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.

  1. Jean Boutcher April 24, 2007

    Interesting points as laid out above. One of the points, “presumed rationale of death Penalty, is definitely illogical. It is similar to that of Iraq’s Hammurbian Code completely rejected in the modern Western Europe. Which is why Europe looks down at the U.S.A. for exercising the rationale. One of the pscyhological factors and one of the fear factors deceptively eclipse logic.

    On a serious note, albeit being influenced by my Judaeo-Christian upbringing, it is my heart and senso comune that say that capital punishment, including death penalty, is immoral and wrong — be a person is guilty or not. My guts also tells me to have mercy on all human beings. Counseling, education, and work are, in my opinion, an excellent combination that rehabitiliates a person. There is another reason for me to reject capital punishment; that is: wrong people are sent to death penalty based on circumstantial evidence.

    On a light note, one of my favourite stories told to me by my old friend, the late Prof. Dr. Sulieman Bushnaq, was that a jouranlist asked a retired judge: “Why is it that you have never given a death sentence in your entire career as a judge?” To which the judge replied: “My wife filed a divorce after she saw me _____ a cow with my pants down. What had actually happened was that I was in the middle of peeing in the john on a farm when I saw one of my cows trying to jump over the fence. Out of fear of losing the cow, I frantically ran to catch the cow’s tail. My wife saw me and left me forever. That is called circumstanial evidence.”

  2. GoAwayAnxiety April 24, 2007

    Nice see your back with blog, its been so long! Wow I didn’t realize that Death Penalty cost more money than keep someone in prison for life. I always thought that keep someone in prison for life cost a lot of money than death penalty.

  3. Dianrez April 24, 2007

    Thoughtful essay! I agree that the death penalty is impractical, expensive, ineffective and immoral besides.

    A goal of punishment is not only to punish and deter, it is also a goal to remove the danger to society.

    A real problem is that we have no EFFECTIVE alternative to the death penalty. Often a “life sentence without parole” is commuted to release after twenty-some years. Changing laws, judges, and population have released murderers while they were still young enough to kill again. That’s not removing a danger to society.

    Life sentences are deterrents only if criminals know that life really does mean life in prison. This is a worse punishment than death.

    Another problem is that prisons have not arrived at effective programs to manage these lifers in a productive way. Many are mentally ill, sociopaths, mentally retarded, and just waste away in prison. The manpower (and womanpower) in prisons are an untapped source of information and hands that could benefit society. Survivors of their deeds could derive satisfaction that some good is coming of their loss.

  4. Karen April 25, 2007

    The death penalty is racist!

    That was the official conclusion of a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) review of the federal death penalty system. The DOJ study shows that the federal death penalty is used more with minorities, especially African Americans. The DOJ study states that almost 80 percent of inmates on federal death row are Black, Hispanic or from another minority group.

    Wonderful post!

  5. Julie Nelson April 25, 2007

    Hello and welcome back! You have been sorely missed, ASC! Smiles.
    I echo the sentiment that this is a Wonderful Post from you – very thought provoking and timely.

    I too was unaware that a death penalty case is more expensive than keeping an individual in jail for life. As I understand it, “for life” is not always “for life.” So my question is: How many years are we talking about that makes it cheaper to keep an individual in jail “for life” as compared to a death penalty law case? 10 years? 20 years? 30 years?

    And no, this information does not and will not change my mind about opposing the death penalty.

    While I am relieved that the jury decided appropriately (in my eyes) that Daphne Wright was guilty; I also am relieved that they did not listen to DA David Nelson’s request to place Ms. Wright on Death Row. I am actually convinced that Ms. Wright will hopefully now get the help she needs to become a better citizen…albeitly, while in prison. Which brings another question (I know I know! I am so full of questions this morning! Smiles.): What IS the “track record” of providing accessability services to d/Deaf prisoners in the US? Do we have any statistics on this from Gallaudet’s Research Institute? Or? If anyone from a research institute is reading this and knows the answer OR knows where to point me, I’d appreciate a response! Thank you!

    My heart and deepest sympathy goes to the Vandergeisen family and her friends. Know that you are in our thoughts and Darlene’s memory will not be forgotten.



  6. Susan April 26, 2007

    I am relieved Daphne is not going to be killed by the government. Like Jill Lestina said in her vlog, we should look at our own role in promoting violence in this world. We should show more love toward people who are lost like Daphne or Cox.

  7. kennis kilpatrick April 27, 2007

    Because their ( hearing) never learning about the deaf cult. Well, some people understandable about cult. But just I wonder about them”hearing.”
    And just i prayer of my lord for god.
    Yes, they (deaf) need to support for against sentence to death by dapher wright. But their jury decided vote for sentence to death for daphner wright.
    That is it… Our are stilling sinful of the world.
    Yes, I do understand about problem mental health from her….
    Just you have to fight for stop ( sentence to death). And better sentence to life period. Let you thinking about it. Thank you.

  8. Katherine May 2, 2007

    I am a strong believer in the power of forgiveness. It is part of
    healing. I have enormous respect for Darlene’s family who forgave Daphne in spite of the severity of the crime. It is not often that
    we see it happen with victim’s families. People often let anger and vengeance consume them that they are blinded by what forgiveness can do for them and others.

  9. Jean Boutcher May 2, 2007

    I agree with Katherine in #8. Many people and I who do volunteer work for Brady’s Campaign against the gun violence downtown were
    overwhelmed with awe by Amish people’s powerful positive thinking and abundant forgiveableness towards a gunman who shot children in a school in Lancaster, PA. All Americans can learn from the Amish people’s example of what “forgivenss” means. Because of a student at VA Tech, the suggestion was made at Brady’s that all students and parents be educated the ancient sayings: “Do unto others as they do unto you” and “love your neighbours” — be a student foreign, poor, handicapped, ugly, or whatever.

  10. Josiah Crow January 21, 2020

    That is only because they murder more people. The socialism foisted upon the minorities, especially blacks, creates a general misery in their society. Having been given everything they want by the government, their lives have little to no purpose, leaving them to turn to the “adventurous” and socially acceptable life of crime. They squander their free money on drugs, become mentally incompetent, and kill people; or they kill people in pursuit of said drugs. The bottom line is that capital punishment is not racist: socialism is. Minorities have been targeted with this venomous philosophy ever since Lyndon B. Johnson, who promised that his “Great Society” program would ensure the Democratic party the black votes for fifty years. An astute observer and a clever politician, Johnson was correct, and the black culture and the families that formed it has deteriorated steadily since then. The light of sunrise is visible, however; Johnson’s five decades are passed. Many blacks are realizing that they have been chasing a carrot on a stick: total equality; thus, some have done what any logical person would do: they have gotten jobs, begun to study, and started families, which is a sure way to avoid mass crime. To say that the death penalty is racist because more minorities are executed than whites is akin to alleging that the sun is racist because it melts more snowmen in Wisconsin than it does in Florida.


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