On Tuesday evening, I went to the prison in Bonne Terre to stand in solidarity with our colleagues at Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty in opposing the execution of Kevin Johnson. I honestly didn’t attend in my official capacity as a staff member at Empower Missouri. As I had learned the details of the case over the last few months, KJ’s story has been weighing on my heart and mind, and so I attended primarily as a private citizen and a Christian who opposes the death penalty.
I spent close to three hours on a cold, dark hill surrounded by 150 fellow Missourians who made the trip to bear witness to a murder being committed in our names– in the name of Missouri taxpayers, in the name of “public safety,” and in the name of “justice.” I hadn’t planned to write on this topic, but it has continued to weigh heavily on me throughout the week. It has led me to want to share some thoughts about why Empower Missouri opposes the death penalty– and why you should, too.
When you ask people why they oppose the death penalty, many will provide you with religious or moral arguments against the practice. I will admit that my own Catholic upbringing is the root of my personal opposition to the death penalty. But, Empower Missouri is not a religious organization, so we don’t make policy arguments based on religion or morality. We also don’t make policy arguments based on the merits of any one person’s situation, as compelling as they might be. Instead, we look at evidence from a systems-level perspective and consider the implications for society at large. Looking at the death penalty from that lens, there are several important things that you should know.
#1. There is no evidence that the death penalty serves as a deterrant against future crime.
The most common argument in support of the death penalty is the idea that it serves as a deterrent to violent crime. However, there is no evidence to support this assertion, and mountains of evidence that refute it. Between 1990 and 2019, murder rates were consistently higher in states who utilize the death penalty than states who do not. (The death penalty is currently legal in 27 states.) Here are a few more data points from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC):
- A report by the National Research Council, titled Deterrence and the Death Penalty, stated that studies claiming that the death penalty has a deterrent effect on murder rates are “fundamentally flawed” and should not be used when making policy decisions (2012).
- A DPIC study of 30 years of FBI Uniform Crime Report homicide data found that the South has consistently had by far the highest murder rate. The South accounts for more than 80% of executions. The Northeast, which has fewer than 0.5% of all executions, has consistently had the lowest murder rate.
- According to a survey of the former and present presidents of the country’s top academic criminological societies, 88% of these experts rejected the notion that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to murder.
- Even a national survey of police chiefs ranked the death penalty last as a method of reducing violent crime.
In addition, many capital cases, including KJ’s, involve a crime committed under great emotional duress or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, impairing their judgment. In those cases, there is no consideration of consequences of any type leading up to the commission of the crime.
#2. The law around the death penalty is applied unevenly and with demonstrated bias.
Approximately 20,000 homicides are committed every year in the United States. And yet, only 0.022% of all individuals convicted of murder are sentenced to death. So, how is it that this tiny percentage of perpetrators are chosen to be executed? According to the DPIC, the primary indicator for whether or not someone will be sentenced to death is the county where the crime happened, rather than the severity of the offense. Just two percent of the counties in the U.S. have been responsible for the majority of today’s death row population and recent death sentences. Prosecutors have an incredible amount of latitude in determining whether to seek a death sentence.
In addition to geography, socioeconomic status and race place a significant role in determining who is sentenced to be executed. According to the United Nations, individuals earning low incomes are disproportionately sentenced to death compared to their wealthy peers on a global level. People experiencing poverty are more likely to rely on a public defender system without the resources to provide an adequate defense. The Equal Justice Initiative estimates that 95 percent of individuals on death row in the U.S. come from underprivileged backgrounds. In addition, a 2020 study found that defendants convicted of killing white victims were executed at a rate 17 times greater than those killing Black victims. A similar study in 2017 compared datasets looking at homicides and executions from similar time periods. It found that while about half of the victims of homicide were white, 75 percent of those executed had killed a white person. On the flip side, 46 percent of the victims were Black, but only fifteen percent of those executed had killed a Black person.
#3. It’s irreversible.
In a justice system designed and executed by humans, there will be cases where an innocent person is executed. We are fallible beings. Unlike prison sentences, the death penalty is irreversible and irreparable. Since 1973, 190 innocent men and women have been exonerated and released from death row, including four men in Missouri. The death penalty creates too high a risk that an innocent person will be killed for a crime they did not commit.
At some point in the future, I may write a follow-up piece that discusses the fact that the death penalty is far more expensive than sentencing a person to life in prison. I also might write more about human brain development and the fact that most scientists agree that the brain doesn’t reach full maturity until 25, which should lead us to question if we should be sentencing individuals who commit crimes in their late teens and early 20s to death. (In the 2005 decision of Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court determined that individuals cannot be executed for crimes committed before their 18th birthdays.)
But for now, I’ll leave you with this final question that I’ve been asking myself all week: to what end? Why are we continuing to utilize the death penalty in Missouri? With no credible evidence to support the idea that the death penalty deters crime, I’m left to believe that we take these actions out of vengeance– at that this vengeance falls disproportionately on the poor.
And here’s where I’ll allow myself to look past the data and look more philosophically at the death penalty. Do we want to live in a society that perpetuates violence on behalf of its citizens? Or do we want to live in a society that seeks to forgive? I know that I would like to live in a society where we seek to find meaning and redemption out of a tragedy. I want every person to be treated as inherently worthy of dignity, respect, and life, regardless of their worst actions. I hope that our legislators will consider both the the facts and the philosophy behind the death penalty before another life is taken in Missouri.