A Comparative Fact Regarding the Death Penalty that Gives One Pause

Of the five countries that use the death penalty the most, only one is a democracy.

Gallup released a new poll on US attitudes towards the death penalty and unsurprisingly finds that support has remained relatively steady since 2002:  In U.S., 64% Support Death Penalty in Cases of Murder.

What struck me was the following observation:

The use of the death penalty has been declining worldwide, with most of the known executions now carried out in five countries — China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.

When dealing with issues of justice and human rights, that isn’t exactly the company I would think that the US would aspire to keep.  We are talking about three authoritarian regimes with questionable human rights records (China, Iran and Saudi Arabia), a pseudodemocracy in the context of an ongoing conflict (Iraq), and the country that sees itself as a beacon of liberty and democracy (the US).  One of these things is, theoretically, not like the others.  At a minimum this comparison ought to give us all pause for thought.

I say this as someone who has, over time, been a proponent of the death penalty (some cases, such as that of Stephen Hayes, make it difficult not to be).  However, given the advent of DNA evidence and other factors, I must confess that my support has substantially softened in recent years.  Noting that the others states that are active users of the policy are authoritarian/involved in a war further brings into question the process.

h/t:  Sullivan.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, US Politics, World Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Matt says:

    I am for the death penalty, I believe that some people deserve to die for the crimes they have committed, however, do I trust the government to carry out execution justly? No, I do not.

    Also, the United States is involved in two wars, so it’s not so out of place on that list…

  2. Al says:

    I’ve been saying this for years, along with the comparative higher cost of executing someone versus a straight life sentence and that if you’re really a small government advocate then taking away the state’s power to kill its prisoners should be on your list of ways to shrink the government. The response is almost always a resounding “So?”

    Mostly this just shows that people who claim to be anti big government and pro reducing spending are really “anti big government unless it’s the kind of big government I like” and “pro reducing spending for things I don’t like.”

  3. john personna says:

    The Innocence Project shredded any rational defense of the death penalty.

    In my opinion, we just need to redefine Death Row. It’s where you sit until you die, or until your innocence is proved.

    I think that hold-outs for the death penalty don’t trust the government to really keep the guilty in prison for life. I know someone whose daughter was killed. Every year lawyers touch bases to see if the parents are still alive, before filing for release(*) of her murderer. That’s a terrible thing to have hanging over you.

    * – no idea the legal form of release

  4. Trumwill says:

    Meh. I oppose the death penalty and have for some time now. But the “company you keep” argument never held much weight with me. The thing is… a lot of our peers did away with the death penalty despite popular support for it. The death penalty is still supported in Canada, the UK, but the governments decided they knew better. This is not a criticism of the governments as I wish that the US would do the same, but the notion that it should be concerning to us that we are one of few democracies to have the death penalty is, in my opinion, belied by the fact that our continued use of capital punishment is very much a result of the fact that we are a democracy.

  5. The Innocence Project, along with my own experiences over the last 16 years in the criminal justice system as an attorney, have turned this death penalty supporter into an opponent.

    Do I think guys like Stephen Hays deserve to die ? Of course, and as Steven said it’s hard not be a DP supporter when presented with a monster like him.

    The system, however, is full of far too much uncertainty and arbitrariness for me to be comfortable with the idea of giving the state the power to kill people.

  6. tom p says:

    “belied by the fact that our continued use of capital punishment is very much a result of the fact that we are a democracy.”

    It also belies the fact that a # of americns think the government can do nothing right until it kills some one… And then it can do no wrong.

  7. The system, however, is full of far too much uncertainty and arbitrariness for me to be comfortable with the idea of giving the state the power to kill people.

    Indeed.

  8. but the notion that it should be concerning to us that we are one of few democracies to have the death penalty is, in my opinion, belied by the fact that our continued use of capital punishment is very much a result of the fact that we are a democracy.

    I take the point, and agree with your bottom line: it is the public support for the policies that drives its existences, which is democratic in that sense,.

    My point would be, however, that democracy is more than just majority rule.

  9. Mr. Prosser says:

    Even before the Innocence Project reinforced my anti-DP opinion, I felt the death penalty was an easy way out for the criminal. A life sentence without possibility of parole is, in my opinion, a much worse fate than death. Waking every morning in a cell and knowing that is your fate until you die has to be soul-crushing.

  10. Ben says:

    I consider the case of Cameron Todd Willingham to be all the argument I need against the death penalty. And it also shows that Rick Perry is an accessory before and after the fact to murder. The fact that he got reelected is a black eye on America’s face.

