The Case Against The Death Penalty
by Hugo Adam Bedau
Hugo Adam Bedau is Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University.
He has written and edited a number of books on political philosophy and on
capital punishment, including Death is Different (1987) and The Death
Penalty in America, 3rd edition (1982 ). He gratefully acknowledges the
assistance of Henry Schwarzschild, Director Emeritus of the ACLU Capital
The American Civil Liberties Union holds that the death penalty inherently
violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment and
the guarantee of due process of law and the equal protection of the laws.
The imposition of the death penalty is inconsistent with fundamental
values of our democratic system. The state should not arrogate unto itself
the right to kill human beings, especially when it kills with
premeditation and ceremony, under color of law, in our names, and when it
does so in an arbitrary and discriminatory fashion. In the judgment of the
ACLU, capital punishment is an intolerable denial of civil liberties. We
shall therefore continue to seek to prevent executions and to abolish
capital punishment by litigation, legislation , commutation,or by the
weight of a renewed public outcry against this brutal and brutalizing
Capital Punishment Project
American Civil Liberties Union
122 Maryland Avenue, N.E.
Washington, D.C. 20002
(c) American Civil Liberties Union
Permission to reprint, with credit given to the source, is granted.
In 1972, the Supreme Court declared that under then existing laws "the
imposition and carrying out of the death penalty ... constitutes cruel and
unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments."
(Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S.238) The majority of the Court concentrated
its objections on the way death-penalty laws had been applied, finding the
result so "harsh, freakish, and arbitrary" as to be constitutionally
unacceptable. Making the nationwide impact of its decision unmistakable,
the Court summarily reversed death sentences in the many cases then before
it, which involved a wide range of state statutes, crimes, and factual
But within four years after the Furman decision, more than 600 persons had
been sentenced to death under new capital-punishment statutes that
provided guidance for the jury's sentencing discretion. These statutes
typically require a bifurcated (two-stage) trial procedure, in which the
jury first determines guilt or innocence and then chooses imprisonment or
death in the light of aggravating or mitigating circumstances.
In July 1976, the Supreme Court moved in the opposite direction, holding
that "the punishment of death does not invariably violate the
Constitution." The Court ruled that these new statutes contained
"objective standards to guide, regularize, and make rationally reviewable
the process for imposing the sentence of death." (Gregg v. Georgia, 428
U.S.153) Thus the states as well as Congress have had for some years
constitutionally valid statutory models for death-penalty laws, and more
than three dozen state legislatures have enacted death penalty statutes
patterned after those the Court upheld in Gregg. In recent years, Congress
has enacted death penalty statutes for peacetime espionage by military
personnel and for drug-related murders.
Executions resumed in 1977, and by the early 1990s nearly three thousand
persons were under sentence of death and more than 180 had been executed.
Despite the Supreme Court's 1976 ruling in Gregg v. Georgia, the ACLU
continues to oppose capital punishment on moral and practical, as well as
on constitutional, grounds:
o Capital punishment is cruel and unusual. It is a relic of the earliest
days of penology, when slavery, branding, and other corporal punishments
were commonplace. Like those other barbaric practices, executions have no
place in a civilized society.
o Opposition to the death penalty does not arise from misplaced sympathy
for convicted murderers. On the contrary, murder demonstrates a lack of
respect for human life. For this very reason, murder is abhorrent, and any
policy of state-authorized killings is immoral.
o Capital punishment denies due process of law. Its imposition is
arbitrary and irrevocable. It forever deprives an individual of benefits
of new evidence or new law that might warrant the reversal of a conviction
or the setting aside of a death sentence.
o The death penalty violates the constitutional guarantee of the equal
protection of the laws. It is applied randomly at best and
discriminatorily at worst. It is imposed disproportionately upon those
whose victims are white, on offenders who are people of color, and on
those who are themselves poor and uneducated.
o The defects in death-penalty laws, conceded by the Supreme Court in the
early 1970s, have not been appreciably altered by the shift from
unfettered discretion to "guided discretion." These changes in death
sentencing have proved to be largely cosmetic. They merely mask the
impermissible arbitrariness of a process that results in an execution.
o Executions give society the unmistakable message that human life no
longer deserves respect when it is useful to take it and that homicide is
legitimate when deemed justified by pragmatic concerns.
o Reliance on the death penalty obscures the true causes of crime and
distracts attention from the social measures that effectively contribute
to its control. Politicians who preach the desirability of executions as a
weapon of crime control deceive the public and mask their own failure to
support anti-crime measures that will really work.
o Capital punishment wastes resources. It squanders the time and energy of
courts, prosecuting attorneys, defense counsel, juries, and courtroom and
correctional personnel. It unduly burdens the system of criminal justice,
and it is therefore counterproductive as an instrument for society's
control of violent crime. It epitomizes the tragic inefficacy and
brutality of the resort to violence rather than reason for the solution of
difficult social problems.
o A decent and humane society does not deliberately kill human beings. An
execution is a dramatic, public spectacle of official, violent homicide
that teaches the permissibility of killing people to solve social problems
-- the worst possible example to s et for society. In this century,
governments have too often attempted to justify their lethal fury by the
benefits such killing would bring to the rest Or society. The bloodshed is
real and deeply destructive of the common decency of the community; the
benefits are illusory.
Two conclusions buttress our entire case: Capital punishment does not
deter crime, and the death penalty is uncivilized in theory and unfair and
inequitable in practice.
The argument most often cited in support of capital punishment is that
the threat of executions deters capital crimes more effectively than
imprisonment. This claim is plausible, but the facts do not support it.
The death penalty fails as a deterrent for several reasons.
(1) Any punishment can be an effective deterrent only if it is
consistently and promptly employed. Capital punishment cannot be
administered to meet these conditions.
