Last week, Dennis McGuire’s execution took an excruciating 25 minutes, leaving the convict gasping for at least 10 minutes before he finally gave way to Ohio’s new combination of execution drugs. Not surprisingly, this incident has once again brought capital punishment into the spotlight and prompted us to look for better ways to handle our justice system.
The death penalty presents many ethical questions that, in my mind, demonstrate the need for our society to do away with the practice. Obviously, the conditions faced in cases like McGuire’s are unacceptable for a society as allegedly advanced as our own. Despite McGuire’s crimes (he was convicted of rape and murder), he was still owed a punishment that was not cruel and unusual as dictated by the eighth amendment. While many will never concede that capital punishment is “unusual” — despite our collective acknowledgment of the wrongness of killing — McGuire’s case definitely highlights the potential for cruelness inherent in death penalty cases.
Yet there are even more ethical issues to take into consideration when contemplating the death penalty. One key aspect of a judicial system is its ability to ensure that innocent parties are not wrongly convicted. To this end many quote Benjamin Franklin, who famously wrote “that it is better 100 guilty persons should escape than that one innocent person should suffer, is a maxim that has been long and generally approved.” This maxim should be at the core of the American justice system. Death penalty cases, more so than any other type of trial, highlight the danger of wrongful conviction. Since the inception of the Innocence Project — an effort to free individuals wrongly convicted using DNA evidence — 18 citizens have been removed from death row with their innocence proven and convictions overturned. Undoubtedly, there have been similar cases prior to the existence of DNA testing. Then there are the truly unfortunate wrongful convictions, those who were not lucky enough to have their cases thrown out before their execution dates.
Certainly the phenomenon of false death penalty convictions is a seldom occurring one, but execution is a mistake that cannot be corrected. Moreover, the ethics of saying someone is so bad that they could not possibly benefit society is shocking. While many violent criminals should be kept separate from society at large, a human life is a terrible thing to waste. By keeping an individual alive, the system allows for change and growth. Many works of art and philosophy can come from the incarcerated, enabling even those convicted of the worst crimes a chance to advance society.
As if that were not enough, study after study has shown that the death penalty in its current state is much more expensive than the nearest alternate charge, life in prison. A Colorado study found that the average capital punishment case takes nearly six times longer than the standard life without parole case. In California, a similar study took into account the cost of all the appeals that are required in every death penalty case and found that the state could save $170 million annually simply implementing life without parole as the strictest punishment.
There are just too many problems with capital punishment to keep it as a main part of our justice system. More progressive countries, like those in the EU, have had the death penalty abolished in their systems for quite some time. It is time that we follow their lead and end capital punishment here in the states. Abolishing the death penalty is the smart choice from both a fiscal and ethical perspective. Cases like McGuire’s will continue to add fuel to the fire of popular opinion until we finally eliminate capital punishment on a national level.