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  • Writer's pictureCourtney Heard

The Ultimate Punishment Part 2: The Death Penalty As A Deterrent

This is part 2 in a series that examines the death penalty in the United States of America. You can read the other posts here:

Picture a young David Berkowitz, perhaps 14 or 15 years old. Not yet nicknamed The Son of Sam. He’s just come in from trick or treating on Halloween night. The spooky sights and sounds have lit a fire in his veins, and a familiar, repetitive voice from deep within him becomes louder. It tells him over and over that his calling, his life’s work, his claim to fame, is to be one of the most notorious serial killers in all of history. The idea makes young David queasy so he decides to visualize the risks and rewards of such a career.

In front of him, a box of M&Ms rests atop a heap of bite-sized candy. He tears into them and dumps the coloured chocolates into his hand. He decides he’ll toss a red one back in the box for each con, and a green one in for each pro. When he’s done, he’ll count the pros and cons and decide whether becoming a serial killer is a good idea.

Picking a red M&M out of his hand and tossing it straight up, he booms, “Con: It’s disturbing and inhumane”. Snapping the airborne red candy from its flight, he tosses it in the box.

He grabs a green one this time. “Pro: It will make me feel powerful!” and into the box it goes.

Red again, “Con: I may have trouble living with myself after taking a life”. Into the box.

With a twinkle in his eye, he pulls a green M&M from his hand. He pauses and lets out a sigh. Quietly he declares, “Pro: There is no death penalty in New York.” David knows this is the clincher. He throws the pros and cons in his mouth, knowing he needs no further convincing. All he needs now is a victim…

It’s a ridiculous scene, on the verge of being absolutely absurd. And yet, when people say that the death penalty is a deterrent, this is more or less how it would be manifested in real life.

When people assert that capital punishment is a deterrent, most of the time it’s just something they’ve said a million times before, or heard being said a million times before, and are repeating without even really thinking about it. When you stop, though, and really ask yourself, “what would the death penalty being a deterrent actually look like in reality?” it’s pretty laughable.

What is a deterrent?

deter |diˈtər| verb (deters, deterring, deterred) [ with obj. ] discourage (someone) from doing something, typically by instilling doubt or fear of the consequences: “only a health problem would deter him from seeking re-election.”

If you assert that the death penalty is a deterrent, you’re basically saying that there are men and women living in death penalty states right now who, if it weren’t for that one punishment still being viable, would be killers. You’re also saying that a man or a woman who wants to kill someone actually pauses before committing the crime to asses the severity of the punishment. You are assuming they have a sane, emotionally stable mind that is capable of weighing the consequences. You also assume they are clear-minded enough to think its possible that they will get caught.

We’ve all committed a crime at one point or another in our lifetime. Either smoking a joint, or drinking underage, or petty theft maybe. Think back to one of those times. Let’s just pretend, for the sake of argument, you were in possession of illegal drugs. Before you slipped those illicit drugs in your backpack, did you think to yourself, “Well, if I get caught and it’s my first offense, it’s just a fine. No big deal.” Or, more realistically, did it just not cross your mind at all that you would get caught? I know for me, it was the latter. I never considered the consequences of being caught with pot, because I never thought I would get caught. Even after I got caught once!

Most criminals act without fully thinking things through. They don’t consider what will happen if they get caught, because getting caught is not something they’re thinking about. Most of them think they will get away with it, and all crime across the globe considered, most criminals do.

So, why won’t you kill?

For me, the reason why I am not a killer is that I could never cause physical harm to another human being. Certainly not harm that is so permanent and irreversible. I also would have a great deal of difficulty living with myself afterwards, knowing I took a life, and created grieving loved ones whose lives would never be the same again. I would devastate my family, my friends. I would likely experience some form of violent sick in the moment, and experience severe PTSD until the day I die. I am not a killer, because I do not think I am capable of taking a life… of a human, of an animal… heck, I even feel awful killing house spiders.

Your answer is likely similar. I’d seriously doubt that there is anyone out there reading this, who answered, “Why won’t you kill?” with, “because my state has the death penalty.”

It’s just as asinine as saying the Bible actually works as a method to make people act in a moral way. No. It doesn’t.

Of course, me saying so isn’t going to convince you skeptics, so let’s take a look at some statistics, shall we?

