For the first time in years, public support for the death penalty in the United States increased in 2018. Before the bump to 54-percent support last year, approval for capital punishment stood at 49 percent in 2016. Though it has declined somewhat since its peak of nearly 90 percent in the 90s, support has remained very high among Republicans—77 percent in 2018—versus 52 percent for independents and 35 percent for Democrats, according to the Pew Research Center (figures in the above link).
Despite these strong numbers, however, the common cases defending the use of the death penalty are not only feeble, but contrary to conservative principles. These arguments generally fall into two categories—deterrence and proportionality.
The assertion that the death penalty deters would-be murderers from killing is certainly the more suspect of the two. Looking at past data, it’s clear that the relationship between executions and the rate of homicide does not support the deterrence claim. During the 1990s, executions rose while the murder rate fell. Yet, since 2000, executions have decreased while the murder rate has continued to decline.
Moreover, the particularly depraved criminals often cited as deserving of execution—serial killers, for example—are not rational individuals. They do not weigh their actions with the potential consequences in mind, and display “a very low response to threats, are cold, and their aggressive behavior is premeditated,” according to Dr. Nigel Blackwood of King’s College London, a lead researcher and author of a 2015 study on the matter.
The argument that murderers should be executed on the grounds of punishment proportional to their crime is similarly flimsy. Taken at face value, it would seem fair that someone who ends the life of another should lose his own. However, this only makes sense if that standard is applied consistently—and it is not. For one, the vast majority of convicted murderers are not sentenced to death, and even fewer are actually executed. Second, a mass murderer cannot be executed more than once (which would truly be a “proportional” punishment).
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the proportionality standard is not applied to other crimes. It seems that we, as a society, have accepted prison as a suitable punishment for every crime except murder; despite the fact that there are countless crimes that inflict lasting and severe damage on their victims, whether physical or mental: rape, assault, child abuse, etc. Proponents of the death penalty have not satisfactorily responded to the question of why prison time is an adequate punishment for these offenses, but not for murder.
Furthermore, proponents of capital punishment will assert that, even if the death penalty does not deter would-be murderers, abolishing it would mean more people in prison. The first fact to consider is that most murderers are not sentenced to death and, thus, must be held in prison anyway. Secondly, even if someone is sentenced to death, they spend, on average, more than a decade awaiting execution. During this period on “death row,” the convict must, of course, be imprisoned. For example, as of 2018, the federal government has 63 people awaiting execution, and has only actually executed three since 1988 (these and additional figures here).
But conservative arguments against capital punishment are not limited to rebutting the opposition. There are more than enough reasons, on philosophical, moral, and practical grounds, for conservatives to oppose the death penalty.
From a practical angle, capital punishment is extraordinarily expensive and wasteful of public money. In one case, Jasper County, Texas had to raise property taxes by 6.7 percent to pay for a single death penalty trial. The costs are also exorbitant on the federal and state levels. For instance, between 1978 and 2008, Maryland taxpayers spent $186 million on all death penalty prosecutions—$71 million more than on non-capitally-prosecuted cases and $37.2 million for each execution. On a federal level, the cost of a death penalty case is about eight times higher than a federal murder case in which capital punishment is not sought. (see the above figures here)
But as convincing as the cost and inefficiency argument should be for fiscally-responsible conservatives, the moral case should really be paramount; after all, we are a nation built on a shared, basic morality.
American conservatives believe, as did the Founders, that humans are endowed with certain natural and inherent rights. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson styled these, “unalienable rights,” and gave pride of place to the right to life. Jefferson’s use of the word “unalienable” is critical here—that which is unalienable can neither be taken away nor given away. Thus, with the evident exception of self-defense, a life cannot be taken on the grounds that the right to life was forfeited in the act of murder.
Further, any conservative who cares about stopping government overreach into the lives of the citizens must necessarily oppose the proposition that the state should have the right to decide who lives and who dies. This is the ultimate power that could conceivably be granted to any entity, and it is not one that governments have used prudently—let alone morally—in the past.
Even beyond the anti-tyranny argument, we must confront the simple fact that human beings run our justice system, and human beings are fallible. Regrettably, it is not impossible for a defendant to be wrongfully convicted—since 1973, there have been 164 death row exonerations and there is strong evidence for wrongful execution in many cases. Of course, wrongful convictions can happen on any charge, but only a death sentence is irreversible once carried out. It is, therefore, illogical to invest a fundamentally imperfect being with the power to hand down final and irremediable judgements.
Thus, the case against the death penalty rests on five pillars: it does not deter murderers, it is impossible consistently to apply the proportionality standard, it is inordinately expensive, it is fundamentally opposed to basic American principles, and it places life-and-death power in the hands of a fallible system.
There is, however, an alternative to capital punishment—one that is well-established and commonly-used—life in prison without the possibility of parole. Since there is no evidence that the death penalty is a deterrent, this is likely be no more or less of one. It is also a myth that the death penalty is less expensive than non-capital cases. On average, the trial, accommodation, and other costs of an inmate sentenced to death are $1.12 million greater than those of an inmate sentenced to life without parole.
At base, this isn’t an issue of liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. This is an issue of living up to the fundamental precepts that were set down for us at the founding of our nation. There was never a time when the promise of America was perfectly fulfilled, but our mission has been to inch closer and closer, generation by generation, to its realization. It is precisely for this reason that we must stand united in confirming in law the natural and unalienable rights of all.
Teddy David ’22 is a prospective history major and the VPR’s Senior Politics Editor. He is also a member of VOICE and the Vassar College Republicans.