  11. ponce says:

    At least China executes corrupt businessmen along with thei poor and minorities.

  12. mantis says:

    In Texas, killing as many people as possible, regardless of who they are and whether they are guilty of crimes, is an advantage when running for office. So is talking about seceding from the union, teaching the Bible in public schools, and stringing up gays.

  13. PD Shaw says:

    Almost half of U.S. executions are in a single state, Texas (405 out of 1099 executions since 1976) and many of the other executions are in Southern states (791 from former C.S.A. out of 1099). Though even this is deceptive given states like Mississippi and Tennessee that have executed far fewer than a number of Midwestern states.

    I think part of the issue is the extent to which the U.S. disaggregates powers to states in certain areas, which is probably quite unlike other democracies.

  14. floyd says:

    The popularity of “french fries” notwithstanding, the top ten potato producing countries in the world are…China, Russia, India, United States, Ukraine.
    Is this exactly the company one would think that the US would aspire to keep?
    The United States also imports more than $84,000,000 worth of potatoes each year.
    Could we be enabling “Pomme De Terre(orism)?

    One of these things is, theoretically, not like the others. At a minimum this comparison is no more ludicrous.

  15. At a minimum this comparison is no more ludicrous.

    Not true–not in the least. There are moral issues to be associated with the taking of human life, regardless of the motivation.

    There are no such issues associated with the consumption of potatoes. This should be, one would like to think, patently obvious.

  16. anjin-san says:

    Abolish the death penalty – its contrary to “equal justice under the law”. Seems that justice is only dished out to poor folks, especially if they are black…

  17. mantis says:

    One of these things is, theoretically, not like the others. At a minimum this comparison is no more ludicrous.

    No more ludicrous, eh? So you’re saying that the quantity of vegetables grown in a country is the equivalent to whether and at what rate that country executes it’s citizens? One is a matter of hospitability of climate to a particular crop, available suitable land, market demand, and other economic factors, and the other is a matter of criminal justice. These are the same thing, in your mind?

    So basically floyd, you’re saying that nations’ governments should not be judged on the basis of how they treat their citizens and how they run their justice systems? What should we judge them by? The scale and orderliness of their military displays? North Korea = greatest country in the world!

  18. floyd says:

    P.D. Shaw;
    So even a hundred years of reconstruction couldn’t assuage the inbred propensity for barbarism of those dang Southerners? Great segue for your bias.

  19. pylon says:

    “The popularity of “french fries” notwithstanding, the top ten potato producing countries in the world are…China, Russia, India, United States, Ukraine.”

    Well, 4 out of 5 are democracies, and 3 out of the 4 that aren’t the US are ostensibly allies with the US.

  20. floyd says:

    Mantis;
    No, I made my point.
    Those you’ve attributed to me are solely yours.
    Perhaps you would care to speak for yourself, or tell me…..
    What did I just say?

    Steven;
    Thank you for an adult response. Your point is well taken, although I feel that the death penalty is appropriate in some cases.
    My point was to say that , it’s administration in the U.S. is reserved for cases which are so much more justified as to render the comparison inapproriate.

  21. floyd says:

    Pylon;
    Ludicrous huh? Or did you miss the point entirely?

  22. mantis says:

    What did I just say?

    A bunch of nonsense, typically.

  23. PD Shaw says:

    floyd, there are clearly regional/state differences on this issue that make the U.S. different from most other countries.

  24. PD Shaw says:

    One outlier to American exceptionalism on this issue is Japan. In 2008, Japan executed approximately the same number of people as the United States, adjusting for size:

    Japan executed 15 in a population of 127 million.
    USA executed 37 in a population of 311 million.

    (a rate of .12 executions per million)

  25. John Burgess says:

    Uninspiring statistic. I can think of one democracy–the UK–where the majority wants to re-instate the death penalty, but the government blocks it. Somehow, blocking popular will on a matter of concern to all, not just a minority, rings of something less than ‘democracy’.

  26. Franklin says:

    I used to be an advocate, and still don’t have any basic moral objection to society condemning someone for heinous crimes.

    However, the empirical evidence shows it is not done equally, and that innocent people are occasionally killed. And practically, it turns out to be far more expensive due to the legal wrangling – and the only people who benefit from this are, as usual, the lawyers.

    Regarding, specifically, the “company you keep” argument, I think there’s some relevance for the issue at hand. I wouldn’t want to be part of a country that tortures people, either. Oh, wait …

  27. mantis says:

    Somehow, blocking popular will on a matter of concern to all, not just a minority, rings of something less than ‘democracy’.

