Answering the hard questions: Myth or fact?

Myth: The death penalty deters crime.

Fact: Studies have repeatedly shown that the death penalty does not deter violent crime any more than other punishments such as life imprisonment. Eighty-eight percent of the country’s top criminologists do not believe the death penalty acts as a deterrent to homicide (Radelet and Lacock, 2009).

Myth: Race has nothing to do with capital punishment.

Fact: The death penalty is used primarily to punish those who kill Euro-Americans. Whites make up roughly half of murder victims nationally, but over 80% of death row inmates are there for the murder of a white victim. A defendant accused of murdering a white victim is more than 3 times as likely to face the death penalty as a defendant accused of the murder of a person of color (David Baldus).

Myth: The death penalty doesn’t make mistakes.

Fact: During the modern execution era (1973-present) over 130 people have been exonerated from death row after evidence of their innocence came to light. This is roughly 1 exoneration for every 9 executions.

Additionally, strong evidence has been unearthed demonstrating that innocent men may have been executed in several states (“Innocent and Executed,” NCADP).

Myth: Public opinion supports the death penalty.

Fact: The May 2006 Gallup poll found support for the death penalty was 65% (down from 80% in 1994).

The same poll found that, when respondents were given the choice of life without parole as an alternative sentencing option, more chose life without parole (48%) than the death penalty (47%). A poll conducted by the American Bar Association in Tennessee in 2007 shows 66% of Tennesseans support a moratorium on the death penalty in order for the system’s problems to be addressed.

Myth: Executions are cheaper than life imprisonment.

Fact: It costs far more to operate a system that utilizes the death penalty rather than life without parole as its maximum punishment. A study in New Jersey found that $253 million had been spent on the capital punishment system above and beyond the costs of life without parole from 1983 through 2005. The majority of the costs of the death penalty system occur at the initial trial, which must be separated into two stages and requires far more hours of work from lawyers, expert witnesses, and special investigators.

Myth: The Bible supports the death penalty.

Fact: Although isolated passages of the Bible have been invoked in support of the death penalty, most religious groups in the United States regard executions as immoral. Literal interpretations of selected passages from the Bible used to defend capital punishment corrupt the compassionate spirit of Judaism and Christianity — a spirit which urges humane and effective ways of dealing with crime and violence.

If we take the Bible literally, we are also obligated to impose the death penalty in cases of adultery (Lev. 20:10), blasphemy (Lev. 24:15), working on the Sabbath (Ex. 35:2), refusing to obey a priest or judge (Deut. 17:12), disobedient children (Deut. 21:18), fornication (Deut. 22:23), and 16 other offenses.

Myth: The death penalty is fair.

Fact: Only one out of every 100 convicted murderers is sentenced to death. Those perpetrators sentenced to death are not those whose crimes were the “worst of the worse.” Instead, they are disproportionately the poor, people of color, those with mental illness, and those whose victims are white. More than 90% of those on death row were financially unable to hire attorneys to represent them at trial.

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