In U.S., time to end the death penalty?

July 15, 2011

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

America’s system of meting out death sentences is unfair and arbitrary. Race, money and politics play major roles. Since society’s ultimate punishment cannot be applied fairly, it should not be applied at all.

So says a report timed to coincide with the re-instatement of capital punishment in the United States 35 years ago this July, after a four-year suspension prompted by a Supreme Court ruling that the death penalty was being administered so arbitrarily and capriciously that it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. As a result, many states rewrote their laws and when the Supreme Court returned to the issue in 1976, it said the new statutes had taken the randomness out of the system. Did they?

Not according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based non-profit organization which has been keeping track of capital punishment for more than two decades. Its report concludes that the death penalty, post-1976, “has proven to be a failed experiment. The theory that with proper guidance to juries the death penalty could be administered fairly has not worked in practice. Thirty-five years of experience have taught the futility of trying to fix this system.”

The Death Penalty Information Center is not alone in viewing the system too broken to fix. In March, when Illinois became the 16th U.S. state without a death penalty, Governor Pat Quinn, a Democrat and long-time supporter of capital punishment, said: “I have concluded that our system of imposing the death penalty is inherently flawed. The evidence presented to me by former prosecutors and judges … has convinced me that it is impossible to devise a system that is consistent, that is free of discrimination on the basis of race, geography or economic circumstance, and that always gets it right.”

Similar views prompted New York and New Jersey to abolish the death penalty in 2007 and New Mexico in 2009. World-wide, capital punishment has been in steady decline and now only five developed nations practice it. The United States, where the number of executions has been shrinking since a 1999 peak of 98, remains one of the world’s top executioners.

In 2010, it ranked fifth, after China, Iran, North Korea and Yemen, ahead of Saudi Arabia and Libya. This is not the kind of group that fits the average American’s image of his or her country as a place a class above the dictatorships and human rights violators most active in handing out death sentences.

Capital punishment in America is reserved, at least in theory, for the “worst of the worst” but a series of studies show that the practice is different. For example: In 2003, the worst serial killer in U.S. history, Gary Ridgway, pleaded guilty to murdering 48 people in the state of Washington. He was sentenced to life without parole and spared the death sentence in return for detailed information on the young women he strangled over a 20-year period.


In Virginia, Justin Wolfe was convicted of murder-for-hire in the killing of a drug dealer and sentenced to death in 2002. A federal judge overturned the conviction this week, nine years after Wolfe was sent to death row, ruling that prosecutors had ignored or withheld evidence and “stifled a vigorous truth-seeking process.”

How consistently such a process can flourish in the adversarial U.S. justice system is open to debate. Thane Rosenbaum (, a law professor at New York’s Fordham University, has described courtroom wrangling as “winner-take-all, scorch the earth contests that make America’s trials similar to its sporting spectacles.”

Except that the stakes are higher in the courtroom. There, wrongful convictions are not isolated events but stem from systemic defects, according to The Innocence Project, a New York-based organization that has been using DNA testing to win the freedom of people behind bars or on death row.

Seventeen of the 272 people exonerated through DNA since 1989 had been sentenced to death. Scores of others on death row have had their sentences overturned (and in most cases changed to life imprisonment) on appeal. In both state and federal courts, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, appellate reviews find that mistakes were made in two-thirds of the cases.

Which throws question marks over the notion of a fair process of narrowing down tens of thousands of eligible cases to the “worst of the worst” and helps explain why death sentences and executions have dropped nation-wide by about 50 percent since 2000. Less than one in a hundred murders draws a death sentence and far fewer end in an execution.

Even in Texas, America’s leading executioner, the number of convicted killers put to death has declined over the past few years. So is it time to drop capital punishment and join most of the rest of the world, where a life behind bars is considered the ultimate punishment?

(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters)


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If two thirds of Capitol cases can be found to have reversible error in those court proceedings what is one to think about the vast majority of cases where defendants are represented by overworked Public Defenders? Perhaps it is the criminal justice system and criminal codes that should be abolished. What relief is there to avoid wrongful execution in favor of wrongful imprisonment? It is time to discard the old and bring in something new, like freedom.

Posted by coyotle | Report as abusive

Your arguments are fallacious; you postulate truths with no supporting evidence and you cite a drop in executions as proof that the system is faulty. Take a 101 in philosophy and learn how to present a cogent argument.

