COMMENTARY: The death penalty is never humane, even when carried out swiftly

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James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family professor of criminology, law and public policy at Northeastern University. For use with RNS-FOX-COLUMN transmitted July 28, 2014. Photo courtesy James Fox

Photo courtesy James Fox

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family professor of criminology, law and public policy at Northeastern University. For use with RNS-FOX-COLUMN transmitted July 28, 2014. Photo courtesy James Fox

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(RNS) I am concerned about relentless efforts to make the administration of capital punishment streamlined, straightforward, and simple. It should never be easy to kill a person.

  • Larry

    There is an argument to be made for capital punishment, but it isn’t the one typically given.

    Claims of the deterrence effect are proven to be completely fictitious by now. The death penalty is given in a fashion which is far too biased and freely to be of any beneficial effect. Capital punishment is as old as society. It never contributed to the reduction of crime in any culture. Far from it.

    It has a place as a form of societal retribution. A sign that there are some acts which go beyond the pale of acceptable society. The worst of the worst. Sadistic murder, serial/spree killing, murder for hire would probably be the only ones where capital punishment is truly appropriate.

    The reality is that the crime where the sentence is given the most is the one least appropriate, felony murder. When a death occurs in the course of committing a felony. Many times this is not even an intentional act, but from circumstances. Felony murder can include the death of accomplices by law enforcement.

    Retribution is really what the author here is discussing. But the problem is more of the fact that we are maintaining the fiction of deterrence. That the overuse and inherent biases of the death penalty as implemented serves a purpose. Retribution can be appropriate, but only when we drastically limit who is on the receiving end of it.

  • Lles Nats

    I like how some of the arab countried handle it.

    Once found guilty, in what I assume is a fair trial, the murderer is turned over to the family members. They alone can either kick the chair out from under the murdered standing at the gallows, or slap him and let him live.

  • Larry

    “Once found guilty, in what I assume is a fair trial”


    You are a very funny guy Lles.

  • Doc Anthony

    Okay then. I promise that as soon as the Stupid Cowardly Murderers and Gutless Rapists Guild passes a moratorium on the Death Penalty, I will call for my state to pass a moratorium on the Death Penalty too.

    Otherwise….. HANG ‘EM HIGH, BABY !!!!!!!!!

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I am NOT in favor of capital punishment. But I am disgusted with how blithely those against cap punishment so often offer life imprisonment as a good alternative.
    Hogwash! According to some studies 8-10 prison guards a year are murdered in prison –usually by lifer prisoners. Everyone has forgotten Attica where many died–other prisoners and guards. Prisoners incarcerated for much lesser crimes are also killed by lifers.
    We had a local situation involving a guard murdered by a lifer who then escaped. In many other states the guard would be with his family and alive today and the murderer buried somewhere.
    But no one ever seems to want to talk about or debate this issue. Maybe that is because most prison guards are just expendable working class people who (as John Kerry said nastily) should have gone to college.

  • larry

    The death penalty prevents nothing. You are ignoring the problem with your little spiel in favor of finger pointing moralizing. Typical conservative. Complains of problems of his own making.

    The death penalty won’t go jack to make prison guards safer. Not overcrowding prisons will. The overwhelming majority of offenders are there because of drug related offenses. They go in as dealers and go out as murderers. Draconian sentences, mandatory sentences, zero tolerance policies do nothing but flood our criminal justice system.

    If you actually had concern for what goes on in prisons, you would support decriminalization and legalization efforts.

  • larry

    You are more likely to be executed by the state than I would for the same crime. The sole difference being skin color. If you don’t mind that, continue on. 🙂

  • samuel Johnston

    Dr. Fox,
    You may have a PhD. but I have a J.D. and thirty years of general legal practice. I too have given the matter a bit of thought.
    “To me, however, equally disturbing is how many people rejoiced over the poor excuse for justice.”
    “Justice” ? What are you talking about? Nothing can effect justice in these matters.
    I care little about the convicted criminal – nor should I. I do, however, care about the victim and his/her family. The only arguments that I will entertain are those that address the effects of capitol punishment on society.
    “The focus of the debate should not, however, be about the most efficient means of putting a condemned murderer to death, but about whether we should be retaining the barbaric and archaic practice in the first place.”
    This simple declarative sentence has neither evidence nor logic for backing, but is merely an appeal to the faithful. It is shameful for a person in your position to make such an emotional appeal. Hanging or decapitation were the methods favored in Eighteenth Century America. These were neither cruel nor unusual. Lethal injection was one of those iill considered “humane” improvements.

  • rob

    the constitution does not say punishment has to be painless..

    now this is how against the bible this world is getting many of the same people who argue against capital punishment argue for assisted suicide..

    yes according to these people its cruel and unusual for any one to be on the side of holy scriptures about any thing now days ..

  • rob

    the death penalty will always be the best deterrent to crime ever….

    can you name some one that died under its use.. that did any future
    crime again Larry ?

  • Larry

    Indiscriminate massacres have the same effect. Do you like those as well?

    The death penalty has never contributed to a decline in crime rates in any country at any time. Stop pretending its deterrence. Stop pretending you have a goal for it other than retribution. Be honest about why you like it.

    If the real goal is retribution for the worst crimes, then it has to be more drastically limited than it is now. Definitely not for felony murder. Reserve it for the worst of the worst forms of homicide and just them.

  • Larry

    It has to be quick, it can’t be freaky or weird according to the 8th Amendment of the most godless un-biblical national constitution ever adopted.

  • Larry

    Are you familiar at all with Robert Blecker? The man is a professor of New York Law School and a proponent of the death penalty from a different angle than most. He is well worth looking up. You would probably like his writings.

  • samuel Johnston

    Thank you Larry. I gave the article a quick read. Blecker makes sense. At least he has actually spent a fair amount of time inside prisons. It is all too true that the worst of common law criminals are the best adapted to prison life.
    I seems bizarre to me that ordinary educated middle class people are so easily taken in by the death penalty opponents. These folks need to take a capitol felon home to dinner. They need to absorb their utter indifference to the pain of others. They need to meet their families, smell their breath, hear the excuses they propose to avoid responsibility for their actions.
    Finally, they need to get to know the families of the victims, the innocents, the children and widows of the policemen who were murdered because some vicious, greedy little snot, decided to hold up a Stop and Shop. Yes, these guys need to be executed, because they are just as deadly, dangerous, and uncaring of consequences as the premeditated murderer.

  • Readers of this commentary might be interested in knowing that there is a curriculum designed for use by adults in a church setting on the death penalty. The assumption is that the adults in the class will have various points of view on the topic before the study begins. Learn more at

  • Claire

    I find is appalling that ANYONE finds it right, justified, humane, etc, to execute ANYONE. I don’t care who it is, they are a human and deserve to be treated humanely. Those that vote for, agree to, assist in, etc., are no better than the criminal. IT IS NEVER RIGHT TO KILL ANOTHER PERSON, PERIOD. “Vengeance is mine, said the Lord.”