Capital punishment must end

Laurel Wang | The Chronicle

On Halloween 2017, Sayfullo Saipov drove a truck into a bike path in New York City, killing eight and injuring eleven in the deadliest terrorist attack in the city since 9/11. His trial began in the second week of January 2023 as the first federal death penalty trial under the Biden administration, but his case began when he was charged five years ago. Then-President Donald Trump tweeted, “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY” as prosecutors under the attorney general were instructed to seek capital punishment after conviction.

Now, five years later, the Biden administration, which campaigned against the death penalty, is pursuing capital punishment for Saipov’s trial. Attorney General Merrick Garland denied a request to withdraw the death penalty order.

The death penalty is based on retributive justice, which is the idea that justice is best achieved through a punishment of equal severity. In the wave of emotion following a crime, our demand for this “eye for an eye” justice spikes. But death by state mandate is anything but simple.

Capital crimes lead to complex criminal cases that require months or years of discovery, pretrial, jury selection, trial, and deliberation. After the ruling, appeals against the decision are filed, tacking on even greater costs for the government. All the while, the defendant is housed, clothed and fed in prison, their life on the line for years.

Several states have found that the costs associated with bringing the death penalty are greater than keeping the defendant in jail for life. A 2013 study found that each capital punishment case costs $700,000 more than a life sentence. To bring the death penalty, counties divert millions of dollars from measures that actually reduce crime, like educational initiatives, job training and drug treatment.

After all that, the death penalty does not actually deter crime. States that execute have higher crime rates than those that do not, and areas that have abolished the death penalty see no significant change in crime rates.

The pursuit of the death penalty is marred by bias, where the characteristics of the defendant impact charges more than the actual crime. Juries are three times more likely to recommend death sentences for black defendants than white ones for similar crimes. 42% of defendants on death row are black, almost all are poor, and many have significant mental illness or disability.

Out of the 25 capital punishment cases the Justice Department has withdrawn under Biden’s death penalty moratorium, Saipov’s case has been the only exception. When asked about capital punishment during his confirmation hearings, Garland testified that he had concerns about the
“sort of arbitrariness and randomness of its application.” Yet the pursuit of the death penalty for Saipov seems to only reinforce inconsistency.

Acquiring the tools for death is no easy task, either. Procuring the rarely-produced chemicals needed for lethal injection can take years, as manufacturers refuse to sell to governments intending to use them for execution. Many doctors refuse to assist in executions under the Hippocratic Oath, leading to botched executions performed without proper training. Of the 20 execution attempts in 2022, seven were determined to be mishandled in some way, and two were halted altogether. Four states put executions on hold after protocols were not followed. In one execution, officials jabbed at a defendant’s veins for three hours before an IV was inserted.

Since 1973, 182 people on death row in the US have been exonerated, a frightening statistic. The death penalty is the ultimate punishment, which allows for no mistakes, no errors and no unfairness. If there is even a chance that we put one innocent person to death (which the government has done, again and again), then we cannot say that our justice system is moral. Until we can ensure true justice, the state has no place with the power to kill.

Saipov committed a heinous crime that left his victim’s families with unimaginable pain and suffering. And he did it to instill terror. But by refusing the death penalty, we refuse to allow America’s systems of justice to stoop to the level of crime. Murder is a crime, and it remains one when it’s state-sanctioned.

The US hasn’t always had the death penalty. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutionally “cruel and unusual”, and for four years, capital punishment was banned. With decades of falling support for the death penalty and decreasing executions nationwide, it’s time to again end the death penalty once and for all.