Is the Death Penalty Unethical?

Posted on September 22, 2020 By

by Hannah Cox

Hannah Cox

Is the death penalty unethical? For many years, this was where the debate around capital punishment began (and often ended).

While it’s an important question, especially for those concerned with human ethics or coming from a religious background, it is not necessarily the proper place to start the discussion. This is a theoretical question, and when we’re discussing matters of a public policy, we have to examine the practical application of that policy. This is the real world, not a classroom.

In between the black and white extremes of ethics lies the history and practices of the death penalty, and it is here that we should center our debate.

Capital punishment has (almost) always existed in our country, and we have continued to carry it out even as the rest of the western world has recognized its flaws and moved on to more effective, humane, and affordable solutions to violence.

For many years, the death penalty was carried out quite publicly, with executions performed in public squares, often with great fanfare. The grotesque nature of watching the state murder people in the streets led to the first abolition movement in the U.S. in the mid-19th century. States began to build penitentiaries, move executions inside, and change their laws to reduce the number of capital crimes on their books.

For the next century, the U.S. continued to carry out executions and stand by another type of death penalty – lynchings – which were carried out across the nation with the complicity of the legal system. From 1882 to 1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred (that we know of), the overwhelming majority of which were against Black people.

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court briefly overturned the death penalty, finding that it was overrun with racial bias and arbitrariness in sentencing. It’s interesting that the court found the penalty violated the Eight Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment not because it was found to be cruel, but rather because it was so randomly applied that to receive the sentence was “as unusual as being struck by lightning.”

Over the next four years, states tinkered with their laws, trying to make them meet the constitutional standards set by the court. States limited the number of crimes eligible for the sentence. They implemented aggravating and mitigating factors. They sought to ensure that the sentence would be applied only to the “worst of the worst,” no longer be racially motivated, and guard against wrongful convictions. By 1976, several states had usable death penalty statutes, meaning we now have nearly 50 years’ worth of data on the implementation of the modern death penalty.

What the data shows is that the system operates in the exact same manner as it did prior to “reform.”Today, the death penalty is overrun with issues of innocence, arbitrariness in sentencing, racial bias, and waste. Let’s look at the factors.

One person has been exonerated from our death rows for every nine executions. In case you don’t know just how hard it is to be exonerated, it’s really hard. That number should shock everyone, but it actually comes nowhere close to painting the full picture of how many innocent people are sentenced to die, or who have been executed. On top of the number of official exonerees are hundreds of others who had their trials reversed, took Alford Pleas, or who won on appeal.

For any person who claims to care about the sanctity of human life, individual liberty, and certainly the faults of a big government, the innocence issues in the system alone should be enough to do away with this policy. But it gets worse.

When it comes to who gets the death penalty in this country, the heinousness of the crime actually has little to do with it. Instead, it comes down to three other factors: the location of the crime, the socioeconomic status of the defendant, and the race of the defendant and victim.

To date, only two percent of counties bring the vast majority of death penalty cases in this country, and all executions have stemmed from less than 16% of our counties. Most prosecutors recognize it is not a deterrent, it wastes an extraordinary amount of money, and it is an opportunity cost that contributes to fewer crimes being solved. Still, a small percentage use these cases to build their name recognition and climb the career ladder.

It is also telling to see against whom this small group of district attorneys seek death sentences. You won’t find wealthy people on our death rows. Rather, the people you encounter are usually impoverished, had to rely on overworked public defenders with impossible caseloads, and almost always have significant disabilities – severe mental illnesses, intellectual disabilities, and histories with horrific trauma.

And then there’s the explicit racial bias. While about half of all murder victims are black, in 2019 nearly 80% of all new death sentences and 73% of all executions were imposed for cases with white victims. This isn’t a departure from older trends. And the racial combination that is the most likely to result in a death sentence? When the defendant is black and the victim is white.

We value victims differently in this country, plain and simple. We decide that for some victims we will spend millions in excess to pursue the death penalty, whereas for others – 40% of homicide victims to be exact – we don’t even bother to solve their murders. If we want to circle back to the question of ethics, here would be the place.

Is the death penalty ethical? If we had a perfect system and could guarantee its use only for the “worst of the worst” and only when guilt was absolute, should we then condone it? Should that be what we strive for? I would still say no.

I believe all people have value that cannot be won or lost by anything they do or do not do, but rather that stems from all human beings being made in the image of God. I not only believe in the notion of second chances, I have seen the power of redemption. I’ve seen God powerfully work in the lives of those who have committed violence, and I would never want to intervene in what He could do in a person’s life.

It does not matter whether or not you agree with me on these grounds, though. Because it is without question that we are not in a perfect system, that our government has proven itself unable to create a system free of error and racial bias, and that the manner in which we carry out the death penalty is unethical. There’s no defending it.

So, let’s start there, where we should be able to all agree. A system that operates in such a manner must be shut down.

Hannah Cox (upper right) on a panel for the 2020 Rehumanize International conference


Hannah Cox is the Senior National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Hannah was previously Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. Prior to that, she was Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association and a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.


For more of our posts on the death penalty, see:

Why Conservatives Should Oppose the Death Penalty / Destiny Herndon-de la Rosa

Racism and the Death Penalty  / David Cruz-Uribe


For more of our posts on conservative views, see:

Nukes and the Pro-Life Christian: A Conservative Takes a Second Look at the Morality of Nuclear Weapons / Karen Swallow Prior

Making the Case for Peace to Conservatives / John Whitehead



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