Starr: Utah’s Death Penalty Is Too Barbaric To Bring Justice


A protestor carries a sign quoting the 8th Amendment. (Courtesy Flickr)

By Kennedie Starr, Opinion Writer

The six people currently on death row in Utah join a total of 2,673 people who face execution in other states and in the U.S. military. While the decline in the death row population continues annually, execution is still a form of punishment in many states. Despite it being unconstitutional, a disservice to victims and their families and extremely costly and barbaric, the United States continues to use capital punishment even though better sentencing options exist.

It can be a decades-long process for capital cases to work their way through the system, which does not serve victims nor their families. It is actively cruel to make those who have already suffered enough deal with an unresolved judgment and multiple appeals. The concept of justice needs to be centered around victims, and lingering cases that trudge through an inefficient system are the exact opposite form of justice and resolution deserved by victims. The extensive and complex process re-traumatizes survivors and victims’ families while also distressing people sitting on juries and those who have to carry out the execution. The idea of closure being achieved through capital punishment is outrageous, and research has shown that life without parole may be a better form of victim-centered justice when considering the physical and psychological well-being of survivors.

The death penalty involves complex legal cases and prolonged timelines, which cost states much more than a sentence of life without parole. Longer trials and years of appeals create excessive sums which could have been avoided with another sentence. A 2012 study done in Utah showed that an extra $1.6 million is spent on death penalty cases than if the sentence had been life without parole. It does not make sense to spend more on a penalty method that does not serve victims well, when other, less traumatizing options exist.

Most states execute individuals through lethal injection, and 16 states apply a secondary method if the drugs aren’t available (shortages frequently occur). Drug companies are not pleased about their products being used for death sentences, and supply dilemmas have arisen out of this as companies have either stopped making certain drugs altogether or have put limits on the purchase of them. Because of this supply issue, secondary forms to execute people are used such as electrocution, hanging and gas. Utah’s secondary method is execution by firing squad, which was last used in 2010 for a 1984 murder case. All of these methods are horrific and it feels almost unbelievable that a firing squad put someone to death in the last ten years within a state so determined to be characterized as pro-life.

These primary and secondary methods of execution should be appalling to the public, and ultimately, sending people to their death is a form of punishment that is both cruel and unusual. These procedures are gruesome and inhumane, and the question around the constitutionality of sending people to their death should further motivate us to prohibit capital punishment altogether. The cruel use of firing squads and injecting drug mixtures to kill people is inconsistent with what makes societies civilized. Most countries around the world have recognized the irreversibility and brutality of capital punishment and have abolished it. As a whole, the United States maintains the unusual practice, but 20 states and Washington D.C. have outlawed capital punishment. They now instead sentence people to life-long prison sentences without the option of parole, and Utah should do the same.

Not only is capital punishment unconstitutional because of the protections granted from the 8th amendment regarding cruelty, but it’s also inconsistent with equal protection of the law specified in the 14th amendment. This violation is blatant considering which populations are more likely to be sentenced to death. This already prejudiced criminal justice system is more likely to arrest, convict and incarcerate people of color more than any other group. Capital punishment sentences unfairly direct brutality to these groups and once more deny people rights promised in the Constitution.

As of April 2019, black defendants make up 41% of the death row inmates in the United States, despite African Americans only being 13% of the total population. Race of the victim also directs sentencing, which makes the application of the death penalty unjust. Analysis has shown that if a victim was white, the death sentence was more likely to be brought forward. So while the homicide rate is significantly higher for black men and women, skin color is directing cruel and unusual punishment to provide “justice” for white people primarily. We should be disgraced with a practice so allied with discrimination.

The list of problems surrounding capital punishment makes its application in 2019 senseless. The Supreme Court has narrowed its usage, but many states still hold the option to send people to their death through sickening means as a way to provide “justice.” Who is served by a drawn-out, expensive and discriminatory practice? Abandoning this archaic system is the best way forward, and Utah should reconsider legislation to eliminate it.


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