The death penalty may be constitutional, but is it justified?
The United States Supreme Court has refused to overturn the exec
utionof a Virginia woman who conspired with two accomplices to murder her husband and stepson. The legal debate that has emerged around the case concentrates mostly on whether the woman, who is borderline mentally disabled, deserves a harsher sentence than her accomplices, who each received life sentences.
But there is a broader issue at stake here. Recall the justifications for punishment – incapacitation, retribution, rehabilitation, and deterrence. The death penalty does incapacitate criminals – terminally – but so does a secure prison. It is certainly an expression of society’s disgust and vengeance (retribution).
But does it deter? Deterrence depends in part on the probability and severity of punishment. The death penalty is so seldom exercised in the United States that the case for its deterrence effect is a questionable one.
Perhaps the deterrence effect would be more meaningful if people were executed more often. But there is a very dark undertone to this suggestion: the justice system is by no means infallible, and entrusting
matters of life or death to it does carry real risks.
And even if we sincerely believe that there are monsters among us that don’t belong among the living, we must seriously consider whether the danger of wrongfully executing the innocent is outweighed by the benefit of ensuring the guilty get their just deserts. The cost of retribution and deterrence may not be worth the benefit.
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