Crime

Radley Balko on Why Americans Support the Death Penalty

|

At The Huffington Post, former Reason staffer Radley Balko examines the death penalty's longstanding popularity with the American people:

There's still no political price to pay for defending executions, for carrying out questionable ones or, in the case of [Texas Gov. Rick] Perry, for stifling attempts to investigate whether an innocent person has been put to death. The states of California, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky recently even resorted to purchasing sodium thiopental on the black market to ensure they could continue carrying out lethal injections….

More than 270 people have been cleared by DNA testing in the last 30 years, a strong indication that our criminal justice system is more error-prone than much of the public likely believes. Most of the rest of the developed world has done away with capital punishment. And there's now strong evidence that at least one state executed an innocent man.
Why, after all of this, do more than six in 10 Americans still support the death penalty?

Read the full story here.

Advertisement

NEXT: Reason.tv: Prohibition Vogue-Why We're Still Talking About "The Noble Experiment"

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Most of the rest of the developed world has done away with capital punishment.

    Most of the rest of the developed world has given up on hard money. That doesn’t make it a good idea! Really, Mr. Balko? I’m disappointed in you. There are plenty of other good reasons to give up the death penalty, many of which you mentioned in the article. Why did you have to pull out this BS, as well?

    1. It’s because Balko is smarter than you’re giving him credit for and is very aware of who the audience he’s writing for is. Don’t lose sight of the fact that he now writes for HuffPo where the “every-developed-country-has-x-so-why-can’t-we” argument appears ad nauseam.

      1. That’s true. Hell, for all we know his editor added in that tidbit. Still, I was hoping Balko would be a bastion of rational thought over there. I hope he doesn’t continue to slip.

    2. I’m never convinced, personally, by the argument “the Europeans do it this way, so we should, too!”

      1. Especially since it’s a non sequitur, since all the European countries who abolished the death penalty did so in the face of polls showing the 6 in 10 or more supported it, and polls continue to show in most of the countries that such strong majorities support it.

        So one of the answers to the question is “Because the US is more willing to accept popular opinion on this issue instead of overriding it.”

        Even if you’re a death penalty opponent, you should realize that.

      2. It is true that once a country abolishes it, support starts to slowly wane. At the same time, support is higher in countries, like Japan, that have never abolished it.

        Status quo bias, of course.

      3. word. most, if not all of europe has passed laws to ban hate speech. doesn’t mean we should follow them

  2. Why, after all of this, do more than six in 10 Americans still support the death penalty?

    Because they thirst for blood.

    1. I have more of a hunger for blood.

    2. We are a very vampire-tolerant society. Lots of them got political asylum fleeing Eastern Europe, IIRC.

    3. That’s pretty much it. The United States has a relatively violent culture, and does a great deal to promote violence.

  3. Cuz we need to watch things die, from a distance?

  4. I have been converted thanks to reporters like Radley who point out what I should have known all along; prosecutors lie.

    1. Ditto for me.

      I also liked Penn Jilette’s perspective on the Bullshit! episode about it. It’s fine for murderers to be killed, but not something we want the state doing.

    2. And do you think they lie any less when the maximum penalty is a life sentence?

      There’s a lot less effort to correct erroneous death sentences than erroneous life sentences.

      1. Er, the other way around. There’s a lot less effort to correct erroneous life sentences than erroneous death sentences.

        1. That may be true, but if the death penalty were eliminated as an option, all those appeals, resources, etc. would naturally trickle down to the next most severe sentence, namely, life in prison.

          1. No, they wouldn’t. Because a significant portion of those resources are from people who oppose the death penalty per se more strongly than they oppose the innocent being punished. Eliminate all death penalties in favor of life imprisonment, and the resources of people who passionately hate the death penalty but don’t care as much about convictions of the innocent in general will no longer be used to exonerate anyone.

            The argument that someone who has been executed can’t be exonerated in time to give him back his life is powerful. But it’s quite plausible that abolishing the death penalty will actually increase the number of innocent people who die while incarcerated by the state.

            So, you have to ask yourself, how many extra innocent people rotting in prison for life is too high a price to pay to save one innocent man from a death sentence?

      2. Well, there is the argument that death is *so* much worse a punishment that it shouldn’t really be compared.

        Though if that’s your argument, then you should also have to consider the argument that indefinite detention in Gitmo (and waterboarding) is so much better than troops or drones killing suspected terrorists, and that if the possibility of detention and interrogation makes it less likely that suspects are killed instead of captured, that might be worth it too.

    3. So do most cops. But not me, never. Well, not never.

  5. I think you’d have a more favorable reaction to reducing death sentences if you kept open a way for extremely violent, obviously guilty criminals to obtain a quick, swift death. A lot of the support for the death penalty comes from the notion that really bad people need to pay a really bad price. Also.. think of the children.. or something.

