There are lots of myths about the death penalty floating around our culture. We hope this page will set the record straight.
For a deeper dive into the facts, click here to read "Forty Years of Death: The past, present and future of the Death Penalty in South Carolina (Still Arbitrary After All These Years)" by John H. Blume and Lindsey S. Vann
You can also check out this new article by John Blume: "Ghosts of Executions Past: A Case Study of Executions in South Carolina in the Pre-Furman Era"
Myth: The death penalty is fair.
Fact: The death penalty is anything but fair.
South Carolina's death penalty risks innocent lives.
Though it costs SC taxpayers millions more per case than the alternative sentences, the death penalty still gets it wrong. At least 190 people in the U.S., who were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death, have been exonerated and freed since 1972. That is one person exonerated and released for every 8.2 people who were executed (189 exonerations/1547 executions based on updated data through June 29, 2022).
South Carolina has had three death row exonerations. It has likely executed other innocent people, and incarcerated others who chose to plea to a lesser offense rather than be tried or retried in a death penalty case.
The death penalty does not put the same value on all human life. Executions are much more common in cases with white victims: 81% of executions in the U.S. in the past 50 years involved white victims; 17% involved Black victims; 2% involved Asian victims, even though white victims only make up 27% of all homicide victims.
The death penalty disproportionately impacts those who are most vulnerable, including juveniles, as well as people with severe mental illness, brain injury, and severe untreated trauma.
South Carolina's death penalty does not value the sanctity of human life and denies the power of redemption and atonement by those who have caused harm.
South Carolina's death penalty is costly and ineffective.
Fifty years of experience has taught us that no matter how hard the government tries to get this system right, it fails at every turn, from convicting innocent people to botching execution procedures, all while spending millions of taxpayer dollars in the process.
The death penalty is geographically arbitrary, meaning the same crimes may receive very different penalties depending on the county in which the crime occurs. Just 1.1% of all counties in the U.S accounted for half of everyone on death row while 2% of U.S. counties accounted for half of all executions as of January 1, 2021.
In South Carolina, just four counties—Lexington, Greenville, Horry, and Spartanburg—account for 51% of South Carolina's death row. Lexington County alone accounts for almost 20%. While Greenville, Horry, and Spartanburg each account for only 11% each. Meanwhile, most of South Carolina’s taxpayers in rural counties are paying to maintain the death penalty used mostly by urban areas.
The death penalty asks too much of South Carolina Department of Correction officers, ranked among the lowest paid in the nation, to carry out executions without medical or pharmaceutical expertise. These individuals must live with the mental and physical trauma of taking a human life and with the consequences when something goes terribly wrong.
In 2020, only 50% of murders in the U.S. were solved. In 2021, the total average clearance rate for 43 of South Carolina's 46 counties was 61%. Three counties do not even report their clearance rates. This reality leaves surviving families of murder victims fearful and without the finality that they need. Taxpayer dollars would be better spent solving more of these cases than pursuing the death penalty for those already incarcerated.
South Carolina needs real solutions: If South Carolinians truly want to embrace a culture of life and to find effective responses to crime, we should be focused on healing and crime prevention, investing in trauma informed solutions that focus on accountability, mental health, and early intervention to prevent crime. We should be solving more violent crime, and we should get victims of violence and surviving families of murder victims the resources that they need to heal so that their healing isn’t reliant on what happens to the people who’ve caused them harm.
Myth: Public opinion strongly supports the death penalty.
Fact: Public opinion for the death penalty has has fallen significantly in the last 50 years.
“Gallup’s 2022 Crime Survey, administered between October 3–20, 2022 against the backdrop of the Parkland school shooting trial, reported support for capital punishment held steady at 55%, one percentage point above the 50-year low of 54% in 2021. According to Gallup, support for capital punishment has remained between 54-56% for each of the past six years. 42% of respondents told Gallup they oppose the death penalty, one percentage point below 2021’s 50-year high.” (DPIC 2022 Year End Report)
“Public support for capital punishment varies considerably depending upon the question that is asked. Gallup periodically asks respondents to choose whether the death penalty or life without possibility of parole “is the better penalty for murder.” The last time Gallup asked that question, in 2019, 60% percent of Americans chose the life-sentencing option, while only 36% favored the death penalty.” (DPIC 2022 Year End Report)
Myth: The death penalty deters crime.
