• David Baldridge

The Death Penalty in Modern America


On Friday, May 15, a jury of 14 men and women sentenced Dzhokar Tsarnaev, one of the two perpetrators of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, to die for his crimes.

The question of executing criminals is a controversial one that often stirs up strong emotions. The United States has continued to use the death penalty, but most other Western countries, including Canada, have abandoned its use.

There are many reasons to oppose the death penalty. There is a risk of executing an innocent person, but even in cases where there is no doubt as to the guilt of the prisoner, there are humanitarian considerations arising from lethal injections, which is the main method presently employed in the United States.

In April 2014, Clayton Lockett, an Oklahoma inmate, died from a heart attack 43 minutes after the lethal injection began. For him, that was 43 minutes of unimaginable suffering.

The United States is unique in that its judges are elected. Studies have shown that because of this, judges tend to apply harsher penalties when they are nearing re-election in order to appear tough on crime and secure votes.

Another argument against the death penalty is, to quote a California judge, “life in prison with the remote possibility of death”. Many prisoners sentenced to death are actually never executed and die of natural causes or commit suicide (the suicide rate among condemned prisoners is six times higher than the general population). For example, the state of California has 743 people on death row, awaiting execution, but that state has only performed 13 executions since 1976.

There have been strides made towards abolition. For minors, those with developmental disorders, and for crimes other than murder, capital punishment has been abolished.

Despite all this, it is important to understand that there are many reasons to argue for the death penalty. The suffering experienced by the families of murder victims is also beyond the comprehension of many people, and if they ask that the person who took away their loved one and caused them immeasurable pain be held responsible for their crimes and put to death, it would be difficult to look them in the eye and deny them.

The death penalty is a difficult question in the United States, but in Canada, although it has been abolished, surveys have shown that more than 60% of Canadians would support its use.