Guest opinion: Why I changed my mind about the death penalty

I’ve always supported the Death Penalty. And I think in principle, in a perfect world, it could be considered a valid form of justice.

And with the majority of Americans being Christian I suspect this “eye-for-an-eye” legal philosophy reflects the majority viewpoint. Like them, this has always seemed a principled argument to me and I’ve never really questioned the sentiment further.I mean, if someone takes the life of another don’t they forfeit their right to live? But as a national debate about the death penalty has emerged, I have re-examined this issue and exposed myself to new information on how the death penalty is applied.  Doing so has caused me to change my mind about the death penalty.

Theories aside, the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime. Criminal justice experts agree on this. First, only a tiny fraction of 1st degree murderers are ever executed. Deterrence experts know that a swift and guaranteed punishment has a much greater impact on preventing crime than a harsh but highly improbable punishment. Secondly, the infrequency with which the death penalty is applied, and the long delay before executions, eliminates what little deterrent effect might have existed in the first place.Even in areas where the death penalty is most often used, no deterrent benefit is seen. In fact, the region in the United States with the highest use of the death penalty (the South) also has the highest murder rate.  If the death penalty deterred crime in a considerable way, the opposite should be true.

While the death penalty doesn’t keep us any safer than prison-for-life, it comes with a far greater burden on taxpayers. According to Utah’s Legislative Office of Fiscal Analysis the cost for an average death penalty case to play out is 1.6 million dollars more than a non-capital murder trial. These extreme costs exist because of the extra safeguards in place. And caution is justified when taking a human life.

Due to the gravity of capital cases, specially trained defense lawyers are needed, cases are more complicated, a separate phase takes place after guilt or innocence is decided to determine if life or death should be given, and finally, when “death” is handed-out the long appeals process begins. In almost all cases, the state ends up paying for both prosecution and defense throughout this decades-long process.

And this process can be very harmful to the families of victims. Through every appeal the family must constantly re-experience the most traumatic event of their lives. And, besides lasting years and being highly publicized, capital cases also come with great uncertainty. It is more likely that a death sentence will be overturned than result in an execution.  Victims are strung along with the promise of a punishment that is unlikely to ever occur. In contrast, when an offender is sentenced to life without parole, the sentence begins right away and the family can truly move forward with their lives.

Data shows that capital punishment is a power that has been abused. To date, at least 160 people have left death row – set free by new evidence after years of just sitting there burdening taxpayers.  Many of these individuals were exonerated based on DNA evidence – evidence that has exposed mistakes by the justice system in hundreds of non-capital cases. So while the death penalty may make sense in theory, the way it plays out in real life makes it clear that it is often a tool of injustice.

Government’s primary function is to execute justice. So even though I may agree with “an eye for an eye” in principle, the death penalty offers us sad and compelling evidence that government cannot perform its most basic duty; neither fairly nor swiftly. So why in the world would we give our fallible government the power to decide life and death? Government shouldn’t play God.

Let’s save the money, stop the re-victimization of the families, and reduce the power government yields. The reality is that we can never have a foolproof system because humans are imperfect. So with that imperfection let’s err on the side of caution. It’s time to get rid of the death penalty.We’ll let God sort it out in the next life.

Thomas Dyches is a conservative podcaster, radio co-host, and grassroots political activist who resides in St. George.