Saturday, June 12, 2010

Changing Discourses in Anti-Death Penalty Advocacy

Several people at the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty meeting asked me to post my plenary panel remarks online; I hope you find them interesting.


Good morning everyone,

This gathering is a historical event, an attempt to place this country, whose pride and shame so often lie in its exceptionalism and uniqueness, in a global context, as part of a global movement. I looked at the program and it promises to be a fascinating day of examining world trends and exploring the ways in which the United States, an industrialized democracy whose execution statistics dwarf those of many developing nations, might fit into a paradigm of nation-wide abolition. Before we embark upon this important journey, though, I thought I would offer a few comments that might touch on this U.S. exceptionalism. More accurately, I would like to discuss the strategies and arguments that death penalty abolitionists, academics and activists, have used over the last decades, and situate them in the unique context of U.S. bipartisan politics, the legal profession, and the centrality of race in U.S. criminal justice policy.

Anti-death penalty discourse around the world often appeals to notions of humanitarianism, human rights, and morality. This family of arguments, which dates back centuries to rationales offered by Cesare Beccaria in his 17th century book Delle Crimen y Delle Penne, has always been part of the abolitionist agenda in the United States. However, over the years, American discourse has also included three non-humanitarian arguments, which have taken a place of prominence in public discourse here about the death penalty. I would like to present the three of them and talk about the unique U.S. conditions that produced them as part of the discourse. The three arguments are:

1) The lack of deterrent effect of executions;
2) the rate of wrongful convictions among those sentenced to death;
3) and the cost of administering the death penalty.

I presented the arguments in a rough chronological fashion. If you look today at activist websites about the death penalty, you are likely to find all three of these arguments represented, but each of them occupied center stage in public discourse for a while, later giving way to a new non-humanitarian argument.

Our love affair with deterrence arguments came in the heels of the 1976 Supreme Court decision in Gregg v. Georgia, which reinstated the death penalty after a four-year moratorium. This is well known, of course, to many people interested in the death penalty. What is somewhat less known is the role that an empirical study by Isaac Ehrlich, published shortly before the decision in Gregg, played in bringing this development about. Ehrlich used econometric calculations to show that each execution prevented eight murders. His study was extensively cited by the Supreme Court as an argument for the death penalty. Ehrlich’s study was not an outlier and its timing was not a coincidence. Its seeds were sown in the late 1960s, when the rise in crime rates, and fear of crime, were central features of the Nixon campaign. During this era, crime control and law enforcement became a regular feature of the U.S. political game, and particularly of the right/left divide. This played out in important ways during the 1970s, when a meta-research conducted by Robert Martinson found that rehabilitative programs in prison did not reduce recidivism. The general disillusionment with rehabilitation—until then a feature, at least in terms of rhetoric, of the U.S. sentencing and correctional system - pushed policymakers back to the traditional paradigm of aims of punishment, seeking retribution and deterrence. This was aided by the rise of punitive, fear-driven discourse, particularly in connection with the nascent war on drugs of the 1980s. Under such conditions, it was unavoidable that anti-death penalty discourse would address this issue. Critique of Ehrlich’s model emerged almost immediately. His methodology was heavily criticized. And several permutations of the deterrence arguments persist to this day. Last year I went to the Empirical Legal Studies conference, and, indeed, two teams of researchers were still battling minute econometrical details, trying to prove or discredit the deterrent effect of the death penalty. The methodological aspects of the debate would be lost on the general public, and the political motivation behind the argument was rather obscured; ironically, the better people got at producing models that predicted or disproved deterrent effects of the death penalty, the less interesting their work got in terms of its public appeal. In other words, the debate about deterrent effect has lost some of its steam and has been relegated to the realm of specialized, sophisticated scholars.

A new argument, however, emerged on the horizon. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, anti-death penalty discourse was fuelled by arguments pertaining to mistakes in convictionsk, made particularly tragic in the context of the death penalty because of its irreversibility. Several developments made the wrongful conviction and exoneration argument possible and important at the time. First, proving innocence seemed to be a dream finally attained through the introduction of DNA as an inexpensive, realistic option for the broad population of criminal defendants. It is important to point out that, despite the mystique of DNA, most exonerations of wrongfully convicted inmates did not occur through DNA testing, but rather through discrediting eyewitness identification. The early and mid-1990s were good years for the field of criminal psychology, yielding “white paper” about the unreliability of lineups and eyewitness identification, as well as a discredit of testimony by hypnosis. The success of U.S. television programs based on criminal forensics and science, particularly the CSI franchise that started showing in 2000, reflect the great hope awarded in the public imagination to science and the body as a means for uncovering the truth. The potential of scientific techniques in correcting wrongful convictions was harnessed by another important development: The emergence of clinical education in law schools, and particularly the emergence of innocence projects, in which students pursued, pro bono, wrongful conviction claims on behalf of inmates. The first Innocence Project was founded in 1992 in Cardozo School of Law under the leadership of Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, and offered, perhaps for the first time, the promise of scientific arguments to support abolition. There is one more important factor to keep in mind as we consider the emergence of exoneration and wrongful conviction arguments as anti-death penalty discourse: the growing public acknowledgment of the part played by race in the criminal justice system in general and on death row in particular. As our attention to wrongful convictions grew, we became more aware of the particular ways in which racial minorities in the U.S. were particularly vulnerable to intrusive police techniques, identification mishaps, racist jury panels, and vindictive judges, particularly in certain regions of the country. Not only were most people on death row members of racial minority groups, the stories of exonerees revealed how their racial identity impacted the prognosis of their criminal cases.

