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When the Government Executes an Innocent Person

Bill has advanced degrees in education and political science. He has been a political science teacher for over 27 years.

"But What If We Accidentally Execute an Innocent Person?"

In the United States and around the world, there has been a decline in the use of the death penalty for the crime of murder. The death penalty is a vital part of a state's program for punishing murders and for that reason, I have already written two other articles on the death penalty. One is entitled "Does the New Testament Ban the Death Penalty?" The other article is about whether or not the death penalty is "humane."

One of the persuasive questions asked by death-penalty opponents is “What if we execute the wrong person?” According to death-penalty opponents, about thirty people have been executed wrongly since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977. This statistic has apparently been a persuasive one given how often it’s used by death-penalty opponents. In this article, I will argue that we should continue to use the death penalty, even at the risk of executing an innocent person. In summary, my arguments are as follows.

  1. There is a low likelihood that an innocent person will be executed.
  2. We routinely accept risk in other aspects of the criminal justice system.
  3. We accept risks for reasons far more trivial than our goal of dispensing justice and saving lives
Many arguments are made against the death penalty. One of them is that the death penalty should be abolished because it's possible that innocent people may be executed.

Many arguments are made against the death penalty. One of them is that the death penalty should be abolished because it's possible that innocent people may be executed.

Reason 1

First, given the safeguards in place, it’s highly unlikely that we will execute the wrong person. Anything is possible, but given the elaborate system of due process that excludes illegal evidence from being admitted into court and the multiple appeals available to the accused, the chances of an innocent person being executed are slim.

Reason 2

Second, we regularly accept risk as a factor in the saving of lives. We allow law enforcement officers to fire a weapon in order to stop an assailant even though we know that an innocent bystander could be hit and killed. Then, there are the speeding ambulances that crash and result in fatal accidents. In fact, you have a better chance of dying in an accident caused by an ambulance than of being executed wrongly.

Reason 3

In fact, we accept risk for far more trivial reasons, like our convenience. Probably the most obvious one is the risk incurred by driving automobiles. We know that thousands are going to die in automobile accidents every year, but we accept that risk for the sake of convenience [1]. The reality is that you have a much better chance of dying in a car accident within five miles from your house of being executed wrongly.

You have a better chance of being killed in an ambulance than in being wrongly executed in the United States.

You have a better chance of being killed in an ambulance than in being wrongly executed in the United States.

Amusing Ourselves to Death

We can take this line of reasoning even one step further: we accept risk for even more trivial reasons than driving a car for convenience. We know, for example, that every year, a number of children will be killed in sporting activities and at amusement parks, yet we consider it a reasonable risk. Think about it—is riding a roller coaster worth dying for? Every year in the United States, about four people are killed as a result of injuries sustained at amusement parks [2]. You're more likely to die at an amusement park than at the hand of the state for a crime you didn’t commit.

You have a better chance of dying at an amusement park than in being wrongfully accused and executed in the United States.

You have a better chance of dying at an amusement park than in being wrongfully accused and executed in the United States.

Putting It All Together

But, let’s assume that somewhere along the way, we execute someone who is innocent—that is, someone that really did not commit the crime.

No policy of law enforcement is perfect, and such perfection cannot be the requirement of implementation. Rather, perfection is the standard we set to achieve knowing that we will miss it. In no other area of law enforcement do we demand that the standard of perfection be satisfied before we will implement a policy—even in those that put human life at risk.

A vigilant system of capital punishment is the best that we can do to save the lives of future victims. About 14,000 people (that we know of) are murdered each year in the United States [3]. Those that oppose the death penalty forget about them. A swift and certain system of capital punishment would greatly reduce that number. Keep in mind that those 14,000 people were innocent, too. They are the victims, very often, of violent deaths. It would be a tradeoff—a tradeoff to save many more lives.

Finally, earlier in the article I conceded that there were about 30 innocent people that have died as a result of the death penalty’s 1977 reinstatement (that we know of). However, there are good reasons to question that statistic. When death-penalty opponents use that statistic, they're not saying that the person didn't commit the murder. Rather, they're often saying that they are “innocent” in that there was some element of due process that was not upheld. So death penalty opponents aren’t arguing that the person did not commit the murder; rather, they're arguing that the accused was not treated fairly.

