet he killed King Bali, who had stolen his own brother’s wife… Sometimes I feel that the crimes today are even more heinous than in the past. Hence capital punishment, if sanctioned by the scriptures, should continue.”

Oct./Nov./Dec. 2006 - Parmatmananda Saraswati

CON (no)

Con

Cori Bush, US Representative (D-MO), in a Dec. 14, 2020 article, “Joe Biden Says He Opposes the Death Penalty. He Can Help End It with the Stroke of a Pen,” available at time.com, stated:

“Ending the death penalty is about justice. It’s about mercy. It’s about putting a stop to this nation’s dark history of lynching and slavery. It’s about making it clear that our government should not have the power to end a life. We must build a fair criminal-legal system on a foundation of mercy, due process and equity. We must break the cycles of death, devastation and trauma that have broken Black and brown communities like mine.”

Dec. 14, 2020

Con

Elliot Williams, JD, CNN legal analyst and Former Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the Justice Department, in a Dec. 13, 2020 article, “The Death Penalty Confuses Vengeance with Justice, and It’s Time to End It,” available at cnn.com, stated:

“It is time to end the federal death penalty.

Last week, the federal government executed two men within nearly 24 hours.

What’s striking here is the timing. The deaths of Alfred Bourgeois and Brandon Bernard mark the first time the death penalty has been imposed during the lame-duck period since 1889, when Grover Cleveland was President — before the bottle cap or the diesel engine were even invented. The executions come more than a year after Attorney General William Barr directed the federal government to reinstate the death penalty for the first time in nearly 20 years.

The fact that an attorney general can decide to commence the federal death penalty after years without it, or that the United States has a century-plus-old practice of suspending it at certain points in the political calendar tells us everything that is wrong with the practice. The death penalty is unique in the law — despite its finality, it is politically fraught, inconsistently applied, subject to the basest human impulses, and a relic of the ugliest elements baked into our criminal justice system.”

Dec. 13, 2020

Con

Jared Olsen, JD, Wyoming State Representative (R), in a July 29, 2019 article, “I’m a Republican and I Oppose Restarting Federal Executions,” available at nytimes.com, stated:

“A long-held stereotype is that conservatives in this country favor capital punishment, while liberals oppose it. But that doesn’t accord with reality: In recent years, more conservatives have come to realize that capital punishment conflicts irreconcilably with their principles of valuing life, fiscal responsibility and limited government. Many conservatives also recognize that the death penalty inflicts extreme and unnecessary trauma on the family members of victims and the correctional employees who have the job of taking the prisoner’s life.”

July 29, 2019

Con

Kamala Harris, JD, US Senator (D-CA), said in a Mar. 13, 2019 statement titled “Senator Kamala Harris on California Death Penalty Moratorium,” available at harris.senate.gov:

“As a career law enforcement official, I have opposed the death penalty because it is immoral, discriminatory, ineffective, and a gross misuse of taxpayer dollars…

Black and Latino defendants are far more likely to be executed than their white counterparts. Poor defendants without a team of lawyers are far more likely to enter death row than those with strong representation. Your race or your bank account shouldn’t determine your sentence.

It is also a waste of taxpayer money. The California Legislative Analyst’s office estimates that California would save $150 million a year if it replaced the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. That’s money that could go into schools, health care, or restorative justice programs.”

Mar. 13, 2019 - Kamala Harris, JD

Con

Gavin Newsom, Governor of California (D), made the following statement on Mar. 13, 2019 when he announced a moratorium on the death penalty in the state and closed the execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison, available at gov.ca.gov:

“The intentional killing of another person is wrong and as Governor, I will not oversee the execution of any individual. Our death penalty system has been, by all measures, a failure. It has discriminated against defendants who are mentally ill, black and brown, or can’t afford expensive legal representation. It has provided no public safety benefit or value as a deterrent. It has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars. Most of all, the death penalty is absolute. It’s irreversible and irreparable in the event of human error.”

Mar. 13, 2019 - Gavin Newsom

Con

Pope Francis, 266th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, stated the following as quoted in a June 22, 2016 article titled “Francis’ Video Message at a Congress Against the Death Penalty – An Offence to the Inviolability of Life,” available at the official Vatican news website news.va:

“Indeed, nowadays the death penalty is unacceptable, however grave the crime of the convicted person. It is an offence to the inviolability of life and to the dignity of the human person; it likewise contradicts God’s plan for individuals and society, and his merciful justice. Nor is it consonant with any just purpose of punishment. It does not render justice to victims, but instead fosters vengeance. The commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ has absolute value and applies both to the innocent and to the guilty…

It must not be forgotten that the inviolable and God-given right to life also belongs to the criminal.”

June 22, 2016 - Pope Francis

Con

Ron Briggs, Former District IV Supervisor of El Dorado County in California, stated the following in his July 7, 2016 article titled “Death Penalty Is Destructive to California,” available at sacbee.com:

“Though I was once California’s biggest proponent of the death penalty, I now feel compelled to admit the policy is destructive to our great state. What we didn’t know then is that the death penalty would become an industry that benefits only attorneys and criminals, and no one else. It’s an extreme expense to taxpayers, does not make our communities safer and fails to deliver the justice it promised.

