There has been a recent trend within the criminal justice system that has led to a decrease in the use of the death penalty around the country. The public has apparently noticed. The local ABC affiliate, KSPR, did a story this week about the decline in the use of the death penalty and interviewed criminal defense attorney Adam Woody to offer an opinion on the matter.
Realistically, it comes down to a couple of simple points: better DNA technology leading to the exoneration of many death row inmates, and better social science research.
In 1972, the United States Supreme Court determined that the death penalty was Unconstitutional. However, in 1976 the death penalty was reinstated. Some states have capital punishment as an option, and some do not. Since the death penalty was resumed by some states, there have been 87 death row inmates who have been freed because they have been proven innocent due to better DNA technology. That is roughly one person exonerated through the use of better DNA technology for every 7 people put to death through capital punishment. Those numbers are certainly alarming when we are literally talking about the government potentially killing innocent people. Sadly, those numbers don’t reflect the number of innocent people who have actually been put to death over the years, only the ones freed before we make the ultimate mistake.
Additionally, social science research shows no correlation whatsoever between a decrease in violent crime rates in those states that have the death penalty versus the states that do not. In fact, some research shows the opposite correlation, demonstrating that violent crime/murder rates may actually be lower in those states that do not have the death penalty as a punishment. Similar studies comparing countries who have the death penalty versus those that do not show no correlation demonstrating that the death penalty is an effective deterrent to violent behavior.
Obviously, we understand that there are pros and cons for and against the death penalty, and one argument that death penalty proponents advocate is retribution, an eye for an eye type of approach. However, retribution is essentially a fancy legal word for revenge. Our system of justice has never been, and will never be, based on the principle of revenge. No other type of case in the world is punished based on an eye for an eye approach, so why would homicide cases be any different? The goal is to prevent this type of a crime in the future, not to get revenge. It is difficult to convince a society to not engage in certain behavior by our government engaging in that very behavior.
The concerns about the possibility of innocent people being put to death, as well as no documented correlation between capital punishment and deterrence has led prosecutors to slow down in seeking the ultimate punishment, as well as a decrease in judges and juries imposing it. That trend is likely to only gain steam.