My response is that we must keep in mind the ends and the means and keep them in proper perspective. Justice is the end; due process is a means. If a man rapes and murders a woman, and the state kills him for doing it, that act by the state is just, no matter if he was treated in the exact same way as every other prisoner. If the murderer was not treated fairly in the system, that's a problem with the system (the means), but it's not a problem of justice (the ends). To put it another way, if ten people commit murder and only one is caught and executed, then that person receives justice, no matter if he was treated just like the other murderers.

In Summary . . .

  • While there's always the risk that society might execute an innocent person, given the safeguards in place, it’s highly unlikely that we would execute the wrong person.
  • There will always be a risk involved in social activities whether they be trivial (like driving for recreational reasons) or taking risks in an effort to save lives (the speeding ambulance).
  • Death-penalty opponents inconsistently apply perfection to the death penalty while failing to do so to other social systems.
  • The death penalty is a just response to violent crimes like murder. The ends of justice are of primary concern; the means of achieving justice (like due process) are secondary. We should fix the inconsistencies in the means to increase our chances of achieving the ends. However, we should never gut the ends because the means are not perfect.


[1] 34,767 in 2012, up 3.5% from 2011. The year with the highest number of fatalities was 1972 with 54,589.

[2] Consumer Product Safety Commission. "Amusement Ride-Related Injuries and Deaths in the United States: 2003 Update". November 1, 2003.

[3] 14,827 in 2012. Federal Bureau of Investigation. http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2012/crime-in-the-u.s.-2012/tables/4tabledatadecoverviewpdf/table_4_crime_in_the_united_states_by_region_geographic_division_and_state_2011-2012.xls

© 2014 William R Bowen Jr


JustinCase976 on July 01, 2019:

Thanks, Bill. That was a KILLER response.

William R Bowen Jr (author) from New Bern, NC on June 30, 2019:


Your argument is a utilitarian argument and I have nothing against a utilitarian argument per se, but I don't believe we can stand on a utility argument alone here. My view is that the state is not justified in killing murderers just because it reduces crime. If it were morally wrong to kill a murderer, then we can't kill him even though in killing him we might reduce violent crime. A decrease in recidivism is a likely result of a consistent use of capital punishment. But even if capital punishment did not reduce the amount of violent crime, the state is still right in the killing of murderers because it is just, that is, the state is giving the murderer what he deserves.

Thank you for your input.

William R Bowen Jr (author) from New Bern, NC on June 30, 2019:


The exoneration of 165 inmates from death row does not mean that those inmates were actually innocent and (that is, they didn't commit the crime) and were wrongfully imprisoned. Rather, it means that the appeals process provides many loopholes by which a person that actually committed the crime is released. Second, if you have a complaint against the system, it isn't with the death penalty; it's with the fact that they were imprisoned in the first place.

Your standard of "even one is too many" is unreasonable. We don't apply this in any other area of risk. There is a risk that in employing the death penalty, we might kill an innocent person, but it is the risk that we take to have a just society, just like we take risks in every other area of life. If you are going to make the death penalty an exception to other social risks, I'm going to demand what grounds you make such a demand.

Finally, yes, if we wrongfully executed a person, it would be devastating, but no more devastating than the death of others who die in risks that we take in other social situations. At least in the risk of wrongfully killing an innocent man, we are doing it in the pursuit of a more just society.

Thank you for your comments.

Alec on June 20, 2019:

I'm trying to figure out which side I support. The odds of getting innocently executed are about 4.1%. If the death penalty reduces the homicide rate by more then this, it's evidence that it's worth keeping around. If not, then it is justification that it can be abolished.

JustinCase976 on June 11, 2019:

165 death row inmates exonerated since 1973.

ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTY FIVE innocent individuals that would have been put to death. People, just like you and me.

Even ONE is too many. Capital punishment is not justice; it is revenge.

It only takes one wrong accusation to destroy an innocent person's life, along with the lives of their families.

Someday it could be YOU.

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