Emotional Appeals for the Death Penalty

By Julia Marlin

Introduction

Many people in the United States strongly believe in the necessity and effectiveness of the death penalty. While there are passionate arguments on both sides, the nature of each side’s arguments is very different; most of the arguments in favor of the death penalty are rooted in a pathos appeal, using real life stories of innocent people being brutally murdered and sometimes raped to evoke strong emotions of sadness and horror in people to be channeled into a need for justice and revenge. These views are highest amongst right wing (republican) conservatives and politicians in red (politically republican) states. The arguments in favor of the death penalty mainly operate under the premise that there are some crimes so heinous that the only appropriate punishment is death. While some opponents of the death penalty operate under the premise that no one deserves to die, but this moral aspect is not central to the oppositions’ argument in the same way it is for those who defend the death penalty. So many statistics show evidence of strong arguments against the death penalty, strong proponents of the death penalty add statistics to their arguments to make their side not only feel like the morally right side, but the logical choice as well. These statistics often directly counter those from death penalty opponents which means people are intentionally manipulating or omitting aspects of the data in their favor.

If you search “pro death penalty advocates” you will find countless stories told by members of murder victims’ families. Yes, each story is unique, but they all follow the same basic outline: “The family member was a wonderful and happy person, they were brutally murdered, sometimes raped or horribly mutilated, the family is crushed and living in anguish at the thought of the murderer living out their days in prison, the beloved family member will never come back, but the one thing that could ease the family’s pain is to see justice brought to the killer by having him executed.” These appeals are rooted in the story of one single family because focusing intensely on the excruciating pain of a family that has lost a loved one is a very powerful rhetorical device. Death penalty opponents do the opposite, showing broad statistics and stepping back from any kind of personal storytelling. By telling their story, families are saying that we should feel a certain way about a very big topic because of their story, which from their perspective is huge. These families are operating under the premise that their feelings justify capital punishment laws.

When you have people this close to such an emotional issue, there are going to be perspective imbalances and strong biases. Death penalty advocates who tell their personal and painful stories are very biased. This does not mean that their feelings are illegitimate, but their perspective should be taken into account; emotions are very powerful and can cloud and distort the bigger picture.

 

Case Study: Murder Victims’ Families

“To Murder Victims’ Families, Executing Killers is Justice”, a man, Frederick Anthony Romano, tells the story of the murder of his big sister in 1987 when he was seventeen years old. Romano is a supporter of the death penalty and seeks justice for his sister’s death. In the article he makes a distinction, “it’s justice […] it’s not revenge.”  A Maryland Attorney, General J. Joseph Curran, questioned Romano on his views on life without parole as opposed to the death penalty. Romano’s response is a classic slippery slope appeal, “My problem with it is that 10 years from now some other idiot will come along and say life without parole is too harsh. […] Then they’ll pass a bill granting them parole and then we’ll have a bunch of murderers walking the streets.” The United States is a long way from completely abolishing the death penalty, let alone life without parole. The article’s closing line and response to Romano’s comment clearly shows bias, “In Maryland’s bleeding-heart liberal legislature, that’s exactly what would happen.” This diction “bleeding-heart liberal” makes it clear that article is from the perspective of a conservative, or republican.

 

Case Study: DNA Testing

Many say that blame is a part of human nature, however someone’s accusation is not proof; witness testimonies can be corrupted, character witnesses are literally asking for a jury to use judgment based on the biases of someone else, and it’s even been proven that people confess to crimes they did not commit. For hundreds of years the United States has convicted and executed hundreds of people based on these types of evidence. All of this changed with the introduction of DNA testing in the mid 1980s. The Innocence Project is a an organization that works on exonerating prisoners using DNA evidence. According to them, “more than 300 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 18 who served time on death row. These people served an average of 13 years in prison before exoneration and release.” This seems like a trustworthy source, however many pro death penalty websites claim that there have been no DNA related exonerations from death row, others claim five, fourteen. Basically, no one agrees which is very frustrating as there can be only one true answer. One thing that everyone, regardless of their stance on the death penalty, agrees with is that innocent people should not be killed. Therefore if there is a way such as DNA testing to prove that a convicted man is innocent shouldn’t his execution be postponed until all said methods can be implemented? Here’s a list of upcoming executions scheduled in 2015:

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I highlighted Rodney Reed somewhat randomly but also because his execution has been ‘stayed’. Reed has been on death row in Texas since 1998 after being convicted of murdering a 19 year old girl Stacey Stites. Since his conviction, evidence that the murderer may have been Stites’ fiance has surfaced but the court has denied Reeds many appeals and requests that evidence be DNA tested, theoretically with the potential to exonerate him. As the above table shows, Reeds execution (originally set for January 14th 2015) was stayed “to allow time for appeals regarding DNA testing. [The] judge denied a motion to introduce new DNA evidence into the case. New date set [for March 5th 2015].” Texas is historically and consistently the state with the most death row convictions, inmates, and executions. In the case of Rodney Reed, it looks like his execution is inescapable and for that reason, the better case scenario is that he is guilty, after all no one wants to execute an innocent man.