Only a small proportion of first-degree murderers is sentenced to death,
and even fewer are executed. Although death sentences since 1980 have
increased in number to about 250 per year,(1) this is still only 1 per
cent of all homicides known to the police.(2) Of all those convicted on a
charge of criminal homicide, only 2 percent -- about 1 in 50 -- are
eventually sentenced to death.(3)
The possibility of increasing the number of convicted murderers
sentenced to death and executed by enacting mandatory death penalty laws
was ruled unconstitutional in 1976 (Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S.
Considerable delay in carrying out the death sentence is unavoidable,
given the procedural safeguards required by the courts in capital cases.
Starting with empaneling the trial jury, murder trials take far longer
when the death penalty is involved. Post-conviction appeals in
death-penalty cases are far more frequent as well. All these factors
increase the time and cost of administering criminal justice.
The sobering lesson is that we can reduce such delay and costs only by
abandoning the procedural safeguards and constitutional rights of
suspects, defendants, and convicts, with the attendant high risk of
convicting the wrong person and executing the innocent.
(2) Persons who commit murder and other crimes of personal violence either
premeditate them or they do not. If the crime is premeditated, the
criminal ordinarily concentrates on escaping detection, arrest, and
conviction. The threat of even the severest punishment will not deter
those who expect to escape detection and arrest. If the crime is not
premeditated, then it is impossible to imagine how the threat of any
punishment could deter it. Most capital crimes are committed during
moments of great emotional stress or under the influence of drugs or
alcohol, when logical thinking has been suspended. Impulsive or expressive
violence is inflicted by persons heedless of the consequences to
themselves as well as to others.
Gangland killings, air piracy, drive-by shootings, and kidnapping for
ransom are among the graver felonies that continue to be committed because
some individuals think they are too clever to get caught. Political
terrorism is usually committed in the name of an ideology that honors its
martyrs; trying to cope with it by threatening death for terrorists is
futile. Such threats leave untouched the underlying causes and ignore the
many political and diplomatic sanctions (such as treaties against asylum
for international terrorists) that could appreciably lower the incidence
The attempt to reduce murders in the illegal drug trade by the threat of
severe punishment ignores this fact: Anyone trafficking in illegal drugs
is already betting his life in violent competition with other dealers. It
is irrational to think that the death penalty--a remote threat at best --
will deter murders committed in drug turf wars or by street-level dealers
(3) If, however, severe punishment can deter crime, then long term
imprisonment is severe enough to cause any rational person not to commit
violent crimes. The vast preponderance of the evidence shows that the
death penalty is no more effective than imprisonment in deterring murder
and that it may even be an incitement to criminal violence in certain
(a) Death-penalty states as a group do not have lower rates of criminal
homicide than non-death penalty states. During the 1980s, death-penalty
states averaged an annual rate of 7.5 criminal homicides per 100,000 of
population; abolition states averaged a rate of 7.4.(4)
(b) Use of the death penalty in a given state may increase the
subsequent rate of criminal homicide in that state. In New York, for
example, between 1907 and 1964, 692 executions were carried out. On the
average, over this 57-year period, one or more executions in a given
month aided a net increase of two homicides to the total committed in the
(c) In neighboring states -- one with the death penalty and the others
without it -- the one with the death penalty does not show a consistently
lower rate of criminal homicide. For example, between 1972 and 1990, the
homicide rate in Michigan (which ha s no death penalty) was generally as
low as or lower than the neighboring state of Indiana, which restored the
death penalty in 1973 and since then has sentenced 70 persons to death and
carried out 2 executions.(6)
(d) Police officers on duty do not suffer a higher rate of criminal
assault and homicide in states that have abolished the death penalty than
they do in death-penalty states. Between 1973 and 1984, for example,
lethal assaults against police were not significantly more or less
frequent in abolition states than in death-penalty states. There is "no
support for the view that the death penalty provides a more effective
deterrent to police homicides than alternative sanctions. Not for a single
year was evidence found that police are safer in jurisdictions that
provide for capital punishment."(7)
(e) Prisoners and prison personnel do not suffer a higher rate of
criminal assault and homicide from life-term prisoners in abolition states
than they do in death-penalty states.(8) Between 1984 and 1989, seventeen
prison staff were murdered by prisoners in ten states; of these murders,
88 percent (15 of 17) occurred in death penalty jurisdictions -- just as
about 88 percent of all the prisoners in those ten states were in death
penalty jurisdictions.(9) Evidently, the threat of the death penalty "doe
s not even exert an incremental deterrent effect over the threat of a
lesser punishment in the abolitionist state."(10)
Actual experience establishes these conclusions beyond a reasonable
doubt. No comparable body of evidence contradicts them.
Three investigations since Furman, using methods pioneered by
economists, reported findings in the opposite direction.(11) Subsequently,
several qualified investigators have independently examined these claims,
and all have rejected them.(12) The National Academy of Sciences, in its
thorough report on the effects of criminal sanctions on crime rates,
concluded: "It seems unthinkable to us to base decisions on the use of the
death penalty" on such "fragile" and "uncertain" results. "We see too many
plausible explanations for [these] findings ... other than the theory
that capital punishment deters murder."(13)
Furthermore, cases have been clinically documented where the death
penalty actually incited the capital crimes it was supposed to deter.
These include instances of the so-called suicide-by-execution syndrome --
persons who wanted but feared to take their own life and committed murder
so that society would kill them.(14)
It must, of course, be conceded that inflicting the death penalty
guarantees that the condemned person will commit no further crimes. This
is an incapacitative, not a deterrent, effect of executions. Furthermore,
it is too high a price to pay when studies show that very few convicted
murderers ever commit another crime of violence.(15) A recent study
examined the prison and post-release records of 533 prisoners on death row
in 1972 whose sentences were reduced to life by the Supreme Court's ruling
in Furman. The research showed that 6 had committed another murder. But
the same study showed that in 4 other cases, an innocent man had been
sentenced to death.(16)
Recidivism among murderers does occasionally happen. But it happens less
frequently than most people believe; the media rarely distinguish between
a paroled murderer who murders again and other murderers who have a
previous criminal record but not for homicide.
