How To Argue Against The Death Penalty

So you’re at a party, and someone says something ignorant. And while you know they’re in the wrong, your words escape you. To make sure that doesn’t happen, we’ve compiled a series of handy reference guides with the most common arguments — and your counter-arguments — for all of the hot-button issues of the day. This week’s topic: How to argue against the death penalty.

Common Argument #1: Capitol punishment is an effective deterrent against violent crime.

Your Response: It certainly hasn’t been proven. In fact:

It’s simply wrong to say that capitol punishment deters people from committing crimes.

Image: Death Penalty Information Center

Common Argument #2: Family members of homicide victims deserve a total closure that only the death penalty can provide.

Your Response: You are essentially arguing that we should legislate revenge, and that the right to emotional satisfaction — a right enumerated nowhere in the Constitution, by the way — justifies state-sanctioned executions.

But there are tons of holes in this logic: If family members say they’ll only gain closure if the accused is tortured to death, should we do that? Conversely, should death sentences be reversed if family members contend that the execution won’t provide them with any closure?

"You need that feeling of some kind of justice being done, some kind of closure, though there's never any real closure," says Brent Tonick, whose brother was murdered in 1998. "[A]nything that prolongs that process, that has it drag on and on, like a death penalty case, with the endless appeals, those kind of things just make that grieving process worse. They make it longer and more difficult for the families of the victims of murder."

Common Argument #3: The death penalty is only given when someone is clearly guilty of a heinous crime.

Your Response: We know this isn't true. According to a 2014 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, at least one out of every 25 death penalties is given to an innocent person. That means that since 1973, around 338 people innocent people have been sentenced to death.

Common Argument #4: Those are innocent mistakes that are byproducts of having a trial by jury. It's unfortunate, but not an abuse of power.

Your Response: Wrongful convictions aren’t always the result of innocent mistakes. There’s strong evidence that when Texas Governor Rick Perry pushed aggressively for the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, he did so over the objections of forensics experts who’d determined that Willingham was innocent, even going so far as to replace members on a state forensics commission when they were about to release a report exonerating Willingham (who was executed in 2004).

That's not an innocent mistake: that's playing God.

Common Argument #5: Executing prisoners costs less than putting them in prison for life.

Your Response: No, actually, it doesn’t. Seeking the death penalty is much more expensive than asking for life in prison, thanks to the increased legal costs that accompany capital punishment cases.

A 2010 review of federal cases by the Spencer Foundation found that, when the Attorney General seeks the death penalty, the legal costs are almost eight times higher than cases in which the capital punishment was an option but wasn’t pursued. In Maryland, taxpayers spent an extra $186 million between 1978 and 1999 so that the state could pursue death penalty cases, while in Kansas, asking for capitol punishment costs about $500,000 extra per case.

"The death penalty is much more expensive than life without parole because the Constitution requires a long and complex judicial process for capital cases," a 2010 report by the anti-capital punishment organization Death Penalty Focus concluded. "This process is needed in order to ensure that innocent men and woman are not executed for crimes they did not commit, and even with these protections the risk of executing an innocent person can not be completely eliminated."

Common Argument #6: The American public wants the death penalty.

Your Response: Does majority support automatically mean a policy should become law? What about when the majority supports an unethical, discriminatory, ineffective, or faulty policy?

In 1958, an entire 94 percent of Americans disapproved of interracial marriages. Nine years later, the Supreme Court declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional, but it wasn't until the late 1990s that a majority of Americans were actually okay with people of different races marrying each other. Was the Supreme Court wrong, then, in overturning a policy that had majority support? Should interracial marriage have remained illegal until 1997?

It's true that most Americans support the death penalty, but much like the majority that once opposed interracial marriages, that majority has been steadily shrinking over time. In 1994, 78 percent of Americans supported capital punishment; twenty years later, that number has fallen to 55 percent.

Common Argument #7: There has to be a punishment for society's worst crimes or the legal system becomes weak.

Your Response: That's true, no doubt. That's why we have maximum security prisons and life without parole. But there's no reason to believe the death penalty is a more suitable punishment for society's worst crimes. As we've shown, it hasn't been shown to be an effective deterrent, it's prohibitively expensive, its public support has steadily fallen over the last 20 years, and it's killed (that we know of) over 300 innocent people.

Furthermore, considering this week's harrowing example of a botched lethal injection — which constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and is therefore in violation of the Constitution — it's exceedingly clear that capital punishment doesn't provide any benefits to society that wouldn't be accomplished by life imprisonment without parole.