Are We Executing Innocent People?

Death Penalty
The death chamber is seen at the state penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas in September 2010. Since the 1970s, 1,407 people have been executed and 152 have been exonerated from death row, the author writes. Jenevieve Robbins/Texas Dept of Criminal Justice/Reuters

Year after year, decade after decade, people across the country overwhelmingly support the death penalty. In 2014, Americans supported capital punishment two to one—which is fairly low, historically: in 1995, support for execution was more like six to one.

Much of the debate is focused on whether it deters criminals or saves money, but for most people, the issue is not about the budget or crime rates. It's about justice, about people getting what they deserve.

According to Gallup, of those who oppose the death penalty, most (57 percent) do so because "it's wrong to take a life" or because "punishment should be left to God." Conversely, most people who support the death penalty (68 percent) do so because "they deserve it," "an eye for an eye," "it fits the crime," or other moral or religious convictions about justice.

This sounds like an intractable debate, each side simply clinging to its moral beliefs, but it's possible to get around this to confront a more fundamental question. Even if some people do deserve to die, should we invest the state with the awesome power to decide who lives and who dies?

On April 14, The New York Times reported that a Brooklyn man convicted of murder was ordered released by a judge after more than two decades in prison because of "deeply flawed detective work that 'undermines our judicial system.'"

His is the sixth conviction overturned as a result of a review of dozens of murder investigations performed by one NYPD detective, who is alleged to have fabricated confessions and fixed lineups.

The city may yet decide to retry this case, although the judge who ordered the conviction thrown out says she believes he would be acquitted. But what if this man had been sentenced to death and executed? No retrial and no redress would have been possible.

It's not an idle question, as a glance at the news will tell you.

Earlier this month, an Alabama man convicted of murder and sentenced to death on the basis of flawed forensic testimony was exonerated after almost 30 years in prison.

Currently, over 3,000 people are awaiting execution in the United States. Even if some or most of them deserve to die, is our faith in government so profound that we think that they are all guilty, that no mistakes have been made?

We know better. Since the 1970s, while 1,407 people have been executed, 152 have been exonerated from death row.

Daniel Bier is the editor of the blog Anything Peaceful on the Foundation for Economic Education website, which is where this article first appeared.

Are We Executing Innocent People? | Opinion