40’000 people die on the roads every year in the USA, it’s not fair either. Life isn’t “fair”, there isn’t always someone else responsible for your problems.

You side-step a fundamental issue. Whilst mis-carriage of justice will happen in an imperfect system, the majority of people condemned to death for murder are in fact guilty. Where’s the “fairness” to the person who was killed?

As to punishment. You’re all for putting a murderer in prison, at vast cost to the taxpayer, on the grounds that it’s a fitting punishment. I, as a taxpayer, feel that the money is wasted; I don’t care about “punishment” and the most cost-effective solution is death. Occasionally unfair, bleeds the hearts of all you tree-huggers, but that’s life. Learn to deal with it.

Posted by smirkingman | Report as abusive


“America’s system of meting out death sentences is unfair and arbitrary. Race, money and politics play major roles. Since society’s ultimate punishment cannot be applied fairly, it should not be applied at all.”

Who says it is unfair? If a man rapes and kills your daughter, do you mean to tell me that you’d waive the death penalty demanded by his crimes?

Sorry pal … your logic is not only flawed, it is TERRIBLY flawed. Now I’d read an article that says … you know … we have a problem with the death penalty in that it is inconsistently applied, etc. So HOW ABOUT WE STEP UP AND MAKE IT CONSISTENT AND APPLY IT RIGHTLY?

You did neither, and you lost me right at your introduction.

Step up, man. Demand people behave according to absolutes rather than capitulate and give up.

Posted by tomwinans | Report as abusive

smirkingman: I doubt you can sustain your argument about the cost-effectiveness of capital punishment but if you can, please share the figures. Not only are death penalty trials much more expensive than trials for life, the cost of appeals is significant, and more so if someone sits on death row for 10 or 20 years, as many do. Here is a link that might be of interest: 1.html

Posted by BDebusmann | Report as abusive

@tomwinans: So the states that abolished capital punishment are all run by people who want to coddle killer rapists? Or maybe there was some thought behind their decision to go for life without parole instead? Here’s a list:
Alaska, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Dist. of Columbia

Posted by Komment | Report as abusive

@tomwinans: So the states that abolished capital punishment are all run by people who want to coddle killer rapists? Or maybe there was some thought behind their decision to go for life without parole instead? Here’s a list:
Alaska, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Dist. of Columbia

Posted by Komment | Report as abusive

We shouldn’t abolish capital punishment, we should abolish the ridiculous appeals process’found in many states such as California. If it weren’t for all the money wasting appeals, it wouldn’t be so expensive. Even if you admit to committing the crime with no remorse, in California you will stay on death row for 20 years. Its a complete waste of tax dollars. A bullet costs about $1.00. Victims didn’t get any appeals. Its so sad that our justice system seems to care more about the inmates than the victims of their crimes. Inmates complain about education and healthcare. What about the money they stole from a victim who was using it to pay for college, or the victim who suffered life long health problems from the thug who beat them half to death over $20 in their wallet? I say you get an appeal once, and that’s it. The following week, you can meet your maker and ask for forgiveness.

Posted by Blackbird1996 | Report as abusive

I really couldnt care less if its fair or unfair, but it costs too much money for the trouble in my opinion. With all the appeals that can be run up it easily costs well over $2 million just in the courts system, which is already tied up with other cases.

Posted by Sandy106 | Report as abusive

The traditional obligation and right of family and friends is to avenge the murder of a friend or family member. Under the “Social Contract” we give up the obligation and right to the State for fair metting out of justice. Now the State has reneged on its end of the contract.
We have a “catch n release” justice and corrections system. We have a 70% recidivism rate. And the “system” punishes all but the criminals by making us pay for, taking way our money earned with hours of our lives in work. AND the criminals get free health care and higher education.
I favor limiting the appeal process and putting the incarcerated to work to pay for their food and lodging.

Posted by alconnelly | Report as abusive

What about the bunch of investment bankers in Wall Street. They deserve the electric chair. The death penalty must be kept for them.

Posted by d_evil | Report as abusive

The Death Penalty cedes to much power to the government. Our government should not have the right to take life. That our government can hold the threat of death over our heads is an intimidation tactic which reduces our freedom and increases social anxiety. Indirectly, this is yet another government power which keeps the nation’s population subservient and reliant on government.

