Black Panther and the Death Penalty

T’Challa sought only one thing when we met him first in Captain America: Civil War; Pass the Sokovia Accords. This changed very quickly when his father was killed in an explosion outside the UN building. After his father died he dedicated himself to hunting down and killing Bucky Barnes. T’Challa
knew, like I used to, that death was the only punishment fit for such a heinous crime. But T’Challa was wrong.

Theories of Justice

Why is T’Challa wrong? Why is death a bad punishment for criminals who commit terrible crimes? To understand that we must understand what goals the criminal justice system seeks to accomplish.


The theory of rehabilitation is pretty simple. A criminal commits crime because he has not been equipped with the tools to live a normal, productive life. Rehabilitationists seek not to punish or remove criminals from society, but to equip them with the tools they need to lead productive lives without resorting to crime. The death penalty contradicts the rehabilitation theory for one obvious reason; you can’t rehabilitate a dead person. Unless Black Panther seeks to reanimate Bucky’s corpse, he definitely doesn’t seek his rehabilitation.


According to the theory of incapacitation, justice comes when a criminal is removed from society and cannot commit any more crime. The death penalty incapacitates criminals (dead people can’t commit crimes, obviously). However, so does life in prison without the possibility of parole. Capital punishment is not in direct contradiction to this theory of justice, but there are other, more humane and cost effective ways to achieve incapacitation. While Bucky would certainly be incapacitated if he were dead, T’Challa wants much more than simple incapacitation.


While Black Panther is not really seeking to deter other criminals like Bucky, this is an argument used by those who support the death penalty. This theory maintains that because death is a possibility for people who commit heinous crimes, this deters heinous crimes. The reality is that despite years of data and multiple studies we simply don’t know if the death penalty has a positive, negative, or neutral effect on homicide rates. A study released in 2012 revealed that since 1976 there have been many studies, but that the data collected combined with the methodology of the studies rendered their results invalid. The truth is we simply don’t know if the death penalty deters crimes.


We finally arrive at why Black Panther pursues Bucky Barnes so relentlessly. He seeks vengeance. Retaliation is by far the oldest theory of justice. It claims that since a person committed a crime and inflicted suffering on someone else, they themselves must suffer. This can be seen in the bible as “an eye for an eye”, and even before that the code of hammurabi had a similar view on crime and punishment. Arguments in favor of capital punishment from a retaliationist framework are the most compelling. A person has taken a life and now their life must be taken in turn. There is a certain sense of balance to this theory of justice. When I supported the death penalty this was the argument that I held on to. A person who infringes on someone’s rights must have their rights infringed in a similar way. It made perfect sense..

Black Panther’s Startling Discovery

While in pursuit of Bucky Barnes, Black Panther made a startling discovery. Bucky was framed. He sought to kill a man that had nothing to do with his father’s death. This shook him to the core. Imagine the guilt he would have felt if he had killed Bucky. His sense of justice would then turn around on him. He would have killed an innocent.

But is this analogous to the death penalty in the US? Does the US criminal justice system kill innocent people? The short answer, yes. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that according to conservative estimates that 4.1% of who receive the death penalty are not guilty of the crimes for which they were convicted. That’s more than 1 out of every 25 executions.

The fact of the matter is that the courts send innocent people to their deaths on a regular basis. Our perception that justice has been done is not worth murdering 1 innocent out of every 25 guilty. Especially when they can be punished, more cheaply, and more effectively by other means. Black Panther realized this. When he finally confronted his father’s true murderer he understood that his lust for vengeance had blinded him to the fact that he might exact that vengeance on the wrong person. He he was horrified to think that he could have killed Bucky, who was not guilty of the crime of which he was accused. We should follow suit. Let’s end the death penalty.

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