American Capital Punishment: Unjust in Every Important Way

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Source: State of California Corrections via wikimedia commons.

People sometimes argue over issues about which they have little information. Take the death penalty, for example. While about two-thirds of Americans say they support the death penalty, it is highly likely that few of these citizens have any expertise on capital punishment. After all, how many people read scholarly books and articles on social issues like the death penalty?

Gallup polls show that the largest portion of respondents tends to justify their support of capital punishment on issues related to justice; the most common reasons are “murderers deserve it” or an “eye for an eye.” To many citizens, executing convicted murders is simply what justice demands.

A review of America’s founding documents—the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution—shows that we have always valued happiness, liberty, and equality, three principles key to an understanding of justice. To Americans, something is just when it promotes happiness, protects liberty, and assures equality.

If people understood the realities of capital punishment in America, they’d easily see how death penalty practice is inconsistent with happiness, liberty, and equality, and thus, with justice. What are these important realities?

The first and most important reality is that death sentences and executions are exceptionally rare, especially when compared to murder. Why? Capital punishment is not legal in all jurisdictions; it is legal in only 32 states, the federal government, and the US military. Even in jurisdictions with the death penalty, most do not regularly use the punishment. In fact, only ten states have averaged one execution a year since 1977 when capital punishment was reinstituted in the US, and only one state uses it an average of more than ten times a year.

This is because prosecutors typically do not seek the death penalty for murderers, and jurors typically do not impose it when they do. Thus, only about 2% of killers are sentenced to death. Of these, two of three will never be executed because their sentences are overturned on appeal due to serious errors. This helps us understand why only about 0.18% of killers in the US have been executed since 1977.

Do these rare executions promote happiness in society? No, including for families of murder victims who now have to wait an average of 15 years for the killers of their loved ones to be put to death. If justice demands that killers be executed so that we can achieve happiness, clearly we are failing miserably.

The second key reality is that capital punishment is plagued by serious biases based on extra-legal factors such as race and social class. Study after study in state after state finds evidence of a race of victim effect, meaning that it is killers of whites who are most likely to be sentenced to death (even after controlling for legally relevant factors); this is especially true when offenders are of color (i.e., black or brown). And an examination of any death row in America reveals that nearly everyone there is poor.

Is capital punishment equally applied? Clearly not. If justice demands equality, we are failing terribly.

The third key reality is that people are regularly sentenced to death for murders they did not commit. Indeed, there is very strong evidence that innocent people have even been put to death in the US. This is perhaps the greatest threat to liberty in America, far more troubling than say, being overtaxed by the government. Strangely, Americans seem more concerned over the latter than the former.

Capital punishment thus does not protect liberty, and this is true even for the guilty people we put to death. Obviously killing a person takes away his or her freedom—forever.

Studies confirm everything above. It is crystal clear that capital punishment does not promote happiness, equality, or liberty. By any standard of justice, the death penalty is thus unjust. If Americans would pick up a study or two—perhaps a book?—they’d verify these realities. And given their preference for happiness, equality, and liberty and the importance of these principles for justice, Americans would immediately reject capital punishment and favor more sensible and just alternatives.

Matthew Robinson, PhD
Professor of Government & Justice Studies
Appalachian State University


  1. The American love-affair with capital punishment strikes me (British person living in Canada– no death penalty now in either of my countries of citizenship) as being based on (1) primitive (i.e. biblical) beliefs; (2) frontier mentality; (3) ignorance: of course most of them are not reading “scholarly” articles on the efficacy of the death penalty. It is time the USA stopped singing from the same hymn-book as the Chinese, Iranians, Saudis and Nigerians, to name just a few.

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