Debunking the 3 biggest myths about the death penalty

Published: Daily Dot (July 6, 2015), Salon (July 8, 2015)

After the Supreme Court issued a 5-to-4 ruling upholding the use of a lethal injection drug for death penalty cases last week, Justice Breyer’s dissent has lit up the Internet. In his opposition, Breyer not only opposes the controversial use of midazolam, a drug that’s been criticized as “cruel and unusual punishment,” but also condemns the death penalty altogether. His argument that the United States must rethink its stance on capital punishment.

However, Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion highlighted the difficulties in opposing the death penalty, as the debate on the issue continues to be riddled with misinformation. As the United States continues to be one of the top five nations with the most executions in the world, challenging these myths won’t just create necessary policy change—it’ll save lives.

1) The death penalty helps stop crime

In his opinion on the recent capital punishment case Glossip v. Gross, Scalia argued that “the suggestion that the incremental deterrent effect of capital punishment does not seem ‘significant’ reflects, it seems to me, a let-them-eat cake obliviousness to the needs of others.” It reflects an old argument: that the death penalty is necessary because it scares criminals into abiding by the law.

Yet a 2009 study published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology revealed that 88 percent of the country’s top criminologists don’t believe the death penalty acts as a deterrent to homicides, 87 percent believe abolishing it won’t have any effect on murder rates, and 75 percent agree that “debates about the death penalty distract Congress and state legislatures from focusing on real crime solutions to crime problems.”

“We’re very hard pressed to find really strong evidence of deterrence,” explained Jeffrey Fagan, a student at Columbia Law School. When Fagan and two other researchers collaborated to compare crime rates in Hong Kong and Singapore—the former which abolished the death penalty in 1993 and the latter which uses it as mandatory for murder—they found little difference in violent crime rates between the two cities.

A similar study by Professors John J. Donohue of Yale Law School and Justin Wolfers of the University of Pennsylvania compared rates of violence between states that used capital punishment and those which had abolished it and also failed to find any evidence of a deterrent effect.

2) Anti-death penalty activists are just protecting a bunch of killers

Back when he was governor of California, Ronald Reagan once explained to a group of reporters that he had told opponents of capital punishment, “If you toll your bells every time somebody is murdered, I won’t mind if you do it every time the state executes a killer.” The erroneous implication, of course, was that anti-death penalty activists care more about criminals than their victims and, for that matter, that all of the inmates on death row are guilty criminals.

As director of the ACLU Cassandra Stubbs wrote for MSNBC, there is good reason to suspect that many of the people put to death in this country have not been killers at all. Indeed, one of those men was cited by Scalia in an earlier legal case as proof of the need for capital punishment:

Henry McCollum was convicted and sentenced to death in North Carolina for the murder and rape of a young girl… McCollum was exonerated in 2014… But in 1986, two years after McCollum was convicted and sentenced, Justice Antonin Scalia held him up in a separate Supreme Court decision as the kind of person who demonstrates the need for the death penalty.

McCollum is hardly an isolated case. One paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Samuel R. Gross of the University of Michigan and Barbara O’Brien of Michigan State University found that at least four percent of people who get sentenced to death would ultimately be exonerated if their cases were closely examined over the next 21 years. That said, the ultimate number of people sent to die for crimes they didn’t commit is, in Gross’s own words, “not merely unknown but unknowable.”

Of course, considering that more than 150 prisoners on death row have been exonerated since 1973, the number is potentially staggering.

3) Lethal injection isn’t cruel and unusual punishment

Although Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion in Glossip v. Gross argued that “the District Court did not establish that Oklahoma’s use of a massive dose of midazolam in its execution protocol entails a substantial risk of severe pain,” there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.

The creator of the three-drug cocktail used in lethal injections today, Dr. Jay Chapman, told CNN in 2007 that it is cruel and unusual, that the guillotine would actually be more humane (“The person’s head is cut off and that’s the end of it”), and observing that “we kill animals more humanely than we kill people.”

Recent events have reinforced Dr. Chapman’s reservations, including three high-profile cases in 2014: Dennis McGuire of Ohio, who took nearly 25 minutes to die after choking and struggling throughout the procedure; Clayton Lockett of Oklahoma, whose execution was halted 20 minutes into the procedure due to an issue with his vein, began writhing on the gurney, and took 43 minutes in total to die; and Joseph Wood of Arizona, who gasped and snorted for nearly two hours before his lethal injection finally ended his life.

Despite these developments, lethal injection remains the most common form of execution used in the United States, with over 1,000 prisoners in this country meeting their end through that method since it was first implemented in 1982.

Although a growing number of states have moved to ban capital punishment, the best hope for ending the death penalty lies in spreading awareness of the issue to the general public. In the wake of the SCOTUS decision on lethal injection, the Internet is starting an overdue discussion on America’s culture of death. Last week’s decision may have been a setback, but the future of the issue depends the information age finally setting the record straight.

