What Are the Reasons for Opposing the Death Penalty?

Jacob Queen

The death penalty tends to be a very hotly-contested subject, and people on both sides have many arguments for or against the practice. The reasons given for opposing the death penalty range from humanitarian concerns to issues of practicality. Some people believe that the death penalty can be used in a biased fashion, while other worry greatly about the possibility of innocent people being put to death. There are also people who believe the death penalty might be ineffective as a way of lowering crime rates and others who feel it makes the legal system inefficient.

San Quentin State Prison, which houses the only death row for male inmates in California.
San Quentin State Prison, which houses the only death row for male inmates in California.

Some countries and locations have death penalty laws, while others do not, and the arguments often center around the crime rates in different areas with opposing policies. Many studies have shown that murders are sometimes higher in areas where death penalty prosecutions are most common. Some experts have theorized that this is because people in these regions are more afraid of being caught and, therefore, more likely to murder witnesses.

An electric chair in the former Louisiana State execution chamber.
An electric chair in the former Louisiana State execution chamber.

One of the primary reasons often given for opposing the death penalty is the possibility of a false conviction leading to the punishment of an innocent person. There have been cases over the years where evidence was disproved after an execution and many cases where conclusive evidence saved someone from execution at the last moment. Those who use this argument as a reason for being in opposition to the death penalty believe that the chance for a mistake is too great, regardless of the relative effectiveness of the death penalty.

Another reason some people give for opposing the death penalty is the cost. Most areas with death penalty laws also allow for many more appeals in capital punishment cases. Usually, criminals convicted in death penalty trials will gradually use up those appeals over years and years, and it can be very expensive for the state to continually go through the prosecutions. According to some experts, the amount of money spent on these trials will usually exceed the cost required to keep a person in prison for life.

One of the most passionately-expressed reasons for opposing the death penalty is the concern that it may be biased. Even though most agree that modern laws are usually written without an intentional racial or financial bias, people with more money and social status are often able to get a better defense because they can afford more accomplished lawyers and pay for more impressive expert witnesses. Some people also believe that the racial composition of a jury can often give minorities a huge disadvantage. There are statistics regarding death penalty convictions which are more racially lopsided than some would think, and this is often used as strong evidence for opposing the death penalty.

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Discussion Comments


@Lostnfound: As I understand it (and this may have changed since I researched it), it has to do with the prevalence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Utah.

Their theology states that Christ's death on the cross only covered Adam's sin, and that anyone who kills someone else can only be forgiven by what they call "blood atonement" -- that is, their actual blood must be shed to receive forgiveness. Just dying won't do it. It has to include shedding blood. The firing squad is the only method that sheds blood. So if an LDS member wants to repent of murder, get in good standing with the church and go to Heaven when he or she dies, then a firing squad is the way to do it.

It's not a widely known fact, but an LDS member who used to live in Utah told me about this.


@Wisedly33: Now you've got me curious. Why does Utah also offer a firing squad as an option for execution?


It's probably only been in the past hundred years or so that people have really become concerned about the fairness of the death penalty. This may be because so much has come out about how many innocent people have been put to death.

Once the controversy started, then the methods of execution went on trial too, and I think nearly every state in the USA that has the death penalty now uses lethal injection. Utah offers the choice of a firing squad or injection, but that's a whole other discussion.

It is a sad fact that most of the people on death row are poor, minorities, or both. Occasionally, that's not the case -- re: Ted Bundy -- but frequently, it is.

I have reservations about the death penalty, but at the same time, what kind of punishment should be meted out for the very worst crimes? It's an argument that has no easy answer.

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