The Battle Over Execution


ecember 2005 marked a milestone—1,000
executions since the Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to
restart after a brief recess in the 1970s. While news stories narrowly
focus on individuals to be executed, such as Nobel Peace Prize nominee
“Tookie” Williams and Ruben Cantu in Texas, the country
appears unable to fully debate the merits of the death penalty.
Consider that the U.S. position on the death penalty parallels those
in China, Iran, and Vietnam, all of which executed more people than
the U.S. did in 2004. These 4 countries accounted for 97 percent
of executions in 2004—China leads with 3,400. Other countries
that execute criminals include Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Kuwait, Bangladesh,
Egypt, Singapore, and Yemen—some of the most repressive regimes
in the world. 

Some 120 countries have abolished the death penalty legally or in
practice. Five countries—Bhutan, Greece, Samoa, Senegal, and
Turkey—abolished the death penalty last year. As Kate Allen,
Amnesty International’s UK director, says, “The death
penalty is cruel and unnecessary, does not deter crime, and runs
the risk of killing the wrongly convicted. It is time to consign
the death penalty to the dustbin of history.” 

to the U.S. Department of Justice, 2,135,901 prisoners are currently
being held in federal, state, or local prisons in the U.S.—twice
as many as in Russia and about 25 percent more than in China. This
number represents 486 prison inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents,
an increase from 411 in 1995. Although crime rates are decreasing,
courts continue to put more people—at an ever-increasing cost—in

Attitudes are slowly changing. At its peak, 80 percent of people
in the U.S. supported the death penalty. Today this has eroded to
64 percent, still a majority. The number put to death declined this
year to the lowest level since 1996 and 12 states have abolished
the death penalty, although it continues to be popular in the South. 

From 1993 to 2003 almost 88 percent of executions took place in
southern states. Since 1976, Texas executed more than one-third
of those put to death. Harris County, Texas is the death penalty
capital of the country, a place where Rice University sociologist
Stephen L. Klineberg found that more defendants are sentenced to
die than anywhere else in the nation. 

Support for the death penalty continues to come from the GOP and
the White House. On December 2 President Bush reiterated his strong
support for the death penalty. Bush, while governor of Texas, oversaw
152 executions, more than any governor in recent history. With the
help of his legal counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush reviewed 57
death penalties and commuted only one. He okay- ed the execution
of a 33-year-old mentally retarded prisoner with the communication
skills of a 7-year- old and the first woman executed in Texas in
more than 100 years. Publicly, Bush said he sought “guidance
through prayer”—that must have been before becoming a
“compassionate conservative.” 

According to a new book,

Death By Design: Capital Punishment
as a Social Psychological System

by Craig Haney, professor of
psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, there is
a systematic set of procedures designed to “distance and disengage”
decision makers from the responsibility of the death penalty. By
allowing prosecuting attorneys to exclude anyone who wouldn’t
vote for death, the courts promote capital punishment. During the
required sentencing phase, most juries don’t understand or
respond to aggravating or mitigating circumstances and often little
or no information is presented about the psychological or social
circumstances that led to the crime. Innumerable cases exist where
mentally retarded, mistreated, or brutalized defendants are sentenced
to death without the jury learning about their pasts. 

Haney analyzes the formation of public attitudes toward criminals
and the death penalty. Of course, political campaigns play a large
role in any media coverage. Crime and the fear of crime are a major
focus of the news. Haney points to the covers of





U.S. News,

with titles like, “How Kids
are Robbed of their Child- hood,” “Lock’em up and
Throw Away the Key: Outrage over Crime has America Talking Tough,”
and “The Truth About Violent Crime: What You Really Have to

shows are a major focus of TV programming. John Sloop, in

Cultural Prison

, reports that there’s “a growing tendency
to show prisoners as irrational, predatory, dangerous, and beyond
reform.” Media sources have replaced scientific studies in
forming public attitudes and, in the process, helped create popular
myths about the death penalty. 

Haney explains that many people believe capital punishment is necessary
for public safety, without understanding how the system actually
operates. “People believe the death penalty deters murder,
yet there is no reliable evidence that it does,” said Haney.
“Many believe people sentenced to life in prison without possibility
of parole eventually will get out, although that does not happen.” 

Indeed, deterrence, the most often stated argument for the death
penalty, is highly questionable. According to an FBI Preliminary
Uniform Crime Report, the murder rate in the South increased by
2.1 percent in 2002 while the South has accounted for 82 percent
of all executions since 1976. In Texas a team of researchers examined
executions between 1984 and 1997. Researchers concluded that the
number of executions was unrelated to murder rates in general and
that the number of executions was also unrelated to felony rates. 

Another argument, based on purely economic issues, is the “I
don’t want to pay for their oatmeal” position towards
those on death row. There is no evidence to back up this argument
either. A “New Jersey Policy Perspectives” report, commissioned
by New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, found that
convicting a killer and putting him or her to death costs about
four times more than imprisoning him for life without parole. An
Illinois State University study estimated that the death penalty
process has cost New Jersey taxpayers $253 million since 1983. Studies
by the Death Penalty Information Center found that the cost of capital
trials far exceeds the cost of other types of trials. 

Of course there’s an argument that those sentenced to death
should only get one appeal, but this perspective overlooks the 172
exonerations of innocent people—including 14 people who were
at one time sentenced to death—that the Innocence Project has

Today, a number of powerful political forces are looking to speed
up the trial and execution of prisoners. Congress is considering
bills that would decrease appeals to federal courts in death penalty
cases. How these efforts will fare is undetermined. 

Currently, 1,000 religious leaders—including the U.S. Conference
of Catholic Bishops and the United Methodist Church—are calling
for an end to the death penalty. As U.S. citizens consider the facts
involved in the death sentence, they may change their minds and
end a practice supported by only a small number of repressive nations.

Monkerud is an Aptos, California-based writer who follows cultural,
social, and political issues.