The Death Penalty: What Does it Cost?

Author: Samuel Metz

Date: 11/11/2007


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 these points.

Sometimes we kill innocent people.

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 more time?

A lifetime in prison saves us money.

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 Florida.

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 state.

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 black victim.

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 executes prisoners.

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 future murders.

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 exactly that.

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 These websites were accessed September 28, 2007.

"Studies Say Death Penalty Deters Crime" by Robert Tanner, Washington Post, June 10, 2007

"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, 2001;161:1353-4

On January 2, 2008, I added the following "Second thoughts"

Second thoughts on the death penalty.

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 shows.

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 against humanity.

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 Penalty essay.

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 penalty.

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 and Europe.

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

1 Bacon 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,, 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

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