When Killing Is Legal

Sylvie GreenApril 5, 2021Life and DeathFeatures
When Killing Is Legal

The death penalty is one of many issues that divide America and the world.

The morality and effectiveness of murdering those who murder is continuously discussed and debated. While some believe that by taking another’s life you give up your own right to live, others believe it to be hypocritical and counterintuitive for the law to do what the law is attempting to punish. While some believe that the death penalty deters and prevents capital crime, others believe that a life sentence does so just as well. While some believe that it is possible for our system to fairly and correctly decide who deserves to be executed, others believe that it is inconsistent and discriminatory. Capital punishment also enables America’s criminal justice system to unfairly execute people of color disproportionately.

The death penalty dates back thousands of years. In 16th-century-BC Egypt, a man was accused of doing magic, and although executions were usually carried out with an ax during this time period, the man was ordered to kill himself instead because he was a noble. Fifth-century-BC Rome was similar. Laws were passed that made the death penalty for nobility different than that for freedmen or enslaved people. This was the case in many places around the world. At its beginning, the death penalty was used for many more crimes than it is today and was a much crueler process. One could be buried alive, drowned, or beaten to death for a crime as simple as stealing or disturbing the peace at night. In Rome, if someone murdered their mom or dad, they would be put in a sack filled with water, a dog, a rooster, a viper, and an ape.

Today, only 53 of 193 countries worldwide use the death penalty, and more than 70% of the world’s countries have abolished it. There is an international trend away from the death penalty as more and more countries claim that it is a violation of human rights. According to the Cornell Law School Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, the top five countries, in order of the most confirmed executions in 2019, were China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Egypt. The sixth was the United States. According to Amnesty International, which has been tracking executions worldwide since 1979, the 657 state executions in the top 20 countries was a decrease of 5% from 2018 and 60% from 2015. These numbers do not include thousands of annual executions kept secret by some governments. While internationally it is possible to receive the death penalty for committing common law crimes, in the United States capital punishment is used almost exclusively in murder cases or when a victim has died.

In America, 28 out of the 50 states allow capital punishment. Each state has its own set of laws regarding the death penalty, including what crimes must be commited, how it is prosecuted, and how it is carried out. While the majority of these states use the lethal injection method of execution, as recently as 2018, some states still used electrocution, gassing, hanging, and a firing squad. Debate about the abolition of the death penalty has intensified over time in America, with many arguing that it is both inhumane and unconstitutional. In the 1972 case Furman vs. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court suspended the use of capital punishment on the grounds that it was “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore unconstitutional. The court decided that the state’s laws were unfair and inconsistent in who received a death sentence and who did not. Between 1972 and 1976, 35 states rewrote their capital punishment laws to include the recommendations of the Supreme Court. The new laws had to clearly describe which capital crimes were punishable by death and make the application of the penalties more consistent. Then, in 1976, the court ended the moratorium on the death penalty, finding in the Gregg v. Georgia decision that the new laws removed the status of cruel and unusual punishment and were not unconstitutional.

The death penalty has a disproportionate effect on poor people and people of color. The statistics available from the United States Department of Justice’s 2020 publication of Capital Punishment Statistics, which tracks data through 2018, shows capital punishment is used disproportionately in cases against black people. The US population is 13% black and 76% white, but the population on death row is 42% black and 56% white. A black defendant is four times more likely to be executed than a white defendant. Additionally, ⅔ of people on death row for crimes committed as a juvenile are people of color.

Out of all people executed for interracial murders since 1976, 21 have been a white defendant who killed a black victim while 297 have been a black defendant who killed a white victim. Those who kill white people are 17 times more likely to be executed than those who kill black people. A 2017 study found that in a group of murder victims that were about 50% white and 46% black, 75% of executed defendants had killed a white person while only 15% had killed a black person. Also, in 1990, the United States Government Accountability Office reviewed 28 studies and found that 82% have proven that the race of the victim impacts the likelihood of the defendant’s being executed. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in 2010 that the fact that “the murder of Black victims is treated as less culpable than the murder of white victims provides a haunting reminder of once-prevalent Southern lynchings.” This inequality may be a result of prejudice from the usually majority-white judge and jury or systemic racism that leads to a lack of access to adequate legal defense. From 1988 to 1994, 75% of people convicted for drug trafficking under the “drug kingpin” law were white but only 11% of those convicted and put on death row were white. The other 89% were black or latino, and many of the accused were later found not to be kingpins, but instead “young black men in inner-city gangs or low-level individuals who had committed crimes for the kingpins” (ACLU Death Penalty Campaign). The ratio of black defendants to white defendants is hugely different from the ratio of black men sentenced to death to white men sentenced to death. This indicates racial bias in the capital punishment system.

