But statistics indicate that the death penalty does not have a deterrent effect. It costs a lot of taxpayer money to execute people. Extraordinary advances in forensic science have demonstrated the all too real possibility of executing the innocent. Above everything else, the death penalty does not and cannot bring the victim back.
These factors have combined to lead state legislatures to repeal death penalty statutes in some states. State and federal courts have considered these factors, together with nuanced constitutional arguments and international legal instruments, and struck down death penalty statutes in other states. The trend is away from capital punishment in the United States, yet it persists.
And my question about what makes the death penalty acceptable to so many Americans, including an otherwise progressive president, persists. It is only when, or if, a deeper, collective discussion of the ultimate sanction in the United States occurs and the rather unpleasant truths that this discussion will inevitably unearth are further thrashed out openly and honestly that we are likely to see an end to the practice of capital punishment in sight.
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Back here in Ireland, Americans sometimes get what are all too often ill-informed and accusatory lectures about our country’s record on protecting human rights. In response, we can proudly point to a wide array of forward-thinking laws that vindicate the rights and freedoms of individuals and groups in the United States.
Many of these laws are the envy of advocates around the world – the Americans with Disabilities Act springs immediately to mind – and there is much we can rightly celebrate. That the United States, along with China, Iran and a dwindling group of other countries whose values we generally do not share, still executes people in 2011 is nothing for us to be proud of, however. It’s a disgrace.
*Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney and lecturer now living in Ireland