On March 13th, the recently elected Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order establishing a moratorium on the death penalty in California, and hopefully soon more states will follow suit.
The duty of government is to protect its people, and ensure that all of its citizens have equal rights – not just in theory but in practice. While many were outraged that Newsom contradicted the will of the people in imposing his executive order, it is important for the government to ensure equal access to and protection under the law, even if it is against the will of the people. Like the Voting Rights Act, Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade and many other controversial but just decisions, legal action is sometimes required to guarantee that each and every person in our society is being treated as equal and with dignity in front of the law.
There are many objections one could have to the death penalty. Appealing to an archaic and outdated system of morality within a democratic society where there is a separation of church and state is reprehensible. Morality is subjective, the God of Abraham is a petty and capricious character at best, and modeling any system intended to ensure justice and equality after his model is certainly doomed to fail. People once used the Curse of Ham to justify slavery; we should look upon a biblical justification of anything with the same level of disgust that we now do towards the example of Ham.
It represents a cruel and unusual punishment. There lies a strong dystopian implication to the citizen, that the state gives itself the power to kill its citizens; and a logical conundrum therein, that the state uses killing as the remedy for killing.
Separate from the ethical issues at hand is the fact that the death penalty is sentenced and carried out against racial minorities in disproportionate numbers. While only 12.1 percent of the U.S. population are African-American, 34.5 percent of the inmates executed since 1976 in the U.S. have been African-American, and the contrast to be extrapolated from that statistic is stark. In a country that has both a grotesque history racism, and a resolve to overcome these prejudices and exist equally, there is compelling evidence suggesting the death sentence is a vestige of a racist past that is used to reinforce racism on an institutional level.
Another ethical implication, one also touched on by Newsom in his speech, is that it is an irreversible punishment that prevents the pursuit of justice in the case of a wrongfully convicted defendant. Since 1976, and increasing in frequency due to the improved capabilities of DNA testing as the years go on, 164 people have been exonerated and freed from death row in the US. In a just society, even one innocent conviction is far too many.
While it may have been a useful – or, at the very least fundamentally wrong but still socially acceptable – practice in the past, the world is quickly moving away from the ignorance of our earlier eras. All but two of the industrialized countries in the world have abolished the death penalty; the exceptions being the United States and Japan.
This is a sign of steady progress. Perhaps as a result of the gruesome tragedies the world learned of at the end of the Second World War, the victory of democratic alliances like the European Union and the push for greater respect for human rights and freedoms have greatly reduced the number of countries in the Western World that use the death penalty (public beheadings are common in Saudi Arabia).
The death penalty is a barbaric, violent, hypocritical punishment borne from outdated biblical practices and the innate human desire for revenge. It, like all other things from the Old Testament, should be left where it belongs – in the Old Testament. We have grown from simple-minded understandings of things, away from the mythical explanations for things beyond our grasp, and in doing so should not be afraid to abandon old and ignorant ways in favor of more mature, modern and humane practices.