In recent discussions of the death penalty, I have heard supporters passionately defend the risking of innocent lives inherent in a capital punishment system. Their argument is something of a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis wherein the few innocent people mistakenly executed would be far outweighed by the many innocent lives saved by having a death penalty in place. But even if the death penalty deterred homocides, the killing of innocent people is never justified and should be avoided at all cost.
Obviously those in favor of capital punishment at the expense of innocent lives assume a general deterrent effect, which is definitely questionable. No widely accepted study has demonstrated that the death penalty actually lowers the number of homocides committed in a society. Even some of the most important founders of the general deterrence theory were opposed to capital punishment because they believed it justifies violence and therefore puts citizens' lives at greater risk. Deterrence is still used as an argument today, however, and for the sake of argument I will grant that there is indeed a deterrent effect. By doing so my goal is to demonstrate that deterrence does not justify the sacrifice of innocent lives within the death penalty system.
Human beings are fallible, juries will make mistakes. That is not to say our justice system should be thrown out, but there is a possibility of correcting errors when the mistake is sending an innocent to prison. There is no possibility of bringing an innocent person back to life once executed. Realistic supporters of the death penalty understand that some innocent lives will necessarily be lost through a death penalty system. They justify this loss on the basis that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one. This utilitarian rationalization seems on the surface reasonable - if each life has a certain value, then many lives are more valuable in sum than one life. But once the killing of an innocent human being is condoned, it must be argued that the results would have far greater negative impact than first imagined. The simplistic counting of lives that would excuse killing one to save thousands could theoretically be used to kill one to save two, or to kill one hundred to save one hundred and one. The problem is this: when the killing of an innocent person is justified, the value of a life is shifted from an intrinsic value to a simply relative value based upon how many other lives are in jeopardy.
Lives must not become simply means to an end, for the value of the end (to save lives) becomes worthless as a result. What makes one life worth less than two? Each life is of paramount importance - they cannot be grouped together and added up with the intent of performing some kind of moral calculus. State-sanctioned killing of a few innocent people is far worse in the long term than the illegal killing of thousands of people. It is through its laws that a society demonstrates its values, and if the sanctity of life is intentionally destroyed with the implementation of a system that necessarily means the execution of innocent people, then the society has allowed itself to become corrupt to the detriment of all within it. Innocent life must have infinite value in the government's eyes, impossible to add or subtract - or else all our rights are lost.
Not all the innocent lives destroyed in a death penalty system will be mistakes, either. If deterrence is going to be the goal of capital punishment, a real danger exists in the inevitability that some criminals will not be caught. In order to maintain the deterrent effect, officials may see fit to finding an innocent person to execute and then promoting him or her as the guilty party. When a terrible crime occurs and no real criminal can be found, the sense is "we can never let this happen again" as officials convict and execute a fabricated "criminal" in order to teach would-be murderers a lesson. The officials may do this because they have been backed into a corner - there must be public perception that justice has prevailed for additional lives to be saved through deterrence. Someone has to be executed, and sometimes it is much easier to convince the public that an innocent person is guilty than it is to figure out who actually committed the crime. Most likely this state-appointed scapegoat would be defenseless, lacking family, friends, intelligence, or money, but no one would be safe. When the state "needs" to execute someone, everyone becomes a potential victim, for the state could make its judgement based upon race, religion, or political belief.
Some would argue that there is no moral problem inherent in a capital punishment system, because the taking of innocent lives is not intentional when the system is implemented. And although mistakes and corruption are always possible, when the system functions normally every effort is made to ensure that innocent people aren't put to death. It seems that a large-scale program of any type could result in an accidental death, and yet we would not want to abandon human endeavor altogether just because someone might get killed. Every time we drive our cars, we take the chance of accidentally killing someone on the road, and yet cars greatly improve our quality of life.
But capital punishment is different. With a death penalty system the whole intention is to destroy a human life, whereas in other human pursuits safety is a primary goal. No other government program endeavors to kill an unwilling, yet non-threatening (in the sense that they're already caught, locked up) individual. And far from it being only difficult to make sure the executed is not innocent, it is impossible to tell without a doubt that the person sitting in the electric chair is guilty. Even first-hand witnesses sometimes have their doubts as to what actually happened, and first-hand witnesses do not pull the switch. At every stage of the death penalty system, the level of doubt is increased, the possibility of error or corruption is magnified immensely until the point where the executioner is given the responsibility of taking another human life - and making sure they are dead, dead, dead - on the basis of faith in the system and faith alone.
I have heard people say (and the Supreme Court has agreed) that guilt or innocence is determined at the trial. It is the jury's verdict alone that counts, and it is indisputable regardless of what actually happened. Obviously this line must be drawn in order to make our justice system operable. But actual responsibility for the act has to be taken into account at some point. One would assume that the jury's verdict would have some basis in fact, and it is the facts that are truly significant. The jury is only approximating reality, not creating it. If a jury finds someone guilty who is subsequently proven innocent - to the extent that even the governor comes to believe they are innocent - then they are not executed in spite of the jury's determination. That's what governor pardons are for; that's what the appeals process is for. If the jury's verdict were so cut and dry, "guilty" persons would be executed the day after the trial. As it stands, at least six innocent people have been released from death row in Texas in recent years, and unfortunately every single one of the close to 400 inmates remaining on death row is potentially innocent as well. I'm not necessarily saying that with a death penalty system innocent life is intentionally destroyed, but that life is intentionally destryed in the absence of a 100% chance of guilt. Only God can be that sure.
If the sanctity of life were maintained and criminals were sent to prison, no innocent lives would be taken at all. Verdicts would have to stand the test of time, and those unjustly accused and convicted would have at least a hope of someday being released upon society's realization of the truth. And even if we were to assume that the death penalty deters, that is not to say that the death penalty is the only deterrence. Prison is just one of many other ways to deter crime and murder, and as a society we must accept and promote alternative methods of crime prevention. By ruling out the death penalty, we do not tie our hands behind our backs with respect to crime. Rather, we open our eyes and minds to real solutions that do not involve the state-sanctioned destruction of innocent lives and the consequent destruction of the value of an innocent life.