In May 2023, authorities in Iran hanged two men convicted of blasphemy. In a country controlled by a despotic theocracy with an abysmal human rights record, such tragic injustices are sadly not rare. Indeed, in Iran, at least 582 people were executed in 2022 alone, including 256 for drug offenses.

While the use of the death penalty by authoritarian regimes such as Iran’s is not surprising, what can be said for its use in countries that claim to be free societies?

In the United States, capital punishment is a legal penalty at the federal level as well as in 27 states. Among countries deemed advanced democracies, the United States stands alongside only Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan in maintaining the death penalty. Indeed, it is the only Western nation that regularly carries out executions. 

A tragic irony lies in the contradiction of a so-called free society embracing a barbaric practice that fundamentally defies the very essence of freedom — the state’s ability to make an irreversible decision on whether an individual should live or die.

Proponents argue the death penalty acts as a deterrent — a swift justice that mirrors the severity of heinous crimes. Yet, in practice, the evidence remains inconclusive in this regard. The very states endorsing the death penalty often grapple with higher rates of violent crime than those where it has been abolished, exposing the deterrence idea as a fallacy.

No, the death penalty is not the cheaper option

One argument favoring the death penalty suggests that the common alternative — life imprisonment without parole — makes too great a dent in taxpayers’ wallets. Indeed, the cost of incarceration is estimated at about $60,000-$70,000 per death row inmate per year.

Yet, carrying out the death penalty is also extremely costly — except often far more so than life without parole.

The cost of the death penalty doesn’t solely stem from lengthy appeals. Capital trials, even when compared to similar life imprisonment trials, consume more resources. According to studies, a mid-range estimate for the cost of a capital punishment trial is around $1.5 million — four times more than life imprisonment trials.

This increase is attributed to factors like extended attorney preparation, the appointment of two defense attorneys for defendants who cannot afford their own, a more complex jury selection, more hearings, and more expert witnesses. Capital trials, for these reasons, stand out as particularly expensive.

Indeed, in every U.S. state that maintains capital punishment, pursuing the death penalty has become far more expensive than life imprisonment.

With the death penalty, mistakes can never be amended

Given the definitive nature of the punishment, there can be no room for uncertainty, as no amount of compensation can restore the life of a wrongfully executed victim. 

Yet, since 1973, over 190 people have been sentenced to death, only to later be acquitted. Indeed, a 2014 study found that, if kept on death row indefinitely, we could expect over 4 percent of defendants to be acquitted. In a society that values the rights of every individual, any number above zero should be alarming in this context. 

These are not just numbers though. We’re talking about real people, each with their own story, like Dennis Williams, who spent over 17 years on death row before he was finally exonerated.

Wrongly convicted in 1978, Williams, a young African American man from Illinois, faced the death penalty for the abduction, rape, and murder of a young couple in an abandoned house, alongside his friends Verneal Jimerson, Kenneth Adams, and Willie Rainge — collectively known as the Ford Heights Four.

During the trial, the state’s chief witness initially claimed to be present at the crime scene with the four men, securing indictments against all of them. She later recanted her testimony, leading to the dismissal of charges against Jimerson. However, Williams, Adams, and Rainge were not as fortunate.

Eyewitness testimony placed the men near the crime scene, but crucial timing inconsistencies were overlooked by their attorney. Improper testimony about microscopic hair comparisons and incorrect serology information further muddied the waters. Adams received a 75-year sentence, Rainge faced life imprisonment, and Williams was sentenced to death.

In 1985, Williams secured a new trial. The chief witness, since convicted as an accomplice and for perjury following her recantation, reverted to her initial account. She testified against Williams in a bid to secure her release from prison. Subsequently, charges against Jimerson were refiled, leading to convictions and death sentences for both men.

Finally, in 1996, a group of determined journalism students revisited the Ford Heights Four case. They uncovered a crucial witness who had tipped off the police about the real culprits shortly after the crime. Shockingly, the police had ignored this lead. 

The students then tracked down two of the actual perpetrators, who confessed to the crime, with DNA testing corroborating their statements.

After enduring over 17 years of imprisonment and the constant threat of death row, Dennis Williams and his friends were exonerated through DNA evidence and the relentless efforts of the students. His release marked the end of a grave miscarriage of justice and underscored the terrifying implications of the death penalty.

In a world moving towards abolition, clutching onto the death penalty jeopardizes not only a nation’s credibility but the very principles it claims to uphold.

Indeed, capital punishment will be an important talking point at Students For Liberty’s upcoming LibertyCon International

2020 Libertarian Party candidate for vice-president and founder/president of You Are The Power, Spike Cohen; former Illinois Congressman and radio host, Joe Walsh; and Executive Director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Kat Murti, will take part in a panel discussion, moderated by radio and TV personality Demetrius Minor, exploring why the death penalty still exists in a civilized society.

Held in Washington, D.C., on February 2-4, 2024, LibertyCon International offers an opportunity to engage with top experts, scholars, and entrepreneurs from a variety of fields while providing a platform for attendees to connect with others who are dedicated to advancing pro-liberty ideas and creating a freer future.

Click the button below to sign up for updates and secure your spot at this exciting event. We can’t wait to see you there!

This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.