Two weeks ago a petition calling for the public hanging of Benjamin Taylor, charged with the murder and violent sexual assault of a nine-month-old girl, received over 50,000 signatures.
In the end the White House removed the petition from its website saying it ‘violated its terms of service’ but it shows there is still an appetite for something the majority of countries have banned.
We spoke to Dr Hannah Quirk, a Senior Lecturer in Criminal Law and Justice at the University of Manchester, about why the death penalty remains popular.
When a high profile case concerning a particularly horrible crime takes place people react emotionally, it’s easy to say ‘nothing is too bad for them’.
The death penalty satisfies a very basic desire for vengeance that goes back to biblical times – a sort of ‘an eye for an eye’ philosophy.
This high amount of public support for such a brutal act of ‘justice’ seems surprising – the last public execution in the U.S took place in 1936 when Rainey Bethea was hanged in front of an estimated crowd of 20,000 people.
In the UK, the last public hanging took place in 1868, with the death penalty for murder abolished in 1965 following an Act brought before parliament by private member’s bill.
These two instances do have something in common – in the U.S the removal of executions from the public sphere and in the UK, the complete abandonment of capital punishment flew in the face of public opinion.
In fact, a 2014 YouGov poll found that 45 per cent of the people surveyed in the UK still supported the reintroduction of the death penalty, 39 per cent were against it while 16 per cent were undecided.
Admittedly, support is dwindling – the 18-39 age bracket do tend to oppose capital punishment – but nearly half of the UK still supports the idea of state executions.
The divide in the U.S is even more obvious. Of the 50 states, just 20 have abolished the death penalty – the most recent being Nebraska in 2015.
However the remaining 30 continue to debate its fairness, reliability and the cost of its implementation. So why do so many people support capital punishment?
A common argument from supporters of the death penalty is that they do not wish their taxes to go towards housing violent criminals.
It seems obvious that executing a convicted killer will save money in security, healthcare, food and other costs all burdened on the state, yet evidence suggests this is not the case.
A 2016 study by Dr Ernest Goss, professor of economics at Creighton University, estimated that each death penalty prosecution costs Nebraska’s taxpayers roughly $1.5 million more than a ‘life without parole’ sentence.
Dr Goss was able to estimate that overall, the death penalty costs an average of $23.2 million more per year than alternative sentences.
This increased cost is mostly due to the greater expense of capital punishment trials, automatic appeals, and the increased security on death row with lower staff-to-prisoner ratios.
The recent petition for the public hanging of Benjamin Taylor included the following line:
Maybe if these people were actually afraid of what would happen to them if/when they were caught, they’d be less likely to do such vile things?
Many people believe that capital punishment provides the strongest possible deterrent, and that the threat of execution influences criminal behaviour more effectively than imprisonment does.
Again, on the face of it, this makes perfect sense. But as plausible as it sounds, evidence overwhelmingly shows that the death penalty also fails in this capacity.
Simply put, in the U.S, death-penalty states do not have lower homicide rates than those without it.
Between l990-l994, the murder rates in Wisconsin and Iowa (both non-death-penalty states) were half the rates of their death penalty wielding neighbour, Illinois.
Of course, these disparities cannot be put down simply to whether or not the death penalty is in place, there are plenty of other social, political and historical factors to take into account.
However, if anything, statistics show that use of the death penalty may actually increase homicide rates.
From 2000-2010, FBI figures show that the murder rate in states with capital punishment was between 25 per cent and 46 per cent higher than in states without it.
On top of that, police chiefs ranked the death penalty as ‘least effective’ in battling violent crime after curbing drug use, putting more officers on the street, longer sentences and increased gun control.
This could be because – premeditated crimes aside – most murderers are not ‘themselves’ when they kill.
Dr Quirk said:
Most people aren’t thinking clearly when they commit murder – they’re usually under the influence of extreme emotion, drink or drugs.
Basically, they’re not considering the consequences of their actions, so the threat of the death penalty does not apply.
But the arguments against don’t end there. Probably the most compelling reason for banning capital punishment is the risk of condemning an innocent person to their death.
Dr Quirk said: “Mistakes happen, if you’ve executed someone there’s no way back.” In the U.S, since 1973, over 140 people have been released from death rows across 26 states because of innocence.
However, cases remain where innocent people have been killed for crimes they did not commit.
Examples of this include the 2011 execution of Troy Davis, convicted of killing an off-duty police officer with no evidence other than eyewitness testimony, Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed for the ‘arson’ murder of his three children which was later proved to have followed an accidental fire and the 1990 killing of Jesse Tafero, executed in Florida on evidence later found to be perjured by a convict trying to avoid the death sentence himself.
It seems that, despite their best intentions, even the most sophisticated legal systems are subject to abuse or error.
What is more, these ‘errors’ disproportionally affect people from disadvantaged backgrounds as they can’t afford expensive (better quality) legal representation or the lengthy appeals process.
This greatly inhibits the ability of the law to be handed out fairly which, when someone’s life depends on it, is a pretty major deficiency.
In his novel American Gods Neil Gaiman wrote:
I believe that while all human life is sacred there’s nothing wrong with the death penalty if you can trust the legal system implicitly – and that no one but a moron would ever trust the legal system.
So, why does the death penalty continue to be imposed in the U.S and why does nearly half of the UK want to see its return?
Philosophers, politicians and academics have all argued that capital punishment is a proportional response that delivers on people’s inherent sense of justice.
But Dr Quirk disagrees:
Imposing the death penalty weakens moral authority by modelling bad behaviour – if it’s wrong to kill someone then it’s wrong in every circumstance.
The justice system is in place to restrain those basic urges, to stop those instincts that vengeance must be served and to ensure that due process is put in place.
When introducing The Abolition of the Death Penalty Bill in 1964, MP Sydney Silverman was asked why Parliament should defy the public’s wishes to keep the death penalty.
His response was pretty much perfect:
[In the face] of violent public pressure would it be right for a responsible member of the Government to kill a man, whom he thought he ought not to kill, because of some popular immediate pressure which might change its mind the next morning?
And he’s right. In the heat of the moment, when the truly disturbing nature of a particularly horrific crime is revealed, the gut instinct is to call for justice to be served as swiftly and emphatically as possible – it’s easy to get carried away.
But, in order to maintain society’s moral integrity it cannot lower itself to brutal acts of vengeance.
The Death Penalty Project
American Civil Liberties Union