Cities for Life Day was actually yesterday, but yesterday I was thinking about Thanksgiving more than I was thinking about the death penalty. So, a day late, here is Monday's opinion piece in Small Town Newspaper.
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Today, more than 1,000 cities around the world will be lighting monuments and holding ceremonies as a way to participate in Cities for Life Day. It’s a day set aside to commemorate November 30, 1786 when Grand Duke Leopold II banned the use of capital punishment in Tuscany. His was the first region in Europe to adopt the policy, and since then, most developed nations have followed suit with the United States standing as a glaring exception.
Ironically, of the cities participating in the commemoration, 25 of them are in the U.S., including a dozen in Texas, which leads the nation in executions. We have executed 48 prisoners in 2009 so far with over 3,000 inmates waiting their turn on death row. Texas accounts for 23 of those executions, and another is scheduled for early December.
The United States ranks fifth in executions behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and North Korea. The vast majority of other democratic and civilized nations have denounced the death penalty, so why do we continue to practice what so many consider a barbaric and ineffective form of punishment?
One of the common arguments for retaining capital punishment is that it is an effective crime deterrent. But in many cases, states without capital punishment have a lower murder rate than states maintaining a death row. Some recent studies claim capital punishment is a deterrent by speculating on the number of lives saved if a murderer is, well, murdered. But social scientists and criminologists alike are disputing those findings as purposefully skewed and based on faulty theories.
Death penalty proponents also suggest cost should be a factor when sentencing a convicted criminal, as if executing someone is a cheap way to remove them from society. But states spend more than twice the cost of incarcerating someone for life without parole by sentencing the criminal to death. Because of the appeals process, states can spend $2.5 to $5 million per person from conviction to execution, while a life sentence typically costs $1 million.
This lengthy appeals process is necessary to assure the convicted person is actually guilty, and even then, we sometimes sentence and even execute the innocent. Since 1977, 133 convicted felons on death row have been exonerated based on new evidence; and Ohio, which has executed 32 death-row inmates since 1977, has released five innocent prisoners. Without the appeals process, even more innocent people would be executed.
I believe those who call for vengeance and suggest the families of murdered victims are due an element of justice are wrong to equate the two terms. Vengeance does not equal justice, and capital punishment, in fact, only leads to further loss. Martin Luther King said, “That old law, an eye for an eye, leaves everybody blind.” After he was assassinated, his widow, Coretta Scott King, said, “As one whose husband and mother-in-law have died the victims of murder assassination, I stand firmly and unequivocally opposed to the death penalty for those convicted of capital offenses. An evil deed is not redeemed by an evil deed of retaliation. Justice is never advanced in the taking of a human life. Morality is never upheld by a legalized murder.”
And what is capital punishment but legalized murder? By taking the life of a human being, even one we have deemed less than human, I believe we become as guilty as the criminal. We have taken the liberty of declaring the criminal to be unredeemable, and we have exchanged one evil deed for another.
A Gallop poll conducted in October of this year revealed that 65 percent of Americans continue to support the use of capital punishment. The statistic alarms me, but what I find even more disturbing is that 49 percent of those polled think we don’t use the death penalty enough.
We as a nation pride ourselves on being a beacon of liberty and hope; and no matter the debate, someone can be counted on to stand up and shout, “We are the greatest nation in the world.” The United States has several unique characteristics for which we can be proud, but on this issue where we stand alone among other civilized and democratic nations, I believe we ought to be ashamed.
UPDATE: The debate is on today (Wednesday) at Small Town Newspaper. I won't bother to link to the comments page because I can't imagine anyone would want to read this stuff