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  • Writer's pictureKaigan

The problems of the death penalty

Despite less countries using the death penalty, there was a 31% increase in people executed in 2023 than there were in 2022, according to Amnesty International’s report last month. Over the last year I have interviewed Paul Bridges who is Chair of Amnesty International’s anti-death penalty project, William Noguera who is currently in prison in America and spent 40 years on San Quentin’s death row, and Elizabeth Franklin-Best, a defence lawyer with many death row clients.


The death penalty can seem like an other-worldly sentence, but as Paul Bridges said during our conversation, which you can listen to on Evolving Prisons here,


“We also shouldn’t get complacent in the UK. It’s not that many months ago Priti Patel was, for example, raising the idea that maybe we should restore the death penalty now we’re no longer a member of the EU.”

16 countries still used the death penalty last year. One of the first countries that come to mind when thinking about the death penalty is the USA. They executed 24 people in 2023, which is more than they did the previous year. However, Amnesty International said these figures are still very low compared to historic figures.


There are a number of arguments for the death penalty but these are myths, so let’s debunk them below:


The death penalty is a deterrent against crime

Paul tells us that Belarus has one of the highest rates of murder in Europe while being the only European country that retains the death penalty. Death Penalty Information Center state that the same is true of US states, where a survey by the New York Times and government data show that states that retain the death penalty have considerably higher rates of homicide than the states that don’t, in some cases, rates that are 48% to 101% higher.


The death penalty is cheaper than keeping somebody in prison their whole life

Paul also tells us that some studies suggest it can actually cost more money to put and keep somebody on death row than have them in prison on a life without parole sentence. He tells us that death penalty trials are longer and more detailed with more expensive lawyers. If the person is sentenced to death, they go through an appeals process which means more lawyers. Equal Justice USA shared a study which found that death penalty trials can be up to 10 times more expensive than ordinary trials. A report by the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice in 2008 also found that it costs $90,000 more per prisoner per year to keep a prisoner on death row as opposed to in a maximum security prison serving a life without parole sentence. On death row, prisoners aren’t executed quickly either. It isn’t uncommon for people to spend decades on death row with the Death Penalty Information Center stating that half of all current death row prisoners in the USA have spent more than 18 years on it. William, who I mentioned earlier, spent 40 years on death row. He was removed from death row last year but remains in prison. You can listen to my conversation with William here. Many prisoners on death row have very restricted regimes in prison, aren’t offered education opportunities and spend up to 23 hours a day confined to their cells.


Anybody who gets the death penalty is deserving of it because of the crime they committed

I’ve heard many people say ‘an eye for an eye’ but as Paul tells us about the Ten Commandments,


“It states, ‘thou shalt not kill’ it does not say ‘thou shalt not kill unless he done it first’ it says ‘thou shalt not kill’ full stop.”

Another important thing we should remember is that people can get things wrong and many innocent people have been given the death penalty. Death Penalty Information Center states that, in the USA, at least 197 people have been exonerated from death row since 1973 while a 2014 study entitled ‘Rate of false conviction of criminal defendants who are sentenced to death’ suggested that 1 in 25 people sentenced to the death penalty may be innocent. It is difficult to know how many innocent people have actually been executed, as not much data exists on this. They advise that this is because more focus is put onto clients whose lives can still be saved. However, on their website they show 20 people who have been executed between 1989 and 2020 where there is strong evidence to suggest they were innocent.


It can be easy to forget about the use of the death penalty when it isn’t happening close to home but speaking to William made it impossible to forget that there are people at the end of these sentences. Many of them, like William, committed an abhorrent crime decades ago and while I can’t speak for all or even most of them, a number of them state that they really regret what they did and are no longer that person from 15, 30 or even more years ago. Prison officers working with death row prisoners have also commented on how they’ve witnessed the transformation of some death row prisoners.


William shared with me the day he got his execution date and the trauma that brought with it but the death penalty negatively impacts more than just the perpetrator. In an email to the Attorney General in Oklahoma, a group of former prison officials mention the psychological toll that executions take on prison staff. They state that suicide and PTSD rates increase among prison staff who witnessed the execution themselves and even staff who didn’t directly witness it. There are also many examples of botched executions, with Kenneth Smith of Alabama being one. The first time he was to be executed in 2022, the executioner failed to establish the necessary second intravenous line to administer the necessary drugs. Kenneth was said to suffer PTSD as a result of this experience. His second execution date came in January 2024 and was condemned by a number of people who stated that the method used amounted to ‘cruel and unusual punishment’.


While the behaviour that leads to a person being sentenced to the death penalty is abhorrent, as the District Attorney for Los Angeles County said, the death penalty isn’t a deterrent and it doesn’t bring back the victims. With everything being said, I think it is difficult to favour the death penalty over life in prison.


You can listen to each of my conversations on Evolving Prisons here.

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