Opinion: Regardless of method, the death penalty is cruel

Utahns should demand better.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Death row inmate Ralph Menzies attends 3rd District Court in West Jordan on Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2007.

On Jan. 25, the state of Alabama executed Kenneth Smith using nitrogen gas — a method never previously used anywhere in the world for an execution and that the American Veterinary Medical Association declared “unacceptable” for euthanizing animals. The execution took more than 20 minutes with witnesses reporting that Smith was “writhing and thrashing” soon after the gas mask covered his face. Applying any notion of humanity shows such an act was cruel and unusual.

Though it won’t be with nitrogen gas, the state of Utah may soon execute a person for the first time since 2010. Nevertheless, the death penalty remains cruel no matter the method.

The death penalty’s flaws are well established. It does not reduce crime or make us safer. A report from the National Institute of Justice declared, “There is no proof that the death penalty deters” crime and an “overwhelming majority” of research scientists agree it has no deterrent impact. In fact, every single year since 1990, states without the death penalty have had a considerably lower murder rate than states with it.

On the other hand, the death penalty is arbitrarily imposed, diverts critical resources that otherwise could be used towards efforts that actually improve safety and suffers from race and class bias. We do not reserve the death penalty for only the so-called “worst of the worst” but instead regularly sentence people to death who are mentally ill, have intellectual disabilities and have experienced tremendous physical abuse and trauma.

A frequently overlooked consequence of the death penalty is that those whose employment requires them to carry out a state’s decision to execute a person regularly suffer lasting trauma, with one official saying the death penalty places an “immeasurable burden” on correctional officers. People having to participate in executions can and do suffer from post-traumatic stress, drug and alcohol addiction, and depression. Dr. Allen Ault, a former warden for Georgia’s executions, has said, “I still have nightmares. [Execution is] the most premeditated form of murder you can possibly imagine, and it stays in your psyche forever.”

Further, the death penalty often does not provide closure to victims, as those sentenced to death are three times as likely to have their sentence overturned as they are to be executed. Indeed, nearly 200 people sentenced to death in the United States since 1973 have been proven innocent. As a result, one study found that just 2.5% of victims’ families and friends reported achieving closure from a death sentence while 1 in 4 said it did not help them heal at all.

Of course some victim’s families may understandably want to see the person who killed a loved one sentenced to death. However, wanting a person put to death is far from a universal stance. For instance, in a letter to former attorney general William Barr urging the federal government not to execute people, a group of 175 family members of murder victims wrote that the death penalty “exacerbates the trauma of losing a loved one and creates yet another grieving family. It also wastes many millions of dollars that could be better invested in programs that actually reduce crime and violence and that address the needs of families like ours.”

The family of the youngest victim of the Boston Marathon bombing spoke out against the use of the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, writing that it would serve only to “prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives.” And when New Hampshire abolished its death penalty a few years ago, the effort was led by Rep. Renny Cushing, whose father and brother-in-law were both murdered.

Despite all its flaws, many death penalty supporters still claim there are those who deserve to be killed because of their crime. But the real question we should be considering, as Bryan Stevenson has posed, is not does a person deserve to die, but “[d]o we deserve to kill.”

Only a few years ago, Utah came close to joining 23 other states and nearly every other country in the world in banning the death penalty. Considering all we know about the death penalty, it was a failure that it did not get abolished.

If we go forward with an execution next week, next month or next year, regardless of how it may be carried out, it won’t make Utah any safer. Just less humane. We should demand better.

Ben Miller

Ben Miller is a criminal defense attorney living in Salt Lake City. The opinions expressed are his alone.

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