There is No Justice in the Death Penalty

Polis: Center for Politics
4 min readDec 8, 2023

Olivia Smith (PPS ‘25)

Olivia Smith (PPS ‘25)

Since 1976, when the Supreme Court reaffirmed the legality of capital punishment in Gregg v. Georgia, 1,567 people have been executed across the U.S. Legal precedence of the death penalty, or capital punishment, dates back as far as the 18th Century BC in the Code of King Hammurabi of Babylon. Despite society’s vast technological, cultural, and social advancements, this ancient mechanism of punishment remains in use across the world. Not only is the death penalty an ineffective deterrent of crime, it denies U.S. citizens due process and equal protection under the law. The disproportionate sentencing of people of color and low-income individuals is a symptom of the structural racism and inequality plaguing our criminal justice system. Currently, 26 states have no death penalty or a governor-imposed moratorium. Congress must pass sweeping legislation to end this archaic and barbaric legal apparatus that justifies state sanctioned violence against marginalized populations nationally.

Proponents of the death penalty cite crime deterrence as a key benefit of the practice despite data that says otherwise. In fact, a survey of police chiefs across the country found that they rank the death penalty lowest among ways to reduce violent crime. In addition, according to the FBI, states with the death penalty were found to have the highest murder rates. Deterrence arguments can no longer be used to justify the death penalty when all evidence points to its ineffectiveness.

Because the death penalty is irrevocable, it denies convicted individuals due process of the law as they are unable to benefit from new evidence, new laws, or reversals of convictions. This is particularly relevant considering the fact that since 1972, 186 people have been exonerated from death row. This number amounts to one exoneration for every 8.3 executions. Considering this data, it is extremely likely that many innocent individuals have been executed before they could be exonerated. According to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), the leading cause of wrongful convictions is perjury, false allegations, and official misconduct. This misconduct often falls along racial lines as 87% of Black death penalty exonerees were victims of official misconduct, compared to 67% of white death row exonerees. The EJI cites the political pressure placed on police, prosecutors, and judges to obtain death penalty convictions as a large contributor to wrongful convictions, yet another way our criminal system is focused on imprisonment over justice. The murder of innocent people is wholly unamerican and unethical. All citizens have the right to due process, especially in a legal system that is dynamic and ever changing.

Furthermore, the racial bias steeped within our criminal justice system makes the practice of the death penalty a violation of equal protection under the law as people of color, particularly Black people, are sentenced to death at astonishingly high rates. Currently, 41% of inmates on death row are Black, despite Black people making up only 13% of the U.S. population. One study in Washington found that Black defendants are more than four times more likely to be sentenced to death than similarly situated non-Black defendants. Similarly, a study by The Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, concluded that defendants convicted of killing white victims were executed at a rate 17 times greater than those convicted of killing Black victims. It is hard to ignore the ambivalence towards Black lives woven into the application of the death penalty. The death penalty is used as a mechanism of racialized violence that systemically targets and devalues Black lives. Furthermore, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, 95% of people on death row have disadvantaged economic backgrounds. Data on death penalty sentencing paints a clear picture that whether or not you will be sentenced to death is largely dependent on your race, the race of the victim, and how much money you have.

The state has no right to kill a human being under any circumstances, but it certainly cannot be permitted in a system riddled with discrimination, corrupt practices, and privileges for the white and wealthy. According to a new Gallup poll, public support for the death penalty is at a 50 year low, hovering right over 50%. As support for the death penalty declines, it is time for Congress to eradicate the barbaric practice of capital punishment nationally. The death penalty is an ineffective deterrent of crime that kills innocent people at an alarming rate. Capital punishment is a prejudiced and unjust practice that targets Black Americans with disturbing precision.

Olivia Smith is from Los Angeles, CA and an Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ‘23 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.

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