Kentucky's use of the death penalty deserves the harsh criticism it has lately received from the American Bar Association, the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights and an Oct. 24 editorial in The New York Times. We should follow the lead of the 17 U.S. states that have abolished capital punishment and the 133 countries that are abolitionist by law (97) or in practice (36).
These countries include Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and all of those in Europe except the oppressive regime in Belarus. According to Amnesty International, even the Russian Federation has had a moratorium on executions since 1996.
Last December, the ABA released the results of a two-year study by its Kentucky Assessment Team on the Death Penalty. The team included eight distinguished Kentucky jurists, two of whom were retired state supreme court judges. They unanimously recommended halting executions until "serious problems" were addressed. Among their disturbing findings:
■ Sixty percent of death sentences overturned on appeal — a very high error rate that creates a real possibility of executing innocent people.
■ No legal requirement for retaining evidence (including DNA) for as long as a defendant is incarcerated.
■ Inconsistent, arbitrary application of the death penalty in similar cases across different Kentucky jurisdictions.
■ Inadequately trained, poorly paid and overworked defense attorneys appointed to handle capital cases. In 10 of 78 cases, the defense attorneys were subsequently disbarred.
The team's survey found that 62 percent of likely Kentucky voters supported a moratorium on executions. In an editorial occasioned by the ABA report, the Herald-Leader also recommended a moratorium, although it continued to support the death penalty in principle.
On Oct. 17, the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, citing the findings of the ABA committee, sent to each member of the General Assembly and to the governor a resolution calling for outright abolition. It was this resolution that prompted the New York Times editorial also calling for abolition.
Why abolition rather than a moratorium to give us time to eliminate the abuses? Even reform of the death penalty system cannot rule out executions of innocent people. The injustice of a wrongful conviction can never be rectified if the convicted person is killed.
We have to ask ourselves what good we accomplish by executing murderers rather than imprisoning them for life without parole (a sentence available in Kentucky). There is no evidence to suggest that the death penalty has a greater deterrent effect than a life sentence.
As the Death Penalty Information Center points out, "Consistent with previous years, the 2010 FBI Uniform Crime Report showed that the South had the highest murder rate. The South accounts for over 80 percent of executions. The Northeast, which has less than 1 percent of all executions, tied with the West for the lowest murder rate."
So the death penalty doesn't make us any safer. But some may think it's the only appropriate penalty for murder. Yet there is no more reason to kill killers than there is to torture torturers, batter batterers or sexually assault those who assault sexually. In civilized societies, such penalties are seen as degrading even to those who administer the punishment.
With the progress of civilization, societies have done away with penalties such as torture, execution, amputation and whipping. They have replaced them with fines and prison terms. The requirement of just retribution is satisfied by having a schedule of increasingly severe fines and prison terms. The more severe the crime, the greater the fine or time in prison.
Moreover, a death-penalty case (from pre-trial to execution) is much more expensive than the combined cost of trial and incarceration when the sentence is life without parole. This is due to longer trials, more lawyers and experts for both defense and prosecution, mandatory appeals and other measures required by the U.S. Supreme Court to avoid unjust executions.
The cost of the death penalty in Kentucky hasn't yet been thoroughly analyzed, but there are detailed studies from other states. As reported in The Economist, these studies provide differing estimates of the added cost of a death-penalty case in different states, ranging from $500,000 for Kansas to $2 million in Maryland.
The death penalty doesn't make us safer. Justice doesn't require it. It's also exorbitantly expensive. We should abolish it.
Brian Cooney is emeritus professor of philosophy at Centre College.