There are vast differences in the way people view the death penalty. Some oppose it and some agree with it. There have been many studies trying to prove or disprove a point regarding the death penalty. Some have regarded the death penalty as a deterrent, and some have regarded it as state sanctioned murder and not civilized. The death penalty has been attributed to societies for hundreds of years. More recently, as we become more civilized, the death penalty has been questioned to be the right step towards justice. During the course of this paper I will review the pros and cons of the use of the death penalty as we, Americans, know it. The death penalty is a highly controversial subject.No one knows who’s right or who’s wrong-it’s fifty percent speculation and fifty percent research. It’s just a lot of thoughts and beliefs from people who have contributed to the death penalty hype. Who’s right and who’s wrong? That is the question.
First I need to highlight briefly into to the history of the death penalty to fully understand why people feel the way they do about the death penalty. Almost all nations in the world have had the death sentence and had enforced it in many ways. It was used in most cases to punish those who broke the laws or standards that were expected of them. Some of the historical methods of execution were restricted only by one’s imagination-they include flaying or burying alive, boiling in oil, crushing beneath the wheels of vehicles or the feet of elephants, throwing to wild beasts, forcing combat in the arena, blowing from the mouth of a cannon, impaling, piercing with javelins, starving to death, poisoning, strangling, suffocating, drowning, shooting, beheading, and more recently, electrocuting, using the gas chamber, and giving lethal injection (Silverman 73). The ancient societies had some pretty brutal methods that were just plainly inhumane. Fortunately, most of the disgraceful practices were largely unknown in Anglo-American tradition. America inherited most of its capital punishment from the United Kingdom or English laws. But not so many generations ago, in both England and America, criminals were occasionally pressed to death, drawn and quartered, and burned at the stake (Isenberg 35). Had any of these punishments survived the eighteenth century, there is little doubted that public reaction would have forced an end to capital punishment long ago (Isenberg 35). Throughout England, the rotting corpses of executed criminals specked the country, which sent out a warning to all those who dare defy the law, or otherwise acted as a deterrent. Executions were always conducted in public and often became the scene of drunken gatherings to witness the execution. It reminds me of all these horrifying blood-ridden movies we watch today. People are drawn to such spectacles, because they are not getting killed. Furthermore, death is one of the great unknowns in all of mankind. Crimes of every description against the state, against the person, against property, against public peace were made punishable by death in early English laws (Isenberg 26). It is somewhat curious that any of these horrendous and inhumane methods of execution survived as long as they did, for the English Bill of Rights of 1689 proscribed “cruel and unusual punishments” (Isenberg 27). Which is still in use today in the American Constitution. Even with fairly relaxed law enforcement after 1800, between two thousand and three thousand persons were sentenced to death each year from 1805 to 1810 (Isenberg 26). Which is a very large amount even by today’s standards. Furthermore, several decisions, later on in history, handed down by the Supreme Court in the post-World War II years have had a significant affect on the effects of both proponents and opponents of capital punishment. They include Louisiana v. Resweber (1946)- cruelty dealing with humane ways of execution, next was the United States v. Jackson (1967)- the provisions that dealt with kidnapping, next was Witherspoon v. Illinois (1968)- determined excluding juries that had a bias towards death penalties being unconstitutional, and finally McGautha v. California (1971)- juries discretion upon the death penalty and the fourteenth amendment’s “equal protection clause” (Isenberg 23-24). All of these have impacted the nature of the death penalty, as we all know it today in the United States. These have all influenced the way people view the death penalty and help explain why some people oppose it and some impose it.