There is no way to predict which convicted murderers will kill again.
Repeat murders could be prevented only by executing all those convicted of
criminal homicide. Such a policy is too inhumane and brutal to be taken
seriously. Society would never tolerate dozens of executions daily, yet
nothing less would suffice. Equally effective but far less inhumane is a
policy of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Constitutional due process as well as elementary justice require that
the judicial functions of trial and sentencing be conducted with
fundamental fairness, especially where the irreversible sanction of the
death penalty is involved. In murder cases (since 1930, 99 percent of all
executions have been for this crime), there has been substantial evidence
to show that courts have been arbitrary, racially biased, and unfair in
the way in which they have sentenced some persons to prison but others to
Racial discrimination was one of the grounds on which the Supreme Court
relied in Furman in ruling the death penalty unconstitutional. Half a
century ago, Gunnar Myrdal, in his classic American Dilemma (1944),
reported that "the South makes the widest application of the death
penalty, and Negro criminals come in for much more than their share of the
executions." Statistics confirm this discrimination, only it is not
confined to the South. Between 1930 and 1990, 4,016 persons were executed
in the United States. Of these, 2,129 (or 53 percent) were black. For the
crime of murder, 3,343 were executed; 1,693 (or 51 percent) were
black.(17) During these years African-Americans were about 12 per cent of
the nation's population.
The nation's death rows have always had a disproportionately large
population of African-Americans, relative to their fraction of the total
population. Over the past century, black offenders, as compared with
white, were often executed for crimes less often receiving the death
penalty, such as rape and burglary. (Between 1930 and 1976, 455 men were
executed for rape, of whom 405 (or 90 percent) were black.) A higher
percentage of the blacks who were executed were juveniles; and blacks were
more often executed than were whites without having their conviction
reviewed by any higher court.(18)
In recent years, it has been widely believed that such flagrant
discrimination is a thing of the past. Since the revival of the death
penalty in the mid-1970s, about half of those on death row at any given
time have been black(19) -- a disproportionately large fraction given the
black/white ratio of the total population, but not so obviously unfair if
judged by the fact that roughly 50 percent of all those arrested for
murder were also black.(20) Nevertheless, when those under death sentence
are examined more closely, it turns out that race is a decisive factor
An exhaustive statistical study of racial discrimination in capital
cases in Georgia, for example, showed that "the average odds of receiving
a death sentence among all indicted cases were 4.3 times higher in cases
with white victims."(21) In 1987 these data were placed before the
Supreme Court in McCleskey v. Kemp and the Court did not dispute the
statistical evidence. The Court did hold, however, that the evidence
failed to show that there was "a constitutionally significant risk of
racial bias...." (481 U.S. 279)
In 1990, the U.S. General Accounting Office reported to the Congress the
results of its review of empirical studies on racism and the death
penalty. The GAO concluded: "Our synthesis of the 28 studies shows a
pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging,
sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty after the Furman decision"
and that "race of victim influence was found at all stages of the criminal
justice system process...."
These results cannot be explained away by relevant non-racial factors
(such as prior criminal record or type of crime), and they lead to a very
unsavory conclusion: In the trial courts of this nation, even at the
present time, the killing of a white is treated much more severely than
the killing of a black. Of the 168 persons executed between January 1977
and April 1992, only 29 had been convicted of the killing of a non-white,
and only one of these 29 was himself white.(23) Where the death penalty is
involved, our criminal justice system essentially reserves the death
penalty for murderers (regardless of their race) who kill white victims.
Both sex and socio-economic class are also factors that enter into
determining who receives a death sentence and who is executed. During the
1980s and aerially 1990s, only about I percent of all those on death row
were women,(24) even though women commit about 15 percent of all criminal
homicides.(25) A third or more of the women under death sentence were
guilty of killing men who had victimized them with years of violent
abuse.(26) Since 1930, only 33 women (12 of them black) have been executed
in the United States.(27)
Discrimination against the poor (and in our society racial minorities
are disproportionately poor) is also well established. "Approximately
ninety percent of those on death row could not afford to hire a lawyer
when they were tried."(28) A defendant's poverty, lack of firm social
roots in the community, inadequate legal representation at trial or on
appeal--all these have been common factors among death-row populations. As
Justice William O. Douglas noted in Furman, "One searches our chronicles
in vain for the execution of any member of the affluent strata in this
society." (408 U.S. 238)
The demonstrated inequities in the actual administration of capital
punishment should tip the balance against it in the judgment of
fair-minded and impartial observers. "Whatever else might be said for the
use of death as a punishment, one lesson is clear from experience: this
is a power that we cannot exercise fairly and without discrimination."(29)
Justice John Marshall Harlan, writing for the Court, noted: "...the
history of capital punishment for homicides...reveals continual efforts,
uniformly unsuccessful, to identify before the fact those homicides for
which the slayer should die.... Those who have come to grips with the
hard task of actually attempting to draft means of channeling capital
sentencing discretion have confirmed the lesson taught by history.... To
identify before the fact those characteristics of criminal homicides and
their perpetrators which call for the death penalty, and to express these
characteristics in language which can be fairly understood and applied by
the sentencing authority, appears to be tasks which are beyond present
human ability." (McGautha v. California, 402 U.S . 183 (1971))
Yet in the Gregg decision, the majority of the Supreme Court abandoned
the wisdom of Justice Harlan and ruled as though the new guided-discretion
statutes could accomplish the impossible. The truth is that death statutes
approved by the Court "do not effectively restrict the discretion of
juries by any real standards. They never will. No society is going to kill
everybody who meets certain preset verbal requirements, put on the statute
books without awareness of coverage of the infinity of special factors the
real world can produce."(30)
Even if these statutes were to succeed in guiding the jury's choice of
sentence, a vast reservoir of unfettered discretion remains: the
prosecutor's decision to prosecute for a capital or lesser crime, the
court's willingness to accept or reject a guilt y plea, the jury's
decision to convict for second-degree murder or manslaughter rather than
capital murder, the determination of the defendant's sanity, the final
decision by the governor on clemency.
