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Ending the Death Penalty

By Ryan P. O'Meara

The conviction of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has weighed heavily on the people of Boston as his trial moves into the sentencing phase. The most crucial part of that discussion has been whether Tsarnaev should be sentenced to death. At a time like this, it’s more important than ever to step back and consider the implications of the death penalty. While there are innumerable arguments against it, its immense economic burden and the way lethal injection obscures the brutality of the act are particularly salient.

While intuitively it might seem that the death penalty would be an economical alternative to keeping prisoners incarcerated for their entire lifetimes, this idea has proven empirically false. Studies have shown that executing a prisoner actually costs more than keeping him in prison for his entire life. According to a 2003 legislative audit in Kansas cited by Amnesty International, the median cost of a death penalty case is $1.26 million. A non-death penalty case costs $740,000. In Maryland, death penalty cases cost three times as much as non-death penalty cases. In California, eliminating the death penalty would save the state more than $100 million a year.

Those huge differences comes from the frequency of time consuming appeals, trials that take nearly twice as long when the death penalty is sought, and from the long duration of time that prisoners spend on death row before their eventual executions. In 2012, inmates waited an average of almost 16 years before their executions. In 2014, only 35 criminals were executed while the number of death row inmates climbed to 3,019. The death penalty is a horribly inefficient institution and will only worsen as the number of inmates rises while the number of executions falls. This is of course not a plea for a faster and more efficient death penalty system. The existence of the death penalty has frightening implications for our entire justice system.

Recently Utah governor Republican Gary Herbert approved the use of the firing squad as the state’s official backup method if lethal injection drugs are unavailable. This is particularly relevant because those drugs are currently largely unavailable in Utah and in many other states after several European manufacturers (opposed to their use in executions) declined to supply them. As states begin to look for alternative execution methods, the reality of the death penalty system becomes frighteningly clear when the veil of lethal injection is removed.

The use of intravenous injections of drugs in executions conflates medicine with punishment. Witnessing an execution is very similar to witnessing a patient being anesthetized before surgery. The use of the firing squad eliminates this problem. If we as a society are going to execute prisoners, people must be able to clearly tell exactly what is happening in that act. The brutality of the sentence must not be obscured. People who support the death penalty must see it for what it really is: The intentional killing of another human being. If death by firing squad is considered too brutal, we have therefore been taking death by lethal injection too lightly. Shrouding that fact in a procedure that seems nearly medical helps no one.

Outside of considerations about the moral aberration that is the death penalty lie arguments that all sides of the political discourse could embrace. Conservatives who preach small government and balanced budgets could save individual state governments hundreds of millions of dollars. Liberals might be moved by studies that have shown that only 40 percent of Democrats are in favor of the death penalty compared to seventy-one percent twenty years ago. Eliminating the death penalty is an initiative that both political parties could support together. As the potential for common ground between political parties shrinks smaller and smaller, this issue is one on which bipartisanship could create change. As a society, we must eliminate the death penalty in order to create the kind of justice system the United States so desperately needs.

Ryan P. O'Meara '18, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Holworthy Hall.

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