For the death penalty yet pro-life? Really?
'Old Sparky', the decommissioned electric chair in which 361 prisoners were executed between 1924 and 1964, is pictured 05 November 2007 at the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville, Texas. (Getty Images)
October 12th, 2011
04:25 PM ET

For the death penalty yet pro-life? Really?

Editor's Note: Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include Animal LiberationPractical EthicsThe Ethics of What We Eat, and The Life You Can Save. For more from Singer, visit Project Syndicate's website, or check it out on Facebook and Twitter.

By Peter Singer, Project Syndicate

Three significant events relating to the death penalty occurred in the United States during September. The one that gained the most publicity was the execution in Georgia of Troy Davis, who had been convicted of the 1989 murder of Mark McPhail, an off-duty police officer.

Davis’s death sentence was carried out despite serious doubts about whether he was guilty of the crime for which he received it. Witnesses who had testified at his trial later said that prosecutors had coerced them. Even death-penalty supporters protested against his execution, saying that he should be given a new trial. But the courts denied his appeals. In his final words, he proclaimed his innocence.

The deliberate judicial killing of a man who might have been innocent is deeply disturbing. But the execution was consistent with something that happened just two weeks earlier, at one of the debates between Republican candidates for their party’s nomination to challenge President Barack Obama next year. Texas Governor Rick Perry was reminded that during his term of office, the death penalty has been carried out 234 times. No other governor in modern times has presided over as many executions. But what is more remarkable is that some audience members applauded when the high number of executions was mentioned.

Perry was then asked whether he was ever troubled by the fact that one of them might have been innocent. He replied that he did not lose any sleep over the executions, because he had confidence in the judicial system in Texas. In view of the record of mistakes in every other judicial system, such confidence is difficult to justify. Indeed, less than a month later, Michael Morton, who had served nearly 25 years of a life sentence for the murder of his wife, was released from a Texas prison. DNA tests had shown that another man was responsible for the crime.

As September drew to a close, the US Supreme Court reached its decision in the case of Manuel Valle, who had been sentenced to death 33 years earlier. Valle had asked the court to halt his execution, on the grounds that to spend so long on death row is “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore prohibited by the US constitution.

Justice Stephen Breyer agreed that to spend 33 years in prison awaiting execution is cruel. In support of that view, he pointed to “barbaric” conditions on death row, and the “horrible” feelings of uncertainty when one is under sentence of execution but does not know whether or when the sentence will be carried out. Breyer then went on to document the fact that so long a period on death row is also unusual. It was, in fact, a record, although the average length of time spent on death row in the US is 15 years; in 2009, of 3173 death-row prisoners, 113 had been there for more than 29 years.

So Breyer held that Valle’s treatment was unconstitutional, and that he should not be executed. But he found no support for his position among the eight other Supreme Court judges. On September 28, the court rejected Valle’s application, and he was executed that evening.

The US is now the only Western industrialized nation to retain the death penalty for murder. Of 50 European countries, only Belarus, notorious for its lack of respect for basic human rights, still executes criminals in peacetime. The European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights regards the death penalty as a human-rights violation.

The death penalty is not an effective deterrent. Murder rates in Europe and other Western industrialized nations are lower, often much lower, than those in the US. In the US itself, the 16 states that have abolished the death penalty generally have lower murder rates than those that retain it.

In the US, however, deterrence is not really the issue. Retribution is often seen as a more important justification for the death penalty. It is quite common for family members of the victim to watch the execution of the person convicted of killing their relative, and afterwards to pronounce themselves satisfied that justice has been done – it happened again with the execution of Troy Davis.

In the rest of the Western world, the desire to witness an execution is widely regarded as barbaric, and barely comprehensible. The idea that the families of murder victims cannot obtain “closure” until the murderer has been executed seems not to be a universal human truth, but a product of a particular culture – perhaps not even American culture as a whole, but rather the culture of the American South, where 80% of all executions take place.

In view of the possibility that Georgia recently executed an innocent man, it is particularly ironic that the South’s voters are America’s most zealous in their efforts to protect innocent human life – as long as that life is still inside the womb, or is that of a person who, suffering from a terminal illness, seeks a doctor’s assistance in order to die when he or she wants. It is a contradiction that belies what the Republican Party, which dominates the region, promotes as a “culture of life.”

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Peter Singer. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.

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Topics: Culture • Law

soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. uhpaulo

    Actually there is not as much of a contradiction between being pro-life and pro death penalty as this author would like to assert. I personally am pro life, pro death with dignity (as a Christian I would not use this option myself, but I'm not going to assert my morals on another) and with some qualms pro death penalty as well.

    Think of it like this, let's let the person who's going to do the actual dieing doing the deciding on whether they are going to live or not, with one exception. If you maliciously rob someone else of this right, you as a form of poetic justice forfeit this right for yourself. I guess it should be obvious the light years of difference between the execution of an innocent fetus and the execution convicted violent criminal but maybe it's not as obvious to some...

    October 12, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Reply
    • Shane

      It is easy to be both pro life and pro death penalty because the basic diffrence between a condemnd person and an aborted baby is choice. The condemnd persons had the choise not to do what got them executed and an aborted baby never had any choice ever. Onecould say being pro life is the real pro choice because we want the baby to be able to make choices it effect it own life and those who claim to be pro choice (pro abortion) do not want the baby to have any choice ever.

