Why the Death Penalty Should be Federally Abolished

Sharanya Choudhury, May 14, 2023

Forms of capital punishment have existed in the United States since colonial times, adopted from the influence of British settlers. While the United Kingdom abolished criminal executions by 1965, however, the United States continues its federal implementation to this day (“This Day in History”, 2020). Michigan was the first state to abolish the death penalty in 1846, followed by Rhode Island, Wisconsin, and limitations by several other states (“State by State”, n.d.). While the abolition movement has continued in waves since the 18th century, 27 states, including California, still enforce the death penalty today (“State by State”, n.d.). Lethal injection is the most common modern-day method of capital punishment, but multiple states also authorize the use of electrocution, firing squads, gas chambers, and hanging (“Methods of Execution”, n.d.). 

Nearly all 50 states with the exception of Alaska offer the alternative sentence of natural life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP) (Nellis, 2013). Prior to 1970, only about 7 states enacted the life without parole sentence, but this number quickly rose with the Furman vs. Georgia case of 1972 in which the Supreme Court temporarily ruled that capital punishment was unconstitutional and applied arbitrarily in a discriminatory manner (Nellis, 2013; “Furman v. Georgia”, n.d.). While this was overturned only four years later in the case of Gregg v. Georgia, which declared the death penalty would still be protected conditionally, LWOP has only continued to increase in popularity in the justice system (“Gregg v. Georgia”, n.d.). 

Capital punishment has been a controversial point of debate in the justice system since its implementation. This gave rise to the death penalty abolitionist movement in the 19th century (“The Abolitionist Movement”, n.d.). The death penalty’s controversy stems widely from its violation of the right to life. According to the ACLU, the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights considered abolishment of capital punishment which was eventually adopted globally through the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which prohibits executions to advocate for the total abolishment of the death penalty (“Human Rights and the Death Penalty”, n.d.; “UN Treaty Collection”, n.d.). As of now, the United States has yet to sign and participate in this treaty. 

Contrary to popular belief by its supporters, the death penalty also utilizes more financial resources than LWOP and rehabilitation alternatives. In most states, death penalty cases cost nearly 70% more than non-death penalty cases (“Wasteful & Inefficient”, n.d.). The median cost of a death penalty case is about 1.26 million dollars, making them more expensive than the cost of life imprisonment (“Financial Facts About the Death Penalty”, n.d.). With the United States already spending around 81 billion dollars annually on prisons due to incredibly high incarceration rates, it would be more financially sound to opt for alternative sentences (Kuhn, 2021). 

Since its establishment, legal executions have been heavily intertwined with racial discrimination and bias in prosecution. Historically, people of color are more likely to be sentenced to the death penalty than their white counterparts (Nellis, 2021). In the 19th and 20th centuries, lynchings were public killings used to terrorize and assert control over the Black community for even minor or fabricated criminal accusations (“Death Penalty”, n.d.). Rather than to serve legal punishment, lynchings were used to promote segregation and perpetuate harmful criminal stereotypes about Black Americans to aid white supremacist narratives By the 1900s, 75% of people in Southern states being sentenced to legal executions were Black, as court-ordered deaths started to resemble a modern-day replacement for lynching (“Death Penalty”, n.d.). The crimes resulting in lynching charges disproportionately involved black perpetrators and white victims, similar to the modern death penalty in which people convicted of murdering white victims are 17 times more likely to be sentenced to death than those murdering Black victims (“Death Penalty”, n.d.). 

The death penalty is also controversial due to the history of and the possibility of wrongful convictions. Since 1973, at least 189 people have been exonerated after having been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death (“Innocence”, n.d.). Despite making up less than half of the current death row population, 103 of these innocent cases are Black individuals (“Innocence”, n.d.). The death penalty takes away the possibility of new evidence that could possibly overturn charges if a case is reopened or still undergoing investigation. New technologies are constantly being developed in criminal investigation, and many cold cases or previously solved cases are being reworked as forensic resources improve. When an inmate is executed, the opportunity for a change in the verdict and charges of the case that could possibly exonerate them is removed. 

One notorious example of an exonerated death penalty case is the Ford Heights Four (“Verneal Jimmerson”, n.d.). In 1978, four black men were convicted, two of which were sentenced to execution, for the double homicide and rape of a couple in Illinois. Verneal Jimmerson along with Kenneth Adams, Willie Rainge, and Dennis Williams were exonerated eighteen years after their convictions, after serving 11 years of their sentences. A supposed eyewitness had placed the four at the crime scene and later retracted their statement. In an agreement to drop their convictions for perjury and being an accomplice, they agreed to witness for the prosecution at the trial. The case was later reopened in the 1990s and evidence revealed that the police failed to investigate a tip of the identity of three possible suspects who they would later recognize as the actual perpetrators. A new trial was granted and Jimmerson, Adams, Rainge, and Williams were released in June 1996. The original charges were dropped on the count of eyewitness misidentification, false confessions or admissions, improper forensics, and government misconduct. Although the four were compensated for civil rights damages by Cook County, they are unable to make up for the nearly two decades they had been convicted while innocent. Had the case not been taken up years after the initial charges, Kenneth Adams and Willie Rainge would be incarcerated to this day, and Verneal Jimmerson and Dennis Williams would have wrongfully lost their lives to the death penalty. 

Even though the Ford Heights Four are examples of those exonerated from the death penalty, there have certainly been a number of wrongfully convicted individuals who were executed despite their innocence. An example of this is the case of 14-year-old George Stinney Jr. (Bever, 2014). The bodies of two young white girls were found brutally murdered and Stinney was said to be one of the last people to see them alive. He was questioned by police in the absence of an attorney or his parents despite being a minor, and police claimed that he confessed to the crimes. Stinney’s evidence-lacking trial lasted a total of two hours with a ten-minute jury deliberation before he was legally charged with murder and sentenced to execution by electrocution in 1944 at only 14 years old. In 2014, the court ruled that Stinney had received an unfair trial as his family maintains that his confession was false and coerced by police. His conviction was finally overturned about 70 years after his execution. 