The people who oppose the death penalty have very different reasons than people who agree with it. Those who oppose it feel that no matter how bad of an offense that the criminal has committed, they should not be executed. One argument is that the convicted could be innocent. Once the state kills an innocent person, the effects are irreversible. There have been at least 96 instances since 1973 of wrongfully convicted people set free before the states had a chance to kill them (Internet). If there are 96 cases, caught before they could be sentenced to death, then think about all of the cases that haven’t been caught. DNA evidence has come a long way to help these innocent people to their freedom. The following person is an example of one of those people wrongfully condemned by lack of evidence. “Nate Walker. In May 1976, Nate was sentenced to life in prison for a 1974 Elizabeth, N.J., kidnapping and rape. Ten years later Nate’s trial prosecutor agreed that Nate Walker was an innocent man. A twelve-year-old semen specimen was located and analyzed. It proved that Nate had a different blood type from the real rapist. Nate was officially cleared and freed by the county’s presiding judge. His release won national attention (Dicks 237).” This can only prove that if the state had executed him, or any other case that were similar, the effects would be irreversible. This is among one of the highest regards to the abolitionist movement towards the death penalty. Thousands have been put to death under one government and when another government came in, or new evidence came in, they were proven to be innocent (Dicks 226). The only way to prevent this from happening is to abolish the death penalty altogether. These wrongful convictions clearly occurred due to some ill proper investigating, prejudice, courtroom laziness, or politics. The discrimination that is inescapable in the selection of the few to be killed under our capital punishment laws is unfortunately of the most irreversible and unacceptable nature (Isenberg 114). Among the more high-powered nations in the world the United States remains the leading advocate of death as a punishment for crime, even though innocent people may have been put to death (Isenberg 117).
The abolitionists also assert that the deterrent theory does not actually work. It merely produces a brutalizing effect that says to others that killing is o.k. Since the state has the right to kill, having the death penalty reinforces the perpetrator in that it says it is o.k. to kill when not respected by others. Similar to the state killing, when citizens don’t respect the states laws. It is clear that American prosecutors, judges, and juries are not likely to cause the execution of enough capital offenders to increase the claimed deterrent effect of capital punishment laws or to reduce the “jackpot” effect of unlikely odds (Isenberg 112). To even approach the number of people to be sentenced to death, to reach the deterrent effect, is unimaginable. Hundreds of thousands, in my opinion, would have to be put to death to reach the deterrent goal. Isenberg believes that, “most Americans, even those who feel it is necessary, are repelled by capital punishment; the attitude is deeply rooted in our own reverence to live, the Christian belief that man is created in the image of God” (107). So those juries that are commanded to use the death penalty have often acquitted, due to beliefs, or charged the perpetrator with a lesser offense (Isenberg 112). Even though hundreds of thousands go to trial for murder, juries are reluctant to convict. So our system clearly does not even give room for the deterrent effect, which would be hundreds of thousands put to death, to affect the way perpetrators would think before killing. States in the United States that do not use the death penalty usually have lower murder rates than states that do (Internet). For example, between 1945 and 1954, the average murder rate among seven abolitionist states ranged from a high of 1.6 per 100,000 (Iowa) to a low of 1.0 per 100,000 (Rhode Island) (Galliher 209). A closer look shows that murder rates play a contributing role in death penalty arguments across the United States (Galliher 209). An example is, between 1945 and 1955, the states of West Virginia (not yet an abolitionist state) and Michigan had relatively higher murder rates of 5.3 and 4.4 per 100,00 comparatively (Galliher 209). Therefore, reinforcing the fact that the brutalization effect is right. Also, reinforcing theorists saying, “that executing murderers both legitimates killing as a means of dealing with conflict and also stimulates those who have violent tendencies” (Nathanson 28). So if it doesn’t act as a deterrent, then it comes down to the fact that we are willing to put up with the extermination of human beings as long as we don’t know who they are. Maybe since we are in the television revolution, we should televise it more than the little it is today.
