Death Penalty

No, Donald Trump: Not Even Mass Shootings and Hate Crimes Justify the Death Penalty

Politicians never hesitate to exploit a tragedy.


When President Donald Trump addressed last weekend's devastating mass shootings, he said he was "directing the Department of Justice to propose legislation, ensuring that those who commit hate crimes and mass murders have the death penalty, and that this capital punishment be delivered quickly, decisively, and without years of needless delay." This comes on the heels of U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr's recent announcement that the Department of Justice would resume capital punishment for the first time in nearly 20 years.

The nation's feelings are still raw from the tragic violence. But it would be a mistake to allow any politician to use these deaths to justify an expansion of the death penalty.

As Reason's J.D. Tuccille noted last week, a 2014 study estimated that 4.1 percent of death-row inmates were innocent of their accused crimes—and that was the conservative estimate. By placing even more people under consideration for capital punishment, there runs a risk of even more innocent people being killed.

Trump's call for an expedited execution process has problems too. Not only should the wrongfully convicted have a right to appeal, but the slower-paced process already has a slew of institutional problems that could only be exacerbated with less review.

Reason has covered several questionable capital punishment cases in the past year alone, which have involved possible religious and racial discrimination, executions for criminals who did not actually pull the trigger, and a death-row inmate who was tried six times for the same crime in a case filled with prosecutorial infractions. In 2017, the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission recommended that the state extend a moratorium on executions after finding that it could not ensure protections against executing the innocent.

Of all the reasons to oppose capital punishment, from its high cost to its failure to deter crimes, the most important is the finality of death. An expedited death penalty reduces the chances that an innocent prisoner will be exonerated in time. For some exonerated prisoners, such as Lamar Johnson, it was more than 20 years before the reprieve came. And that was only after years of advocacy by private volunteers.

Trump ended his appeal by saying, "If we are able to pass great legislation after all of these years, we will ensure that those who were attacked will not die in vain." If he truly wants to honor the memory of this weekend's dead, he will not expand a broken institution that would create even innocent victims.