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Does Deterrence Trump Fallibility?

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After a long and relatively quiet time away, capital punishment appears poised to rejoin the crowded battlefield of America’s culture wars, a battlefield upon which already rages issues as contentious as abortion, gun control, stem cell research, and the rights of same-gender couples.  

For the first time since studies completed in the early 1970s, studies scientifically discredited though often still quoted, researchers are reporting what they claim to be clear and statistically significant evidence of the deterrent nature of capital punishment in reducing capital crimes. Several independent studies, each released over the past year, have reached similar conclusions. They count that from three to as many as eighteen homicides are prevented with each execution of a convicted murderer. 

Even though these findings will for some time be vigorously debated among scientists, not least because they contradict decades of similar research, it will matter not to death penalty advocates. We should soon expect them to inject these results into the vein of the body politic. 

Despite Americans’ longstanding mistrust for “big government”, there remains strong, though in recent years declining support for the ultimate form of government power – the ability to take away life. So strong, in fact, that in 2005 the United States executed its 1000th prisoner since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. America’s machinery of death is cruel, and, in the modern world, unusual.  

Indeed, much about capital punishment can be said simply by the company we keep. Today, 97 percent of all executions worldwide take place in just five countries: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, and the United States. Only three other democracies retain the death penalty – Japan, India, and Taiwan – though its use in these countries is quite rare. 

At the heart of the debate about whether the U.S. should retain the death penalty is the question of whether it deters murder. For decades, the evidence has suggested that it does not. These new studies will bring all the old evidence in for questioning. 

But the question of whether society should mete out the ultimate punishment is more complex than whether doing so deters the ultimate crimes.  

As DNA testing again and again provides clear evidence of wrongful convictions and executions, a growing number of politicians, legal experts, and ordinary citizens now rank the question of fallibility ahead of the question of deterrence. Is it ethical, moral, even religiously compatible to send a man to death if there is even the slightest of chances that he was not guilty? 

To this author, that answer is no. These latest studies, while deserving of a place at the national debate if upheld by rigorous peer-review and replication, do not change the simple fact that state-sponsored slaying is inhuman, immoral, and religiously incompatible.  

How can I condemn a man or woman to death for taking a life and then grant the state the right to take one as retribution?  

How can I condemn a man or woman to death for taking a life if its value as a deterrent is at best unproven? 

How can I condemn a man or woman to death for taking a life if the conviction is no less prone to miscarriages of justices than more easily reversible sentences? 

These questions say nothing of the other compelling argument against the death penalty, that being its racially and economically discriminatory imposition. Unquestionably, the death penalty is meted out disproportionately in minorities, the uneducated, the mentally retarded, and the poor.  

For instance, some two-thirds of death row inmates are people of color, yet they comprise only one-fourth of the U.S. population. And since the death penalty’s reinstatement, three-fourths of those sentenced to death in the U.S. have been members of minority groups. It is difficult to imagine that such an extreme inequity in the employment of the death penalty exists for any reason other than economic, quite likely with undertones of racial bias.  

It has often been said that the poor get one form of justice, the rich another. People of color one form, whites another. Cliché, perhaps. But how many rich, white murderers with high-profile allies and teams of lawyers sit on death row in America? 

Yet one other argument against the death penalty is based on the judicial predisposition towards its imposition as a direct extension of our current national focus on punishment, rather than rehabilitation. Perhaps this is no coincidence in an era of growing religious and especially Protestant fundamentalism, and its inherent belief that I am right and worthy, and you are wrong and condemned. 

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Todd Huffman is a pediatrician and writer living in Eugene, Oregon. He is a regular contributor to many newspapers and publications throughout the Pacific Northwest.
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