 

Having a court convict and sentence a person to death who is later proven innocent by DNA looks bad for the pro death penalty side of the debate. Even worse is DNA proof that innocent people have already been executed, a fact which many death penalty supporters outright deny. The positive spin they put on DNA testing is that more people can be confirmed to be guilty. Though support for the death penalty still has the majority in this country at 55% of the population and 32 out of the 50 states, this is a record low.

 

Deterrence/ Putting Current Statistics into Historical Perspective

Deathpenaltyinfo.org says that support for the death penalty has been dropping for 20 years, citing a study done by the Pew Research Center.

This map from their website shows the decline of citizen support in states that favor the death penalty, and the rise of citizens who oppose the death penalty in states that oppose the death penalty. This shows that support for the death penalty has been dropping country wide.

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Also decreasing is the number of executions per year,

 

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a fact that Wesley Lowe, a death penalty enthusiast, finds very concerning for the safety of the American people. A common argument for the death penalty is that it deters crime. In theory, this makes sense; if murderers are continually put to death for their crimes, this will make potential murders think twice before murdering.

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This graph from Lowe’s website shows the supposed causation of the decrease in the number of executions and the increasing murder rate per capita (per 66,000 people). There are a lot of graphs on the internet and a lot of them contradict each other. This graph shows the national murder rate over time. Though the website isn’t clear about the scale of the graph, it’s clear that it’s showing a declining murder rate, contradicting Wesley Lowe. In fact checking both sides I found a lot of information supporting the declining national murder rate information and very little claiming an increasing murder rate. Deathpenaltyinfo.org does not take a stance on the death penalty debate. The site presents an abundance of information, everything from the history of the death penalty to a list of upcoming executions, and does so without bias; I trust the accuracy of their information.

 

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Though crime deterrence is a popular argument from death penalty supporters, it’s just proven to be untrue. As this graph from deathpenaltyinfo.org shows, crime rates have consistently been lower in states that have abolished the death penalty than in states that have it.

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In searching for evidence that either proves or disproves the crime deterrence theory, I followed an internet wormhole to a Social Science Research Network by way of this Freakonomics article which talks about this article from the Washington Post which claims that the death penalty deters crime. It’s difficult to present all of this information in a linear way because by wormhole I really mean wormweb; each new website sent me to about eight new sites and got very hard to keep track of. Here’s the best I’ve got:

In 2007 a press reporter Robert Tanner wrote an article all about how the death penalty deters or reduces crime. Tanner writes, “each execution deters an average of 18 murders, according to a 2003 nationwide study by professors at Emory University. (Other studies have estimated the deterred murders per execution at three, five and 14),” and quotes various economists on their findings. Then Steven Levitt, economist and Freakonomics co-author wrote an article, more like a blog post, on the Freakonomics website. In his article Levitt comments on Tanners findings, says that he disagrees with them, and points his readers in the direction of Justin Wolfers and John Donohue, authors of an article in the Stanford Law Review  (which is 50 pages long so if you’re interested but not 50-pages-interested read the abridged version). Wolfers and Donohue argue that the death penalty does not in fact deter crime or least is very hard to prove. They write, “the fundamental difficulty facing the econometrician is that the death penalty – at least as it has been implemented in the United States – is applied so rarely that the number of homicides that it can plausibly have caused or deterred cannot be reliably disentangled from the large year-to-year changes in the homicide rate caused by other factors.” Basically, the sample size is too small, there are too many confounding variables. Correlation does not equal causation.

 

Who supports the death penalty? What is the future of the death penalty in America?

55% of all Americans support the death penalty but that percentage is different within different demographics. Death penalty support is slightly higher among you whites, conservative republicans, christians (especially protestants), and people who have been closely affected by a murder. Interestingly, the more frequently someone from any demographic attends church, the less likely they are of supporting the death penalty.

 

This slate article “Why Whites Support Capital Punishment,” addresses the lack of diversity amongst death penalty supporters, and puts the stats in historical perspective. “Overall, 55 percent of Americans support capital punishment, and 37 percent are opposed. Among whites, however, support for the death penalty jumps to 63 percent, compared to 40 percent for Hispanics and 36 percent for blacks.” The article says that it all whittles down to racial control, white people using methods such as enslavement or putting people to death as a way of dehumanizing other races and marginalizing them. Race is just one instance of inequality surrounding the death penalty. Only 2% of death row inmates are women. A large percent of them are mentally ill, and nearly all of them come from broken, underprivileged homes and families. Though these facts point to systematic prejudice and oppression, the fact that the death penalty still has majority support in America points to the inherent strength of an emotional appeal.

 

Though support for the death penalty is still high, the trend shows that support has been steadily falling. This very likely means that one day the death penalty will be completely abolished in America which would be following the trend of most of the other developed countries around the world.

 

 

 

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6 thoughts on “Emotional Appeals for the Death Penalty

  1. Really interesting perspective. I totally agree that those who have suffered a loss want justice but is the death penalty the right way?

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  2. I was surprised by the graphics showing the states in which it is legal, illegal, for some reason I thought there were more states who had banned it by now. I think it would interesting to know if california might anytime soon?

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  3. I don’t think California is going to abolish it any time soon, we’re actually one of the states with the most death row prisoners.

    Like

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