THE DEATH PENALTY

By Julian Heicklen

Presented at the Abolitionist Rally in State College, PA

July 8, 2000

Why should we abolish the death penalty? If someone kills another person, doesnŐt justice demand that the killer lose his life? It is argued the death penalty acts as a deterrent to homicide. Let us examine these arguments.

The Bible says a life for a life, a hand for a hand, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. This is biblical justice. But justice should be tempered with mercy. The Biblical injunctions were often interpreted to mean the equivalent of a life for a life, a hand for a hand, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It became clear that because one person lost a hand, it did not do any good to anyone for another person to lose his hand. It would be better for the criminal to recompense the victim.

One reason against the death penalty is that taking an additional life does not resolve the problem. Why should society behave like its worst elements? The point of civilization is to rise above the worst in us.

What about the argument that the death penalty is a deterrent? The 1990s was the only decade in this century when the increasing number of executions was accompanied by a decrease in the homicide rate. In the 1920s the reverse was true; an increasing number of executions was accompanied by an increase in the homicide rate. Both were fueled by the prohibition of alcohol. In the 1930s, both reached their peaks; 200 executions in 1935 and about 9 homicides per 100,000 people in 1933. After 1933, the number of executions per year dropped to zero in 1969; the homicide rate dropped to 5 per 100,000 population in 1951 and remained fairly constant until 1964. From 1966 to 1980, there were almost no executions in the U. S.; the homicide rate increased dramatically from 5 in 1963 to almost 10 in 1973. About this time, the death penalty was outlawed; the homicide rates decreased until about 1978. The death penalty was reinstated in 1978 and executions were resumed in the early 1980s; the homicide rates stayed nearly constant at record highs near 10 per 100,000 people until 1991.

There were two periods in this country when there was a sustained increase in homicide rate for an extended period of time. The first was from 1903 to 1933. This corresponds to the first prohibition. First alcohol was prohibited in several of the states in the early 20th century. The federal government made hard narcotics illegal in 1914 and alcohol illegal in 1918. The increase in homicide rates stopped the year that the prohibition of alcohol ended.

The second period of sustained increase in homicide rates was from 1964 to 1973. This period corresponded to great civil turmoil in this country, first from the civil rights movement and then from the anti-Vietnam war movement.

The practical reason, as opposed to philosophical reasons, for ending the death penalty is in the way it has been applied. A recent study from the Columbia University Law School has shown that 68% of death penalty sentences have been overturned, either because of judicial error or because DNA tests and other evidence have shown the convicts to be innocent. There is no doubt that innocent men have been executed.

Finally I point out that the United States is one of the few democracies that still executes people. It is one of only 5 or 6 countries in the world that executes people who committed their crimes as juveniles. The death penalty should be abolished.