In the last century, human society has changed dramatically, as it faced both incredible breakthroughs and tremendous threats that shaped our values and beliefs. Whatever you may think about the modern capitalist society that emerged, no one can argue that there was ever a time in history when people could speak so freely about what they believe and how they feel about a certain issue. With the recent rise of social media, the public debate is more active than ever, as opinions and ideas can now reach millions in the blink of an eye. New controversies are born everyday, and the older ones are more fiery than ever. One issue that has been the subject of debate for literally centuries is the death penalty, and today, more than ever, it seems that everyone feels a certain way about it.
While some countries have abolished the death penalty decades ago, there are still 58 countries today where the most dangerous criminals can receive the capital punishment. In the US, the debate over the morality of sentencing people to death has a very long history, and it appears that public opinion on this issue has shifted tremendously in the past years. Whether you believe that the death penalty can be a suitable punishment for some criminals, or you are firmly opposed to it, the most important thing is understanding the issue from all its perspectives and furthering the debate so we can find better answers to this very polarizing question.
15. Death Sentences Are On The Decline
From their peak in the mid-1990’s, death sentences have been steadily declining from the turn of the century, with only 30 people being sentenced to death in 2016, compared to over 300 in 1996. This decline is a reflection of the increasing pressure from human rights activists and NGOs that are in opposition to the death penalty and more importantly, the decrease in public support for this measure. It is projected that the trend will continue, and as the ‘pro’ side will lose majority, it is highly likely we’ll eventually see legislative changes, at least in some states. Last year, an initiative to repeal the death penalty was narrowly defeated in California, as 53% of the voters opposed to making life imprisonment without parole the maximum punishment for murder.
14. It’s Actually A Lot More Expensive Than Life In Prison
It may come as a surprise to most people, but it’s actually more expensive to execute a person than to keep them in prison for life. The costly part is not actually the execution per se, but the appeals, which can be up to 20 times more expensive than trials seeking a life sentence. For example, California, which has the largest death row in the country, has spent over $4 billion on the death penalty since 1978 while carrying out just 13 executions. Whether the solution will be speeding up the process, as some supporters of the death penalty proposed, or repealing it altogether, it becomes clear that the current system is considerably flawed.
13. People Used To Be Executed For Other Crimes Besides Murder
In the past, people were routinely executed for crimes such as r*pe, assault, or espionage, with the last execution for a non-homicide offense being that of a man named James Coburn, who was electrocuted in Alabama in 1964 after being found guilty of robbery. However, capital crimes were not limited to aggravated murder until the 2008 Supreme Court ruling in the Kennedy v. Louisiana case, that deemed as unconstitutional the use of the death penalty as punishment for any crime other than murder or crimes against the State such as treason, terrorism, or drug kingpin activities.
12. The Death Penalty Was Suspended In The ’70s
Between 1967 and 1976, there were no executions in the United States, as all existent death sentences were struck down by the Supreme Court in the Furman v. Georgia criminal case. The judges did not rule the death penalty in itself as unconstitutional, but the legal framework in which it was applied at the time. As a result, there were no capital punishment sentences until 1976, when the Supreme Court reaffirmed the acceptance of the use of the death penalty. Executions resumed in January 1977, when Gary Gilmore went before a firing squad in Utah, after he personally demanded the implementation of the death sentence for the two murders he was found guilty of.
11. The U.S. Is No Longer One Of The World’s Top 5 Executioners
According to a report by Amnesty International, in 2016, the U.S. was no longer one of the five countries carrying out the most executions in the world for the first time in more than a decade. With only 20 executions being carried out in 2016, the U.S. now ranks seventh globally, behind Egypt, as the top spots are held by “the usual suspects”–Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China–which is estimated to have executed more people than all other countries combined. However, the exact number of people that were executed in each of the Top 5 countries is very hard to determine, given that their governments are very secretive when it comes to this issue.
10. One State Carried Out A Third Of All Executions Since 1976
You guessed it, it’s Texas! The Lone Star State executed a total of 542 inmates since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. That is actually more than the next six states combined. Some may say that this is in part because Texas is the second most populated state in the country, but California, which is the first, carried out just 13 executions in the same period. However, the number of death sentences has consistently declined, as it did in the whole country, from its peak in 1999 when 48 people received the capital punishment, to only three in 2016.
9. One County In Texas Executed More People Than Any Other State
Of the 542 people that were executed in Texas since 1976, 116 were sentenced in Harris County, the state’s most populous county and the third most populous county in the United States. Basically, there were more people executed in Harris County than in Oklahoma, the state that follows Texas on the list. However, this seems a lot only because Harris County is just a part of Texas, and Oklahoma is a state. However, the two have approximately the same population which is around 4 million people. After a new District Attorney was elected in 2008, executions slowed down in Harris County and 11 death row inmates were exonerated.
8. The Number Of Wrongful Convictions Is Shockingly High
Since 1976, 158 people were exonerated from death row after they were wrongfully convicted. Most of these convictions were based on flawed evidence or testimony, and some on forced confessions given under duress. Only 20 exonerations have been due to DNA evidence, as it turned out that the majority of these convictions were based solely on false informant testimony. Averagely, it took 11 years after one of these people were sentenced to death before they were exonerated, and in some cases, the exoneration occurred more than 30 years after the wrongful conviction. The fact that this happened on such a scale is very alarming, and there may be tens or even hundreds of innocent people right now, awaiting their execution.
