Too often, debates over the death penalty get bogged down in abstract questions of moral philosophy. Arguments about whether the state degrades itself by needlessly taking human life (or whether every human being is potentially capable of redemption, or whether retribution is a legitimate goal for public policy) can be intellectually stimulating. But, as a political matter, they’re largely besides the point.
The debate over the death penalty as a policy, in the United States, isn’t really about whether it is morally acceptable for the state to execute the nation’s worst criminals — rather, it’s about whether it is so important to have the state execute such offenders, we are willing to let it kill some innocent people, too; dole out death sentences in a profoundly racist manner; and spend millions and millions of dollars, just to ensure that the bad guys get what’s coming to them.
Washington just became the 20th U.S. state to decide that the costs of this proposition outweigh its benefits. On Thursday, the Evergreen State’s Supreme Court found that the death penalty, as currently practiced, violates Washington’s Constitution. In its ruling, the court noted that capital punishment is applied arbitrarily (when it isn’t applied discriminatorily), as the location of a crime, the skin color of a defendant, and the financial resources available to country prosecutors all have much more influence over whether a convict receives the death penalty than the severity of his or her offense.
“The death penalty, as administered in our state, fails to serve any legitimate penological goal,” the court concluded.
The same can be said of how capital punishment is administered throughout the U.S. To appreciate how thoroughly racism pervades America’s use of the death penalty, consider this data assembled by the Washington Post’s Radley Balko:
While white people make up less than half of the country’s murder victims, a 2003 study by Amnesty International found that about 80 percent of the people on death row in the United States killed a white person.
A 2012 study of Harris County, Tex., cases found that people who killed white victims were 2.5 times more likely to be sentenced to the death penalty than other killers.
In Delaware, according to a 2012 study, “black defendants who kill white victims are seven times as likely to receive the death penalty as are black defendants who kill black victims. … Moreover, black defendants who kill white victims are more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death as are white defendants who kill white victims.
…Black people are also more likely to be wrongly convicted of murder when the victim was white. Only about 15 percent of people killed by black people were white, but 31 percent of black exonorees were wrongly convicted of killing white people. More generally, black people convicted of murder are 50 percent more likely to be innocent than white people convicted of murder.
That last statistic gestures at a more fundamental problem with the death penalty: Many of the people who get it are innocent.
Since 1973, 156 death row inmates have been exonerated. One 2012 study estimated that more than 4 percent of all people sentenced to death in the U.S. are innocent. Some number of wrongful convictions is likely unavoidable in any criminal-justice system run by mortals. But the death penalty renders such errors irrevocable.
Our justice tries to account for this reality by allowing those sentenced to death an extensive appeal process, which still isn’t sufficient to prevent wrongful executions — but does make it vastly more expensive to kill a convict than to imprison him or her for life. Significant the public gets little bang for its buck. On the one hand, the death penalty costs taxpayers considerable money — and innocent people, their lives — all while exacerbating racial inequalities in our justice system. On the other hand, it does approximately nothing to deter violent crime.
None of these facts have prevented a majority of Americans from telling pollsters they approve of the death penalty. But public support for capital punishment is in long-term decline, and hit a 45-year-low in 2017. Meanwhile, the number of annual executions in the U.S. has fallen sharply since 1999, and has hovered near historic lows for several years.