The Case Against the Case Against the Death Penalty

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  • No. 2013-12

    The Case Against the Case Against the Death Penalty

    Chad Flanders

    New Criminal Law Review, Vol. 16, Number 4, Fall 2013


    Chad Flanders*

    Despite the continuing belief by a majority of Americans that the death penaltyis morally permissible, the death penalty has few academic defenders. This lackof academic defenders is puzzling because of the strong philosophical justica-tion the death penalty nds in traditional theories of punishment. The threemajor theories of punishment (the deterrent, the retributive, and the reha-bilitative), far from showing that the death penalty is not justied, tend toprovide good reasons to favor the death penalty. Indeed, every attempt to showthat the major theories of punishment rule out the death penalty eitherinvolves smuggling in other assumptions that are not intrinsic to the theory ofpunishment or puts into question that theorys ability to serve as a theory ofpunishment in general. Because arguments against the death penalty ndlittle traction from within punishment theory, ideas outside of punishmenttheory, such as dignity, decency, or civilization, provide better grounds forcriticizing capital punishment. The article begins sketching how such anargument might proceed, but does not give a fully eshed-out version of theargument, in part because it is unclear whether such an argument can succeed.

    Keywords: death penalty, criminal justice, retribution

    *St. Louis University, School of Law. Thanks especially to William Baude for con-versations on the subject of this paper and for his encouragement, and to John Inazu forhelpful feedback on a rst draft; a chance conversation with WilliamW. Berry III also led tosome adjustments. Dan Markel claried his position to me in comments on a late draft,although I am still not sure I have done it justice. Alex Muntges and Yiqing Wang providedexcellent research assistance. A version of this paper was given as a lecture at ZhejiangUniversity, Hangzhou, China, and I am grateful for the questions of the students andfaculty there. The usual disclaimers apply.

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    New Criminal Law Review, Vol. 16, Number 4, pps 595620. ISSN 1933-4192, electronicISSN 1933-4206. 2013 by the Regents of the University of California. All rightsreserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce articlecontent through the University of California Presss Rights and Permissions website, DOI: 10.1525/nclr.2013.16.4.595.


    In America, the death penalty remains popular, at least marginally so,although the support it enjoys varies from state to state,1 and may bewaning nationwide.2 Academic opinion, however, is something entirelydifferent. The death penalty, it is almost universally agreed, is at worstbarbaric and at best a waste of money. Indeed, academic defenders of thedeath penalty are few and far between; it is hard to think offhand ofa prominent, consistent proponent of capital punishment in the Americanacademy.3

    Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeules article in the Stanford LawReview,4 a widely discussed and vigorously debated defense of the deathpenalty, is the classic exception that proves the rule. For in the very sameissue, the law review presented not one but two ferociously strong rebuttalsby prominent professors representing the nearly unanimous academic con-sensus that the death penalty is both immoral (Carol Steiker) and inef-cient (John Donohue).5 Moreover, the distinct impression left by Sunstein

    1. For a recent, excellent study that shows how state-specic support for the deathpenalty is, see DAVID GARLAND, PECULIAR INSTITUTION: AMERICAS DEATH PENALTYIN AN AGE OF ABOLITION (2012). This article (for reasons explained later) mostly abstractsfrom contingent, historically particular facts about the implementation of the death penalty.

    2. See U.S. Death Penalty Support Stable at 63%, GALLUPPOLITICS (Jan. 9, 2013), (Although views on thedeath penalty have been fairly static since 2010, support has been gradually diminishingsince the high point in 1994, when 80 percent were in favor. By 2001, roughly two-thirdswere in favor, and since then it has edged closer to 60 percent.).

    3. Prior to his death, Ernest van den Haag was probably the most vocal, and mostnotable, academic supporter of the death penalty. See, e.g., ERNEST VAN DEN HAAG &JOHN P. CONRAD, THE DEATH PENALTY: A DEBATE (1983). Today, the most prominentlegal academic in support of the death penalty is probably Paul Cassell. See Cassell, InDefense of the Death Penalty, abstract_id2181453.But Cassell (a former judge) is probably best known for his work in defense of victimsrights, not for his defense of the death penalty. Stephanos Bibas and Douglas Berman haveco-authored two articles defending the in-principle justiability of the death penalty, buttheir position is nuanced and amounts to less a defense of the death penalty than a statementabout the relationship of the emotions to punishment. See, e.g., Bibas & Berman, EngagingCapital Emotions, 102 NW. L. REV. COLLOQUY 355 (2008).