  6. The accepted wisdom that if it could ever be proven that an innocent person was executed, support would drop, is just plain wrong. They would shrug, and say, “oh well, mistakes happen…it’s worth it.”

    Most people are more than willing to suffer a few broken eggs, esp. when those eggs are statisticly most likely to be yucky negroes from the inner city.

    1. Americans, when it comes to criminal justice, seem to have lost the ability to empathize. Maybe it’s because journalists act like cheerleaders for law enforcement, and critical thinking isn’t something people engage in when watching the local news. Or people just can’t wrap their heads around the idea that they, too, could be locked up for something they didn’t do by sloppy and negligent investigative work.

      1. I’m appalled looking back at my own lack of empathy in my more conservative days.

      2. ah yes, the journalists are cheerleaders for police canard. no matter how many times the lie is repeated, it never gets any less ridiculous.

        that aside, the rest of the post somewhat falls into the “if only they UNDERSTOOD what i understand” camp of argumentation.

        this is one reason why i am more of a sowellian libertarian. i believe that, largely, people’s opinions on stuff like this differs NOT because of ignorance, etc. but because of a different VISION. different premises and different weighting of competing interests lead to different conclusions. but the haughty “they are just dupes of the media (in this case the laughable “cheerleaders for LE” media). we see this argument a lot amongst ideologues of any stripe

        btw, here’s a hint.

        even given EXCELLENT (non-sloppy/negligent) police work, honest witnesses, etc. it is STILL possible for an entirely innocent person to be locked up. always has been and always will be. knowledge is imperfect and some people can be profoundly unlucky – wrong place, wrong time, look JUST like the actual perp, etc. etc.

        but of course YOU engage in critical thinking unlike those dumb DP supporting hordes.

        :l

        1. There seem to be plenty “if only they UNDERSTOOD what i understand” camps for everyone.

        2. Ah yes, the journalists are cheerleaders for police canard canard.

      3. ah yes, the journalists are cheerleaders for police canard. no matter how many times the lie is repeated, it never gets any less ridiculous.

        that aside, the rest of the post somewhat falls into the “if only they UNDERSTOOD what i understand” camp of argumentation.

        this is one reason why i am more of a sowellian libertarian. i believe that, largely, people’s opinions on stuff like this differs NOT because of ignorance, etc. but because of a different VISION. different premises and different weighting of competing interests lead to different conclusions. but the haughty “they are just dupes of the media (in this case the laughable “cheerleaders for LE” media). we see this argument a lot amongst ideologues of any stripe

        btw, here’s a hint.

        even given EXCELLENT (non-sloppy/negligent) police work, honest witnesses, etc. it is STILL possible for an entirely innocent person to be locked up. always has been and always will be. knowledge is imperfect and some people can be profoundly unlucky – wrong place, wrong time, look JUST like the actual perp, etc. etc.

        but of course YOU engage in critical thinking unlike those dumb DP supporting hordes.

        :l

        1. But we Cops would never arrest someone unless their guilty

          1. again, this stupid idea being attributed to me.

            i have zero doubt that innocent people get arrested (iow didn’t actually do it) all the fucking time.

            zero doubt.

            far less a %age of people who are actually CHARGED and TRIED are innocent, and an even far smaller amount are convicted who are actually innocent (but still substantial) and even less in DP cases (but they are still out there)

            even some of the most famous defense attorneys e.g. dershowitz readily admit the vast majority of clients who go to trial are in fact guilty.

            in the case of the war on DV, we are mandated to make arrests in cases we would NOT arrest if it wasn’t DV related.

            imo, a much higher %age of DV related arrests, therefore, are of innocents

  7. So, if you’re innocent, which is worse? Getting sentenced to death, with the resulting massive effort by opponents of the death penalty to exonerate you, or being sentenced to life in prison and languishing there until you die?

    1. “So, if you’re innocent, which is worse? Getting sentenced to death, with the resulting massive effort by opponents of the death penalty to exonerate you, or being sentenced to life in prison and languishing there until you die?”

      If you were in that position, your question would be valid.
      As a hypothetical, it’s irrelevant.

  8. I must say I’m conflicted on the CT housebreaker case. Those guys did it and deserve to die in a fire. Hopefully I’m wrong and hell exists.

  9. Even after the Willingham debacle, Texas officials are arguing in court and in public statements that knowable facts that could prove a defendant’s innocence — or confirm his guilt — should remain unknown. That isn’t a quest for truth. It’s a reckless effort to protect a conviction.

    Prosecutors are politicians, and like any politician they need votes. Their job, as they see it, is not the pursuit of justice but resume-padding convictions. Telling voters you almost killed an innocent at the expense of finding the true guilty is not acceptable. (And, of course, judges are simply robed attorneys.)