Since the initiative became law, California taxpayers have unknowingly spent more than $5 billion to maintain a death row that now houses 747 convicted criminals. During this time, only 13 people have been put to death, at an eye-popping price tag of $384 million per execution…

New studies conclusively show that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime. My family and I believed the death penalty would serve as the ultimate warning to criminals, but nearly 40 years of evidence proves it does not work.”

July 7, 2016 - Ron Briggs

Con

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, PhD, United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated the following in a Mar. 1, 2017, speech to the 34th Session of the Human Rights Council, available at ohchr.org:

“International and national bodies have determined that several methods of execution are likely to violate the prohibition of torture, because of the pain and suffering they are likely to inflict on the convicted person. Studies of the severe pain and suffering caused by other methods has continued to extend this list, to the point where it has become increasingly difficult for a State to impose the death penalty without violating international human rights law.

The long and highly stressful period that most individuals endure while waiting on ‘death row’ for years, or even decades, and frequently in isolation, for an uncertain outcome, has also been referenced as constituting torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment…

Furthermore, when the authorities fail to give adequate information about the timing of executions, they maintain not only the convicted person but also his children and other family members in permanent anticipation of imminent death. This acute mental distress, which may be compounded by failure to return the body to families for burial, or inform them of the location of burial, is unjustifiable…

There are many reasons why we should move away from the death penalty, starting with its capricious and frequently discriminatory application, and its failure to demonstrate any deterrent effect beyond that of other punishments. The severe mental and physical suffering which are inflicted by capital punishment on the person concerned and family members should now be added to the weight of the argument. The use of the death penalty should be ended.”

Mar. 1, 2017 - Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, PhD

Con

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in section on its website titled “The Death Penalty: Questions and Answers,” (accessed Mar. 27, 2017) stated the following:

“The death penalty has no deterrent effect. Claims that each execution deters a certain number of murders have been thoroughly discredited by social science research…

In civilized society, we reject the principle of literally doing to criminals what they do to their victims: The penalty for rape cannot be rape, or for arson, the burning down of the arsonist’s house. We should not, therefore, punish the murderer with death…

Capital punishment is a barbaric remnant of uncivilized society. It is immoral in principle, and unfair and discriminatory in practice. It assures the execution of some innocent people. As a remedy for crime, it has no purpose and no effect. Capital punishment ought to be abolished now.”

Mar. 27, 2017 - American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

Con

Bloomberg View wrote in its Feb. 23, 2014 editorial “Ban the Death Penalty” at bloombergview.com:

“Executions should be banned by act of Congress for this simple reason: Experience has shown that the death penalty doesn’t serve the cause of justice… How likely is it, really, that a killer will be more deterred by the risk of the death penalty than by having to spend the rest of his life in prison? The claim fails the test of common sense. Criminologists and police chiefs say the death penalty just doesn’t influence murderers — partly because its application is so haphazard… It’s true that the purpose of punishment is not only deterrence but also retribution. But this doesn’t justify the popular view that killers should be killed, any more than it would support the idea that rapists should be raped or thieves stolen from. To be just, retribution must be measured and restrained. That’s the difference between justice and revenge…

The extraordinary crimes that would justify the death penalty are difficult to imagine, much less define, before the fact. And, even in exceptional cases, the requirement to prove guilt beyond any doubt is hard to satisfy. (What does ‘beyond any doubt’ actually mean? Is a psychopath guilty beyond any doubt?) Let’s allow that it would have been right to execute Hitler. But let’s also recognize that restricting the death penalty to the few cases where it would be both just and safe is impractical. The best pragmatic course is not to use the death penalty more sparingly but to abolish it outright.”

Feb. 23, 2014 - Bloomberg

Con

The Economist magazine, in a Dec. 14, 2005 The Economist article titled “After Tookie,” offered the following:

“The Economist opposes the death penalty: state-sponsored killing is inhuman, its effectiveness as a deterrent is at best unproven and it is no less prone to miscarriages of justice than more easily reversible sentences. We would not under any circumstances have wanted to execute Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams, who was killed by lethal injection in San Quentin this week.”

Dec. 14, 2005 - The Economist

Con

Death Penalty Focus, an abolition of capital punishment advocacy organization, in its GuideStar.org entry (accessed Apr. 5, 2017), offered the following:

“We believe that the death penalty is an ineffective, cruel, and simplistic response to the serious and complex problem of violent crime. It institutionalizes discrimination against the poor and people of color, diverts attention and financial resources away from preventative measures that would actually increase public safety, risks the execution of innocent people, and does not deter crime. We are convinced that when the electorate is informed about the true human and financial costs associated with state-sanctioned killing, the United States will join the majority of nations throughout the world who have abolished it.”

Apr. 5, 2017 - Death Penalty Focus

Con

The Lancet, a British peer-reviewed medical journal, in an Apr. 16, 2005 editorial titled “Medical Collusion in the Death Penalty: An American Atrocity,” offered the following:

“Capital punishment is not only an atrocity, but also a stain on the record of the world’s most powerful democracy. Doctors should not be in the job of killing. Those who do participate in this barbaric act are shameful examples of how a profession has allowed its values to be corrupted by state violence.”

Apr. 16, 2005 - The Lancet

Con

Amnesty International, in a website section titled “Death Penalty Q&A,” available at www.amnesty.org (accessed Apr. 5, 2017), offered the following:

“Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception. The death penalty is the ultimate denial of human rights.”

Apr. 5, 2017 - Amnesty International