On My Moral Contention to Capital Punishment

“Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.”
-Romans 12:19 (King James Version)


I don’t believe in capital punishment. The idea of killing someone to as punishment for killing someone else is, frankly, ass-backwards logic. This is my opinion, but it’s not a popular one. Thirty-two states, plus the United States government and military disagree. I am happy that my home state of Maryland abolished the death penalty in 2013.

Whenever I have discussions regarding my stance on the death penalty, the same retort always surfaces in a hypothetical situation only introduced to see if my opinion would waver. “What if a guy killed your parents in front of you? I bet you would want them to die for what they did.” My response is always and unequivocally “no.” While I couldn’t possibly begin to understand the range of emotions one feels from having a loved one murdered in cold blood, I would like to think that my humanity includes the ability to forgive.

Even under the most sophisticated death penalty statutes, race continues to play a major role in determining who shall live and who shall die. -Justice Harry Blackmun, 1994

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I’m a black man (as evidenced by my profile image), so I can’t help but look at how race plays a part in handing down the death penalty. You’re probably thinking, “Well, if someone is convicted of murder, then what difference does their race make?” Whites are less likely to be sentenced to die when convicted of similar crimes in the same states. In some states, judges can override a jury’s recommendation of life in prison without the possibility of parole and impose the death penalty.

While I couldn’t possibly begin to understand the range of emotions one feels from having a loved one murdered in cold blood, I would like to think that my humanity includes the ability to forgive.

Prosecutors not only decide who should be charged with a particular level of offense, they also have a significant impact on the way the trial is conducted. When a prosecutor refers to a Hispanic defendant as “a chili-eating bastard,” as happened in a Colorado death penalty case, it sets a tone of acceptance of racial prejudice for the entire trial. Similarly, the selection of juries is an essential part of this process, and some prosecutors have made a practice of eliminating blacks from their prospective juries, thereby increasing the likelihood of a race-based decision. More than ninety-eight percent of district attorneys in death penalty states are white.

Everyone who looks at a ticking clock knowing that their life has a countable number of days will always proclaim their innocence. What if that one person who actually is innocent is put to death? What does that say about the system? It wasn’t until the execution of Troy Davis that I became interested in this country’s fascination with the death penalty. These are his last words:

Well, first of all I’d like to address the MacPhail family. I’d like to let you all know that despite the situation—I know all of you still are convinced that I’m the person that killed your father, your son and your brother, but I am innocent. The incidents that happened that night was not my fault [sic]. I did not have a gun that night. I did not shoot your family member. But I am so sorry for your loss. I really am—sincerely. All that I can ask is that each of you look deeper into this case, so that you really will finally see the truth. I ask to my family and friends that you all continue to pray, that you all continue to forgive. Continue to fight this fight. For those about to take my life, may God have mercy on all of your souls. God bless you all.

From 2000 to 2005 in the United States, there were twenty-two death row convictions overturned due to official misconduct. This includes four overturned convictions in 2003 in Illinois based on tortured confessions. If there is a possibility that one innocent life can be wrongly taken, then that is enough for me not to believe in the system of punishment.

If moral convictions or the possibility of executing innocent people doesn’t convince some that the death penalty is wrong, then perhaps appealing to people’s frugal side will. There have been numerous state-commissioned studies that show pursuing in a death penalty case in place of life in prison costs the more than a million dollars per case. A 2014 study in Nevada concluded, “Adjudicating death penalty cases takes more time and resources compared to murder cases where the death penalty sentence is not pursued as an option. These cases are more costly because there are procedural safeguards in place to ensure the sentence is just and free from error.”

From Equal Justice USA:

Many people believe that the death penalty is more cost-effective than housing and feeding a prisoner for life. But the death penalty’s complexity, length, and finality drive costs through the roof, making it much more expensive. In reality, capital punishment is an inefficient, bloated program that has bogged down law enforcement, delayed justice for victims’ families, and devoured millions of crime-fighting dollars that could save lives and protect the public.

With all the research that I’ve done on this issue, I asked myself my own hypothetical question: “If I was looking down from heaven (or up from hell—God is not done with me yet) and I could cast my vote on the recommendation for sentencing of my murderer, what would I recommend?” Deep in my soul, I know I would recommend life in prison. It’s easy to debate death in the abstract, but the intentional killing of a human being who poses no immediate danger to us is an act I believe few have the nerve to do.

So could you pull the switch?

By Tunde Akinyeke, Ph.D

Tunde is a D.C.-born, 30-something living in the Pacific Northwest and being the best biomedical researcher he can be. He blogs at BiggerThomas.org and is 1/4 of NWAP (NegrosWithAPodcast). Sometimes Tunde writes about politics, history, or social injustices, and other times he might be moved to discuss sports, sex, or his personal life. He's just random.