Psychological Implications of the Death Penalty

death-penalty.jpgDaphne Wright Trial: The recent Daphne Wright trial has brought the issue of the death penalty to the forefront of the Deaf community, igniting many debates both in favor of, and against, the appropriateness of this particular form of punishment. Without going into discussion of whether or not the Wright trial itself was a fair one, considering that Wright, a Deaf, African American, lesbian woman, was judged by a jury of hearing, Caucasian, and presumably, straight men and women, we would like to take moment to look at the death penalty from a psychological perspective.

Presumed Rationale of Death Penalty: The basic idea behind the death penalty is that if you kill someone on purpose, the government has the right to kill you, too. Think “an eye for an eye”, or one death justifies another. Those who support the death penalty believe its mere existence can deter people from murdering. They believe it’s cheaper than paying for life in prison. They believe it helps victims’ families heal emotionally.

The Fear Factor: Death penalty advocates argue that would-be murderers can be discouraged from committing crimes if they know that getting caught means facing the death penalty. The fear of death should make them think twice before killing. If this fear were enough to stop murderers, it follows that the murder rates in states with the death penalty should be lower than those in states without the death penalty. This is not true. In reality, murder rates are the highest, and have increased more over the past ten years, in states with the death penalty. Clearly, the psychological threat of death is not enough to prevent murders.

The Money Factor: Did you know that it costs millions more dollars to send someone to death row than it does to sentence someone to life in prison? While it might seem cheaper to flick the electric switch than to pay for a lifetime’s worth of prison food, lodging, health care, and so on, the fact is, death penalty cases are extremely expensive. The cost of the death penalty presents such a huge burden on county and state budgets, that every dollar spent on a death penalty case, is dollar that can’t be spent anywhere else. This means less money for social services, education, and other government-funded programs, as well as fewer job opportunities, all because of the dollars that need to be spent on death penalty cases.

The Vengeance Factor: Supporters of the death penalty often justify the punishment as being desired by victims’ families. Not all victims’ family members advocate the death penalty, however. Both Coretta Scott King, MLK’s widow, and Kerry Kennedy, RFK’s daughter, have opposed the death penalty. Death penalty trials and appeals drag out far longer than other trials. They bring unwanted media attention and scrutiny into the victims’ and their families’ lives. All of this can prolong a family’s grieving.

Other Psychological Factors: When someone is actually executed, it’s not just the victim’s family that deals with the emotional after-effects. The person who dies may also have parents, siblings, or children who will grieve. Then there is the issue of the death penalty being irreversible. If the wrong person is executed, there is no way to undo things. If an execution goes wrong, resulting in a slow, painful death, executors and witnesses can experience serious psychological distress.

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