Capital punishment is a major moral question in the United States. Is the government justified in killing someone, even if they committed a terrible crime? Rick Halperin, the director of the Embrey Human Rights program at Southern Methodist University, discusses this and other ethical questions surrounding capital punishment. Halperin has done extensive research on the death penalty and is a recognized international authority on the subject.
Editor's note: This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
From an ethical and human rights standpoint, should the government have the death penalty?
Never. The government clearly has the power to kill people, but that’s different than whether they have the right to kill people. The most fundamental human right that anybody in this world has is not the right to life, but the right to life with dignity. And the death penalty, in any country, used against any individual or group of individuals violates that most fundamental right — even if it were to be used on a person or a group of persons who are guilty of heinous and violent offenses. The death penalty is the most fundamental human rights violation of any country in the world, including our own.
From your perspective, would life imprisonment be a better alternative to capital punishment?
I would say that mandatory life imprisonment without parole, to me, is a major human rights issue and violation. The U.S. is the only country that has such a thing. So, there’s no globally recognized sanction about the penalty of life in prison without parole. Our country is the only one that has it and uses it.
Society has a right to be protected from violent offenders. There’s no question about that. I would like to believe that all people can be given an opportunity to get better than the worst moment of their life. But if they can’t, if they are too ill, too psychopathic or they just don’t want to get better, then I think society should keep those people behind bars for the protection of other innocent people.
Is there a human rights implication in the racial makeup of prisons? Statistically, there are more black Americans incarcerated than white Americans. The same trend continues with executions.
I think that that is incontrovertible. African Americans, who only comprise 13 percent of this country’s population, are clearly incarcerated at much greater percentages than their numbers in society. No question about it. The criminal justice system is inherent in its racism. We are in a nation of 330 million people and have several million people incarcerated, most of whom are poor and/or people of color.
We’re in 2017 and most Americans don’t want to face the fact that on issues of criminal justice and social justice issues, we remain a brutally racist society. That’s just a fact. It’s not a pretty one to face about ourselves in 2017, but that is — collectively as a people on issues of criminal justice and beyond — in large part who we remain. We’re not in anything like a post-racial society. We are disgustingly racist country. It’s amazing. We shouldn’t be, but we are.
Do you think it’s cruel to have prisoners wait on Death Row before they are executed?
Absolutely. Death Row is physical and psychological terror and torture. The death penalty is not just an act in which a human being is put to death in the name of the law. That’s not the death penalty.
The death penalty is a process and it begins the moment an individual (an agent of the state) announces their intention to seek death. That process is dragged out through incarceration, trial, conviction, post-conviction appeals, time spent on Death Row, and ultimately execution — if that is carried out. So, time and conditions on death row absolutely are physical and psychological terror and torture.
Since we are a society that does have capital punishment, in your view, is there a way to carry out the death penalty without causing too much suffering?
No. There’s no such thing as a humane or painless way to kill somebody.
You know, we have five [legal] methods of killing people. We have more methods of killing people than any country in the world. They’re all legal. We don’t use them much anymore, but they’re all still legal. We used to hang people and we still shoot people. We strap people in electric chairs and sent anywhere between two and five thousand volts of electricity through their bodies and hope that they don’t catch on fire, but frequently they do. Or we use lethal gas and the condemned person will disappear in a cloud of poisonous gas. But invariably, they’ll cough, they’ll choke, they’ll sever part of their tongue, their eyes will bulge out.
Or we try to make ourselves feel better as a society by just saying, well, we’ll chemically poison them. We’ll strap them on a gurney and just put them to sleep. But even that has been horrifically botched. There’s been over 50 botched, gruesomely botched, lethal injections. Including many in the last three years in states like Ohio, where an inmate took over 25 minutes to be put to death. In Oklahoma, where it was over 50 minutes. In Arizona, where it was almost 2 hours. So, we want to pat ourselves on the back and say that lethal injection is clean, quick and painless but the reality is it isn’t.
There just isn’t any way to make killing somebody that is pain-free and mistake free. It can’t be done.
One of the ways the government tries to make an execution an easier process is to have doctors on site. But that seems to contradict a doctor's promise to heal people. What do you think about that?
The doctors are not supposed to be on site. The American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association has prohibited doctors and nurses and medical personnel from participating in executions with the threat of losing their medical license if they are found out.
Because they are not supposed to participate in a process which, if botched, the doctor would have to give the go-ahead that this individual is not dead and that the execution process would have to resume or continue in order to kill the person. They are not supposed to be in the death chamber. I am not under any illusions that several of them are, but it’s outrageous. They should lose their license. They should not be participating in a system of human extermination.
People on death row have been exonerated due to newly discovered DNA evidence. What is your reaction to that?
I think it’s great, of course. I think even pro-death penalty people would realize that we don’t want to execute innocent people. So if DNA can help free somebody who should never have been convicted or incarcerated in the first place, then clearly that is a great usage of DNA to get somebody away from the shadow of death.
Sadly, most people who are on death row and most death penalty cases do not contain DNA. And the law in the United States is that if their case doesn’t have DNA, you might be factually innocent, but the law says you can be put to death. That’s the law in this depraved country. You can be innocent, but if you don’t have DNA to help you, it’s just too damn bad for you.
It’s not your family member. It’s probably not ever going to be you or anybody you know. But it is somebody. And the fact that this country says, “Well, sorry. A jury of your peers got it wrong and that’s just too bad.” It’s depraved. But DNA to free people from death row is a great usage of that technology to spare innocent people.
You obviously think we are on the wrong path with capital punishment. What would you change in the United States to shift opinion on to the right path?
I would say education is a fundamental aspect in changing the culture in this country. Nobody in this country, per se, really talks about the death penalty a whole lot. But I think having mandatory human rights education in this country, starting in kindergarten and going through university, would do a lot of good.
People could study human rights the way they study any other subject. We ought to be about to talk about human rights in this country the way we talk about politics or sports. But we don’t. There’s no culture of human rights in the United States and it’s a real pity. It’s a great moral failing of younger and future generations. So, if we educated people about human rights and human dignity, we would have a better understanding as to how awful and how violent the death penalty is of people’s basic human rights to a life with dignity.
Do you think capital punishment will end in the United States anytime soon?
However anybody feels about the death penalty, whether they’re for it or against it or whether they don’t even think about it, the process of ending the death penalty in the United States is already underway. We’re not talking about if the death penalty is going to be ended. We’re talking about when is it going to end. It’s just a matter of when and how many more people are going to be put to death before it ends.
Many people in this country have come to learn about the death penalty, including pro-death penalty people, people who used to be fanatic supporters of the death penalty, have come to understand the shortcomings and the inherent flaws of the death penalty to change their opinions about it. The fact that 10 years ago, over 320 people were sentenced to death in this country and last year, only 30. Death sentencing is way down. Executions are way down. Removals from death row because of innocence are up. People’s knowledge of the death penalty is better.
Are we still going to kill people in the immediate future? Sadly, yes. We killed 20 people last year in 2016. We have a bunch of people that are going to be killed this year. So, it’s closer. I don’t know when it’s going to end, but sooner or later, this country is going to be death penalty free.