A divided country greeted the Trump administration’s decision last week to revive federal executions. The five death row inmates now slated to receive an injection of pentobarbital, an acutely toxic barbiturate, in December will be the first men put to death on federal charges since 2003.
A slight majority favors the death penalty in the United States. Broken down by party, Republicans largely favor it and Democrats largely oppose it. Overall, the rate of people being put to death is declining; 21 states and the District of Columbia no longer have the death penalty, due to concerns about the punishment’s cost, how it’s meted out and to whom, and the difficulty of procuring appropriate medications for lethal injections.
The five men slated for federal execution committed heinous crimes, all involving the killing of children. For example, Daniel Lewis Lee is a white supremacist who was convicted of killing a family of three. Alfred Bourgeois was found to have tortured and sexually molested his 2-year-old daughter before beating her to death.
These men deserve to be punished, and it is understandable that people want to see torturers and killers punished in a manner that might serve as a meaningful deterrent — though countless studies have found the death penalty has no deterrent effect. And, of course, revenge has a kind of addictive buzz to it.
But the president’s attorney general, William Barr, said nothing about an eye for an eye when he announced the resumption of the death penalty. “The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” he said in a press release.
If the death penalty is another case of American exceptionalism — executions are banned in most democracies — we don’t consider that a virtue. We are members of a small club of killer nations that includes such notables as China, North Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia. That’s not where we belong.
DNA testing is increasingly proving that murder convictions are often wrong. And despite our best efforts, we make mistakes in the administration of justice. So why not avoid the risk of uncorrectable mistakes by avoiding capital punishment altogether?
Moreover, the myths of the death penalty have largely been debunked. Executions don’t provide closure to the victims and their families, and capital punishment does little to deter crime. Instead, executions throw red meat to an angry mob and do little more than satisfy the blood lust of those seeking “the ultimate penalty.”
Life on death row is bleak, and is a very unattractive existence. Being forced to suffer that punishment is significant — and it also costs taxpayers a lot less. While that punishment doesn’t make up for the tragic losses suffered by the victims’ families and loved ones, the taking of more lives, we have learned, accomplishes almost nothing. JT