    Well, the UK and the US have something less than a pure democracy, by design. Government bucking the popular will is why we don’t have slavery anymore, or segregation in schools, or a bunch of other awful things we used to do with support from the people.

    But we still execute mentally handicapped folks! Hooray for democracy!

  28. george says:

    “It also belies the fact that a # of americns think the government can do nothing right until it kills some one… And then it can do no wrong.”

    It is a very curious fact that a good number of people who are for the death penalty also do not trust the gov’t … if nothing else it seems strangely inconsistent. If you can’t trust the gov’t in small things, how in the world can you trust it with something like the death penalty?

  29. mantis says:

    If you can’t trust the gov’t in small things, how in the world can you trust it with something like the death penalty?

    That’s right. Teabaggers are ready to revolt in a town in Arizona over trash pickup (socialism!), but when the state wants to kill someone? No problem. Keep in mind that in Arizona, the death penalty sentence is not decided by a jury, but almost always by a sole, elected judge. The power to sentence people to death, combined with political pressure to satisfy the bloodlust of the electorate. What could go wrong?

  30. ponce says:

    “If you can’t trust the gov’t in small things, how in the world can you trust it with something like the death penalty?”

    To a lot of Americans, our ritual slaughter of poor minorities is a small thing.

  31. floyd says:

    Franklin;
    You have just made the best argument for abolishing the death penalty,
    (that of failure of the process, resulting in the execution of those not guilty)
    Illinois’ justifiable moratorium is a case in point.
    That is what should “give one pause”…. not the practices of other countries.

    One tangent point in which I think the “death penalty” discussion often proves revealing…
    That is how we seem to value Life over Liberty in general.
    That is, in a very real way, a recipe favoring tyranny.

  32. M1EK says:

    Some people need a civics class refrresher.

    Democracy = majority rules by most reasonable definitions. The US is not a democracy by this definition; we are a constitutional republic. The Consitution of the US was specifically designed to act as a republican brake on the worst aspects of democracy by protecting the rights of minorities against majority rule.

  33. reid says:

    I bet a lot of tea partiers are also fine with us torturing alleged terrorists. Maybe it ties into their fears and/or belief that it’s the government’s job to keep us safe from criminals and terrorists.

  34. george says:

    “I bet a lot of tea partiers are also fine with us torturing alleged terrorists. Maybe it ties into their fears and/or belief that it’s the government’s job to keep us safe from criminals and terrorists.”

    For people who don’t trust big gov’t, they seem to really trust big gov’t …

  35. mantis says:

    For people who don’t trust big gov’t, they seem to really trust big gov’t …

    Only for the small, inconsequential stuff. Like killing people.

  36. just me says:

    I have long thought the death penalty was a just punishment for certain crimes, but that how we choose who we give it to and how we do it, and the fact that our adversarial court system sometimes provides too much incentive for the prosecution to lie, I am not comfortable with having it as a legal possibility.

    I think life in prison seems like a reasonable alternative, and if later a convict is determined to be innocent it is a lot easier to open a prison door than it is to bring somebody back to life. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think it is a just and deserved punishment in some cases-but locking somebody up in prison seems to serve the purpose of protecting society and punishment.

  37. RW Rogers says:

    Cases such as the Petit home invasion usually put an end to the doubts I harbor.

  38. Steve Verdon says:

    I am for the death penalty, I believe that some people deserve to die for the crimes they have committed, however, do I trust the government to carry out execution justly? No, I do not.

    Pretty much my position as well.

    The Innocence Project shredded any rational defense of the death penalty.

    This too, the number of people who were demonstrably innocent sitting on death row shows just how true Matt’s statement is.

    Somehow, blocking popular will on a matter of concern to all, not just a minority, rings of something less than ‘democracy’.

    I think Steven covered this already. Simply because a large number of people favor an outcome does not make the outcome the right one or a desirable one. This is why we have a constitution to prevent things from degenerating into mob rule…well that’s the theory anyways.

  39. Steve Verdon says:

    RW Rogers,

    Really? Educate yourself.

    In 1992, Kennedy Brewer was arrested in Mississippi and accused of killing his girlfriend’s three-year-old daughter. After waiting in jail for three years for a trial to begin, Brewer was convicted of capital murder and sent to Mississippi’s death row.

    In 2001, DNA tests proved he did not commit the crime, leading his conviction to be overturned. The prosecutors said they intended to retry Brewer, so he remained in jail for over five more years until his release on bail in August 2007. On February 15, 2008, after an Innocence Project investigation led to an alternate suspect in the case, Brewer became the first person to be exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing in Mississippi. He had served seven years on death row and eight years in jail awaiting trial.

