SPSSI Position on the Death Penalty

Note: See the SPSSI web site for a full report.

Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues
Summary Position Statement on the Death Penalty
Phoebe C. Ellsworth, Craig Haney, and Mark Costanzo
March 11, 2001

The United States government and the state governments should call an immediate halt to executions. Capital punishment has been abolished by most modern industrialized nations, it is not a deterrent to murder, and its administration in the United States is replete with error, injustice, and discrimination.

First, capital punishment is not necessary for an effective system of criminal justice: there is no evidence that the many nations or the 12 American states that have no death penalty are any less just or less effective in dealing with crime than nations or states that execute criminals. Decades of research have failed to produce any persuasive evidence that the death penalty is more effective than life imprisonment as a deterrent to murder (Bailey & Peterson, 1997; Lempert, 1981); thus its utilitarian value to society appears to be nil. The lack of any social benefit must be weighed against the severe social costs of capital punishment.

Second, there is mounting evidence that the decision making process in capital cases is egregiously inaccurate. The courts have reversed more than two thirds of the death sentences that have been appealed; on retrial fewer than 20% of these defendants were found to deserve the death penalty, and 7% were found to be innocent of the crime itself (Leibman, Fagan, & West, 2000). Between 1970 and 2000, 88 innocent prisoners were released from death row.

Third, the death penalty is discriminatory. Wealth, social status, race and geography play an obvious role in determining who is charged with a capital crime, convicted, and sentenced to death (Bright, 1994; Costanzo, 1997). In a just system, the most severe penalty would be reserved for the worst crimes, regardless of the wealth, race, or power of the offender. The empirical evidence demonstrates that capital punishment in America does not remotely approach that ideal; the distinction between those who are sentenced to die and those who are not is largely a matter of chance and bias.

Fourth, inaccuracy and unfairness are a predictable outcome of the unacceptable legal procedures that often characterize death penalty cases. There are no national standards to ensure that court-appointed defense attorneys have the training or experience necessary to handle these complex and extraordinarily serious cases, or to ensure that they are given the necessary time and resources needed to discharge this awesome responsibility, and the defense in capital cases is often woefully inadequate.

Fifth, there is evidence that death penalty cases are often treated with less rather than more care for due process. Police and prosecutors, under pressure to solve heinous crimes as quickly as possible, conduct slipshod investigations, rely on doubtful eyewitness identification and the questionable testimony of jailhouse informants, fail to consider new evidence that points to innocence and sometimes even hide it, or obtain false confessions by threats and psychological coercion (Gross, 1998; Liebman, Fagan, & West, 2000; Radelet, Bedau, & Putnam, 1992; Scheck, Neufeld, & Dwyer, 2000).

Sixth, these deficiencies in due process are exacerbated rather than corrected at the trial stage of capital cases. There is abundant empirical evidence that the legal instructions designed to inform the jurors' decision between the death penalty and a life sentence are incomprehensible, resulting in decisions that are arbitrary or legally wrong.

Seventh, the financial burdens of a system that includes the death penalty are far heavier than those of a system that includes only life imprisonment without parole (Costanzo, 1997; Dieter, 1997).

Eighth, we cannot count on the United States Supreme Court to right the wrongs of the death penalty process. The court has been impervious to all of the empirical arguments presented here (Ellsworth, 1988). The Court's death penalty jurisprudence has been criticized for decades by legal scholars and social scientists as inconsistent and at times incoherent (e.g., Weisberg, 1984), resting more on result-oriented rhetoric than on precedent or sound legal reasoning (e.g., Amsterdam & Bruner, 2000).

Therefore, be it resolved that SPSSI
  1. Condemns the use of the death penalty.
  2. Calls upon the states and the federal government to abolish the death penalty. Capital punishment provides no necessary benefits to society, as evidenced by the states and nations that manage perfectly well without it, and thus is not worth the enormous social and economic costs it entails: conviction and execution of the innocent; discrimination against the poor, the powerless, and ethnic and racial minorities; diversion of attention and resources from other more effective ways of preventing and controlling crime.

References

  • Amsterdam, A. G., & Bruner, J. (2000). Minding the law. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Bailey, W.C., & Peterson, R. D. (1997). Murder, capital punishment, and deterrence: A review of the literature. In H. A. Bedau (Ed.) The death penalty in America: Current controversies. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Bright, S. (1994). Counsel for the poor: The death sentence not for the worst crime, but for the worst lawyer. Yale Law Journal, 103, 1835-83.
  • Costanzo, M. (1997). Just revenge: Costs and consequences of the death penalty. New York: St. Martin's Press.
  • Dieter, R. C. (1997). Millions misspent: What politicians don't say about the high costs of the death penalty. In H. Bedau (Ed.) The death penalty in America: Current controversies. New York: Oxford University Press, pp 401-410.
  • Ellsworth, P. C. (1988). Unpleasant facts: The Supreme Court's response to research on capital punishment. In K. C. Haas & J. A. Inciardi (Eds.) Challenging capital punishment: Legal and social science approaches. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, pp 177-211.
  • Gross, S. R. (1998). Lost lives: Miscarriages of justice in capital cases. Law and Contemporary Problems, 61, 125-152.
  • Liebman, J. S., Fagan, J., & West, V. (2000). Capital attrition: Error rates in capital cases, 1973-1995. Texas Law Review, 78, 1839-1861.
  • Lempert, R. O. (1981). Desert and deterrence: An assessment of the moral bases of the case for capital punishment. Michigan Law Review, 79, 1177-1231.
  • Radelet, M. L., Bedau, H. A., & Putnam, C. E. (1992). In spite of innocence: Erroneous convictions in capital cases. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
  • Scheck, B., Neufeld, P. & Dwyer, J. (2000). Actual innocence. New York: Doubleday.
  • Weisberg, R. (1984). Deregulating death. Supreme Court Review, 1983, 305-395.
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