On Dec. 22, 1849, Fyodor Dostoevsky, one of Russia’s renowned novelists, was taken to the Semyonov Square drill grounds to be executed alongside 21 other members of the Petrashevsky Circle, a group of Russian literary intellectuals and critics of the Tsarist regime. However, at the last moment, they were pardoned by Tsar Nicholas. Dostoevsky would echo his feelings for this decision in “The Idiot”: “You may lead a soldier out and set him facing the cannon in battle and fire at him and he’ll still hope; but read a sentence of certain death over that same soldier, and he will go out of his mind or burst into tears.”
Is Dostoevsky right? Does an act which imposes such intense psychological terror have a reason to exist in a democratic society? Our answers to these questions are important because they will impact not only our national image and identity, but also the fate of those presently residing in death row.
In short, we must have this conversation because our understanding of justice gravely depends on its conclusion.
In a democracy, we must make decisions that are informed and accurate. Every policy that is adopted must be supported by the best available research; if, however, such research is faulty or misleading, we must reject it. This is especially true with the death penalty.
In the PragerU video, “Is the Death Penalty Ever Moral?” Dennis Prager makes numerous claims supporting the practice, but nonetheless there are equally numerous reasons to reject these claims. Considering the powerful outreach of PragerU, we should carefully consider each one.
First, Prager offers that the death penalty is a strong deterrent to violent crime. This argument is one of the most frequently used by supporters of capital punishment, yet it’s also one of the most inconclusive. There are comparable homicide rates in states with versus without the death penalty. While this does not suggest that there is zero deterrence behind this practice, it does illustrate severe ambiguity—which simply cannot exist for such a permanent punishment.
Moreover, this argument assumes that every murderer or heinous criminal acts rationally all the time, which is just not true. Some crimes are committed because of passion, anger or hatred. Those willing to take the life of an innocent person won’t be swayed by their own death. Even the most brutal form of execution wouldn’t have stopped the Pulse nightclub shooter or the Tree of Life Congregation shooter. Both acted irrationally and with complete disregard for the sanctity of human life. Hoping that the death penalty can save innocent lives is foolish; we cannot count on it.
Next, Prager turns to the argument that the death penalty offers closure for victims and their families. This argument unexamined may seem convincing and even obvious: “Of course we should want families of murder victims to have a sense of closure—they deserve it.” However, we should acknowledge that every person grieves differently; while one family of a murder victim may support capital punishment, another will entirely oppose it. Anecdotes and personal testimonies, while insightful, are thus unhelpful in deciding the best course of action to take. If we want to best support these people, then we ought to think critically and logically.
The death penalty is unpredictable in offering closure. Not every murderer is sentenced to death, and even those who are may not be executed until decades later. In fact, death row inmates are actually more likely to die of natural causes than to be executed in some regions. For families who are grieving, the death penalty is a shaky and unstable foundation for closing that chapter of their lives. Their grief might even worsen, especially as a result of the numerous appeals cases which follow such convictions, constantly bringing them back to the darkest moments of their lives.
Support cannot come from uncertainty. We should not be wasting time and resources on unproven methods of punishment, both for the sake of vulnerable families and society as a whole.
Prager next transitions into the argument that it is cheaper to execute violent prisoners than keep them in prison. If we are to debunk this claim, we must first debunk the assumption leading to that claim. First and foremost, execution is not cheaper than incarceration; this is both a state and national trend. A 2016 study found that approximately $1.12 million more is spent on death penalty cases than non-death penalty cases nationwide. The reason behind this discrepancy is simple: death penalty cases are not just a one-and-done deal. These trials bring with them multiple appellate cases, inflating legal costs and leaving death row inmates to await an uncertain and highly improbable execution for decades.
Of course, prisoners should not be treated as mere numbers or statistics. The human expense of the death penalty is even more severe.
Finally, Prager suggests that DNA evidence has made it “virtually impossible to execute an innocent person.” This is just incorrect. First, DNA evidence isn’t so clear cut; it is only as accurate as the people utilizing it, and biases can and will stifle the pursuit of justice. In North Carolina, law enforcement agencies with crime labs are awarded $600 for DNA evidence resulting in convictions. That small incentive has the potential to greatly influence who is sentenced to death and who isn’t, resulting in a serious risk of sentencing the wrong person. Ignoring biases, DNA analysis can still lead to serious errors through a phenomenon called “secondary transfer,” or the appearance of foreign DNA on objects that people never touched.
The murder case of Raveesh Kumra highlights this peculiar danger. Raveesh Kumra, a 66-year-old investor from Monte Sereno, California, was at home watching TV in 2012 when a group of burglars broke into his home, tied him and his wife up, stole his belongings and left. Raveesh would later suffocate by being gagged with duct tape. Investigators searched his house for DNA samples, even going so far as to check under his fingernails. Analysis revealed that, among other potential suspects, a 26-year-old homeless man by the name of Lukis Anderson could have been an accomplice; however, records showed that he was admitted overnight to a hospital following a drinking spree. There is no conceivable way that he could have participated in the crime.
Further investigation found that Anderson knew one of the perpetrators and even met with him a few days before the crime was committed. As a result, DNA was transferred from Anderson to DeAngelo Austin, the perpetrator who asked Anderson for advice. That DNA then eventually found its way under Kumra’s fingernails, subsequently causing Anderson to be imprisoned for months for a crime he did not commit.