Liechtenstein has the lowest homicide rate on Earth. It’s so low, it doesn’t even register as a number. The last murder that occurred in Liechtenstein was around 1997. The country has not had the death penalty since the 1700s.

Monaco is number two, with only one murder in recent times. Monaco abolished the death penalty in the 60s. Iceland has about one murder per year, and the last execution took place in 1830. French Polynesia, also with fewer than 1 murder per year, is governed by France, who outlawed the death penalty in the 80s.

It goes on and on. Meanwhile, according to the United Nations,

“The five countries in the world with the highest homicide rates that do not impose the death penalty have nearly half the number of murders per 100 000 people than the five countries with the highest homicides rates which do impose the death penalty (United Nations Development program)”.

On a smaller scale, in the United States of America, states without the death penalty consistently have lower homicide rates than states with it. A visualization from the Death Penalty Information Center,

In fact, one of the few times in history that New Jersey saw a significant drop in homicides two years in a row, were during the two years following their abolition of the death penalty. Murder rates dropped by 11% in 2007, the year following a moratorium on the death penalty. They fell even more in 2008 and then in 2009, it dropped by a whopping 24%.

Since Canada abolished the death penalty in 1976, our homicide rate has steadily dropped. One of the highest homicide rates in all of the USA is in Detroit, right across a bit of water from Windsor, Ontario. These are both industrial cities full of struggling blue-collar workers facing cutbacks and layoffs. They have the same climate, the same rampant poverty, the same struggles. In Windsor, in 2016, 3 homicides were reported. In Detroit, 300 homicides were reported. Detroit has 3 times the population of Windsor and 100 times the homicide rate.

A study was done in New York in the 1980s by William Bowers and Glenn Pierce, and it found that homicide rates increased during the month after a high profile execution.

In a 2009 study of leading criminologists, 88% said they do not believe the death penalty is a deterrent. Some have even asserted based on collected data, that the use of the death penalty can actually cause an increase in homicide rates. The thinking here is that the state is more or less setting an example, publicly illustrating how little it values human life.

The facts are there, the data is available… the death penalty simply does not deter. And when you think about it – truly think about it – it really doesn’t make any more sense than Biblical morality. People are not inherently evil but remain good because of their holy book, just like there are not would-be killers lurking in death penalty states who’d have been on a killing spree if it weren’t for Old Sparky.

My answer to why I won’t kill is probably similar to your answer, and it has everything to do with innate empathy and compassion, and very little to do with how a judge would sentence me. In order for the death penalty to be a deterrent, you would have to accept that a man or woman who discards this empathy, this compassion, this humanness, still has the wherewithal and clarity of thought to decide that a) they could get caught and b) being put to death is a worse consequence than becoming a monster, discarding your humanity, and living with what you’ve done.

In my anti-death penalty activism, I found a pen pal on death row. Dennis. He’s still there on death row in California. He’s been down since the 80s, hasn’t had his execution scheduled yet. In my correspondence with him, he, a very religious man, once told me,

“If you’re willing to take that step; to take a life, you’ve already let go of your rational mind. You’ve set aside your own humanity, you’ve discarded your ability to see things clearly. For the sake of your trial, you may still be technically sane, sure. However, any man who is willing to take an innocent life, is not capable of assessing the consequences. Don’t you see? That is the true consequence. Life in prison, lethal injection, solitary confinement. That ain’t shit. Giving up your soul? Throwing away your humanity? That’s the true consequence. I will always and forever be a monster. God help me.”

In the book, The Guardians: The True Story of The Saints of Dannemora, the co-author Izzy Zimmerman is an innocent man doing life in prison. He spent 24 years locked up for a crime he did not commit. While in prison, Izzy was a feared man, both by prisoners and C.O.s alike. Why? Because he wanted to die. He wanted so badly to die that he didn’t care what kind of trouble he got into; he didn’t care about being thrown in the hole or being beaten half to death. Life in prison was far worse than the escape of death to Izzy and all the other lifers he knew.

“They couldn’t understand. To them, death was the most horrible thing that could happen to a person. “But,” Peewee muttered to himself, “Everybody is going to die. Nobody beats death. These ‘Guardians’ don’t really know what it is to do twenty-five or thirty years, forty-five or fifty years in the can until you die.” from The Guardians; The True Story of the Saints of Dannemora as told to the authors by Izzy Zimmerman.

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This is part 2 in a series that examines the death penalty in the United States of America. You can read the other posts here:

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