New Challenges to the Death Penalty

Liberal Arguments against the Death Penalty

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The problem with the death penalty was on stark display last week in Arizona. No one disputes that Joseph R. Wood III committed a horrific crime when he killed his ex-girlfriend and her father in 1989. The problem is that Wood's execution, 25 years after the crime, went horribly wrong as he gasped, choked, snored, and in other ways resisted the lethal injection that was supposed to kill him quickly but dragged on for nearly two hours.

In an unprecedented move, Wood's attorneys even appealed to a Supreme Court justice during the execution, hoping for a federal order that would mandate that the prison to administer life-saving measures.  
 
Wood's extended execution has many criticizing the protocol Arizona used to execute him, especially whether it is right or wrong to use untested drug cocktails in executions.  His execution now joins those of Dennis McGuire in Ohio and Clayton D. Lockett in Oklahoma as questionable applications of the death penalty. In each of these cases, the condemned men appeared to experience prolonged suffering during their executions.  

A Brief History of the Death Penalty in America

For liberals the larger issue is not how inhumane the method of execution is, but whether or not the death penalty itself is cruel and unusual. To liberals, the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution is pretty clear.

It reads,

"Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."

What is not clear, however, is what "cruel and unusual" means. Throughout history, Americans and, more specifically, the Supreme Court, have gone back and forth on whether the death penalty is cruel.

The Supreme Court effectively found the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972 when it ruled in Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty was often too arbitrarily applied. Justice Potter Stewart said that the random way that states decided on the death penalty was comparable to the randomness of "being struck by lightning." But the Court seemingly reversed itself in 1976, and state-sponsored executions resumed.

What Do Liberals Believe?

To liberals, the death penalty is itself an affront to the principles of liberalism. These are the specific arguments liberals use against the death penalty, including a commitment to humanism and equality.

  • Liberals agree that one of the fundamental underpinnings of a just society is the right to due process, and the death penalty compromises that. Too many factors, such as race, economic status and access to adequate legal representation, prevent the judicial process from guaranteeing that each of the accused gets due process. Liberals agree with the American Civil Liberties Union, which states that  "The death penalty system in the US is applied in an unfair and unjust manner against people, largely dependent on how much money they have, the skill of their attorneys, race of the victim and where the crime took place.  People of color are far more likely to be executed than white people, especially if the victim is white."
  • Liberals believe that death is both a cruel and unusual punishment. Unlike conservatives, who follow the biblical "eye for an eye" doctrine, liberals argue that the death penalty is merely state-sponsored murder that violates the human right to life. They agree with the U.S. Catholic Conference that "we cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing."
  • Liberals argue that the death penalty does not reduce the prevalence of violent crimes. Again, according to the ACLU, "The vast majority of law enforcement professionals surveyed agree that capital punishment does not deter violent crime; a survey of police chiefs nationwide found they rank the death penalty lowest among ways to reduce violent crime...The FBI has found the states with the death penalty have the highest murder rates."

The recent death penalty executions have graphically illustrated all of these concerns.

Certainly heinous crimes must be met with firm punishment. Liberals do not question the need to punish those who commit such crimes, both in order to affirm that bad behavior has consequences but also to provide justice for victims of those crimes. Rather, liberals question whether or not the death penalty uphold American ideals, or violates them. To most liberals, state-sponsored executions are an example of a state that has embraced barbarism rather than humanism.