Even the most advanced technologies can fall victim to human bias and technical errors, but what is even more worrying is that these types of errors have led and still lead to the unjust imprisonment of innocent individuals. Knowing exactly how many innocent people there are on death row is difficult to calculate, but estimates suggest at least 4.1% of death row inmates would be exonerated if they remained under their sentence indefinitely.
Even if we concede that further improvements in technology will result in a drastic reduction in innocent convictions, that rate will never be zero. The court system relies on convincing a jury that a person is guilty or innocent. Biases don’t magically disappear. And besides, the original argument rests on the claim that it is virtually impossible to execute an innocent person, not wholly impossible. Even just one innocent person sentenced to death and executed is still an innocent person sentenced to death and executed. That action is irreversible—and although innocent people will still be wrongly convicted without the death penalty, a life sentence is not life-ending. They still have a chance to prove their innocence.
Understanding the research surrounding the death penalty is important, yet there is another type of argument which must be considered, the moral argument of: “Is the death penalty ever just?” While it may not be so straightforward, it is still immensely important to address, as our answer will directly impact our values and beliefs.
In Dennis Prager’s video, he states that anyone who is concerned about justice and fairness should be in support of the death penalty. Proponents such as Prager will suggest that the death penalty is a necessary and essential part of the criminal justice system. As with many of these arguments, there are underlying assumptions which we must examine.
If the death penalty is necessary, then there are two hidden assumptions. First, that the death penalty is the only conceivable form of punishment for violent crimes, and second, that the death penalty rightfully establishes justice. We can deduce the first assumption from the simple fact that, if there are other conceivable forms of punishment, then there is no true necessity to the death penalty—the criminal can instead be punished through other means. The second assumption is based on the purpose of the criminal justice system being to establish justice; a punishment that does not establish justice obviously cannot be accepted.
The first assumption already makes the argument begin to fall apart, as it is immediately understood to be false. The death penalty is not the only conceivable form of punishment which exists—life-in-prison without parole is one such alternative for especially violent and heinous crimes.
The second assumption is more complex and nuanced. In order to address it, we must understand what it means to establish justice and what justice requires of a society concerned about morality.
Prager’s video utilizes numerous examples of pathos. At the outset of the video he cites the case of Dr. William Petit, a physician whose family was brutally murdered and house was burned down. He was the only survivor. In telling us this story, Prager is hoping to persuade his audience emotionally; he wants us to be angry at these murderers and, through anger, advocate a “just” form of punishment, which just so happens to be the death penalty. As he makes abundantly clear, he wants us to question why any person would ever suggest that Petit’s murderers, or any murderers for that matter, should be punished only by life imprisonment.
But are anger and hatred good foundations for justice? Or is that just a cruel form of revenge killing? To answer these questions, we should look back in history, specifically during the time of the Roman Republic. In 63 BC, Roman politician Catiline attempted to overthrow Cicero, one of the two consuls. The conspiracy, known as the Catilinarian Conspiracy, was foiled, and Catiline and his men were captured and brought to the Senate to decide their punishment. Most of the politicians were suggesting execution, except one man: Julius Caesar.
Of Caesar’s many famous acts during his life, the speech he gave to the Senate is particularly impactful, as he attempted to persuade the Senators that execution is the wrong approach, instead opting for exile. Caesar makes around 33 main arguments throughout the speech; for our sake, we shall focus on just a few.
At the start of the speech, Caesar says, “The mind, when [anger and hatred] obstruct its view, can not easily see what is right … When the mind is freely exerted, its reasoning is sound: but passion, if it gains possession of it, becomes its tyrant, and reason is powerless.” In clearer language, he is saying that we must act not on passion, but on reason. If we act on passion then there is no way to decide what is right or wrong.
Can justice be served on the basis of anger? No. The court system requires every participant to act rationally. Intense emotion has no place in the courts. This is not to say that people cannot grieve or express themselves emotionally, for any vicious act will produce an extreme emotional burden for any individual. What this does mean is that when deciding how to punish criminals, we must always act with restraint and reason, lest the criminal justice system becomes an avenue for revenge killings.
The argument from necessity, however, is only one of many moral arguments that conservatives such as Prager use. A more controversial argument is that murderers deserve to die. This may be phrased as the common saying: eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. Those who take a life deserve to have their own life taken. As we have approached the other arguments we must ask ourselves a question: Does anyone truly deserve to die?
Answering this question requires us to explore the idea of the social contract, the very foundation of our democratic republic. The social contract has existed in many forms throughout history: It can be seen in the Declaration of Independence, in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and also those of 20th century political philosopher John Rawls. Whichever form you are talking about, the social contract has always assumed that every person is to be seen as equal.
John Rawls created a thought experiment to explain this concept in which he asks us to think of a time before any nation was founded—an original position of sorts—where we get to decide what rules and values our society should have. In this original position, there is a “veil of ignorance,” such that we do not know any of our personal characteristics—our race, gender, religiosity, income bracket. Essentially, Rawls wants to know what rules and values people would prioritize without knowing their personal descriptors.
If we decide as rational individuals that some people deserve to die, then we are breaching that contract. We can’t treat everyone as equal if we are saying that some part of the population is deserving of death. Our democracy cannot work like that. No one should deserve to die, and we cannot grant the state such power over our lives. Such power can easily be rife with abuse and corruption.
Whereas someone such as Prager will say that the death penalty is the only moral option for punishing violent offenders, the truth is that there is no benefit to be found. It harms innocent individuals, exhausts resources and money and leaves families with little hope that they might find comfort. The death penalty is nothing more than a danger to our democracy and justice system.
If we are to be a just people, then we must come to terms with our conscience and say what must be said: The death penalty should be abolished.