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Last month, Washington Governor Jay R. Inslee put an immediate moratorium on executions in his state, one of the 32 that still practice capital punishment. While he is not the first governor to take such an action and his decision is by no means legally binding or permanent, the decision has revived discussion about lethal punishment in the United States.
Too often, the debate around the death penalty centers on whether or not people convicted of crimes deserve to die. However, this is a distracting debate. Neither we the citizens nor the government elected to act on our behalf have the authority to make such a decision.
Our focus needs to be turned to the fundamental question of whether the state has the right to kill one of its citizens.
In our obsession with Hammurabi-style “eye for an eye” punishments, we have neglected to think about the role that the state and, by extension, the people play in being the enforcers of execution. The death penalty should be discontinued on the grounds that, as a society, we do not have a collective right or need to kill. Capital punishment reflects an inconsistency within a legal system that should seek rehabilitation and deterrence rather than vengeance and retribution.
Our legal and cultural traditions dictate a belief in the absolute importance of life itself. This is expressed in our founding documents, the source of guidance for our most difficult political and moral questions. The Founders recognized certain “truths to be self evident,” including the belief that all human beings are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” life being chief among them.
Life is surely something greater than a man-made system that seeks criminal justice. That such a system should have the ability to end life contradicts basic assumptions and values about the responsibility of government with respect to its citizens.
Compared to other aspects of the criminal justice system, capital punishment stands out as irregular and unmoored from a rational basis. In no other situation does our system attempt to punish criminals with the same crime they committed. Thieves, rapists, and arsonists are jailed in an attempt to increase public safety in the short run and to rehabilitate them in the long run. We have come the conclusion that those acts we consider illegal are objectively immoral by reasonable social standards, and as a result we seek their elimination. When it comes to the crime of murder, it appears we have lost the simple yet guiding principle that the end goal should be an overall reduction in killing—not an increase.
If other ethical considerations were to be ignored, society would still have no right to enact the death penalty for another reason: the imprecision with which it is doled and carried out. In the last 40 years, over 130 people have been wrongfully convicted, placed on death row, and finally released upon acquittal and exoneration. While one reading of this statistic acknowledges that the system has been able to correct its own faults, the figure also carries the horrifying possibility that many more wrongful convictions have gone and will go undiscovered.
Governor Inslee invoked similar logic in his decision to suspend executions, arguing that “there are too many flaws in our system.”
Our system has also failed to fulfill the promise of equal justice under law. Extreme racial disparity exists in the criminal justice system, with disproportionate sentencing reaching unacceptable levels.
Studies have shown that minority defendants are up to three times as likely to receive the death penalty compared to white defendants. The root of this is varied, ranging from implicit bias in juries and judges to deficient public defense programs that do much of the legal work for minorities in poorer areas. Regardless of the causes, until this disparity can be eliminated, the existence of the death penalty magnifies such flaws in the system, raising the stakes for potentially innocent defendants immensely. The idea that we have a collective right to use capital punishment—that only makes these inequities permanent—ought to be rejected.
For generations, the acceptance of capital punishment has occupied an unquestioned acceptance for America. However, this debate is too often construed to be whether particular criminals deserve deaths. Instead, our attention should be turned to the question of whether our society is in a moral position to kill. An assessment of our historical values as well as the unquestionable presence of a justice system too often defined by error clearly point to an answer: No.
Gregory A. Briker ’17 is a Crimson editorial writer living in Wigglesworth Hall.
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