Discretion in the criminal-justice system is unavoidable. The history of
capital punishment in American society clearly shows the desire to
mitigate the harshness of this penalty by narrowing its scope. Discretion,
whether authorized by statutes or by t heir silence, has been the main
vehicle to this end. But when discretion is used, as it always has been,
to mark for death the poor, the friendless, the uneducated, the members of
racial minorities, and the despised, then discretion becomes injustice.
Thoughtful citizens, who in contemplating capital punishment in the
abstract might support it, must condemn it in actual practice.
Inevitability of Error
Unlike all other criminal punishments, the death penalty is uniquely
irrevocable. Speaking to the French Chamber of Deputies in 1830, years
after the excesses of the French Revolution, which he had witnessed, the
Marquis de Lafayette said, "I shall ask for the abolition of the
punishment of death until I have the infallibility of human judgment
demonstrated to me."(31) Although some proponents of capital punishment
would argue that its merits are worth the occasional execution of innocent
people, most would also insist that there is little likelihood of the
innocent being executed. Yet a large body of evidence shows that innocent
people are often convicted of crimes, including capital crimes and that
some of them have been executed.
Since 1900, in this country, there have been on the average more than
four cases per year in which an entirely innocent person was convicted of
murder. Scores of these persons were sentenced to death. In many cases, a
reprieve or commutation arrived just hours, or even minutes, before the
scheduled execution. These erroneous convictions have occurred in
virtually every jurisdiction from one end of the nation to the other. Nor
have they declined in recent years, despite the new death penalty statutes
approved by the Supreme Court.(32) Consider this handful of
o In 1975, only a year before the Supreme Court affirmed the
constitutionality of capital punishment, two African-American men in
Florida, Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee, were released from prison after
twelve years awaiting execution for the murder of two white men. Their
convictions were the result of coerced confessions, erroneous testimony of
an alleged eyewitness, and incompetent defense counsel. Though a white man
eventually admitted his guilt, a nine-year legal battle was required
before the governor would grant Pitts and Lee a pardon.(33) Had their
execution not been stayed while the constitutional status of the death
penalty was argued in the courts, these two innocent men probably would
not be alive today.
o Just months after Pitts and Lee were released, authorities in New Mexico
were forced to admit they had sentenced to death four white men --
motorcyclists from Los Angeles -- who were innocent. The accused offered a
documented alibi at their trial, but the prosecution dismissed it as an
elaborate ruse. The jury's verdict was based mainly on what was later
revealed to be perjured testimony (encouraged by the police) from an
alleged eyewitness. Thanks to persistent investigation by newspaper
reporters and the confession of the real killer, the error was exposed and
the defendants were released after eighteen months on death row.(34)
o In Georgia in 1975, Earl Charles was convicted of murder and sentenced
to death. A surviving victim of the crime erroneously identified Charles
as the gunman; her testimony was supported by a jail-house informant who
claimed he had heard Charles confess . Incontrovertible alibi evidence,
showing that Charles was in Florida at the very time of the crime,
eventually established his innocence -- but not until he had spent more
than three years under death sentence. His release was owing largely to
his mother's unflagging efforts.(35)
o In 1989, Texas authorities decided not to retry Randall Dale Adams after
the appellate court reversed his conviction for murder. Adams had spent
more than three years on death row for the murder of a Dallas police
officer. He was convicted on the perjured testimony of a 16-year-old
youth who was the real killer. Adams's plight was vividly presented in the
1988 docudrama, The Thin Blue Line, which convincingly told the true story
of the crime and exposed the errors that resulted in his conviction.(36)
o Another case in Texas from the 1980s tells an even more sordid story. In
1980 a black high school janitor, Clarence Brandley, and his white
co-worker found the body of a missing 15-year-old white schoolgirl.
Interrogated by the police, they were told, " One of you two is going to
hang for this." Looking at Brandley, the officer said, "Since you're the
nigger, you're elected." In a classic case of rush to judgment, Brandley
was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. The circumstantial evidence
against him was thin, other leads were ignored by the police, and the
courtroom atmosphere reeked of racism. In 1986 Centurion Ministries -- a
volunteer group devoted to freeing wrongly convicted prisoners -- came to
Brandley's aid. Evidence had meanwhile emerged that another man had
committed the murder for which Brandley was awaiting execution. Brandley
was not released until 1990.(37)
Each of the five stories told above has a reassuring ending: The
innocent prisoner is saved from execution and is released. But when
prisoners are executed, no legal forum exists in which unanswered
questions about their guilt can be resolved. In May 1992, Roger Keith
Coleman was executed in Virginia despite widely publicized doubts
surrounding his guilt and evidence that pointed to another person as the
murderer -- evidence that was never submitted at his trial. Not until late
in the appeal process did anyone take seriously the possibility that the
state was about to kill an innocent man, and then efforts to delay or
nullify his execution failed. Was Coleman really innocent? At the time of
his execution, his case was marked with many of the features found in
other cases where the defendant was eventually cleared. Were Coleman still
in prison, his friends and attorneys would have a strong incentive to
resolve these questions. But with Coleman dead, further inquiry into the
facts of the crime for which h e was convicted is unlikely.
