When the Nebraska state legislature defied its governor’s veto and voted overwhelming to ban the death penalty, it made huge news mostly because Nebraska is a conservative state. This is strange to me, as the abolition of the death penalty in modern America is an issue that should easily unite social progressives and moral conservatives concerned about the importance of human life.
To me, the issue seems to be a simple moral one. Raised on the idea that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” I was taught to aspire to a world where we seek justice and redemption over revenge.
When faced with moral concerns over the death penalty, proponents often settle into the argument that taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for criminals to spend life in prison. But the high cost of a death penalty case appears to at least balance ongoing prison costs.
Cases without the death penalty cost $740,000, while cases where the death penalty is sought cost $1.26 million, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. According to the Kansas Judicial Council, defending a death penalty case costs about four times as much as defending a non-death penalty case.
If the social application of the death penalty were perfect, we might be dealing with a thornier ethical issue. Unfortunately, the death penalty process has been as fallible as the humans who implement it.
Many of us are aware of the brutally botched execution in Oklahoma, but in addition, execution drugs are getting harder to come by, as European companies cite ethical concerns in refusing to supply them for executions. Utah recently reinstated firing squads.
In my home state of Illinois, the death penalty was abolished after the convictions of 13 death row inmates were overturned.
The Innocence Project has relied on DNA evidence to exonerate more than 300 people. However, just last month, the Justice Department and FBI admitted that an elite forensic unit gave flawed evidence in decades of trials, including those of 32 people sentenced to death.
And, as much as we intuitively believe the testimony of eyewitnesses, such testimony is often found to be unreliable, because our brains under stress distort our perceptions to make our experience into a coherent narrative.
Throw in other fraught ethical concerns, such as mental health issues and cultural biases,and it should be clear that our justice system is not qualified to kill.
The combination of high costs, moral concern for life and the possibility of wrongful or cruel execution adds up to a simple answer: the death penalty should have no place in our supposedly-advanced society.
If we err, let it be on the side of mercy.