    What does a story like that do for your doubts?

  40. G.A.Phillips says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6TFv2YmowJg

    Thoughts on the Death penalty from my second favorite comedian of all time. Test tube baby!

  41. ponce says:

    Steve,

    The fact that the death penalty eliminates poor minority citizens who are innocent is a feature not a bug.

  42. floyd says:

    After fourteen years on Florida’s death row…..
    16 years on death row for Kennedy Brewer….
    “””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””

    Two more examples against the Death penalty…..

  43. G.A.Phillips says:

    ***The fact that the death penalty eliminates poor minority citizens who are innocent is a feature not a bug.***Sounds like your talking about abortion…..

  44. tom p says:

    google “Ronald Cotton”.

  45. Rock says:

    Thou shalt not kill.

    Thou shall waterboard.

  46. RW Rogers says:

    Steve, When I said I have my doubts, I meant that on the whole, having read enough about dubious cases and questionable application of standards, it seems to me that it is far too easy to seek and obtain a death penalty verdict. That said, when I read about certain specific well-documented cases such as the one I mentioned, I have no problem with the verdict.

  47. Davebo says:

    It’s actually a neat definition of GA Phillips and the rest of the “Tea Party” (which by the way is not a party any real partier would want to attend)

    Staunchly Pro Life * except for those lives they find expendable, re: young people who had the audacity to enlist in the military or those found to be guilty of crimes by elected judges prosecuted by elected prosecutors.

    Against government waste and spending * Except the excessive cost involved in actually prosecuting and producing a death sentence.

    Is it any wonder these idiots think Sarah Palin is the second coming of Reagan?

    Let’s face it, they aren’t the sharpest bowling balls on the rack.

    But don’t take my word for it. Just read the drivel that is G.A. Phillips comments.

  48. Trumwill says:

    I take the point, and agree with your bottom line: it is the public support for the policies that drives its existences, which is democratic in that sense,.

    That’s not my point. My point is that if public opinion were driving capital punishment policies, the Death League would include the UK and Canada. It doesn’t precisely because they have ignored popular opinion on the matter. The one branch in the US that has twice put a (temporary) stop on the death penalty is the non-democratic branch. With this in mind, tying the abolition of capital punishment to democracy just seems odd to me.

    My point would be, however, that democracy is more than just majority rule.

    A proper government is about more than majority rule. As is a liberal democracy. But a democracy is, at its root, one that looks primarily towards public opinion. The limits we place on the will of the majority are a good thing, but they are contrary to democracy. I would say that it’s less about “democracy being more than majority rule” and more about “democracy having its limitations.”

  49. Dave Schuler says:

    Of the ten largest countries in the world by population only Brazil forbids capital punishment. We’re #3 on that list.

    We’re not European.

    My view is that proportionality requires that capital punishment be retained for some crimes but that it should be applied very rarely and we are applying it far too frequently.

  50. Dave Schuler says:

    BTW, I believe that the ire in the comments above at our legal system is appropriate but misaimed. The United States, like the United Kingdom, is a plutocracy. Always has been. Outcomes are different for the rich than for the poor. It’s hard to convict a rich person of a capital crime let alone apply the death penalty to him or her.

  51. PD Shaw says:

    And it’s hard to impose the death penalty on a black person for killing a black person. It’s not the identity of the killer that’s important it’s the identity of the victim.

  52. Ben says:

    “My view is that proportionality requires that capital punishment be retained for some crimes but that it should be applied very rarely and we are applying it far too frequently.”

    Dave, when do you think it is safe to apply? When can we be sure that the prosecution, judge and jury got it right? And if you’re thinking about only when the killer confesses, what about the hundreds of documented cases of false confessions?

  53. Bill Jempty says:

    Japan is another democracy that utilizes the death penalty. They have executed over 700 people since the end of World War II.

    Statistics like 4 out of 5 would have more meaning if…..

    What percentage of countries world-wide are democracies.

    What is the execution rate per a nation’s population

    and so on.

    Simple Statistics can be used to paint a wrong picture. I’m saying that’s the case here, it just can be done.

  54. RW Rogers says:

    Ben, I’m not Dave, but the Petit home invasion case meets all the criteria for me.

  55. @Bill: this is, of course, true. There is a more rigorous way to make the comparisons. Still, I don’t think that it mitigates against the the basic point.

  56. Dave Schuler says:

    I can’t give you a hard and fast rule but I can give other examples in which I think the death penalty was justly applied: Timothy McVeigh, Ted Bundy.

