Voices: Dr. Philip Hansten


“It was so frustrating to see these horrible, untrue claims go unconfronted. I felt I could go after them and call them out for what they are — absurd.”

Dr. Philip Hansten is explaining what inspired him to write his new book, Death Penalty Bullshit: Fifteen Absurd Claims of Death Penalty Supporters, and why he gave it what some might consider a controversial title.

“It’s an accurate description. We have to destroy the terrible arguments death penalty supporters make. The book is a polemic, but I’m being fair,” he says. (Hansten is donating a significant portion of the book’s royalties to Death Penalty Focus.)

Hansten is Professor Emeritus, School of Pharmacy, at the University of Washington in Seattle. His books on drug interactions have sold more than one million copies and have been translated into seven languages. He’s currently teaching Philosophy of Science at the University of California San Francisco and the University of Washington. He says that just as he applies the philosophical underpinnings of science to improve patient care, he examines death penalty supporters’ arguments and debunks them by pointing out their fallacies and reasoning errors.

“Some of their claims may initially sound plausible if you don’t dig into them. But once you do, the opposite of what they’re arguing ends up being the actual truth,” Hansten says.

So he picked 15 of the worst arguments proponents make and explains, chapter by chapter, how each isn’t only illogical, it’s “precisely the opposite of reality.” For example:

  • While the death penalty is supposed to be used only for the “worst-of-the-worst,” the reality is nothing like that.
  • While the death penalty is supposed to be applied only to the guilty, almost 200 innocent people have been exonerated and released from death row.
  • While the death penalty is supposed to comfort the victim’s family, it often paradoxically increases their pain in the long run.
  • While the death penalty is supposed to reduce homicides, the evidence has not borne this out. (There is even a chance it might increase the murder rate).
  • While the death penalty is supposed to achieve justice, it actually results in a cascade of injustices.
  • While the death penalty is supposed to save taxpayer dollars, it actually costs far more than life in prison.

While it’s hard to pick the worst, the most indefensible, “bullshit” argument, it would have to be the insistence by supporters that only “the worst of the worst” are sentenced to death, Hansten believes. “The worst because it is so obviously untrue. Look at the serial killers sentenced to life without parole while those who didn’t kill anyone were executed. The arbitrariness is obvious. No rich people are on death row, and it’s not because rich people don’t kill anyone. It’s just a patently false argument.”

Easiest argument to dispel? “That the death penalty reduces the homicide rate. It’s so bogus, some have stopped using it. Any penological benefits of the death penalty can be achieved by life in prison.”

One of the most frustrating arguments? The denial by supporters that the state has executed innocent people. A study by the Academy of Sciences estimated that at least four percent of the men and women on death rows around the country are innocent. And the Death Penalty Information Center recently added two more people to its list of those exonerated from death row based on evidence of innocence, bringing the total number since 1973 to 189.

“It’s an uncomfortable piece of evidence, and they’re forced to come up with the argument that the exonerated aren’t, in fact, innocent. [Former US Supreme Court Justice Antonin) Scalia, DAs, and politicians are all trying to come up with rational explanations, other than innocence, for why they were released.

“The difference between science and lawyers who support the death penalty is they’re working in a milieu where winning is important. You can’t get away with that in science. You can’t win by sacrificing the truth, whereas if you win the case or election, that’s it. There’s a different mindset. Those who support the death penalty believe they have to win the argument; it doesn’t matter if it makes sense, they just have to win.”

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