“It is long past time to abolish the death penalty in the U.S.,” write the editors for the Scientific American. In a March 19, 2024 op-ed titled “Evidence Does Not Support the Use of the Death Penalty,” the authors cite an abundance of studies demonstrating that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime, but is a flawed, racially biased, and costly practice responsible for sentencing innocent lives to death.  

In discussing the numerous problems with the death penalty, the opinion and analysis article highlights the increasing occurrence of botched executions, using the recent execution of Kenneth Smith to illustrate “this barbarity.” Alabama used an untested method of nitrogen hypoxia in the January 25 execution of Mr. Smith, who the state had previously tried and failed to execute via lethal injection. While the state attorney general deemed the execution a success, media eyewitnesses reported visible and violent reactions to the inhalation of nitrogen gas and an execution that took at least 20 minutes. After reviewing other execution methods, authors conclude that there “is no ethical, scientifically supported, medically acceptable or morally justifiable way” to carry out an execution. 

Given growing public opinion that the death penalty is applied unfairly, the authors urge President Biden to fulfill his 2020 campaign promise to work toward elimination of the federal death penalty and for state legislators to abolish the death penalty. Although 27 U.S. states retain the death penalty, only a small number of counties, primarily in southern states, are responsible for most new death sentences.  

In 1972, the Supreme Court found serious constitutional concerns with the arbitrariness and racial discrimination in the application of the death penalty and struck down existing death penalty statutes in Furman v. Georgia. Following a four-year moratorium, the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 after the Supreme Court’s decision in Gregg v. Georgia. Since then, 1,585 executions have been carried out. DPIC has identified at least 197 cases since 1973 in which a person was exonerated after being wrongfully sentenced to death and another 20 cases where an execution was carried out despite credible claims of innocence. The authors cite this data to support their contention that the current death penalty system is “wholly ineffective.” “Too many of these victims have been Black or Hispanic,” the authors note. “This is not justice. These are state-sanctioned hate crimes.” 

The article argues that retribution, rather than evidence-based reasons, is the primary driving force behind retaining capital punishment. “A furious urge for vengeance against those who have done wrong—or those we think have done wrong—is the biggest motivation for the death penalty,” the authors assert. “But this desire for violent retribution is the very impulse that our criminal justice system is made to check, not abet. Elected officials need to reform this aspect of our justice system at both the state and federal levels. Capital punishment does not stop crime and mocks both justice and humanity. The death penalty in the U.S. must come to an end.” 


Editors, Evidence Does Not Support the Use of the Death Penalty, Scientific American, March 192024