Keeping capital ideas in perspective

In a recent report by the Arkansas News Bureau, Gov. Mike Beebe was asked about a hypothetical bill banning capital punishment. He said he would sign such a measure if it made it through the Legislature. Beebe said his position on capital punishment has “evolved after signing numerous death warrants,” which he called “one of the most difficult things he has had to do as governor.”

Even as Beebe made these remarks, the Arkansas State Senate has under consideration SB73 which would address the shortfalls in the state’s Methods of Execution Act of 2009, which the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down last year. The measure was found to be unconstitutional because of ambiguities in the language specifying the procedures employed during an execution.

Here in the South, capital punishment is so woven into the social fabric that many people can’t conceive of effective justice without it. Even though the Biblical prescription “an eye for an eye” is an artifact of the Old Testament covenant, many New Testament Christians still subscribe to it. Notably, the Catholic, Presbyterian, Quaker, Amish, Mennonite, Methodist, Episcopal, Unitarian and American Baptist churches all formally oppose it.

Of course, we’ve been arguing about the ethicality of capital punishment for hundreds (if not thousands) of years. Since the Enlightenment many of the world’s leading social and philosophical thinkers have opposed capital punishment. The American populace is less sure.

The hinge pin of arguments for or against capital punishment boils down to a simple question: Are we satisfied to take our ethical and legal cues from the Deuteronomic idea of “an eye for an eye” and its historical antecedents in Hammurabic law… lex talionis (circa 1772 BC); or would we rather examine this principle in the context of modern society and evaluate whether it still holds the same putative value?

The main supporters of capital punishment tout its value as a deterrent. Unfortunately, that position is wholly refuted by simple statistics. According to the FBI, states that do not employ the capital punishment generally have lower murder rates than states that do. The same is true when comparing the U.S. to other modern democracies. The U. S. has a much higher murder rate than countries in Europe (or Canada) — that have banned the death penalty.

Other supporters base their subscription to a theoretical economy — namely that it is cheaper (for taxpayers) to simply execute monstrous criminals than to pay for their lifetime incarceration. This too, is simply false. A recent University of North Carolina study found that it costs on average $1 million more to carry out an execution than it does to keep someone in prison for life.

A common rebuttal to this figure arises from the perception that convicted individuals are given “too many appeals.” Some states have even taken the extra step of hastening execution if a certain number of eye witnesses can testify to the suspect’s guilt.

This might be a satisfactory standard save for the fact that an average of four persons per year in the U. S. have been wrongly sentenced to death — most with eye witness testimony. Recent advances in forensic science have led to a wave of exonerations in the last decade. Capital punishment is one of the few punishments we can’t take back.

Lastly, there’s the matter of racial inequity in sentencing. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 53 percent of all those currently on death row in America are black. To investigate this issue the U.S. Government Accountability Office conducted a landmark study in which they conclude: “Our synthesis of the 28 studies shows a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty…”

While none of these facts will likely change the minds of those set on vengeance, the rest of us must ask ourselves the same recurrent question: Do we want laws that mirror who we are; or do we want laws that help us become someone better?