Overzealous prosecution, mistaken or perjured testimony, faulty police
work, coerced confessions, the defendant's previous criminal record, inept
defense counsel, seemingly conclusive circumstantial evidence, community
pressure for a conviction -- such factors help explain why the judicial
system cannot guarantee that justice will never miscarry. And when it does
miscarry, volunteers outside the criminal justice system -- newspaper
reporters, for example -- and not the police or prosecutors are the ones
who rectify the errors. To retain the death penalty in the face of the
demonstrable failures of the system is unacceptable, especially as there
are no strong counterbalancing factors in favor of the death penalty.
The traditional mode of execution, still available in a few states, is
hanging. Death on the gallows is easily bungled: If the drop is too short,
there will be a slow and agonizing death by strangulation. If the drop is
too long, the head will be torn off.
Two states, Idaho and Utah, still authorize the firing squad. The
prisoner is strapped into a chair, and hooded. A target is pinned to the
chest. Five marksmen, one with blanks, take aim and fire.
Electrocution has been the most widely used form of execution in this
country in this century. The condemned prisoner is led--or dragged--into
the death chamber, strapped into the chair, and electrodes are fastened to
head and legs. When the switch is thrown the body strains, jolting as the
voltage is raised and lowered. Often smoke rises from the head. There is
the awful odor of burning flesh. No one knows how long electrocuted
individuals retain consciousness.
In 1983, the electrocution of John Evans in Alabama was described by an
eyewitness as follows: "At 8:30 p.m. the first jolt of 1900 volts of
electricity passed through Mr. Evans' body. It lasted thirty seconds.
Sparks and flames erupted ... from the electrode tied to Mr. Evans' left
leg. His body slammed against the straps holding him in the electric chair
and his fist clenched permanently. The electrode apparently burst from the
strap holding it in place. A large puff of grayish smoke and sparks poured
out from under the hood that covered Mr. Evans' face. An overpowering
stench of burnt flesh and clothing began pervading the witness room. Two
doctors examined Mr. Evans and declared that he was not dead.
"The electrode on the left leg was refastened.... Mr. Evans was
administered a second thirty second jolt of electricity. The stench of
burning flesh was nauseating. More smoke emanated from his leg and head.
Again, the doctors examined Mr. Evans. [They] reported that his heart was
still beating, and that he was still alive. At that time, I asked the
prison commissioner, who was communicating on an open telephone line to
Governor George Wallace, to grant clemency on the grounds that Mr. Evans
was being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. The request ... was
"At 8:40 p.m., a third charge of electricity, thirty seconds in
duration, was passed through Mr. Evans' body. At 8:44, the doctors
pronounced him dead. The execution of John Evans took fourteen
minutes."(38) Afterwards, officials were embarrassed by what one observer
called the "barbaric ritual." The prison spokesman remarked, "This was
supposed to be a very clean manner of administering death."(39)
An attempt to improve on electrocution was the gas chamber. The prisoner
is strapped into a chair, a container of sulfuric acid underneath. The
chamber is sealed, and cyanide is dropped into the acid to form lethal
gas. Here is an account of the 1992 execution in Arizona of Don Harding,
as reported in the dissent by U. S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul
"When the fumes enveloped Don's head he took a quick breath. A few
seconds later he again looked in my direction. His face was red and
contorted as if he were attempting to fight through tremendous pain. His
mouth was pursed shut and his jaw was clenched tight. Don then look
several more quick gulps of the fumes.
"At this point Don's body started convulsing violently....His face and
body fumed a deep red and the veins in his temple and neck began to bulge
until I thought they might explode.
"After about a minute Don's face leaned partially forward, but he was
still conscious. Every few seconds he continued to gulp in. He was
shuddering uncontrollably and his body was racked with spasms. His head
continued to snap back. His hands were clenched.
"After several more manuals, the most violent of the convulsions
subsided. At this time the muscles along Don's left arm and back began
twitching in a wavelike motion under his skin. Spittle drooled from his
"Don did not stop moving for approximately eight minutes, and after that
he continued to twitch and jerk for another minute. Approximately two
minutes later, we were told by a prison official that the execution was
"Don Harding took ten minutes and thirty one seconds to die." (Gomez v.
U.S. District Court, 112 S.Ct. 1652)
The latest mode of inflicting the death penalty, enacted into law by
nearly two dozen states, is lethal injection, first used in Texas in 1982.
It is easy to overstate the humaneness and efficacy of this method. There
is no way of knowing that it is really painless. As the U.S. Court of
Appeals observed, there is "substantial and uncontroverted evidence ...
that execution by lethal injection poses a serious risk of cruel,
protracted death.... Even a slight error in dosage or administration can
leave a prisoner conscious but paralyzed while dying, a sentient witness
of his or her own asphyxiation." (Chaney v. Heckler, 718 F.2d 1174 )
Nor does the execution always proceed smoothly as planned. In 1985 "the
authorities repeatedly jabbed needles into ... Stephen Morin, when they
had trouble finding a usable vein because he had been a drug abuser."(40)
In 1988, during the execution of Raymond Landry, "a tube attached to a
needle inside the inmate's right arm began leaking, sending the lethal
mixture shooting across the death chamber toward witnesses."(41)
Indeed, by its veneer of decency and by subtle analogy with life-saving
medical practice, death by lethal injection makes killing as punishment
more acceptable to the public. Even when it prevents the struggles of the
condemned person and avoids maiming the body, it is no different from
hanging or shooting as an expression of the absolute power of the state
over the helpless individual.