Fact: The death penalty does not deter crime.
Researchers continue to find flaws in studies claiming deterrence effect. A report released on April 18, 2012, by the National Research Council of the National Academies based on a review of more than three decades of research concluded that studies claiming a deterrent effect on murder rates from the death penalty are fundamentally flawed. The report stated:
“The committee concludes that research to date on the effect of capital punishment on homicide is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates. Therefore, the committee recommends that these studies not be used to inform deliberations requiring judgments about the effect of the death penalty on homicide. Consequently, claims that research demonstrates that capital punishment decreases or increases the homicide rate by a specified amount or has no effect on the homicide rate should not influence policy judgments about capital punishment.” (D. Nagin and J. Pepper, “Deterrence and the Death Penalty,” Committee on Law and Justice at the National Research Council, April 2012)
According to a 2009 survey of the former and present presidents of the nation’s top academic criminological societies appearing in Northwestern University’s School of Law Journal, 88% of these experts rejected the notion that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to homicide.
A 2008 poll by Death Penalty Information Center surveyed 500 U.S. police chiefs and found that when asked to name one area as “most important for reducing violent crime,” greater use of the death penalty ranked last among police chiefs with only 1% listing it as the best way to reduce violence.
Myth: The death penalty doesn't make mistakes
Fact: The death penalty is full of mistakes.
Since 1972, 190 death row inmates nationwide have been exonerated and freed from death row when evidence of their innocence emerged, including three in South Carolina.
A recent report, The Innocence Epidemic, from The Death Penalty Information Center, highlights more about how wrongful convictions occur. The data indicate that for every 8.2 executions in the U.S. since 1972, one person has been exonerated.
The report also concludes that:
"Moreover, the data show that most wrongful capital convictions and death sentences are not merely accidental or the result of unintentional errors. Instead, they are overwhelmingly the product of police or prosecutorial misconduct or the presentation of knowingly false testimony. More likely than not, they involve a combination of the two."
Myth: Executions are cheaper than life imprisonment
Fact: The death penalty is the most expensive sentence with the least results.
There has never been a complete cost/benefit analysis of the death penalty in South Carolina (which is strange, because the state consistently elects leaders who claim to care about balancing the budget. One estimate by SCNow.com suggests that the death penalty could be costing South Carolina as much as $415,000 per person per year on death row (somewhere in the neighborhood of almost 17 million dollars total each year). Taxpayers (especially those in small counties) bare an extraordinary fiscal burden for a handful of individuals, many of whom become exonerated because of flawed court proceedings.
Check out other states' findings about cost analysis by clicking here.
Myth: The death penalty ensures justice for murder victim family members.
Fact: The death penalty makes false promises and harms victims.
South Carolina's death penalty makes false promises to victims about executions providing "closure."
Fewer than 1 in 6 death sentences over the last 50 years have resulted in an execution.
60 percent of SC death sentences are eventually reversed as a result of instructional error (45 cases), prosecutorial misconduct (29 cases), evidentiary error (42 cases), and ineffective assistance of counsel (26 cases).
For every 74 people executed in South Carolina, approximately one person has been exonerated and released from death row.
Surviving families of murder victims spend decades in a legal process that keeps them trapped in their trauma. Alternative sentences would provide legal finality much sooner, sometimes as soon as the trial is over.
In 2020, only 50% of murders in the U.S. were solved. This reality leaves surviving families of murder victims fearful and without the finality that they need. Taxpayer dollars would be better spent solving more of these cases than pursuing the death penalty for those already incarcerated.