The Death Penalty: An Antiquated and Immoral Practice

The Death Penalty: An Antiquated and Immoral Practice

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by researchers at the University of Michigan Law School estimates that about four percent of inmates sentenced to death are actually innocent [1]. The researchers call this figure, which would translate to over 200 exonerations in a three-decade period, a “conservative estimate” [1]. The death penalty is an unjust and inhumane practice that has no place in today's society.

The death penalty is imposed unequally on racial terms. While African Americans make up 12 percent of the national population, they make up over 40 percent of current death row inmates, and one-third of those executed since 1977 [2]. Furthermore, the death penalty is disproportionately sought in cases with white victims. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, while white victims account for one-half of all murder victims, 80% of all capital cases involve white victims [3]. As of October 2002, 12 white defendants with black victims have been put to death while 178 black defendants with white victims have been executed [3]. The United States is joined by many of the world’s autocracies and dictatorships in its support for capital punishment: North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Cuba to name a few [4]. Capital punishment breaches international human rights law by violating Articles 3 and 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [5]. Article 3 proclaims the fundamental right to life upon which all other rights stand [5]. Article 5 prohibits the use of torture and cruel or inhuman punishment [5]. In 2006, the UN Human Rights Committee requested the U.S. to “assess the extent to which [the] death penalty is disproportionately imposed on ethnic minorities and on low-income population groups” and urged the U.S. to “address the problem” [6]. The Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, argues that the death penalty has “no place in the 21st century” [7].

Capital punishment not only violates human rights, but the practice violates the U.S. Constitution as well. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled in Furman v. Georgia that execution constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, thus violating the Eighth Amendment [8]. However, this ruling was later overturned by Gregg v. Georgia. Variables such as race and income, more so than the severity of the crime, determine whether or not someone will be put to death. Multiple studies have found no significant difference between the crimes carried out by defendants receiving life sentences and those receiving death sentences, showing that capital punishment is doled out arbitrarily [9]. Although the Sixth Amendment grants individuals the right to counsel in criminal cases, impoverished defendants oftentimes are unable to pay for experienced legal teams. In 1995, a man in Georgia, Robert Wayne Holsey, shot and killed a police officer. Holsey’s defense lawyer - despite drinking heavily, stealing $100,000 from another client, and threatening to kill his neighbors - was kept on Holsey’s case [10]. The jury sentenced Holsey to death after his lawyer failed to present to the court evidence of Holsey’s intellectual disabilities and a history of abuse in his childhood [11]. The attorney was later disbarred and sentenced to 10 years for stealing, while Holsey was executed in 2014 [11]. In Houston, three people were sentenced to death at trials in which their lawyers were asleep during the proceedings [10]. Duane Buck, too poor to afford a lawyer, was represented by a defense attorney who ended up aiding the prosecution’s case. The defense lawyer’s expert testified that Buck was more likely to be dangerous in the future since he was black [12]. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has said on the topic that she has yet to see a “death case… in which the defendant was well represented at trial” [10].

Many who support the death penalty claim that its deterrent effects justify its use. However, a study headed by Carnegie Mellon professor Daniel Nagin which analyzed three decades of research on the topic concluded that the evidence is “not informative” on the deterrent nature of capital punishment [13]. Law professor John Blume of the Cornell Death Penalty project found that there is “no credible evidence” of deterrence [14]. 88% of criminologists surveyed by researchers at the University of Colorado reported that they do not believe capital punishment deters violent crime [15]. Moreover, a study which interviewed 500 sheriffs across the U.S. found that less than 1 percent listed the death penalty as a primary area of focus when considering the reduction of violent crime [16]. In addition to the lack of evidence on deterrence, capital punishment is much more costly than life in prison [17]. While it depends on the specific state, capital cases can cost as much as four times more than life sentences. For example, in Kansas, the median cost of a death penalty case and the trial is $1.26 million, however, a life sentence until the end of incarceration costs $740,000 [18].

Since 1973, over 160 people have been found innocent and exonerated from death row [19]. The death penalty is an immoral practice being implemented within the framework of a discriminatory judicial system. States stoop to the level of those who have committed heinous crimes when they execute their people. The state should be involved in protecting the public, not in seeking retribution.


  1. McLaughlin, Michael. “Shocking number of innocent people sentenced to death, study finds.” The Huffington Post, April 28 2014.

  2. “Death by discrimination - the continuing role of race in capital cases.” Amnesty International, April 2003.

  3. “Race and the death penalty.” American Civil Liberties Union.

  4. Fisher, Max. “Map: which countries use the death penalty?” The Atlantic, July 6 2011.

  5. “Universal Declaration on Human Rights.” The United Nations, December 10 1948.

  6. “The death penalty is a human rights violation.” The Center for Constitutional Rights.

  7. “The death penalty has no place in the 21st century- UN chief Guterres.” UN News, October 10 2017.

  8. “Furman v. Georgia.” Legal Information Institute.

  9. “Death penalty study reveals random application.” The Innocence Project, March 13 2012.

  10. Bright, Stephen. “Imposition of the death penalty upon the poor, racial minorities, the intellectually disabled and the mentally ill.”

  11. “Execution set for man whose drunk lawyer botched his defense.” Time, December 9 2014.

  12. Chammah, Maurice. “The case of Duane Buck.” The Marshall Project, February 22 2017.

  13. Nagin, Daniel and John Pepper. “Deterrence and the death penalty.” The National Research Council, 2012.

  14. Booth, Michael. “No credible evidence on whether death penalty deters, experts say.” The Denver Post, June 2 2013.

  15. Radelet, Michael and Traci Lacock. “Do executions lower homicide rates?: the views of leading criminologists.” The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 2009.

  16. “Law enforcement and the death penalty.” Death Penalty Information Center, 2008.

  17. Lopez, German. “Why the death penalty is in decline in America.” Vox, June 29 2015.

  18. “Death penalty cost.” Amnesty International.

  19. “Innocence: lost of those released from death row.” Death Penalty Information Center.

Debunking the Stigma of Safe Injection Sites

Debunking the Stigma of Safe Injection Sites

A Brave New World for Adult Stem Cells

A Brave New World for Adult Stem Cells