    Bundy’s example is particularly telling. He had twice escaped from prison. There was no reasonable doubt as to his guilt.

    My point about proportionality is this. If killing a cop gets you life in prison without parole, what does killing ten cops get you? A hundred?

  57. Steve Verdon says:

    The death penalty should be stopped right now. There is no way a person who has looked at the cases where innocents were nearly put to death and later exonerated, looked at how forensics works, that many jurisdictions do not tape record interrogations, that forensic departments are really nothing more than extensions of the police department with a false patina of objectivity could come to any other conclusion.

    Are there people out there who should probably get the death penalty? Sure. McVeigh, Bundy, Bianchi, Buono, and man others would make my short list. My problem isn’t the idea of killing these monsters, but that our government, like in so many other areas, f*cks up royally. When you read about stories like Kennedy Brewer I linked above its…extremely depressing. The junk science that was used and passed as objective forensics science is appalling. And that is the tip of the iceberg IMO. Google Dr. Stephen Hayne and Dr. Michael West. These two guys pretty much had a lock on a large segment of the forensics industry in Mississipi and in case after case after case their work is seen to be shoddy at best. And considering that Hayne and West helped put hundreds behind bars and often where the death penalty was the sentence there is a really good chance innocents have been executed by the state of Mississippi.

    (FYI, Hayne and West were involved in Brewer’s case.)

    And for you law and order types, this means that innocent people are being put in jail, and have possibly been killed by our government and, and this is the important part, the actual criminal is still free to continue committing crimes.

    At the very least, people should be in favor of stopping the death penalty until the glaring deficiencies in our legal system are addressed.

  58. tom p says:

    “The junk science that was used and passed as objective forensics science is appalling. ”

    Steve, a report was released recently (last 6 mos?) which said, basically, that “forensics” and “science” should not be used in the same sentence. I am sure you know of what I am talking about. I would post a link but I have lost it, and would not know where/how to google it.

    Can you post a link for others?

  59. tom p says:

    also, google Cameron Todd Willingham, or just go here:

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/09/07/090907fa_fact_grann

  60. Lenny says:

    You can’t argue for the death penalty without arguing for the accidental killing of innocent people as collateral damage for some other purpose. As long as people are involved, the death penalty will be a messy ordeal, full of mistakes, prejudice, and demagoguery. There are only two “other purposes” that could “justify” this in an argument. The first is deterrent which has been repeatedly discredited. The second is vengeance. The problem with vengeance as an argument is that its delivery can only come at the expense of someone else’s loved one being murdered by the same delivery system. It’s a false argument that most people don’t concern themselves with.

  61. Drew says:

    So we’re okay with taxing the victims and the families of the victims of violent crimes for the rest of their life to feed, clothe and shelter, and provide medical care to their criminal victimizers? That’s justice?

    I’m not sure which I’m more squeamish about; the death of innocents as collateral damage or the aforementioned current state of affairs, but I’m pretty sure retiring the concept of the penitentiary could ameliorate both unsatisfactory conditions.

  62. Max Lybbert says:

    You’re just now discovering this argument? Seriously, this argument’s been making the rounds (and given people pause) for a long time.

    The list of countries that don’t execute prisoners has a few bad actors as well. If you judge the policy by the countries that have similar (official) policies, you’ve got to take that into account.

    But more seriously, many countries without a death penalty also have police that are more trigger happy. Latin American countries are on that list. I support Israel, but you do have to admit that although they haven’t executed anybody since Eichmann their targeted killings of various Palestinian leaders “give people pause.”

    I’m not familiar with any country that got rid of the death penalty and saw the world become all goodness and light.

  63. sookie says:

    >> My point would be, however, that democracy is more than just majority rule. <<

    Well our system of democracy doesn't give everything to majority rule, though there are quite a few out there pushing for exactly that.

    There may be plenty of valid reasons why we will eventually move away from the death penalty but "because all their politicians had the sense to do it in spite of the opinions of their constituents' in just silly, not to mention unrepresentative.

  64. @Max:

    No, not just discovering this. And really it isn’t an argument, it is an observation (one intended to spark discussion, which it did).

  65. D. S. Clark says:

    I came up with this formulation years ago when I thought I might be on a death penalty case. My response to questioning for the juror pool would have been:

    The death penalty is the one thing, above all else, which marks our country before the civilized world, and will mark us before the bar of history as savages, barbarians and ghouls; with no more moral authority than those we seek to exterminate with sadistic glee.

    And Dr. Taylor,
    I am right down the road from you in Enterprise. I’m amazed that a progressive is allowed on the faculty at a University in the red-neckest red state of them all!