Imagine being in the horrible position of surviving a murder attempt, a murder that took the life of your spouse or child. How would you feel? What would you want to happen to the murderer?
In addition to the terrible sense of loss and unimaginable grief you’d experience, odds are you’d be very angry and have a strong desire for vengeance.You’d probably want to kill the killer. And all that would be perfectly understandable.
But we, as individual people, are unable to achieve justice effectively and efficiently on our own.When responding to such atrocities, we humans have a long history of escalating violence and doing more harm than good. So we trust social institutions—the law, police, courts, and correctional facilities—to pursue and carry out justice for us.
Since punishment by the government is a policy carried out in our names, it must be rational—or reasonable and sensible—rather than rooted in emotion.Even when we are talking about punishing murderers.
Murder is the ultimate crime that calls for the ultimate justice. In some states, including North Carolina, that means capital punishment.
North Carolina is an interesting case because we’ve historically been one of the nation’s leaders in terms of the size of our death row, the number of death sentences we hand down, and the number of executions we carry out every year. This all began to change in 2001 when death sentences started to decline, and the state’s last execution was in August 2006.In fact, death sentences declined more in North Carolina in the first decade of the 21st Century than in any other state in the country.
Since that time, the murder rate has fallen and 2010 witnessed the lowest murder rate in the state’s recorded history.Now is thus the time to carefully assess whether capital punishment is a rational policy. Specifically, is it a punishment that we need?
Last year, a review of every study of the state’s death penalty practice identified several key facts. They include that the death penalty is not an effective form of crime prevention or justice for crime victims; capital punishment costs more than alternative punishments such as life imprisonment, death sentences are characterized by serious disparities based on race, class, and gender of offenders and victims; and innocent people are wrongly convicted and sentenced to death.
These findings prove that capital punishment is an irrational policy. That it does not satisfy our demand for vengeance or prevent murder, it is excessively costly, it is biased, and it poses a serious risk to the innocent makes it unreasonable and not sensible.
Interestingly, every state and every nation that has ever practiced capital punishment has had the same experience, suggesting the problems with the death penalty are intractable. This helps us understand why most states in the U.S. do not regularly carry out executions and why most nations on the Earth have already abolished the death penalty.
According figures compiled by Amnesty International, 138 countries have now abolished the death penalty in law or in practice. Only 58 countries retain the death penalty and only 21 are known to have carried out executions in 2011.
The United States was the only country in the Western hemisphere or among the G8 nations among these. And amazingly, the US ranked fifth in the world in executions, behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, countries with long histories of atrocious human rights violations.
This is another reason why North Carolina ought to abolish the death penalty. By continuing to sentence people to death even as executions here have halted, we remain part of a tiny minority of places that still does not yet protect human rights, the most basic of which is the right to life.
How can we expect to be a global advocate for human rights when we ourselves are offenders?
If you want to learn more about this issue and what you can do to help to bring about change, we will be presenting additional information on the death penalty at theWatauga County Public Library (140 Queen Street) on October 2 at 5:30 p.m.
Matthew Robinson and Amanda Moore
Matthew Robinson is Professor of Government and Justice Studies at Appalachian State University. Amanda Moore is a junior at Appalachian majoring in Global Studies.