The exoneration argument was, however, not without its flaws and weaknesses. First, contrary to the grand promise of science and its appeal to the public (now known in the U.S. as the CSI Effect), DNA methods lost some of their iron-clad hold in court, if not on the general public. Wrongful conviction scholars find it increasingly difficult to gauge the exact number of wrongfully convicted people in prison in general, and on death row in particular. Do we count cases in which multiple eye-witnesses have recanted? Do we count cases in which police interrogation was abusive and coercive, even if we do not know whether it yielded the truth? While the public perhaps continued to perceive science and forensics as good ways to weed out the innocent, a growing discourse of fear and punitivism took hold. This seemingly contradictory trends are easy to explain when one considers that punitiveness gains legitimacy if it is guaranteed that those suffering from it are the guilty. Add to this the enlistment of the nascent victim advocacy movements to support the agenda of punitive politics (which I know many brave people in this audience, who have been victimized by crime, actively resist) and you’ll get a perfect punitive storm, pushing various reforms such as the Three Strikes Law. While the death penalty is unique, it should be seen in the context of this discourse of fear. Under such conditions, politicians of all stripes were concerned, and still are, about not appearing “soft on crime”, and in many regions of the U.S., opposing the death penalty is unthinkable for symbolic reasons as well as for reasons of realpolitik.

This challenge, of not appearing “soft on crime” while rejecting punitivism in general and the death penalty in particular, may have been addressed by the third non-humanitarian anti-death penalty discourse: The issue of cost and expense. With the recent financial crisis, the expenses associated with punitive sentencing regimes and mass incarceration have revealed to the public what was previously an invisible, underground “city” of corrections. The public is much more aware of incarceration conditions in general and conditions on death row in particular. Proposals to expand the San Quentin death row made headlines in California newspapers. And media discussions have led to a rising profile of the typically lengthy death row litigation. It should be mentioned, ironically, that as the costs of lengthy appeals and habeas corpus writs become a subject of public concern, the actual legal opportunities for post-conviction remedies grow narrow. Habeas corpus litigation in the U.S. has been gradually curbed, and overworked courts are more reluctant every day to hear death row appeals. Nevertheless, the argument seems to be that the death penalty, as it is administered today in the U.S., is no more than life imprisonment under difficult, expensive conditions, and accompanied by incessant litigation. This is a premise that budget-conscious politicians, whether conservative or progressive, can get behind with less risk to their public image.

Why do U.S activists use these arguments? Primarily, because they work. They are uniquely tailored to the realities of a bipartisan political system, in which, for various historical reasons, the death penalty has come to be a political issue. This is often difficult to understand for those unfamiliar with the U.S. context. After all, in Western democracies that abolished the death penalty the political divide is no longer an issue. And of course, once the death penalty has been abolished it is much more difficult to reinstate than it is to keep in place where it still exists. In non-democratic countries that still have the death penalty, the need to persuade the government to abolish it is irrelevant. The unique position of the U.S. as a punitive democracy is what necessitates this family of utilitarian arguments. If the human rights argument has been disabled due to fear and rhetoric, the public is spoken to through the lowest common ground: its wallet.

The proof is in the pudding. Recently, New Mexico abolished the death penalty, prominently citing issues of costs. Numerous U.S. states have placed moratoria on executions for the same reasons. Support for abolition, as well as for other nonpunitive measures such as drug legalization, skyrockets when they are presented as revenue-enhancing measures. California periodicals are peppered with editorial pieces by conservative politicians arguing that the costs of lengthy litigation and safe confinement are too much to spend if executions continue being administered at the current rate, thus supporting a cheaper solution: life without parole. The cost argument, therefore, holds the promise of persuasion.

The costs of using the cost argument, however, are a little less tangible. Everytime an argument against the death penalty is based solely on issues of cost, non-deterrence, and possible mistake, anti-death penalty activists accept their adversary’s rules of engagement and play their game on their terms. And while cost arguments are not fake or misleading – the costs are true – there is something misleading about presenting them at the forefront of what used to be, and should always be, a concern for our fellow human beings, be they offenders, victims, or correctional personnel. As a movement, we need to make a decision whether, and to what extent, we are willing to play this game to obtain the desired outcome, and what is the combination of strategy and ideological conviction that we can live with best. Thank you.


Anonymous said...


I really appreciated you speech. I do agree with the core argument that stresses the humanity of all incarcerated.

Furthermore, the pragmatic argument of cost is very problematical and locks all of us into the logic of the present system from which we are trying to break out. Under Capitalism everything, including the worth of human lives, is viewed in terms of dollars. We have the moral obligation to fight for a system and a morality where people are not things to be commodified, used and discarded.

I also think the argument of cost, certainly as used by racist, fascist and fundamentalist religious groups which are growing in power and political influence, has some very genocidal implications. Having worked for a long time battling police murdering persons in this country-which statistics indicate are in the thousands each year. After a police killing of person, these same right-wing groups and those influenced by them, praise the Judge-jury-executioner cop as saving taxpayers miilions in court cost, lawyer's fees, and support of the "low-life" scum. And of course this is well in line with old-testament and Koranic justice.

I tried to meet you yesterday, but the schedule was very full and I lost track of you. I wanted to talk with you about the banning of Revolution Newspaper at Pelican Bay prison and other prisons. Prisoners are human beings and have a right to a life of the mind, to critically thing and contribute solutions to the huge problems facing humanity. Could you contact me at

Thanks, d'andre

Hadar Aviram said...

Thank you, D'Andre! These are very thoughtful comments. And I completely agree that the cost argument might backfire, big time. Mona Lynch's book Sunbelt Justice shows how "cheap justice", Arizona or Texas style, does not equal "lenient justice." However, it's important to keep the cost argument in our arsenal of arguments - if only for the reason that it's the only thing that might work.