Most people observing an execution are horrified and disgusted. "I was
ashamed," writes sociologist Richard Moran, who witnessed an execution in
Texas in 1985. "I was an intruder, the only member of the public who had
trespassed on [the condemned man's] private moment of anguish. In my face
he could see the horror of his own death."(42) Revulsion at the duty to
supervise and witness executions is one reason why so many prison wardens
-- however unsentimental they are about crime and criminals -- are
opponents of capital punishment.
In some people, however, executions seem to appeal to strange, aberrant
impulses and give an outlet to sadistic urges. Warden Lewis Lawes wrote of
the many requests he received to watch electrocutions, and told that when
the job of executioner became vacant, "I received more than seven hundred
applications for the position, many of them offering cut-rate prices."(43)
Public executions were common in this country during the 19th century;
one of the last was in 1936 in Kentucky, when 20,000 people gathered to
watch a young African-American male hanged.(44) Delight in brutality,
pain, violence, and death may always be with us. But surely we must
conclude that it is best for the law not to encourage these impulses. When
the government sanctions, commands, and ceremoniously carries out the
execution of a prisoner, it lends support to this destructive side of
More than two centuries ago, the Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria, in his
highly influential treatise On Crimes and Punishments (1764), asserted:
"The death penalty cannot be useful, because of the example of barbarity
it gives men." True, and even if the death penalty were a "useful"
deterrent, it would still be an "example of barbarity." No society can
safely entrust the enforcement of its laws to torture, brutality, or
killing. Such methods are inherently cruel and will always mock the
attempt to cloak them in justice. As Supreme Court Justice Arthur J.
Goldberg wrote, "The deliberate institutionalized taking of human life by
the state is the greatest conceivable degradation to the dignity of the
Justice, it is often insisted, requires the death penalty as the only
suitable retribution for heinous crimes. This claim will not bear
scrutiny. All punishment by its nature is retributive, not only the death
penalty. Whatever legitimacy, therefore, is to be found in punishment as
just retribution can in principle be satisfied without recourse to
It is also obvious that the death penalty could be defended on narrowly
retributive grounds only for the crime of murder, and not for any of the
many other crimes that have frequently been made subject to this mode of
punishment (rape, kidnapping, espionage, treason, drug kingpins). Few
defenders of the death penalty are willing to confine themselves
consistently to the narrow scope afforded by retribution. In any case,
execution is more than a punishment exacted in retribution for the taking
of a life.
As Camus wrote, "For there to be equivalence, the death penalty would
have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which
he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward,
had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not
encountered in private life."(46)
It is also often argued that death is what murderers deserve, and that
those who oppose the death penalty violate the fundamental principle that
criminals should be punished according to their deserts--"making the
punishment fit the crime."
If this principle is understood to require that punishments are unjust
unless they are like the crime itself, then the principle is unacceptable.
It would require us to rape rapists, torture torturers, and inflict other
horrible and degrading punishment s on offenders. It would require us to
betray traitors and kill multiple murderers again and again, punishments
impossible to inflict. Since we cannot reasonably aim to punish all crimes
according to this principle, it is arbitrary to invoke it as a requirement
of justice in the punishment of murderers.
If, however, the principle of just deserts is understood to require that
the severity of punishments must be proportional to the gravity of the
crime, and that murder being the gravest crime deserves the severest
punishment, then the principle is no doubt sound. But it does not compel
support for the death penalty. What it does require is that crimes other
than murder be punished with terms of imprisonment or other deprivations
less severe than those used in the punishment of murder.
Criminals no doubt deserve to be punished, and punished with severity
appropriate to their culpability and the harm they have caused to the
innocent. But severity of punishment has its limits -- imposed both by
justice and our common human dignity. Governments that respect these
limits do not use premeditated, violent homicide as an instrument of
Some whose loved one was a murder victim believe that they cannot rest
until the murderer is executed. But the feeling is by no means universal.
Coretta Scott King has observed, "As one whose husband and mother-in-law
have died the victims of murder assassination, I stand firmly and
unequivocally opposed to the death penalty for those convicted of capital
offenses. An evil deed is not redeemed by an evil deed of retaliation.
Justice is never advanced in the tacking of a human life. Morality is
never upheld by a legalized murder."(47)
Kerry Kennedy, daughter of the slain Senator Robert Kennedy, has
written: "I was eight years old when my father was murdered. It is almost
impossible to describe the pain of losing a parent to a senseless
murder.... But even as a child one thing was clear to me: I didn't want
the killer, in turn, to be killed. I remember lying in bed and praying,
'Please, God. Please don't take his life, too.' I saw nothing that could
be accomplished in the loss of one life being answered with the loss of
another. And I knew, far too vividly, the anguish that would spread
through another family -- another set of parents, children, brothers, and
sisters thrown into grief."(48)
It is sometimes suggested that abolishing capital punishment is unfair
to the taxpayer, as though life imprisonment were obviously more expensive
than executions. If one takes into account all the relevant costs, the
reverse is true. "The death penalty is not now, nor has it ever been, a
more economical alternative to life imprisonment."(49)
A murder trial normally takes much longer when the death penalty is at
issue than when it is not. Litigation costs - including the time of
judges, prosecutors,public defenders, and court reporters, and the high
costs of briefs -- are all borne by the taxpayer.
