The Ethics of Capital Punishment
Troy Anthony Davis was executed on September 21 having exhausted all avenues of appeal of his death sentence in August 1991. Davis allegedly murdered police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Georgia. MacPhail was working as a security guard at a Burger King restaurant when he intervened to defend a man being assaulted in a nearby parking lot. During Davis’ 1991 trial, witnesses testified they had seen Davis shoot MacPhail, and two others testified that Davis confessed to them. Although the murder weapon was not recovered, ballistic evidence presented at trial linked bullets recovered at or near the scene to those at another shooting in which Davis was also charged. By all accounts Davis was at the scene but he had an accomplice who may have been the shooter in both incidents. Davis was convicted of murder and various lesser charges, including the earlier shooting and sentenced to death.
The case drew international attention because seven of nine eyewitnesses signed affidavits changing or recanting all or part of their testimony. Prosecutors argued that it was too late to introduce new evidence that might not even be reliable twenty-two years later. Davis maintained his innocence right up to the time of his execution.
I used to believe capital punishment was warranted for certain heinous crimes such as serial killing, murdering a police officer, and particularly gruesome crimes. Now I have doubts. Like any good professor I discussed these doubts with my ethics class. On the one hand, the taking of a life in such incidents can be ethically supported by the concept of “retributive justice.” Retributive justice is a theory of justice that considers that punishment, if proportionate, is a morally acceptable response to crime, with an eye to the satisfaction and psychological benefits it can bestow to the aggrieved party, its intimates and society. However, after reflecting on the circumstances of Troy Davis’ execution and how it affects society I have changed my mind and here is why.
As an ethicist I looked at the issue from a utilitarian perspective. Simply stated, utilitarianism focuses on the consequences that actions or policies have on the well-being ("utility") of all persons directly or indirectly affected by the action or policy. The principle states: "Of any two actions, the most ethical one will produce the greatest balance of benefits over harms." Who benefits from Davis’ execution? The family? Society? I’m not sure. If I had a family member murdered I don’t think I would want to wait twenty years for “justice” during which time appeals are heard, new evidence possibly admitted, and a roller-coaster ride of emotions ensues wondering whether the execution will be stayed at some point in time all the way up to the moment of execution as was the case with Davis. I’d prefer that the killer had been given a life sentence without the possibility of parole and would have the rest of his or her life to reflect on the morality of the deed.
The Report of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice recently issued a study of the extra cost to house an inmate on death row. “The additional cost of confining an inmate to death row, as compared to the maximum security prisons where those sentenced to life without possibility of parole ordinarily serve their sentences, is $90,000 per year per inmate. With California’s current death row population of 670, that accounts for $63.3 million annually.” Using conservative rough projections, the Commission estimates the annual costs of the present (death penalty) system to be $137 million per year.
The number of cases of innocent people released from years after being found guilty of a crime has skyrocketed since the establishment of the Innocence Project. You may have heard about a Texas man imprisoned 30 years ago on aggravated robbery charges that had his conviction overturned in January after DNA evidence exonerated him. Dallas County Judge Don Adams overturned Cornelius Dupree Jr.’s conviction clearing his name officially. Dupree had served more years in a Texas prison for a crime he did not commit than anyone else in the state who was later exonerated by DNA evidence. Only two other people exonerated by DNA have spent more time in prison in the entire country, the Innocence Project said. Texas has freed 41 wrongly convicted prisoners because of DNA testing since 2001, more than any other state.
Although many nations have abolished capital punishment, over 60% of the world's population live in countries where executions take place, inasmuch as thePeople's Republic of China, India, USA, and Indonesia, the four most populous countries in the world, continue to apply the death penalty (although in India and Indonesia it is used only rarely). Is this the company we want to keep? Australia, Canada and the European Union and other English-speaking countries do not permit executions.
I close with a quote from Katherine Fullerton Gerould from her 1920 book, Modes and Morals. “Many of us do not believe in capital punishment, because thus society takes from a man what society cannot give.”
Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 26, 2011