Should We Abolish the Death Penalty?

Should We Abolish the Death Penalty?

In 2018, the United States executed 25 people and over 2,700 prisoners remain on “death row.” It is one of only 56 nations in the world that still practice capital punishment.

Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a moratorium on capital punishment in his state. Watch the one-minute video above announcing his decision.

Should the United States as a country stop using the death penalty? Is it ever justified, such as for the most heinous crimes? Or do you think it is always cruel and unusual punishment? Alternatively, do you think it should be suspended for practical reasons, such as because it is costly or sometimes unfairly administered?

In “California Death Penalty Suspended; 737 Inmates Get Stay of Execution,” Tim Arango writes:

LOS ANGELES — Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a moratorium on capital punishment on Wednesday, granting a temporary reprieve for the 737 inmates on the state’s death row, the largest in the Western Hemisphere.

The move is highly symbolic because legal challenges have already stalled executions in California; the last one was in 2006. But death penalty opponents hope that because of California’s size and political importance, the governor’s action will give new urgency to efforts to end executions in other states as popular support for the death penalty wanes.

Mr. Newsom, a longtime opponent of capital punishment, cited its high cost, racial disparities in its application and wrongful convictions, and questioned whether society has the right to take a life.

“I know people think eye for eye, but if you rape, we don’t rape,” he said. “And I think if someone kills, we don’t kill. We’re better than that.”

He continued, “I cannot sign off on executing hundreds and hundreds of human beings, knowing — knowing — that among them will be innocent human beings.”

Supporters of capital punishment said the move went against the will of the state’s residents. California voters have rejected an initiative to abolish the death penalty and in 2016, they narrowly approved Proposition 66 to help speed it up.

“I think this would be a bold step and I think he’s got to be aware of the political downside,” said Michael D. Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, an organization in Sacramento that favors the death penalty and helped draft the ballot proposition, speaking before the governor’s announcement. “Voters have had multiple opportunities in California over three decades to abandon the death penalty and they’ve shut them down at every chance.”

The article continues:

After the news of Mr. Newsom’s decision broke, Mr. Trump said on Twitter: “Defying voters, the Governor of California will halt all death penalty executions of 737 stone cold killers. Friends and families of the always forgotten VICTIMS are not thrilled, and neither am I!”

Speaking several hours later, Mr. Newsom said he had met with families of victims and they had expressed passionate but conflicting views on capital punishment. But the governor made it clear that his decision came down to his own conscience, prodded by impending decisions such as whether to support the state’s lethal injection protocol.

An executive order Mr. Newsom signed on Wednesday does three things: grants reprieves to the inmates currently on death row — they will still be under a death sentence, but not at risk of execution; closes the execution chamber at San Quentin prison; and withdraws the state’s lethal injection protocol, the formally approved procedure for carrying out executions.

“Three out of four nations in the world know better and are doing better,” Mr. Newsom said. “They’ve abolished the death penalty. It’s time California join those ranks.”

The article concludes:

Opponents of the death penalty, including Mr. Newsom, have long argued that the practice is rife with racial disparities and is not justified by the high cost to state taxpayers. One study, in 2011, found that California pays $184 million a year to sustain capital punishment — or close to an accumulated $5 billion since the practice was reinstituted in 1978.

In February, Mr. Newsom intervened in a high-profile death row case that for years activists have claimed was a prime example of racial injustice.

Kevin Cooper, a black man who was convicted of four brutal murders by stabbing in 1983, has long maintained his innocence. His supporters have put forward evidence that he was framed by San Bernardino officers. Mr. Newsom ordered DNA testing in the case, something that state officials had refused to do in the past.

The possibility of wrongful convictions — nationally, more than 150 people on death row have been exonerated since the mid-1970s, according to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty — has also energized the opposition movement, around the country and in California.

Last April in California, a man who had been on death row for 25 years for murdering a young girl, a former farmworker named Vicente Figueroa Benavides, was freed after a court determined that testimony given at his trial was false.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

— Do you support or oppose the use of the capital punishment? Should it be abolished in the United States?

— Do you think the death penalty serves a necessary purpose, like deterring crime, providing relief for victims’ families or imparting justice? Or is capital punishment “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore prohibited by the Constitution?

— What is your reaction to Gov. Newsom’s moratorium announcement? Which of his arguments for a moratorium do you find most persuasive? Which are the least?

— The article states:

But in 2016, Californians doubled down on the death penalty, approving a measure that streamlined the appeals process, which has typically taken about 25 years in California for condemned prisoners. The initiative, which was backed by many law enforcement officials and prosecutors, passed with 51 percent of the vote, belying California’s national image as place where politics was steadily moving to the left. It was approved at the same time that voters legalized marijuana.

Do you think Mr. Newsom was right to issue a moratorium despite recent votes in support of the death penalty by California’s residents? Do you think it violates the will of the state’s residents, or should he follow his own conscience? Should public opinion matter in cases like capital punishment?

— How concerned should we be about wrongful convictions? Do you have concerns about the fair application of the death penalty, or about the possibility of the criminal justice system executing an innocent person? Do the recent cases of Kevin Cooper and Vicente Figueroa Benavides, cited in the article, affect your views?