There are those that are pro-death penalty advocates. They believe that the death penalty serves as a deterrent. They believe others will see that the offender is getting executed for their heinous crime, and this will deter them from ever committing such an act. They feel that not only is the person who is executed unable to commit another murder, but other potential killers may also be dissuaded from killing (Silverman 46). One scientist concluded that every additional execution prevents about seven or eight people from committing murder (Bender 114). It mainly deters rational calm everyday citizens. Not those who act on emotion or the heat of the moment. One could argue that there are far more rational civilized people in this country than there are emotionally disturbed people. The death penalty works because it instills psychological resistance to the act of murder, not because it offers a rational argument against committing the act at the time that the decision to murder is made (Bender 115). So every day citizens have instilled into their heads that it is bad to murder someone. But murders still occur on occasions when people are in an irrational state of mind. Even though a person may be rational one day they could become irrational on another day. The irrational people are mainly at the hands of alcohol and drugs, but there are occasions where unusual circumstances exist. For example, a husband catching his wife in the act of adultery could drive him mentally into a rage and into a very irrational state of mind, which could ultimately lead to murder. But there are also those people who are just straight up mentally disturbed that kill for no reason at all. But for the most part most Americans are rational people who are able to properly control themselves, because of proper patience and problem solving learned through schooling. Most Americans have goals to look forward to in life also. So the death penalty is a deterrent for the most part of society. That’s one reason most drugs (poisons) are illegal in American society, because they tend to cause people to act in an irrational manner. Therefore the greater the punishment, the fewer people will behave in the irrational state of mind, because of the fact that the vast majority of Americans are (most of the time) drug free. So the punishment of death deters their rational minds from the act of committing murder, because (I would like to believe) most Americans are rational, free thinking people. Those who oppose the death penalty can only picture the offender being executed, they do not think about how many innocent people would be killed if there wasn’t a death penalty to act as a deterrent (Bender 118).
Another reason pro-death penalty advocates give for their belief is that it serves as retribution, or an eye for an eye. These are the two main types of retribution: revenge, in which the victim gets satisfaction, and “just deserts”, which the offender should have an obligation to repay society (Silverman 44). An eye for an eye relies on what people deserve for their crime, which determines what kind of punishment they will receive (Nathanson 73). Or in other words we should treat people the way they have treated others. If someone murders someone, then they should be murdered. This type of punishment would not have any prejudice, because they would receive whatever they dished out. It tells us that the punishment is to be identical to the crime (Nathanson 73). Which in a way is a repayment towards the victim’s family, or “just deserts”. This view of the death penalty wouldn’t rely on a jury to decide what should be done to the offender. Let’s say the offender was black and raped a white woman, and the jury sentenced them to life in prison. People could say in the same circumstances a white man would only get ten years. But using an eye for an eye, both men would be raped in return. No discrimination. And the same goes for the death penalty, there wouldn’t be no prejudice, it would just simply be “you kill, you die—end of story”, enough said.
Nobody can really prove that any of these views are right or wrong. In my opinion, God should have the final say on life. But on the other hand the offender didn’t let God give the victim an O.K. to die. So who knows what to do? As a society we should determine the fate we have dealt ourselves. We have developed these offender’s, we should therefore deal with them as a society. It is true that the varieties of ways in which men have put one another to death is horrific (Isenberg 35). It is society that should determine if we (as a society) want to be murderers. These offenders, murderers, and killers are a mirror image of our own reflection in society. Two wrongs don’t make a right! You choose! Civilization or Brutalism?
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Capital punishment is one of the most popularly debated topics in the nation today. Since colonial times, more than 13,000 people have been legally executed and a large percentage of these executions occurred during the early 1900's. In the 1930's, approximately 150 people were being legally executed each year. However, the number of executions started to decrease, as public outrage became apparent. Currently, over 3,500 people are on death row. The death penalty violates the Eight Amendment because the act is cruel and unusual, and because the punishment discriminates against the poor and the minorities, the punishment also violates the Fourteenth Amendment. Surprisingly, many victims on death row are mentally retarded or disabled. Unfortunately, the death penalty has many supporters, and their main claim to why the death penalty should be constitutional is that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime, but research has proved their claim to be false. The most disturbing factor of all is that a significant number of the inmates are innocent. For many reasons, capital punishment should be illegal throughout the nation.