In other cases, ineffective court-appointed attorneys lead to unfair treatment under the law. Poor people often do not receive quality legal representation. If a defendant cannot afford their own lawyer, the government provides one for them. According to a workload study, cases of crimes that result in at least a ten-year sentence require 70 hours of legal work before a decision should be made. However, many defendants with court-appointed lawyers do not receive this necessary attention. One lawyer in 2017 had 194 cases in one day, including 34 high-felony cases. He had to do the work of five full-time lawyers to serve each client. This lawyer is not an exception. Federal funding for legal assistance for capital cases was cut in 1996, and state-appointed defense lawyers are often “underqualified, underpaid, overworked” (ACLU Death Penalty Campaign). In the system we have today, those who can afford private legal defense are much more likely to have proper representation than those who cannot.

For every nine people who have been put on death row since 1973, one has been exonerated, for a total of 172 people. The Innocence Project, a group that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted people, has found evidence that proves many people innocent after they have already been executed. Inadequate legal defense is one of the factors that lead to wrongful convictions, along with incorrect eyewitness testimonies, evidence withheld by the police, reliance on jailhouse informants, and racially biased jury selection processes.

The overrepresentation of African Americans and Latinos in the use of capital punishment also appears in criminal convictions. One in three black men ages 18 to 35 are in jail, prison, on probation, or on parole. There are some crimes that are committed more by African Americans or Latinos, but, even taking these statistics into account, arrests, sentencing, and incarceration are not racially proportionate. Key decision makers, police officers, prosecutors, and judges are predominantly white, and sometimes exercise their discretion in ways that negatively impact people of color. When the Supreme Court struck down the use of the death penalty in Furman vs. Georgia, some of the Justices acknowledged that there is racial bias in the application of capital punishment. Again in 1987, the Supreme Court asserted that there is racial bias within our criminal justice system and stated that fixing racial bias in death penalty cases might require fixing racial bias in other criminal cases.

The question of when it is okay to kill another human being sparks deep feelings in many people. Conversations about life and death should also address inequities in life expectancy, birth rates, health, criminal justice, and general quality of life for different groups of people. In every aspect of life and death, it is difficult for humans to remain truly impartial and create fair and equal treatment for all. But whether or not it is possible is a question we must continue to strive to answer.


Bedau, Hugo Adam, and Paul G. Cassell. Debating the Death Penalty: Should America Have Capital Punishment? Oxford University Press, 2005.

Hood, Roger. “Arguments for and against Capital Punishment.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.


Jawando, Michele L, and Allie Anderson. “Racial and Gender Diversity Sorely Lacking in America's Courts.” Center for American Progress, 15 Sept. 2016. www.americanprogress.org/issues/courts/news/2016/09/15/144287/racial-and-gender-diversity-s orely-lacking-in-americas-courts/.

Liptak, Adam. “A Vast Racial Gap in Death Penalty Cases, New Study Finds.” The New York Times, 3 Aug. 2020. www.nytimes.com/2020/08/03/us/racial-gap-death-penalty.html.

Oppel, Richard A., and Jugal K. Patel. “One Lawyer, 194 Felony Cases, and No Time.” The New York Times, 31 Jan. 2019. www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/01/31/us/public-defender-case-loads.html.

Reggio, Michael H. “History of the Death Penalty.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service. www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/history-of-the-death-penalty/.

U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, September 2020, NCJ 254786. Capital Punishment, 2018 –Statistical Tables. Tracy L. Snell, BJS Statistician.

Webb, Sam. “Which Countries Have the Death Penalty and How Many People Are Executed Every Year?” The US Sun, 4 Dec. 2020. www.the-sun.com/news/1128099/countries-death-penalty-how-many-people-executed-world/.

Widgery, Amber and Karen McInnes. “States and Capital Punishment.” National Conference of State Legislatures, 24 Mar. 2020. www.ncsl.org/research/civil-and-criminal-justice/death-penalty.aspx.

“Capital Punishment.” Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=tp.

“Death Penalty.” Equal Justice Initiative, 14 Dec. 2020. eji.org/issues/death-penalty/.

“Executions by Race and Race of Victim.” Death Penalty Information Center. deathpenaltyinfo.org/executions/executions-overview/executions-by-race-and-race-of-victim.

“The History of the Death Penalty: A Timeline.” Death Penalty Information Center, 21 Dec. 2020. deathpenaltyinfo.org/stories/history-of-the-death-penalty-timeline.

“Home - Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide %.” Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, 18 Dec. 2020. deathpenaltyworldwide.org/.

“International.” Death Penalty Information Center, 22 Apr. 2020. deathpenaltyinfo.org/policy-issues/international.

“Race and the Death Penalty.” ACLU Death Penalty Campaign, American Civil Liberties Union. www.prisonpolicy.org/scans/aclu_dp_factsheet4.pdf.

“U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: United States.” Census Bureau QuickFacts. www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045219.

Sylvie Green is a 17 year-old on the New York Editorial Board. She lives in Brooklyn and enjoys playing sports, listening to music, and seeing her friends.