The Death Penalty—Is it broke and can we fix it?

I’m against the death penalty, largely due to my Christian beliefs. I think that the act of taking another person’s life is something that only God should be able to do. Who are we to decide that someone’s life has fulfilled its divine purpose and can now be snuffed out? God can always turn around for good what the Devil intended for evil. This doesn’t mean that I think murderers don’t deserve to die. I do.

I went to a panel discussion on the death penalty a couple nights ago at UNC. It was mainly a discussion on if, regardless of whether the majority wants the death penalty as an option or not, we as humans can create a system that effectively levies and carries out that sentence. In the last decade, 124 death row inmates have been exonerated due to DNA evidence. That’s 124 innocent people who would have been killed if we didn’t have that field of science. And only a small portion of cases ever actually use DNA testing. I’m not comfortable with one single erroneous death because we insist on carrying out executions. It was argued at the panel, though, that the exonerations are in fact proof that our present system of appeals does work and afford the necessary checks and balances to make sure that only the guilty are being executed.

Often, people argue that it’s better to execute than to spend taxpayers’ money on keeping a murderer in prison for life. Thus far, studies are inconclusive on which costs more, death row and the system of necessary appeals and associated court costs or life in prison.

Jury decisions on when to sentence death vs. life in prison have been incredibly inconsistent. Racism is rampant in the sentencing of 1st degree murderers. If the victim is white, the murderer is three times as likely to be sentenced to death than for African American or Hispanic victims. Also, few people would argue that mass murderers and serial killers don’t deserve to die, but at the same time, the vast majority of inmates on death row are there for the murder of one person. Of course, their victim’s lives were invaluable but how can we call the system just when people who go on shooting sprees can get life while someone who murdered a girlfriend in a jealous rage might be killed? We could just decide that all 1st degree murderers should be executed, with life in prison never an option. Are you comfortable with that?


I was shocked to learn at the panel that most mainline protestant denominations and Catholicism have released official statements condemning the use of the death penalty, largely because their leaders don’t believe we should take the risk of killing innocents for the sake of preserving the death penalty system. Growing up in a Pentecostal environment, I was taught that the death penalty was necessary as we are God’s servants, meant to carry out His will on Earth. I later rejected this myself after being unable to reconcile “an eye for an eye” with “turn the other cheek.” It was heartening to learn that so many Christian groups had made official statements in line with my own decision. It’s nice not to feel alone!

Perhaps one of the most important considerations for me is that I doubt I would, if asked, be willing to carry out an execution. One of my favorite fantasy books, A Game of Thrones, starts out with one of the lords personally beheading a man he had sentenced to death. He tells his sons that any man who’s willing to punish behavior with death must be willing to strike the blow himself. By accepting our system as is and allowing the death penalty, we as a society are saying yes, this or that person must die, but would we actually go through with it if we had to inject the poisons ourselves? I think the distance we’ve created between the sentence and the act of execution has made it easier to support the death penalty for most of us.

What do you think? Why do you support the death penalty? Why should we abolish it? Would you support it if we could be assured, somehow, that all those convicted were, in fact, guilty? Is the possible deterrence enough value that it’s worth the life of an innocent every so often in order to save other innocent lives?

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