      October 16, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Reply
  2. pmk1953

    Typical evangelical BS. We're worried about the unborn because it's a future potential evangelical. Once the baby is born, it's on it's own. Unless it's becomes a born-again hypocrite, then it can do no wrong. Criminals are already going to hell, so we just might as well hurry them up. After all, if you don't belong to their particular branch of christianity, you're doomed to hell anyway.

    October 13, 2011 at 12:57 am | Reply
    • eville_11

      and this whole article is based on the assumption or possibilty that Troy Davis MIGHT have been innocent...but the six-seven appeals and countless attorneys, couldn't turn over the gulity conviction. That possiblilty of him being innocent isn't so great.

      October 14, 2011 at 5:54 am | Reply
  3. TomSwift

    "For the death penalty yet pro-life? Really?"

    Personally I can make a distinction between innocent children and serial killers, (although I have mixed feelings on both issues)

    October 13, 2011 at 2:36 am | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    How much does an inmate in a Texan jail cost? Life imprisonment would mean higher expenditure. Death penalty would solve all problems, I suppose!

    October 13, 2011 at 9:45 am | Reply
    • Mike

      The death penalty with its higher legal costs and constant appeals costs more than life imprisonment

      October 21, 2011 at 9:45 am | Reply
  5. John Munnis, Jr.

    I am an active death penalty opponent from from Ohio. I have contacted the Governor prior to executions, gone to Lucasville (where executions are carried out) to pray outside the prison before a few of Ohio's executions and gone to local prayer vigils before the other Ohio executions. I have written to elected officials in support if abolishing the death penalty and have gone to committee hearing in support of a death penalty abolition bill in Ohio. But I am also something else.

    I am a person who was born with Spina Bifida in the early 1960s with Spina Bifida – when not all doctors would save us. Thankfully mine did save me. He did not believe in "playing God." If the the purpose was to help the cause of death penalty, Singer is best known not for opposition to the death penalty, but rather for rationing health care away people with disabilities (I support the Affordable Care Act and consider Singer an embarrassment to our cause.) and for arguing that the lives of people with disabilities are not worth as much as others' lives. He is dangerous. On the one hand, it would be sick to argue for the death penalty because Singer opposes it. But if CNN wanted to make a case against the death penalty, why did they not choose one of the countless respectable people who work to abolish the death penalty. Was Sister Helen Prejean (one of my heroes) not available?

    October 17, 2011 at 10:26 am | Reply
  6. John Munnis, Jr.

    Reposting with typos fixed, Sorry.

    I am an active death penalty opponent from from Ohio. I have contacted the Governor prior to executions, gone to Lucasville (where executions are carried out) to pray outside the prison before a few of Ohio's executions and gone to local prayer vigils before the other Ohio executions. I have written to elected officials in support of abolishing the death penalty and have gone to a committee hearing in support of a death penalty abolition bill in Ohio. But I am also something else.

    I am a person who was born with Spina Bifida in the early 1960s – when not all doctors would save us. Thankfully mine did save me. He did not believe in "playing God." If the the purpose was to help the cause of death penalty, why did CNN choose to unterview the goofy Peter Singer, of all people. Singer is best known not for opposition to the death penalty, but rather for rationing health care away people with disabilities (I support the Affordable Care Act and consider Singer an embarrassment to our cause.) and for arguing that the lives of people with disabilities are not worth as much as others' lives. He is dangerous. On the one hand, it would be sick to argue for the death penalty because Singer opposes it. But if CNN wanted to make a case against the death penalty, why did they not choose one of the countless respectable people who work to abolish the death penalty? Was Sister Helen Prejean (one of my heroes) not available?

    October 17, 2011 at 10:47 am | Reply
  7. Alfonso

    It was through the Catholic Church imposed its beliefs the world became more civilized so by Christian influence in the 365 was banned inmates condemned to be devoured by animals in the circus, Pope Damasus condemned the torture and cruel, heinous 382, Pope Nicolas abolished torture in Bulgaria in 866, Gregory VII banned the burning of witches in Dinamarca.El Pope Urban VIII in a letter to his nuncio in Portugal from 1639 absolutely condemns slavery and threatened with excommunication, but referred to the Indians and the Jesuits were driven per Reductions to the incursions of Brazilian bandeirantes raids made ​​on them for slaves.

    Clement XI in the early eighteenth century gives orders to the nuncios in Madrid and Lisbon to act for an end to slavery. No respuesta.Y unscrupulous people like Voltaire, still highly regarded in progressive circles, is lined with the slave.
    Hugh Thomas concludes: "These isolated reports allow the Catholic Church presented as a foreshadowing of the abolitionist movement with more plausibility than is generally granted. Throughout the seventeenth century letters of protest about him the slave trade business continued reach the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome from cappuccinos, Jesuits and bishops. "
    You understand, because it is a disaster of Peter Singer's opinion that civil society should repudiate the moral guardianship of the church?

    October 30, 2011 at 9:13 am | Reply
  8. Mark

    I agree let's end both abortion and the death penalty. Allow the guilty to spend their sentences in the general prison population and allow the innocent to be adopted by a family that wants them. Those "convicted" of crime might be innocent but an unborn child is definitely innocent. I have confidence in neither our judicial system nor the decision making process of someone who can't avoid getting pregnant with all of the options for contraception that are available.

    March 31, 2014 at 11:06 pm | Reply

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