  10. if one accepts the death penalty as currently dealt out in the US, one must accept

    1) innocent person’s (iow he didn’t actually do it) may be put to death, occasionally. and in fact, there is substantial evidence several have

    2) our system requires beyond a reasonable doubt, not absolute certainty. there is at least an argument that only OBVIOUSLY guilty beyond practically any doubt whatsoever type murderers etc. (e.g. loughner) should be the only ones subject to an IRREVERSIBLE penalty

    3) the general deterrence of the DP is debatable, but the specific deterrence is not

    4) having the death penalty on the table does have other benefits, such as a bargaining chip – like in the gary ridgway case (serial murderer who agreed to lead cops to multiple yet unfound dead bodies so more victim’s familes could get closure). the disadvantage of course is that if ANYBODY “deserved” the DP, it was ridgway

    1. 1) innocent person’s (iow he didn’t actually do it) may be put to death, occasionally. and in fact, there is substantial evidence several have

      That is why the DP is unacceptable. Period. Full Stop.

      Putting someone in jail for life who is innocent is a travesty, but it is reversible to a degree. Appeals and later evidence have exonerated thousands of individuals from false convictions. But if you put someone to death there is no recourse.

      1. If we are careful and choosy with the DP, and fix the US justice system, then we can execute with confidence in the rightness of our actions. The error will be so low as to be negligible. McVeigh’s and the like MUST be put to death. Nothing else is sufficient.

        1. “The error will be so low as to be negligible.”

          Except to those who are included in the error. Sorry, you just admitted why there should be no DP.
          Offing someone because one guy is better at bullshitting 12 random folks than the other guy really isn’t a power governments should have.

        2. The error will be so low as to be negligible.

          God I hope one of those “negligibles” is you. Dumb ass. Consider you life sacrificed for the greater amount of happiness for the greater amount of people.

        3. Speaking of McVeigh, when did we put the DEA agents who wrongfully attacked the Branch Davidians to death? And of course, the FBI agents who followed that up? Isn’t that clearly a case of Terrorism under color of law?

  11. Well, I support the DP because all that bad stuff mentioned by Balko has nothing to do with the DP. It’s a non-sequitir.

  12. I think most Americans approve of killing criminals. They support the death penalty because,outside of justifiable homicide, it is the only legally approved way to do it.

  13. Because decaying Liberal Europe does NOT. Seems like a valid enough justification right THERE!

  14. Sorry, but living in a society where “No matter what you do, no matter how many people you kill your life will be spared” is, well, a recipe for disaster.

    But of course, if someone sneaks into your house in the middle of the night, why, it’s perfectly okay to kill them. Right?

    Maybe not kill them on purpose, but accidents do happen.

    I mean, I’m sure you won’t jump to any conclusions, like dumb juries often do. That gun in that shadowy figure’s hand could just be a cool cigarette lighter.

    Did the intruder just say “I’m gonna kill everyone here?” or perhaps he was humming the Macarena. Either way, I’m sure you’ll agree that firing off a few rounds is certainly in your right. I certainly think it is.

    So I guess it’s okay for private citizens to kill, even BEFORE a crime has been committed.

    But it is always wrong for the state to kill, even AFTER a crime is committed.

    But anyway, you tell me if I’m right or wrong.

    Come a show of hands here. Who’d shed a tear for a cop who was killed after entering into the wrong (literally) apartment on a bust?

    1. your life will be spared

      I don’t to what degree I would call being in solitary confinement “a life.”

      So I guess it’s okay for private citizens to kill, even BEFORE a crime has been committed.

      Look, if someone is in my house with out my permission, they have already committed a crime, dumbass. At a minimum it is trespassing and if they have a weapon, it is armed burglary.

      If you have some sort of blood lust, join the army. They can put you in a position to where you can kill people legally.

  15. We like the death penalty because we are a violent, blood thirsty people. Sex freak us the fucks out, but OMG violence, we will pay to watch that shit. The only industry we are good at is bombing people and generally having the worst case of “my-cock-is-bigger-than-your-cock.”

    We got rid of the Taliban in Afghanistan in what, 8 weeks? But that didn’t satiate our post 9-11 blood lust. Not buy a long shot. So we went into Iraq where some of us still had a hard on because of what we didn’t finish in the Persian Gulf War.

    If two people get into a fight out in the middle of the street, they might get arrested for disorderly conduct. Well, sunshine, good ole American Marketing took care of that problem. You see, just put a fence around them, charge people $50.00 and call it Ultimate Fighting. Problem solved. Here is your Spike TV contract.

    Fuck even our cartoons have violence. Name a Disney cartoon that doesn’t have attempted murder as a plot line.

    1. That’s it in a nutshell.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.