The Death Penalty: What Does
Author: Samuel Metz
The death penalty in the
United States is no longer contentious. It is no longer a
question of whether or not to spend money keeping
convicted murders alive. It is now indefensible. Consider
Sometimes we kill innocent
From 1976 to 2006, the US
executed 1097 prisoners. During this same period, an
estimated 60 condemned prisoners were released because of
new evidence exonerating them. Even presuming that all of
the 1097 executed prisoners were in fact guilty, we still
condemn one innocent defendant for every 19 guilty ones
that that we execute.
Imagine our sense of civic
security if police shot and killed one innocent citizen
for every 19 murderers they arrested.
Imagine our further outrage
if our innocent-to-guilty ratio on death row was even
higher than 1:20 - who knows how many of the one thousand
executed prisoners might have been proven innocent given
A lifetime in prison saves us
It's crass to make life and
death decisions on the basis of tax dollars spent.
However, some death penalty advocates contend executions
are cheaper than lifetime incarceration. If we stoop to
that level to defend a barbaric practice, the numbers
still don't justify the death penalty.
Capital trials, those in
which a prosecutor seeks the death penalty, require more
time before trial, more pre-trial motions, more attorneys,
longer trials, and more trials afterwards generated by
appeals (many states require that every death sentence be
appealed). The added cost, over and above that of
supporting a prisoner for 40 years, ranges from $2.3
million per case in Texas (which achieves economy of scale
by executing almost as many prisoners since 1976 as the
rest of the country combined) to $24 million per case in
If concern about cost
effectiveness were our sole consideration, we could make
it cheaper to execute than incarcerate if we simply killed
defendants the day of sentencing. We could save even more
money if we authorized police to shoot citizens suspected
of capital crimes while resisting arrest. But these
policies are even harder to defend than the death penalty,
regardless of cost savings.
The bottom line is that the
death penalty costs more money than lifetime sentences.
We appear as a racist police
The US is not a racist police
state, but many think we are. Why?
If any other nation applied
the death penalty disproportionately to national
minorities, say to Christians in a Muslim country, or
whites in an Asian country, or English-speakers in a
Spanish-speaking country, we in the US might conclude that
the death penalty was more an instrument of repression
than of justice.
So what do some observers see
when Americans execute prisoners?
1. A black defendant who
kills a white victim is 15 times more likely to be
executed than a white defendant convicted of killing a
2. Any defendant convicted of
killing a white victim is more than twice as likely to be
sentenced to death than if the victim were non-white.
3. At least 20% of executed
black defendants were convicted by all-white juries.
Who could be blamed for
misinterpreting these facts? Though none of them prove us
to be a racist police state, they certainly raise an
alarming number of eyebrows. If we care about how we are
perceived by people of conscience both at home and abroad,
this distasteful picture needs attention.
No other civilized country
We can interpret "civilized"
any way we wish, but the fact is that between the Ural
Mountains on the far edge of Europe and the Pacific coast
of our own shores, the only major countries executing
prisoners are the US and Belarus. Belarus, a Soviet
Republic, competes annually for the Most Despotic
Government in Europe Bar None Award, and usually wins
despite tough competition. Although Mexico and Russia keep
the death penalty on their books, neither has executed a
prisoner for any reason - murder, rape, serial killings,
treason, terrorism - in over ten years.
Thus our policy of executing
prisoners places us in the company of such champions of
civil liberties as Sudan, China, Iran, Pakistan, and Iraq,
the only countries executing more prisoners than we do.
The death penalty deters
Gotcha on that one. If this
were true, then we have some shred of pretence for
retaining the death penalty. And some researchers,
valiantly sifting through and comparing numbers from
states with the death penalty to those without, conclude
The problem is that other
researchers, equally as respected and running their
fingers through the same buckets of numbers, don't agree.
This should be no surprise as predicting the number of
events that don't happen is a tricky business. The best
that can be said for the deterrent effect of the death
penalty is, if it exists, it's not a large one.
Of course, there are other
ways to reduce violent crime other than executing
prisoners. Better lighting on our streets, anyone?
Here's the final question:
Must we satisfy our innate sense of justice by killing
violent criminals rather than sentencing them to a
lifetime in prison? Thirteen states, the District of
Columbia, the US military, and every other Western country
in North America and Europe answered this question - No.
The cost to the remaining states retaining the death
penalty is daunting: They sacrifice innocent lives,
squander public money, tarnish our image inside and
outside our borders, and stain our national conscience.
Is this price worth the
privilege of preserving violent retribution?