The right wing’s bloodthirsty obsession: How conservatives poisoned the debate over capital punishment

Published: Salon (April 24, 2015)

A conservative columnist paints those against executing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as terrorist sympathizers

Once Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s defense attorney wraps up her closing statement, the jury will need to decide whether the terrorist should receive the death penalty or be sentenced to life in prison. This is a thorny question, one that should compel civic-minded Americans to engage in serious soul-searching about the use of capital punishment in cases where a perpetrator’s guilt and lack of remorse are beyond question.

For that to happen, however, we will first need to overcome our own baser instincts.

It is here that I turn to a recent Boston Herald editorial penned by conservative pundit Howie Carr, which has few parallels in the realm of hyperbolic political invective. Its opening sentence says it all: “Can the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Fan Club please tell the truth for once about why they really oppose the death penalty for their bloodthirsty monster?” From there the op-ed proceeds to associate Tsarnaev with as many right-wing bugaboos as its author can trot out: Muslims, welfare leeches, drug dealers, Obama supporters, and illegal aliens are among the numerous polemical tropes that Carr dutifully summons. He glibly dismisses the fact that many of the Boston Marathon bombing survivors have come out against sentencing Tsarnaev to death, and he does it by accusing liberals who point this out of “playing the victim card.” The notion that Tsarnaev could actually be punished by spending the rest of his life in prison, without hope of parole, is erroneously classified as “mythical.” (More on that in a moment.) “If you like your tousle-haired terrorist, you can keep your tousle-haired terrorist,” Carr closes. “Let’s hope the jury isn’t buying their bully-bull-bull this time.”

The problem here isn’t that Carr supports the death penalty, but rather that he grossly distorts the perspective of those who oppose it. In the process, he goes a long way toward demonstrating why Americans struggle so mightily to have a serious debate on this issue.

We can start with his central thesis — namely, the presumption that liberals secretly sympathize with Tsarnaev. Aside from taking a few choice quotes out of context, Carr does nothing to substantiate this allegation, for the simple reason that he has no evidence to back it up. While a handful of kooks have no doubt been “crying the buckets” for Tsarnaev, the vast majority of mainstream liberals are as horrified by his conduct as their conservative, moderate, and apolitical counterparts. When Carr insists otherwise, he not just trying to score easy political points (although that was almost certainly part of his goal); he also establishes a false dichotomy in an attempt to discredit the death-penalty debate as a whole. As he frames the issue, the only two options in the Tsarnaev case are to support his execution or to let him off easy by allowing him to get “three hots and a cot forever and a day.”

This is a serious mischaracterization of opponents of the death penalty, whose arguments tend to focus on the racial bias with which it is applies; the fact that it costs more money than it saves; the overwhelming evidence to suggest that innocent people have indeed been executed; and the fact that America is one of the few First World countries that still regularly kills its convicted criminals. Beneath all of this, there is the underlying philosophical issue surrounding the idea that any state should be allowed to take the lives of its own people — a question that transcends any specific details about immediate cases under consideration.

None of this is meant to imply that Carr shouldn’t support the death penalty for Tsarnaev. The point here is not that Carr was wrong for wanting Tsarnaev to die for his heinous crimes, but rather that he contributed to a climate in which intelligent discussion on this subject becomes exceedingly difficult.

The fundamental problem is that, when it comes to sensitive questions like this, it is very easy for emotion to override reason. Because Tsarnaev’s crimes were particularly terrible, it is natural for many to seek vengeance against him. In so doing, the temptation arises to insist that anyone who doesn’t share this desire for retribution has only the most nefarious motives — that they are, if not as evil as the bad guys themselves, at the very least useful idiots unwittingly coming to their aid. It is the toxic mentality that conservatives used when they declared that opponents of the Iraq War wanted the terrorists to win, or that critics of racial profiling hate police officers and love criminals. By allowing the nuances of these subjects to be swept away under waves of emotion, they oversimplify and warp what these debates are actually about.
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The irony here is that life in America’s only federal supermax prison is hardly a picnic. If he is sentenced to spend his remaining days there, Tsarnaev will live in a small box that Seth Stevenson of Slate observed “seems specially designed to drive its inhabitants insane.” The United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, CO (better known as ADX) was described last month by The New York Times as a “clean version of hell,” a place where inmates spend 23 hours a day in solitary confinement in a 12-by-7 foot concrete cell with only a single four-inch window to remind them of the existence of an outside world. Regardless of whether one feels this punishment is more or less suitable for Tsarnaev than execution, it is sheer madness to claim that this fate would somehow coddle him or let him off the hook.

Although I’m personally opposed to capital punishment, I recognize that the jury in Boston has a responsibility to set aside their individual beliefs on this issue and render their decision based solely on the legal parameters established for them within the trial itself. Their responsibility right now is an unenviable one, and that of the society which must answer larger questions about how we treat our criminals is only slightly better. Just as I hope the jurors are able to deliberate in a calm and rational manner, so too does the American public need to approach issues like this with as much intelligent detachment as we can muster. The issues at stake are too serious to permit anything else.