The death penalty is applied in an unfair, inaccurate, and racially biased manner

Executions have been scheduled and carried out against a number of individuals despite serious doubts about their guilt. As long as the death penalty exists, there will always be the possibility of executing innocent persons. Studies also show that race continues to influence who is sentenced to die in the U.S., both the race of the victim and the race of the defendant.


There is a long, sordid history involving race, retribution, and the death penalty. Progressive southern elected officials and other scholars in the 1920s justified the death penalty on the grounds that white citizens would demand more lynching if the death penalty didn’t exist. Today, the death penalty is more frequently used when the victim is White than when the victim is Black, demonstrating that sentencing may still be fueled by racial bias. In some states, like Louisiana, no white person has ever been executed for the killing of a Black man.

wrongful conviction and execution

One of the greatest injustices of the death penalty is the reality that innocent people have been sentenced to death and some have even been executed. A 2014 study published in the National Academy of Sciences estimated that 4.1 percent of the people currently on death row would eventually be exonerated if their executions were delayed indefinitely. America has wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death at least 180 men and women, and a few have even been executed.

high risk of error increases with vulnerable populations

People with intellectual impairments, brain damage, and severe mental illness are at even greater risk of wrongful conviction because they are more likely to falsely confess, less able to aid in their own defense, and often make less compelling witnesses. Moreover, the persistent problem of ineffective legal representation means that evidence of their mental disabilities is often not adequately investigated and presented to the prosecution and jury. Even when the evidence is presented, unlike an IQ score or chronological age, there is no way to quantify the impairment that accompanies a traumatic brain injury or a diagnosis of schizophrenia. A person with these conditions will often be equally or more functionally impaired than the typical teenager or intellectually disabled person.

The death penalty is a failed public policy.

There is no reliable body of evidence that suggests that the death penalty offers any deterrent benefit beyond what can be achieved with life sentences, even though it is more more expensive. Furthermore, the death penalty causes additional harm to murder victims’ families and those tasked with carrying out executions. It also removes the possibility that an individual can ever redeem themselves.

not a proven deterrent

The National Academy of Sciences concluded that existing research on deterrence “is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases or has no effect on homicide rates.”

collateral damage

Many victims’ family members and even prison guards have shared that the death penalty system produces a significant amount of collateral damage. Long delays, and the burden of carrying out executions in a humane manner, inflicts pain and suffering on those people who are in close proximity to the system.

expensive and wasteful

Study after study have found that death penalty cases are much more expensive than cases where a sentence of life without parole is sought instead. This is due to the bifurcated trial process and constitutionally mandated appeals, which are only required in death penalty cases, as well as increased incarceration costs (due primarily to the fact that most death row prisoners must be single-celled and have additional security).

there are more effective responses to violence

The funds currently spent on the death penalty could be better used on data-driven public safety programs that actually make communities safer, mental health programs, and on addressing the needs of victims.

denies the possibility of redemption

While many prisoners undergo significant transformation while incarcerated, the death penalty leaves no room for people to prove they are capable of redemption. Georgia executed Kelly Gissendaner, a women whom fellow inmates called “the poster child for redemption.” Gissendaner gave guidance and comfort to despondent prisoners, some of whom were released and are now social workers and teachers. She completed a certificate in theological studies at Emory University from prison.

The death penalty is used against persons with severe mental illnesses, intellectual disabilities, brain injuries, and long histories of childhood trauma and abuse, as well as youthful offenders.

The Eighth Amendment requires the death penalty be limited to the most aggravated offenses committed by the most culpable offenders. The Supreme Court has found that juveniles and the intellectually disabled who commit homicide offenses are not culpable enough to warrant the death penalty. The broader principle that these decisions embrace is that executing people with serious functional impairments crosses a moral line, and is considered to be excessive punishment. America regularly executes people with intellectual disabilities, severe mental illness, and a history of extreme trauma and abuse, or a combination of these impairments.

Andrew Brannon

Georgia executed Andrew Brannan who was a decorated Vietnam combat veteran, diagnosed with both PTSD and bipolar disorder. His symptoms included depression, hypomania, flashbacks, recurrent anxiety, and paranoia. His “total occupation and social impairment” led the Department of Veterans Affairs to categorize him as 100 percent disabled.


In 2013, Florida executed John Ferguson, a paranoid schizophrenic who became increasingly hostile and delusional after suffering a gunshot wound to the head. Ferguson believed he was the “Prince of God” who could not be killed and would rise up after his execution and fight alongside Jesus to save the United States from a communist plot.

william morva

On July 6, 2017, Virginia executed William Morva despite the fact that he suffered from a documented mental illness and was delusional at the time of his crime. The daughter of one of his two victims asked then-governor Terry McAuliffe to spare his life.

94% of the individuals executed in 2020 had evidence of one or more of the following significant impairments: serious mental illness (8); brain injury or damage, or an IQ in the intellectually disabled range (6); chronic serious childhood trauma, neglect, and/or abuse (14), or were under 21 years old (4).

The death penalty is only used in a few outlier counties.

Only a handful of outlier counties still impose the death penalty. Just five counties out of 3,143 nationwide produced more than five new death sentences in the five-year period between 2016 and 2020. The five counties are: Riverside, CA (11); Los Angeles, CA (7); Maricopa, AZ, (7); Clark, NV (6); and Cuyahoga, OH (6). These counties are frequently defined by overzealous prosecutors, ineffective defense lawyers, racism, and wrongful or questionable convictions.


About the 8th Amendment Project

The 8th Amendment Project was created to unite the nationwide movement to end the death penalty in the United States.