This summer, a federal review found that as many as 27 death penalty convictions may have been made based on erroneous testimony. APA has long recognized that inaccurate testimony is just one of the problems inherent with the death penalty. That's why in 2001, APA's Council of Representatives called upon U.S. jurisdictions that impose the death penalty to not carry it out until they implemented policies and procedures that could be shown through social science research to ameliorate serious deficiencies in how executions were carried out. That was a significant step forward. In my opinion, it is now time for APA to urge the abolition of the death penalty.
Thirty-two states allow the execution of convicted murderers. Consistent with APA's amicus briefs submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court in recent years, the court has found it unconstitutional to execute children under age 18 and those with serious intellectual disabilities. Nevertheless, the court has never ruled that the death penalty is, per se, unconstitutional. In the 1976 case Gregg v. Georgia, it stated, "capital punishment is an expression of society's moral outrage at particularly offensive conduct."
According to the court, the two principal penological purposes for the death penalty are deterrence and retribution. But the court admitted in Gregg that "there is no convincing empirical evidence" supporting the view that the death penalty deters murder more than lesser penalties. In any event, although the Supreme Court pays lip service to deterrence, the predominant theory underlying the death penalty is retribution — the idea that the punishment is justified because people deserve it. There is nothing new in this. James Fitzjames Stephen asserted 140 years ago that "the criminal law thus proceeds upon the principle that it is morally right to hate criminals." More recently, Ernest van den Haag argued, "Never to execute a wrongdoer, regardless of how depraved his act, is to proclaim that no act can be so irredeemably vicious as to deserve death — that no human being can be wicked enough to be deprived of life."
In essence, retribution is founded in the unscientific belief that behavior is the result of free will. People choose, the position claims, to engage in evil behavior and, therefore, deserve the punishments they receive, including execution by the state. But any decently trained psychologist knows that behavior is not so unfettered. It is determined as the result of the confluence of biogenetic endowment and life experiences. In that view, there are no heroes and no villains.
For those who do not subscribe to the reality of determinism, one must respond to the question: Would any so-called "evil" killers have acted as they did if they were born to the doubter's parents, lived in the doubter's home town or had gotten a doctorate in psychology? Those who subscribe to free will would make human beings the only species whose behavior was not determined by biology and the reinforcing impact of their daily lives. Free will is a legal fiction, but it is an enduring one impervious to the principles of science.
I do distinguish, however, between responsibility and accountability. So, those whose genes and environment lead them to engage in criminal acts should be held accountable, and it may be entirely appropriate to segregate them from society. That is much different from viewing them as evildoers who deserve retribution. Retributive punishment, as Karl Menninger argued, is tantamount to sanctioned vengeance and therefore intolerable in a civilized society. Adopting a deterministic philosophy would result in more humane institutions, greater reliance on empirically validated interventions and, of course, the end of the death penalty.
I recognize that my call for APA to advocate for the abolition of the death penalty may be controversial. Some members will agree; some will disagree. But the death penalty is indefensible from a scientific perspective, and arguing for its abolition is the moral and ethical thing to do.
Letters to the Editor
- Send us a letter