A 1982 study showed that were the death penalty to be reintroduced in
New York, the cost of the capital trial alone would be more than double
the cost of a life term in prison.(50)
In Maryland, a comparison of capital trial costs with and without the
death penalty for the years 1979-1984 concluded that a death penalty case
costs "approximately 42 percent more than a case resulting in a non-death
sentence."(51) In 1988 and 1989 th e Kansas legislature voted against
reinstating the death penalty after it was informed that reintroduction
would involve a first-year cost of "more than $ 11 million."(52) Florida,
with one of the nation's largest death rows, has estimated that the true
cost of each execution is approximately $3.2 million, or approximately six
times the cost of a life-imprisonment sentence.(53)
The only way to make the death penalty a "better buy" than imprisonment
is to weaken due process and curtail appellate review, which are the
defendant's (and society's) only protections against the grossest
miscarriages of justice. The savings in dollar s would be at the cost of
justice: In nearly half of the death-penalty cases given review under
federal habeas corpus, the conviction is overturned.(54)
The media commonly report that the American public overwhelmingly
supports the death penalty. More careful analysis of public attitudes,
however, reveals that most Americans would oppose the death penalty if
convicted murderers were sentenced to life without parole and were
required to make some form of financial restitution. In California, for
example, a Field Institute survey showed that in 1990,82 percent approved
in principle of the death penalty. But when asked to choose between the
death penalty and life imprisonment plus restitution, only a small
minority--26 percent--continued to favor executions.(53)
A comparable change in attitude toward the death penally has been
verified in many other states and contradicted in none.
The death penalty in the United States needs to be put into
international perspective. In 1962, it was reported to the Council of
Europe that "the facts clearly show that the death penalty is regarded in
Europe as something of an anachronism...."(56)
Today, 28 European countries have abolished the death penalty either in
law or in practice. In Great Britain, it was abolished (except for
treason) in 1971; France abolished it in 1981. Canada abolished it in
1976. The United Nations General Assembly affirmed in a formal resolution
that, throughout the world, it is desirable to "progressively restrict the
number of offenses for which the death penalty might be imposed, with a
view to the desirability of abolishing this punishment."(57)
Conspicuous by their indifference to these recommendations are nations
generally known for their disregard for the human rights of their
citizens: China, Iraq, Iran, South Africa, and the former Soviet
Union.(58) Americans ought to be embarrassed to find themselves linked
with the governments of such nations in retaining execution as a method of
Opposition to the death penalty in the United States is widespread and
diverse. Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant religious groups, national
organizations representing people of color, and public-interest law groups
are among the more than fifty national organizations that constitute the
National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Once in use everywhere and for a wide variety of crimes, the death
penalty today is generally forbidden by law and widely abandoned in
practice. The unmistakable worldwide trend is toward the complete
abolition of capital punishment.
For Further Information & Reference
Additional copies of this pamphlet, as well as resource materials such
as newsletters, books, legal and legislative information, death-row
census, reprinted articles, bibliographies, and referrals to other
national and state-wide anti-death penalty groups may be obtained from
the Capital Punishment Project, American Civil Liberties Union, 122
Maryland Avenue N.E., Washington, D.C., 20002. Diann Y. Rust-Tierney,
Esq., is the project's director. The National Coalition to Abolish the
Death Penalty, which coordinates the work of a wide variety of
organizations opposed to capital punishment, is located at 1325 G St. N.W.
Lower Level B, Washington, D.C., 20005.
No one volume on the death penalty currently serves as an up-to-date
source book on all aspects of the subject. The Death Penalty in America,
3rd ed., ed. Hugo Adam Bedau, Oxford University Press, 1982, is still
useful, and a new edition is in preparation. Many other recent volumes
contain valuable information and argument, including: Welsh S. White, The
Death Penalty in the Nineties, University of Michigan Press,1991; Samuel
R. Gross and Robert Mauro, Death and Discrimination, Northeastern
University Press, 1989; Michael L. Radelet, ed., Facing the Death
Penalty, Temple University Press, 1989; Kenneth C. Haas and James A.
Inciardi, eds., Challenging Capital Punishment, Sage Publications, 1988;
United States of America -- The Death Penalty, Amnesty International
Publications, 1987; Franklin E. Zimring and Gordon Hawkins, Capital
Punishment and the American Agenda, Cambridge University Press, 1986;
William J. Bowers, Legal Homicide: Death as Punishment in America,
1864-1982, Northeastern University Press , 1984; Charles L. Black, Jr.,
Capital Punishment, 2nd ed., W. W. Norton, 1981. The wealth of scholarly
literature up through 1988 can be traced with the help of Capital
Punishment in America: An Annotated Bibliography, Garland Publishing,
1988, edited by Michael L. Radelet and Margaret Vandiver.
Four more specialized volumes deserve mention as well: Michael L.
Radelet, Hugo Adam Bedau, and Constance E. Putnam, In Spite of Innocence:
Erroneous Convictions in Capital Cases, Northeastern University Press,
1992; Robert M. Bohm, ed., The Death Penalty in America: Current
Research. Anderson Publishing Co., 1991: Victor T. Streib, Death Penalty
for Juveniles, Indiana University Press, 1987; and Louis P. Masur, Rites
of Execution: Capital Punishment and the Transformation of American
Culture, 1776-1865 , Oxford University Press, 1989.
Several scholarly and legal journals have devoted whole issues to
various legal, sociological, and historical aspects of the problem of the
death penalty, notably Dickinson Law Review, vol. 95, no. 4, Summer 1991;
New York University Review of Law & Social Change, vol. 18, nos. 2 and 3,
1990-1991; Albany Law Review, vol. 54, nos. 3/4, 1990; Loyola of Los
Angeles Law Review, vol. 23, no. 1, November 1989; Journal of Contemporary
Criminal Justice, vol. 5, no. 4, December 1989; Law and Human Behavior,
vol. 8, nos. 1/2, June 1984; U.C. Davis Law Review, vol. 18, no. 4, summer
1985; Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. vol. 74, no. 3, fall 1983.
