Column: It’s time to lay the death penalty to rest

This Sept. 21, 2010, file photo shows the death chamber of the new lethal injection facility at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif. (Eric Risberg, File/AP)

For years there have been many highly controversial court cases about the use of the death penalty. At the federal level, the death penalty has been legal since 1976, when it was reinstated by the Supreme Court after a four-year absence. At the state level, however, the death penalty has become less and less common. Nineteen states, in addition to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, do not have an enforceable death penalty statute.

Currently, federal law only allows capital punishment for aggravated murders committed by mentally competent adults. With the movement to abolish the death penalty steadily progressing, it is time for the Supreme Court to strike down capital punishment once and for all.  

There are many sound arguments for abolishing the death penalty. There is, of course, the moral reason. Killing another person is only justifiable in the most extreme of circumstances, such as when someone is mortally threatened.

However, even in such a case killing is not “right” or “good,” but the person is justified in their actions. But even though a criminal may commit such an atrocious act as murder, it is not moral or right that they should be put to death. In any case where it can be avoided, it is essential to our collective moral integrity and plain human decency that we refrain from killing. 

In the United States we love to tout our freedom and we envision ourselves as a worldwide leader, champion and even enforcer of human rights. But how can we maintain that authority and moral high ground when our country has killed almost 1,500 people in the last 40 years? Putting citizens to death is barbaric. Essentially all of Europe has abandoned the practice, and only countries like North Korea and China continue it.

For the people who do commit acts such as homicide there is a sensible alternative in a life sentence without parole. In this way our society can ensure that violent offenders are suitably punished for their crimes and are prevented from committing further atrocities without resorting to killing them.

There is also an economic benefit to this alternative. Because capital punishment is so extreme, a death penalty case could cost as much 20 times more than a case for life without parole. The length of the person’s time in prison narrows that price margin (although inmates are on death row for an average of 15 years before their execution), but in many cases life without parole has greater economic feasibility and will cost taxpayers less.

Out of all the reasons that the death penalty should be abolished one of the most important and heartbreaking ones is that innocent people have been convicted and executed. If we condemn someone to death it is imperative that there is no doubt at all because it is a mistake that cannot be rectified. Historically, more than 150 people have been released from death row. This means that after being sentenced to death, new evidence came to light or circumstances changed. And these people were lucky it came before their execution. Recent evidence has indicated that four people may have been wrongly executed, which is an unbelievably horrible tragedy. 

This is one of the advantages of something like life without parole. If it is discovered that a mistake was made than it can be rectified. And while that person may never get back the time they spent in jail at least they did not lose their life for something they did not do. And based on the number of people who have been wrongfully convicted, it is a precaution that is almost necessary to take to protect American citizens. 

There is a sense of inevitability in a situation like this when one looks at American history. Whether it is giving women the right to vote, desegregation or even gay marriage, these situations always seem to play out the same. The death penalty is no exception. For example, almost all of the states that have abolished the practice were among the earliest to support gay marriage. A Quinnipiac poll from earlier this year showed that a majority of people prefer life without parole vs. the death penalty as punishment for murder.

The sooner the death penalty is struck down the better. My generation looked back on things like women not being able to vote and viewed it as something foolish and backward. It appears that some future generation will look back on the death penalty the same way, so I say make it the next one.