Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s recent death sentence cast a focused spotlight on the use of the death penalty in the United States. Just last month, in the wake of his conviction, Intelligence Squared U.S. presented the debate “Abolish the Death Penalty.”
While there were many headlines leading up to the debate – botched executions and erroneous convictions – the Boston trial is perhaps the highest-profile death sentencing America has followed in decades. Proponents of the death penalty argued that a crime this heinous is precisely where the death penalty is suitable. They see the death penalty as both moral and just, and a reasonable expression of our societal sense of outrage. Time in prison, even a lifetime in prison, treats the most monstrous criminals no differently from others and hence fails to express our revulsion at the nature of their crimes.
Opponents of the death penalty (including the Nebraska legislature which just last week voted to repeal it) argue on practical grounds that the the death penalty is simply too expensive to actually administer. It’s much more expensive than a life imprisonment, because the legal process around the death penalty is so elaborate. And its not just a matter of money: the waste is also of some of our best legal and judicial minds.
From a policy standpoint, we ask: are those costs offset by some benefits? Some argue that the death penalty does in fact deter crime and that deterrence is a meaningful benefit. The evidence is far from clear, and both sides of the debate can cite studies to support their viewpoints.
A final consideration is the possibility of error. Initiatives like the Innocence Project, and the introduction of DNA evidence, has demonstrated the frequency of erroneous convictions in our criminal justice system. This brings some on the left and right together in opposing the death penalty. The left questions the morality of deliberately taking life under any circumstances, and especially when that penalty is disproportionately applied to black defendants. The right, skeptical about govenment decision making generally, see a process in which politically motivated prosecutors engage with unskilled lawyers representing poor defendants as especially error prone.
Watch the full debate, and cast your vote: does the Dzokhar Tsarnaev crime and conviction influence your opinion on the death penalty?
See the official vote here: