Facts about the death penalty

5 Myths About the Death Penalty

Much of the remaining support for the death penalty is based on faulty information. Here are 5 of the top myths surrounding this costly, failed system.

Myth 1: A death sentence costs less than a life sentence

It seems like common sense that it’s cheaper to execute someone than to house, feed and take care of them for the rest of their natural life. But there are a lot of unavoidable costs that make a death sentence far more expensive than a sentence of life without parole.

Most of these costs result from the unique status of the death penalty within the US justice system. Because it’s the only truly irreversible form of punishment, the Constitution requires a long and complex judicial process for capital cases, including several levels of mandatory review after a death sentence is issued. The appeals process takes decades to complete.

Studies of the California death penalty system, the largest in the US, have revealed that a death sentence costs at least 18 times as much as a sentence of life without parole would cost.

Myth 2: The death penalty makes us safer

There’s no evidence that the death penalty deters murder any more than the threat of other harsh punishments such as life in prison. In fact, many criminologists believe that the death penalty makes us less safe, because it needlessly takes limited resources away from policies that have been proven to reduce crime.

If the death penalty actually deterred crime, then states with the death penalty would be safer than those without. In fact, the opposite is true. Regions with the most executions also have the highest murder rates. What’s more, in states that have repealed the death penalty, there has been no subsequent spike in murder rates. In fact, the murder rate has fallen in New York, New Mexico, Illinois, and Connecticut in the years after they repealed the death penalty.

In 2012, the National Research Council reviewed all of the deterrence studies from all sides of the issue and found there was no credible evidence that the death penalty deters murder.

Myth 3: The death penalty is the only way to provide closure to victims’ families

Many family members who have lost love ones to murder feel that a death sentence will not heal their wounds nor provide closure. The mandatory appeals process in death penalty cases results in decades of court hearings with no certainty that the sentence will ever be carried out. For these reasons, many survivors of murder victims feel that the death penalty system only prolongs their pain and does not provide the resolution they seek. By contrast, a sentence of life in prison is swift and certain, allowing families to move on knowing that justice is being served.

Nobody speaks for all victims or survivors, but there has been a scientific study of victim family members that compared the impact of a death sentence versus a life sentence for the murderer. The study found higher levels of physical, psychological, and behavioral health for the families, as well as more satisfaction with the criminal justice system, when the sentence was life not death.

Aside from the evidence that the death penalty is not the best way to help the survivors, the huge costs of the death penalty waste money that could be used to help families put their lives back together through counseling, restitution, crime victim hotlines, and other services addressing their needs.

Myth 4: The death penalty is the only way to make sure a convicted murderer is never released from prison

A sentence of life in prison without parole is in fact a sentence of death in prison. No adult sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) anywhere in the US has ever been released on parole. Prisoners sentenced to LWOP actually remain in prison for the rest of their lives and die in prison.

The only ways that someone convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole can be released from prison, are the same as for people sentenced to death: a pardon or commutation from the governor, or by having a court overturn their conviction. If a prisoner is able to prove in a court of law that they were wrongfully convicted—that they are in fact innocent—then the conviction should be overturned and the prisoner set free. The only difference in this respect between a death sentence and a life sentence is that with a life sentence there is no risk of a prisoner being found innocent after they have been executed.

Myth 5: An innocent person has never been executed

The execution of an innocent person is a wrong that can never be put right. Since the 1970s, 161 people have been exonerated from death rows around the US. In many of those cases, the exoneration came after a long legal battle and thanks to the extraordinary efforts of people working outside the system. Any one of the 156 death row exonorees could have just have easily been executed.

Unfortunately, we do not know just how many innocent people have been executed in the United States. It’s hard to prove wrongful executions. Death penalty lawyers hardly have enough resources to work on the cases of live clients, much less for those who are no longer living. What’s more, once a person has been executed, the formal appeals process also ends.

But in recent years, several cases have come to light where there is compelling evidence of innocence. Two of the clearest cases are those of Cameron Todd Willingham and Carlos DeLuna.

Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for setting fire to his home and killing his three children, but eight different arson experts now say that the forensic testimony used to convict him was based on junk science that has now been debunked. There is no evidence that the fire was set intentionally. So not only is there no evidence that Willingham committed the murder for which he was executed; there is convincing evidence that there was no murder in the first place.

A 2012 report called “The Wrong Carlos” details the case of Carlos DeLuna, who was executed for a crime that was likely committed by a look-alike called Carlos Hernandez. Justice John Paul Stevens, the former US Supreme Court Justice, said that Carlos DeLuna’s story, “demonstrated, I think, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there is a Texas case in which they executed the wrong defendant, and that the person they executed did not in fact commit the crime for which he was punished. And I think it's a sufficient argument against the death penalty...that society should not take the risk that that might happen again, because it's intolerable to think that our government, for really not very powerful reasons, runs the risk of executing innocent people."

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