Toughest death-penalty question: Which is worse? is shocked by God destroying a city in a 19th century painting by James Jacques Joseph Tissot. Painting in public domain. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.Which is worse?
Executing an innocent person,
or letting murderers escape capital punishment?

For thousands of years, this has been the toughest death-penalty question. To this day, law-school students read articles on this question reaching all the way back to Genesis 18:23-32, where Abraham argues with God about God’s looming destruction of two towns. Law-school debates also cite English jurist William Blackstone’s principle from the 1700s: “Better that 10 guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer.”

But what do you think?

Errors in judgment do occur—even when it comes to the death penalty. Right now, many people believe this error was committed in the case of Troy Davis, as we discussed Monday. But the other kind of error can also happen: A murderer can be found not guilty and be set free.

How often to you think the first error occurs?

The true number of innocent people who have been executed is impossible to know. But we have widespread beliefs about the frequency of this kind of error. A majority of Americans (59%) think that an innocent person has been executed in the past five years, according to a 2009 Gallup poll. The estimate was even higher in the past. In 2006, 63% of Americans thought that, in the previous five years, an innocent person had been executed. The figure was 73% in 2003.

The two types of error are intimately related. If you raise the bar really high to minimize the number of innocent people who are convicted and executed, then more guilty people will be set free. If you lower the bar to maximize the number of guilty people who get the death penalty, then more innocent people will die.

How do you weigh this tough and timeless question?

Originally published at, an online experiment in civil dialogue on American values.

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