David Frum

03.14.13

Questioning the Death Penalty

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images ()

Is the death penalty on death row in Maryland?

Governor and presidential hopeful Martin O’Malley has been a long-time crusader against the death penalty. While his previous attempts to abolish the practice have failed, he may now have the votes and support from the Maryland General Assembly, a largely Democratic body.

Why does Governor O’Malley’s fresh attempt look so promising?

The argument in Maryland has focused not on the morality of the death penalty but its relative effectiveness: Does it deter violent crime? Can it be fairly and efficiently applied? The pro-repeal faction has won not by convincing legislators that capital punishment is wrong, but simply by emphasizing the length and cost of the current appeals process -- as well as the possibility that innocent people could be put to death. An additional boon to the movement was the help of Maryland's best-known former death-row inmate, Kirk Bloodsworth, who in 1993 became the first person in the United States to have a death sentence overturned by DNA testing.

These types of arguments have much more validity because they rely on facts and statistics, rather than pathos.

While support for the death penalty has been in consistent decline since the early 1990s, 63% of Americans still support the practice. This makes sense; ‘revenge killing’ carries emotional weight that could, in many cases, supersede the moral arguments against the death penalty. If America had gotten their hands on Adolf Hitler, you can be sure that even the most ardent opponents of the death penalty would be fine with a public execution.

From a logical standpoint, the death penalty makes absolutely no sense. In a 2008 study of the death penalty in Maryland, it was revealed that between 1978 and 1999, the 162 cases with capital punishment cost over $1 million more per case than if they had been tried without the death penalty attached. This is because of the lengthy appeals process, as well as incarceration costs of death row, which generally require individual cells and beefed up security.

Kirk Bloodsworth’s story is also not an anomaly. The Innocence Project, whose goal is to use new DNA evidence to overturn wrongful convictions, notes that of the 303 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States, 18 were death row inmates. Given that forensic technology will always leave something to be desired, it’s possible that the evidence we use now will miss important clues that could lead to wrongful convictions. Sentences can be overturned, but once someone is executed, nothing can be done post-mortem.

Of course there are many other statistical problems with the death penalty. For example, it was found that in Texas, an African American is more than three times as likely to have the death penalty attached to a case than a white person accused of the same crime.

Whether or not you agree with the death penalty on moral grounds, there are a multitude of factors that make the use of the death penalty questionable. Maryland is right to focus on pragmatic thinking as it moves the issue away from something that resembles the culture wars. If this cultural element if not obvious, it should be noted that if this legislation succeeds, Maryland will become the first state below the Mason-Dixon line to outlaw the death penalty.