We have to do better than the death penalty.

Clint Smith writes on the injustice of the death penalty for The New Yorker:

Those who support the death penalty are accepting a practice that is both ineffective and fundamentally flawed. It means supporting a system that not infrequently kills those with serious mental illness. It means supporting a system in which an execution is far more likely to take place when the convicted murderer is black and the victim is white, than it is when the victim is black and the killer is white. It means supporting a system that has sentenced, and continues to sentence, innocent people to death. In our impulse to rid the world of those we find reprehensible, we forget that we are also ridding the world of those who have done nothing wrong.

The article comes in light of the Department of Justice’s announcement that it would seek the death penalty in the case of Dylann Roof, who is accused of murdering nine people in a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

In the case of Roof, there is no real question of his guilt. Roof confessed to the killings and claimed he wanted to start a race war. But Smith points out:

It is easy not to support the death penalty when there is doubt about the culpability of the person sitting in the chair; it is harder to sustain such principles when the crime of the accused is morally indefensible. But if our principles are only our principles when it is convenient for us, when they align with our visceral emotional responses, then they are, in fact, not principles at all. What’s the point of having progressive principles if they can’t contain your rage?

Justifications for the death penalty are flimsy at best, because the truth is support for the death penalty:

…is the part [of us] that would rather see a man die than ask if we have the right to kill. It is the part of us that would rather have our public policy shaped by anger and notions of retribution than by ideas about rehabilitation and reconciliation.

A paper by John Lamperti, professor of mathematics at Dartmouth College, puts it this way:

Those who defend the deterrent value of the death penalty offer little systematic research to support their view. Instead, they rely on an intuitive feeling that capital punishment should be uniquely effective.

The United States, with its affinity for claiming to be world leaders, lags woefully behind in moving past primitive ideas about right and wrong, crime and punishment. Much of the world has abolished the death penalty, while other countries have phased it out of practice. I oppose the death penalty not just because it doesn’t work, but because its practice shatters any claim we as a country make to moral righteousness — let alone moral superiority.

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