7. Racial Minorities Are More Likely To Receive The Death Penalty
Statistically, it has been shown that race does play a big part in capital convictions. Of the current death row population of the U.S., about 54% are either black or Latino, while these two minorities make up only 30% of the country’s total population. In three states, Louisiana, Delaware, and Texas, over 70% of death row inmates are from racial minorities. Also, a number of studies have shown that the death penalty is much more likely to be recommended by the jurors if the victim in the case is white, than if it’s black or Hispanic. Since 1976, 293 black defendants were executed for killing a white victim, while only 31 white defendants have been executed for killing a black victim. Additionally, as many as 20% of all black death row inmates have been convicted by all-white juries.
6. Lethal Injection Is By Far The Most Popular Method Of Execution
Since it was first used in 1982, the lethal injection has become the primary method of execution in every state that has the capital punishment, as it has been considered to be the most effective and humane method of all. However, other methods such as the gas chamber or electrocution are still legal in some states as alternative options, in case there is a shortage of the substance used in the lethal injection. As all European and most American pharmaceutical companies have banned the use of their drugs in executions, the states were forced to use several experimental lethal injection protocols. In 2014, three executions involving experimental lethal injection protocols were botched, causing the inmates to gasp and choke during the execution.
5. Executions Used To Be Public
Until more modern means of execution emerged, like the electric chair or more recently, the lethal injection, people used to be hanged for their crimes. The practice is not completely extinct, as hanging is still a legal alternative to the lethal injection in Washington and New Hampshire. However, in the old days, hangings used to be public and attended by hundreds or even thousands of people, being seen as just another part of everyday life. The last public hanging took place in Owensboro, Kentucky where around 20,000 people gathered to see the execution of Rainey Bethea on August 14th 1936. Nowadays, most states have laws that prohibit public executions from taking place and it’s almost certain that we’ll probably never see one again in the United States. There are a few other countries that still carry out public executions, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, North Korea, and Somalia.
4. Minors Used To Be Executed Just Like Adults
In the entire history of the United States, the number of juvenile offenders that were executed is believed to be at least 364, with some being as young as 14. One very sad case is that of George Stinney Jr., a 14-year-old African-American child from South Carolina who was sentenced to death in 1944 for killing two young girls. His trial took only one day, and the all-male-all-white jury found him guilty after only 10 minutes of deliberation. Unbelievably, 70 years after the boy’s execution, a judge overturned his conviction, ruling that he was not properly defended by his attorney and his confession was probably coerced by police. It may come as a surprise, but the death penalty was a legal punishment for minors up until 2005, when the Supreme Court ruled that the execution of anyone under the age of 18 at the time of their offence was a violation of the 8th Amendment.
3. The Death Penalty Doesn’t Deter Crime
It seems that the possibility of being sentenced to death does not discourage criminals in any way more that prison does. Actually, numerous studies have found that criminals are more concerned about being caught. What happens after that is rarely on their mind. One very suggestive fact is that the South has consistently had the highest murder rate, while accounting for 80% of the country’s executions. On the other hand, the Northeast has the lowest murder rate and accounts for less than 1% of the country’s executions. The conclusion is that making punishments harsher is practically useless when it comes to fighting crime, and better results might be obtained by focusing on aspects that are known to influence criminality, like poverty and education.
2. Execution Is The Least Likely Outcome Of The Death Penalty
Because of the very complicated appeals process, the amount of time that passes from the moment a person receives the death penalty to the moment they’re executed, has been getting longer and longer. Today, the time that death row inmates have to wait until it’s over is approximately 10 years. Also, since 1976, only about a third of all the people that received the capital punishment were in fact executed, as many of them have died in prison and some even took their own lives. A lot of human rights organizations and activists have argued that keeping people for decades in prison as they wait for their execution is a form of psychological torture. Even if it might sound weird or wrong, taking their lives faster might be the more humane way of dealing with this issue.
1. Nobody Knows How Many Innocent People Have Been Executed
It is very hard to think of something as wrong as convicting and executing an innocent person, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. Unfortunately, we don’t know just how big the number of innocent people that have been executed in the United States is. Lawyers that deal with death penalty cases barely have enough time to work on the cases of live clients. Also, once a person is executed, the appeals process ends, so there is little that can be done in order to uncover more evidence. However, there have been cases where compelling evidence of innocence has been uncovered after the person was executed. One such case is that of Carlos DeLuna (in the picture), a man who was sentenced to death for a murder that was likely committed by a look-alike called Carlos Hernandez. If DeLuna would’ve gotten life in prison without the possibility of parole instead of a death sentence maybe he would’ve been exonerated and could’ve lived his life like so many of us are able to. The morality and the overall effect of the death penalty on our society is and should be debated, as it is one of the most complicated issues that the criminal justice system has to address. As our opinions and beliefs about it shift from one side to another, the law is certain to follow, and in time, we will find the adequate answer to this very complicated question.