Egger: Why the US should abolish the death penalty

Philip Egger, Guest Columnist

I was in diapers when George H.W. Bush used Michael Dukakis’ opposition to the death penalty as a cudgel in a campaign commercial. Since then, according to a 2013 Pew survey, support for the death penalty has been “gradually ticking downward” to 55 percent of American adults.

Until very recently, I was one of the 55 percent.

The argument that there are certain offenses which, if committed, forfeit the offender his or her right to live, retains a strong hold on my conscience — although many common arguments for abolition of the death penalty have been easy for me to dismiss. For instance, many of these arguments are grounded in religious teachings, which has always left me, as a secular person, utterly unmoved. The appeal to the growing anti-death penalty consensus in our fellow Western democracies always seemed insufficient to convince me to turn against it. After all, the mere fact that something has attained the status of conventional wisdom does not make it right. And though the racial, geographic and socioeconomic disparities that plague the use of the death penalty in this country are extremely troubling, they could just as well be resolved by a more equitable application of the death penalty as by its abolition. Nor was it the recent botched execution in Oklahoma that caused me to reexamine my stance; indeed, I sympathize with those who say that any scumbag capable of murdering a young woman by burying her alive, and then showing no sign of remorse, rightfully deserves every second of what Clayton Lockett went through.

No, the decisive factor was the release, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, of a study that conservatively estimated the percentage of death row inmates wrongfully convicted at about 4 percent. That our vaunted democratic system of justice could fail so spectacularly in a task of such importance floored me. Even conceding that death penalty inmates in the United States, once convicted, are automatically afforded a right to appeal, there is no reason to believe that the appeal process is any more rigorous and less prone to failure than the original criminal trial. With this hypothesis, the percentage of death row inmates wrongfully convicted whose sentence would end up being upheld on appeal would be 4 percent times 4 percent, or 0.16 percent. This means that at a conservative estimate, for roughly every 1,000 monsters rightfully put to death, the state will have executed an innocent person. And althought the fact that innocent persons are sent to prison would not justify dismantling our whole criminal justice system, death is unique in that absolutely nothing can be done to grant any measure of redress to one wrongly subjected to it.

So the question becomes the following: Is it better to allow the 1,000 to go on living, while preserving the possibility of freedom for the one innocent person, or to execute all 1,001? I choose the former, because I agree with the Jewish sage Maimonides who said “it is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.” I choose the former, because if there is any chance that the state could err, it should not engage in acts that are irreversible. And because I choose the former, I believe that the time has come for my country to abolish the death penalty.

Philip Egger is a Weinberg graduate student. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].