The devastating injustice of cases like the Ford Heights Four and George Stinney Jr. is only further enabled by the continuation of the death penalty. With racial discrimination evident in our legal justice system, individuals continue to be subject to wrongful and harsh death sentences with a disproportionate impact on Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC). 

This trend is only exaggerated by the recent Supreme Court ruling in the Shinn v. Ramirez case that bars federal courts from taking state cases that provide ineffective legal representation that often result in wrongful convictions (Pilkington, 2022). This ruling means that individuals who are wrongfully convicted will no longer have the opportunity to retrial with new evidence and fair legal representation at the federal level, leading to unjustly prolonged sentences or even execution in the case of death penalty convictions. The 6-3, conservative-led, ruling will negatively impact people of color and those of lower socioeconomic classes that are already more likely to receive an unfair trial or a misrepresenting and inadequate counsel. This makes securing justice even harder for the minorities targeted by wrongful or harsh convictions and mass incarceration. 

Modern supporters of capital punishment often justify its use by retribution or vindication as a source of closure to the families of victims. Ideally, capital punishment is thought to be used as a preventative measure for deterring prospective offenders from committing certain crimes, as well as preventing those sentenced to death from re-offending. However, discrimination and bias in the justice system lead to an unjust and morally reprehensible system of capital punishment that ultimately does more harm than good to those affected by its implementation. 

Today, the United States is one of the only two developed democracies in the world that still perform capital punishment. Ethical and financial factors considered, the death penalty in the United States should be abolished. The history of wrongful charges disproportionately impacting BIPOC, the additional expenses, and the violation of the right to life are all reasons that the United States should join the international community of countries that have already abolished the cruel and harsh injustices caused by legal executions. Overall, if the death penalty is abolished, we will see lower federal spending, greater judicial equality, and a more morally acceptable justice system.


[1] 2023 Legislative Counsel Bureau. (n.d.). Financial Facts About the Death Penalty. Nevada Legislature . https://www.leg.state.nv.us/App/NELIS/REL/76th2011/ExhibitDocument/OpenExhibitDocument?exhibitId=17686&fileDownloadName=h041211ab501_pescetta.pdf
[2] A&E Television Networks. (2020, August 13). This day in History: Last woman hanged for murder in Great Britain. History.com. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/last-woman-hanged-for-murder-in-great-britain
[3] The abolitionist movement. Death Penalty Information Center. (n.d.-e). https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/facts-and-research/history-of-the-death-penalty/the-abolitionist-movement
[4] Bever, L. (2014, December 18). It took 10 minutes to convict 14-year-old George Stinney Jr.. it took 70 years after his execution to exonerate him. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/12/18/the-rush-job-conviction-of-14-year-old-george-stinney-exonerated-70-years-after-execution/
[5] Death penalty. Equal Justice Initiative. (n.d.). https://eji.org/issues/death-penalty/
[6] Early history of the death penalty. Death Penalty Information Center. (n.d.-a). https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/facts-and-research/history-of-the-death-penalty/early-history-of-the-death-penalty
[7] Human rights and the death penalty. American Civil Liberties Union. (n.d.). https://www.aclu.org/issues/human-rights/human-rights-and-death-penalty#:~:text=The%20U.S.%20death%20penalty%20system,degrading%20treatment%20and%20even%20torture
[8] Innocence. Death Penalty Information Center. (n.d.-b). https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/policy-issues/innocence
[9] Kuhn, C. (2021, April 7). The U.S. spends billions to lock people up, but very little to help them once they’re released. PBS. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/the-u-s-spends-billions-to-lock-people-up-but-very-little-to-help-them-once-theyre-released
[10] Methods of execution. Death Penalty Information Center. (n.d.-c). https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/executions/methods-of-execution
[11] Nellis, A. (2013, September 18). Life goes on: The historic rise in life sentences in America. The Sentencing Project. https://www.sentencingproject.org/reports/life-goes-on-the-historic-rise-in-life-sentences-in-america/
[12] Nellis, A. (2021, October 13). The Color of Justice: Racial and ethnic disparity in state prisons. The Sentencing Project. https://www.sentencingproject.org/reports/the-color-of-justice-racial-and-ethnic-disparity-in-state-prisons-the-sentencing-project/
[13] Oyez. (n.d.-a). Furman v. Georgia. Oyez. https://www.oyez.org/cases/1971/69-5030
[14] Oyez. (n.d.-b). Gregg v. Georgia. Oyez. https://www.oyez.org/cases/1975/74-6257
[15] Pilkington, E. (2022, May 23). Supreme Court Guts Lifeline for prisoners who claim wrongful convictions. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/law/2022/may/23/us-supreme-court-prisoners-ineffective-counsel-challenges
[16] Reggio, M. H. (1999, February 9). History of the Death Penalty. PBS. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/history-of-the-death-penalty/
[17] State by State. Death Penalty Information Center. (n.d.-d). https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/state-and-federal-info/state-by-state
[18] United Nations. (n.d.). UN Treaty Collection: Chapter IV 12. United Nations. https://treaties.un.org/pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=IV-12&chapter=4
[19] Verneal Jimerson. Innocence Project. (n.d.). https://innocenceproject.org/cases/verneal-jimerson/
[20] Wasteful & Inefficient. Equal Justice USA. (n.d.). https://ejusa.org/resource/wasteful-inefficient/