What If We Execute an Innocent Person?

Updated on May 3, 2018
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Bill has advanced degrees in education and political science. He has been a political science teacher for over 25 years.

Introduction

In the United States and around the world, there’s a decline in the use of the death penalty for the crime of murder. The death penalty is a vital part of a state's program for punishing murders and for that reason, I have already written two other articles on the death penalty: one entitled "Does the New Testament Ban the Death Penalty"? and another article on whether or not the death penalty is "humane."

One of the persuasive questions asked by death penalty opponents is “What if we execute the wrong person”? According to death penalty opponents about thirty people have been executed wrongly since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977. This statistic apparently has been a persuasive one given how often it’s used by death penalty opponents. In this article I will argue that we should use the death penalty, even at the risk of executing an innocent man. In summary, my arguments are:

  • The High Unlikelihood that an Innocent Person Will be Executed
  • The Inherent Reality of Risk
  • We Accept Risks for Reasons Far More Trivial Than Our Goal of Dispensing Justice and Saving Lives

Many arguments are made against the death penalty. One of them is that the death penalty should be abolished because it's possible you might execute an innocent person.
Many arguments are made against the death penalty. One of them is that the death penalty should be abolished because it's possible you might execute an innocent person. | Source

The Reasons Why

First, given the safeguards in place, it’s highly unlikely that we will execute the wrong person. Anything is possible, but given the elaborate system of due process that excludes illegal evidence from being admitted into court and the multiple appeals available to the accused, the chances of an innocent person being executed are slim.

Second, we regularly accept risk as a factor in the saving of lives. One of the strong arguments for the death penalty is that it would reduce the recidivism of homicides. In using the death penalty, there's always the chance (in this case of the death penalty, a very slim one) that a mistake would be made. However, we accept that element of risk in other areas in order to save lives. We allow law enforcement officers to fire a weapon in order to stop an assailant, even though we know that an innocent bystander could be hit and killed. Then, there's the speeding ambulance that crashes, resulting in a fatal accident. Even the use of electricity—we know every year that thousands will die of electrocution or as a result of an electrical failure (the toaster that catches on fire and burns down the house or the faulty/old wiring inside the home).

You have a better chance of dying in an accident caused by an ambulance than an innocent person has of being executed wrongly.

In fact, we accept risk for far more trivial reasons like our convenience. Probably the most obvious one is in the risk incurred in automobile driving. We know that thousands are going to die in automobile accidents every year, but we accept that risk knowing that thousands will die [1].

You have a much better chance of dying in a car accident within five miles from your house than an innocent man has of being executed wrongly.

You have a better chance of being killed in an ambulance than in being wrongly executed in the United States.
You have a better chance of being killed in an ambulance than in being wrongly executed in the United States. | Source

Amusing Ourselves to Death

In fact, we accept risk for even more trivial reasons than driving a car at our convenience. We know, for example, that every year a number of children will be killed in sporting activities and at amusement parks, yet we consider it a reasonable risk. Think about it, is riding a roller coaster worth dying for? Every year in the United States, about four people are killed as a result of injuries sustained at an amusement park [2]. But, when it comes to the death penalty...

you're more likely to die at an amusement park than at the hand of the state for a crime you didn’t commit.

You have a better chance of dying at an amusement park than in being wrongfully accused and executed in the United States.
You have a better chance of dying at an amusement park than in being wrongfully accused and executed in the United States. | Source

But, let’s assume that somewhere along the way that we will execute someone who is innocent—that is, someone that really did not commit the crime.

No policy of law enforcement is perfect and such perfection cannot be the requirement of implementation. Rather, perfection is the standard we set to achieve, but knowing that we will miss it. In no other area of law enforcement do we demand that the standard of perfection be satisfied before we will implement a policy. A vigilant system of capital punishment is the best that we can do to save the lives of future victims. About 14,000 people (that we know of ) are murdered each year in the United States [3]. Those that oppose the death penalty forget about them. A swift and certain system of capital punishment would greatly reduce that number. Keep in mind; those 14,000 people were innocent too. They are the victims, very often, of a violent death. It would be a tradeoff, a tradeoff to save many more lives.

Finally, earlier in the article I conceded that there were about 30 innocent people that have died as a result of the death penalty’s 1977 reinstatement. However, there are good reasons to question that statistic. When death penalty opponents use that statistic, they're not saying that the person didn't commit the murder. Rather, they're saying that they are “innocent” in that there was some element of due process that was not upheld. So death penalty opponents aren’t arguing that the person did not commit the murder; rather, they are arguing that the accused was not treated fairly.

My response to this is that we must always keep in mind the ends and the means and keep them in proper perspective. Justice is the end; due process is a means. If a man actually rapes and murders a woman and the state kills him for doing so, that act by the state is just, whether or not he was treated in the exact same way as every other prisoner, thereby fulfilling the requirement of "fairness." If the murderer was not treated fairly in the system, that's a problem of the system (the means), but it's not a problem of justice (the ends). To put it another way, if ten men commit a murder and only one is caught and executed, then he received justice, whether or not he was treated like the other murderers.

In Summary...

  • While there's always the risk that society might execute an innocent person, given the safeguards in place, it’s highly unlikely that we would execute the wrong person.
  • There will always be a risk involved in social activities whether they be trivial (like driving for recreational reasons) or taking risks in an effort to save lives (the speeding ambulance).
  • Death penalty opponents inconsistently apply perfection to the death penalty while failing to do so to other social systems.
  • The death penalty is the just response to violent crimes like murder. The ends of justice are of primary concern; the means of achieving justice (like due process) are secondary. We should fix the inconsistencies in the means to increase our chances of achieving the ends we seek.


Notes

[1] 34,767 in 2012, up 3.5% from 2011. The year with the highest number of fatalities was 1972 with 54,589.

[2] Consumer Product Safety Commission. "Amusement Ride-Related Injuries and Deaths in the United States: 2003 Update". November 1, 2003.

[3] 14,827 in 2012. Federal Bureau of Investigation. http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2012/crime-in-the-u.s.-2012/tables/4tabledatadecoverviewpdf/table_4_crime_in_the_united_states_by_region_geographic_division_and_state_2011-2012.xls


Should the United States Continue to Use the Death Penalty Even With the Possibility that an Innocent Person Might be Executed?

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© 2014 William R Bowen Jr

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