The United States has put people to death for such crimes as: Conspiring to Free Slaves, Looting during a time of Emergency, Stealing of Horses, Witchcraft, “Terrorism”, Drug Trafficking, Rape, Attempted Escape from Racial Internment Camps. In the US, the Death Penalty expands and contracts at the comfort of those in power. Since 1997, 60 new crimes are punishable by death.

It is the responsibility of free people who reject tyranny to anticipate where powers of control may be abused – not after power has been abused but before. We must look forward and realize that our nation will not always exist in times of relative peace and stability, and simultaneously realize that Capital Punishment could become one of the most potent tools of oppression during a time of mass hysteria. It is an act of patriotism to abolish the death penalty.

Posted by magneticnorth42 | Report as abusive

i feel bad having to put anyone to death. having said that, there r some criminals & some crimes that would persuade me to shoot the criminal myself. for such instances – where the evidence is solid & clinching- have a punishment that fits the crime. appeals of such should be allowed only if the defendant can prove otherwise. that would be much economical than keeping someone in jail for 55 years

Posted by deepfry | Report as abusive

If we abolish the death penalty, what do we replace it with? Today’s prisons have hot showers, free medical care, TV, air conditioning, exercise rooms and three square meals a day. That is a lot more than millions of people on the outside have.

So, lets replace the death penalty with road crews, chain gangs, sweat boxes and seriously uncomfortable prisons. Make prison a place to be avoided at all costs and you can abolish the death penalty. Otherwise you have removed the last threat to extreme violence by violent people who have nothing to lose.

Posted by stanrich | Report as abusive


It’s hard to present the cost argument when it’s been conclusively shown that litigating a death penalty case costs much more than incarcerating someone for life does.

Posted by SullenToledoan | Report as abusive

[…] In U.S., time to end the death penalty? America’s system of meting out death sentences is unfair, and since it cannot be applied fairly, it should not be applied at all, according to a report timed to coincide with the reinstatement of capital punishment 35 years ago.  This is an interesting article. Equally interesting are the emotional comments left by some readers on Reuters website. This is one of those issues that most people have a fairly strong opinion on.  The thing that I find most interesting is the fact that many of the people who oppose the death penalty are just as emotionally supportive of a woman’s “right to choose.”  The vast majority of people killed in the death chamber are guilty of the crimes they have been accused of. 100% of the children killed in abortion mills are entirely innocent. Which do you think ought to be done away with first? Share this:ShareEmailRedditDiggFacebookStumble UponPrint […]

Posted by Death penalty cruel and unusual? | Report as abusive

Although this is no matter that can federally be solved but depend on states’ own matter, I want to talk how many times a person can die without rendering last breath in life. If deprived of his birth rights that person is already condemned to die. Thus I demand ECHR take action and ask for testimony of the PM of the country I live in for his personal stance over where he is about my case.

Posted by ta-boo | Report as abusive

Smirking man, who was that said better ten guilty men go free than one innocent man lose his freedom? Stanrich you are thinking in the abstract. If the death penalty is so effective than why statistically has the murder and violent crime rate not significantly dropped? 12,000 gun deaths this year. It will take the rest of the industrialized world over a decade to have as many violent deaths at 3 or 4 times the population. Perhaps if any of you actually worked in the criminal justice system you would realize the bold claims you make are not at all based in fact or are representative of the realities of prison life and the court systems.

Everyone is entitled to their opinions no matter how flawed or erroneous. However, for free society to work the free exchange of ideas should be based in fact, not conjecture. From there “reason “and “informed consent” may prevail. Check your sources of information gentlemen.

Posted by coyotle | Report as abusive

Every single American should know the name of Cameron
Todd Willingham. He was an innocent man killed by the state of Texas. When credible scientists convened a panel to review the case before the execution, Gov. Rick Perry intervened and effectively stopped the panel. We the people, especially the citizens of Texas, and most especially the dishonorable Rick Perry killed an innocent man in the coldest blood.

Shame. Never forget this man’s name. Cameron Todd Willingham died knowing he was innocent. Feel the shame. Know it could have been you instead of him. Read about his story and disseminate it on the internet and to your friends and family. Most importantly, make sure that the dishonorable “Christian” Rick Perry is forced to confront his crime on his grandiose march to our presidency.

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive

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