Information in this essay
comes primarily from two websites, Amnesty USA and the
Death Penalty Information Center. Literature on the
deterrent effect of the death penalty is neatly presented
at the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. For an eloquent
plea in favor of the death penalty, see
ProDeathPenalty.com. These websites were accessed
September 28, 2007.
"Studies Say Death Penalty
Deters Crime" by Robert Tanner, Washington Post, June 10,
"New Claims about Executions and General Deterrence: Deja
Vu All Over Again?" by Richard Berk, March 11, 2005.
(link no longer valid)
For another physician's
perspective, please see: Wirt DP, Bailey WC, Bowers WJ.
Physicians' Attitudes About Involvement in Lethal
Injection for Capital Punishment [Editor's
Correspondence]. Archives of Internal Medicine,
On January 2, 2008, I added
the following "Second thoughts"
Second thoughts on the
In our courtrooms, we see
people convicted of horrendously gruesome crimes. We are
repelled that such people live among us, endangering our
lives. Should they be executed? Should they be subjected
to the same torment they inflicted on their victims?
We should remember that these
felons are psychopaths; "broken people" to use a graphic
lay term. They do not understand the consequences of their
actions; they are not bound by the same social contract
that the rest of us live by. In fact, it is their
inability to understand the simple concept of cause and
effect makes them psychopaths. If we torture and then
release them, it is unlikely they would resolve never to
commit their heinous acts again. Instead, their subsequent
anger would make them all the more likely to commit future
violence. And what about other psychopaths watching the
torture? It is unlikely they would conclude that a
terrible fate awaits them if they commit terrible acts. In
fact, they would be in the first row at the torture
spectacle and hope more terrible acts would produce more
What of Nazis who created the
Holocaust? Their crimes were of an extent unheard of in
history. Should they have been executed? Was hanging too
good for those convicted at the Nuremburg trials? Should
they have been tortured first?
Here is a valuable lesson
from the Holocaust.
When we authorize government
officials to torture and kill, we enter a slippery slope.
(For our purposes, if a technique is unacceptable when
practiced by a foreign government on American citizens, it
is torture.) The morality of such practices is only as
good as the people who implement them. The record of
recent Western civilization suggests that it is all too
easy for unscrupulous people to be elected, appointed, or
otherwise find authority to use execution and torture for
their own personal ends. We begin with state-sanctioned
executions of felons and the torture of suspected
terrorists. With the wrong people in charge, we see crimes
We may still be tempted to
officially sanction torture of terrorists or execution of
felons. Torture may produce information that saves lives.
Execution may satisfy our sense of vengeance. But the
potential cost is high. Refusing to give our government
the power to torture and kill protects us against having
this power used unwisely. Or inhumanely.
On July 4, 2008, I posted the following addendum to Death
In the body of this essay, I made an error of fact. The US
Military still retains the death penalty. However, it has
not applied the death penalty in over 50 years. Please see "In
Court Ruling on Executions, a Factual Flaw," written by
Linda Greenhouse in the July 2, 2008 New York Times.
(link no longer valid)
November 26, 2007
To the editor [of the ASA newsletter],
Thank you for an intriguing essay on physician-assisted
executions.1 You repeat the point
made by a previous editorial on the topic2 that
this issue is intertwined with the issue of the death
The death penalty is a challenging topic itself.
Approximately 5% of prisoners condemned to death in the US
in the last 30 years were released when later evidence
exonerated them from the crimes for which they were
awaiting execution.3 Even if we
presume that all of the prisoners subsequently executed
were guilty of their crimes, this means that a physician
participating in an execution today has a 1 in 20 chance
of facilitating the death of an innocent person.
In Europe and North America, there are 39 governments
executing prisoners. One is that of Belarus, a
dictatorship that officially sanctions anti-Semitism among
other offenses. The other 38 are the US government and 37
of its states. The death penalty has been abandoned, in
law or in practice, in every other Western government
including 13 of the United States, the District of
Columbia, the US military, and the rest of North America
If the American Medical Association and the American
Society of Anesthesiologists were to merge their efforts
with other humanitarian organizations to eliminate the
death penalty in these 37 states, the issue of physician
participation in state sanctioned executions4 would
no longer be an issue.
Samuel Metz, MD Portland OR
D. Descent into darkness? ASA Newsl 2007; 71:1
2 Lanier WD, Berge KH. Physician
involvement in capital punishment: Simplifiying a complex
calculus. May Clin Proc 2007; 82:1043-6
3 Amnesty international, http://www.amnestyusa.org,
accessed 23 September 2007
4 Faber NJ, Aboff BM, Weiner J,
Davis EB, Boyer EG, Ubel PA. Physicians' willingness to
participate in the process of lethal injection for capital
punishment. Ann Int Med 2001; 135:884-8