    4. Cass R. Sunstein & Adrian Vermeule, Is Capital Punishment Morally Required? Acts,Omissions, and Life-Life Tradeoffs, 58 STAN. L. REV. 703 (2005).

    5. John J. Donohue & Justin Wolfers, Uses and Abuses of Empirical Evidence in the DeathPenalty Debate, 58 STAN. L. REV. 791 (2005); Carol Steiker, No, Capital Punishment Is Not

    596 | NEW CRIMINAL LAW REVIEW | VOL . 16 | NO . 4 | FALL 2013

  • and Vermeules reply given in the same issue is that this was less a full-throated defense of the death penalty than an exercise in proving thatgovernments are responsible not only for their acts (the punishment thegovernment metes out) but also for their omissions (the murders it allows).In fact, it is unclear whether, outside of the connes of the larger normativeambitions of that article, Sunstein, at least, would defend the deathpenalty.6

    This lack of prominent defenders of the death penalty is a puzzling stateof affairs, and not least because of the large disconnect that exists betweenthe academic mainstream and popular opinion. Usually, when there isstrong public support for a measure, there are at least some academicbackers, and not merely in the cocktail party sense of provocatively sup-porting the death penalty but actually taking a position in a law reviewarticle or a book. There is, again, little of this on display, especially in legalacademia.

    But the current academic consensus on the death penalty is also puzzlingbecause the death penalty can be justied by nearly any theory of punish-ment, as this article demonstrates. The death penalty is retributive formurderers (among possible other crimes); it potentially deters the commis-sion of future murders (even though the statistics on this are notoriouslyhard to prove, no one has shown conclusively that the death penaltycannot, or even that it does not, deter); and it can play a part in the moralrehabilitation of the offender, at least in the time he has before his execu-tion (this was why religious leaders would visit the condemned in theircells, to counsel them to repent of their sins).7 Punishment theory asa whole provides no barrier to showing that the death penalty is a fullyjustiable and justied punishment for certain offenders.

    Morally Required: Deterrence, Deontology, and the Death Penalty, 58 STAN. L. REV. 751(2005).

    6. See Douglas Berman, Does Cass Sunstein Really Think Capital Punishment May BeMorally Required? SENTG L. & POLY BLOG (Jan. 8, 2009), (I have a feeling that Sunstein considered this articleto be academic musings not a policy paper for the management of the federal criminaljustice system.).

    7. The death penalty can also be defended expressively or as a means of incapacitation.These theories are not treated here, in large part because it seems rather obvious that (a) thedeath penalty can express societys condemnation of the offender and (b) the death penaltyincapacitates the offender.


  • In making this claim about punishment theory, this article puts itselfrmly against Matthew Kramers recent, comprehensive book on the deathpenalty, The Ethics of Capital Punishment, which this article uses as a foil forits arguments.8 Kramer insists that the death penalty cannot be squared withany of the major theories of punishment, and so offers a fourth theory ofpunishment, the purgative, that shows that the death penalty is justied fora certain class of particularly heinous crimes.9 His book is helpful in framingthe major argument of this article, for two reasons. First, Kramers bookrepresents a rare, prolonged effort in defense of the death penalty, somethingwhich merits noticing in itself: it is not often one nds a book publishedby a major press, and receiving some high-prole notice, that concludes thatthe death penalty is, all things considered, a justied punishment.

    Second, on the way to defending his novel (purgative) argument forthe death penalty, Kramer nonetheless buttresses the existing academicconsensus against the death penalty by claiming that no major theory ofpunishment can justify the death penalty. Whereas many academics seemto assume that the death penalty cannot be justied, Kramer presentsdetailed arguments. This article disagrees strongly with Kramer, and main-tains that his book does not get us any closer to showing that, within themajor theories of punishment, the death pen