Among the recent U.S. government publications containing information of
general interest are: "The Federal Death Penalty Act of 1989," Report of
the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, 101st Congress, 1st Session,
October 1989; "Death Penalty," Hearings Before Committee on the Judiciary,
U.S. Senate, 101st Congress, 1st Session, September-October 1989;
"Establishing Constitutional Procedures for the Imposition of Capital
Punishment," Report of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, 99th
Congress, 2d Session, April 1986; "Capital Punishment," Hearings Before
Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, U.S. House of Representatives, 99th
Congress, 1st and 2d Sessions, November 1985-July 1986; "Death Penalty
Legislation," hearing Before the Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. Senate,
99th Congress, 1st Session, September 1985. For earlier federal government
publications, see the bibliography by Radelet and Vandiver, pp. 219-20.
Statistical information on death sentences and executions since 1930 may
be obtained in the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, Capital
Punishment, an annual report appearing under various titles since the
1950s. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund publishes "Death Row,
U.S.A.," issued since the 1970s several times a year; it reports current
demographic information on executions and the death row population.
1 See U.S. Dept. Justice, Capital Punishment, annually, 1980 et seq.
2 See Uniform Crime Reports, annually, 1980 et seq.
3 See Uniform Crime Reports.
4 Uniform Crime Reports, annually, 1980-1989.
5 Bowers and Pierce, "Deterrence or Brutalization," in Crime & Delinquency
6 U.S. Dept. Justice, Capital Punishment, 1972-1990; Uniform Crime
Reports, annually, 1972-1990; and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational
Fund, "Death Row, USA," Spring 1992.
7 Bailey and Peterson, in Criminology (1987), p. 22.
8 Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics -- 1990.
9 Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisons and Prisoners in the United States
(1992), p. 1.
10 Wolfson, in Bedau, ed., The Death Penalty in America, 3rd ed. (1982),
11 Ehrlich, in American Economic Review (1974); Phillips, in American
Journal of Sociology (1980); and Layson, in Southern Economic Journal
12 Lempert, in Crime & Delinquency (1983); Peterson and Bailey in
Chambliss, ed., Criminal Law in Action, 2nd ed. (1984); Bowers, in Hasse
and Inciardi, eds., Challenging Capital Punishment (1988); Peterson and
Cello, in Social Forces (1988); and Fox and Radelet, in Loyola of Los
Angeles Law Review (1989).
13 Blumstein, Cohen, and Nagin, eds., Deterrence and Incapacitation
(1975), p. 358.
14 West, Solomon, and Diamond, in Bedau and Pierce, eds., Capital
Punishment in the United States (1976).
15 Bedau, "Recidivism, Parole, and Deterrence," in Bedau, ed., Death
Penalty in America, 3rd ed.
16 Marquart and Sorensen, in Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review (1989).
17 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Capital Punishment," 1977, and
NAACP LDF, "Death Row, USA," Spring 1992.
18 Bowers, Legal Homicide (1984); Streib, Death Penalty for Juveniles
19 "Death Row, USA," 1976 et seq.
20 Uniform Crime Reports, 1972-1990.
21 Baldus, Woodworth, and Pulaski, Equal Justice and The Death Penalty
(1990), p. 401.
22 U.S. General Accounting Office, "Death Penalty Sentencing" (1990),
23 "Death Row, USA," Spring 1992; and Sourcebook of Criminal Justice
Statistics -- 1990.
24 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Capital Punishment," 1980-1990.
25 Uniform Crime Reports, 1980-1990.
26 Memorandum, National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, January
27 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Capital Punishment," 1979; NAACP
LDF, "Death Row, USA," Spring 1992.
28 Tabak, in Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review (1989).
29 Gross and Mauro, Death and Discrimination (1989), p. 224.
30 Black, Capital Punishment. The Inevitability of Caprice and Mistake.
2nd ed. (1982).
31 Lucas Recueil des debats ... (1831) pt. II, p. 32.
32 Radelet, Bedau, and Putnam, In Spite of Innocence (1992); Bedau and
Radelet, Miscarriages of Justice in Potentially Capital Cases, Stanford
Law Review (1987).
33 Miller, Invitation to a Lynching (1975); also The New York Times, Sept
10, 1975, p.1.
34 "Capital Punishment" Senate Hearings (1981) pp. 713-20
35 Atlanta Weekly, May 30, 1982.
36 Adams, Hoffer, and Hoffer, Adams v. Texas (1991).
37 Davies, White Lies (1991).
38 (Glass v. Louisiana, 471 U.S. 1080 (1985).
39 Boston Globe, April 24, 1983, p. 24.
40 The New York Times, December 14, 1988, p. A29.
42 Los Angeles Times, March 24, 1985, Pt IV, p. 5.
43 Lawes, Life and Death in Sing Sing (1928).
44 Teeters, in Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society (1960).
45 Boston Globe, August 16, 1976, p. 17
46 Camus, "Reflections on the Guillotine," in Resistance, Rebellion and
47 Speech to National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Washington,
D.C., September 26, 1981.
48 Foreword to Gray and Stanley, A Punishment in Search of A Crime (1989).
49 Spangenberg and Walsh, in Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review (1989), p.
50 N. Y. State Defenders Assn., Capital Losses (1982).
51 U S. Govt. Accounting Office, Limited Data Available on Costs of Death
Sentences (1989), p. 50.
52 Cited in Spangenberg and Walsh, note 49.
53 Miami Herald, July 10, 1988.
54 New York Times, Sept. 22, 1989
55 New York Times, May 28, 1990; and Fox, Radelet, and Bonsteel, in N.Y.U.
Review of Law and Social Change (1990-91).
56 Ancel, The Death Penalty in European Countries (1962), p 55.
57 UN, Ecosoc, Official Records 58th Sess. (1971), Supl. 1, p.36.
58 Hood, The Death Penalty: A World-Wide Perspective (1989); Amnesty
International, When The State Kills... (1989).
Revised July 1992.
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