Capital punishment is not acceptable because it is unconstitutional. Capital punishment has been proven to violate the Eighth Amendment, which is the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. It is also a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal protection of the laws and due process. The death penalty, which was legal with no objections through the 1900's, became a controversial issue in 1972. In 1972, the Furman vs. Georgia trial caused the Supreme Court to cancel hundreds of scheduled executions and to declare the death penalty unconstitutional. However, in 1976 in Gregg vs. Georgia, the Court reinstated the death penalty. After this decision, several states reenacted the capital punishment laws. However, capital punishment indeed violates the Eighth Amendment, which became a part of the United States Constitution in 1789. Capital punishment is both a cruel and an unusual punishment. No punishment can be crueler than death, especially if it is applied to an innocent person. In Wendy Kaminer‘s book, It's All the Rage, Kaminer describes the death penalty as, “barbarously cruel . . . . shocking, unjust, and unacceptable” (106). The Fourteenth Amendment is also violated in cases of the death penalty. Once again, the Fourteenth Amendment in the United States Constitution promises equal protection of the laws and due process to everyone, but Vilbig says, “Death penalty critics say defendants, many of whom are poor, frequently get a poor legal defense, often by court-appointed lawyers“ (4). This fact indicates that the unfortunate are not being given equal protection under the law. However, the death penalty was found to be discriminatory based on the color of one's skin (Bedau 6). Therefore, the death penalty clearly violates the Fourteenth Amendment.
The application of the death penalty sentence shows racial discrimination, sex discrimination, and socio-economic class discrimination all over the nation. Over the years, the statistics of the executions have been studied. According to these statistics, from 1930 to 1990 the Government Accounting Office (GAO) reports an interesting conclusion about racial discrimination. The GAO confirmed that, “. . . a consistent pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in charging, sentencing and the imposition of the death penalty after the Furman decision . . . . race of victim influence was found at all stages of the criminal justice system process . . . ” (Bedau 5). Along with this finding, they also asserted that “. . . those who murdered whites were more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks” (Bedau 6). This information revealed that the convict's race, as well as the race of the victim, influenced the criminal justice process. In 1987, a study taken in New Jersey showed that of all the executions made that year, fifty percent of the cases involved a black defendant with a white victim, while only twenty-eight percent of the cases involved a white defendant with a black victim. In California, studies indicated that while six percent of those convicted of killing whites got the death penalty, only three percent of those convicted of killing blacks got the death penalty; “Since 1976 only four executions involved a white defendant who killed a black victim” (Bedau 6). In 1986, studies in Georgia demonstrated that those convicted of killing whites were four times more likely to be sentenced to death than convicted killers of non-whites were. African Americans are only about twelve percent of the United States' population. Of the 3,859 persons executed for a crime since 1930, fifty percent have been black. Also, the application of the death penalty was disproportionate to other minority populations (Bedau 6). It could be argued that minorities do not commit more crime than whites, but rather they are more often punished with the death penalty. In all, only thirty-one of the eighteen thousand executions in this country’s history involved a white person being punished for killing a black person. Sex discrimination is another factor that enters into determining the death sentence. During the ten years from the 1980's to the 1990's, only about one percent of those on the death row were women while a disproportionate number, fifteen- percent, of the criminal homicides were committed by women. Furthermore, research indicates that only thirty-three (twelve of them black) women were executed in the United States since 1930 compared to 3,826 men. Finally, socio-economic class discrimination influences judgments made about the death sentence. Statistics showed that ninety percent of those on the death row are too poor to hire a lawyer. A man named Clinton Duffy, former warden at California’s San Quentin Prison once said, “. . . the term capital punishment is ironic because only those without capital get the punishment” (Bedau 6). This statement seems to be true today. Without capital, one cannot be tried equally, since he or she cannot afford private investigators, psychiatrists, and expert criminal lawyers to help with the trial. Therefore, the poor suffer the harshest punishment. Racial, sex, and socio-economic discrimination plays an important role in deciding the punishment placed on the crime, which is clearly not equal protection from the law.
Capital punishment has many supporters. One of the major arguments that these supporters express is that the death penalty serves as a deterrent to crime. The supporters argue that if the death penalty is legalized and practiced, it will discourage others from committing a crime. However, by comparing the data of the states with the death penalty and the states without the death penalty, one can easily see that the death penalty has no effect in deterring crime. According to the National Research Council in 1976, “the available studies provide no useful evidence on the deterrent effect of capital punishment” (Bedau 141-42). The states that use the death penalty laws do not have lower crime rates than the states without such laws because according to an FBI report, which states that “. . . states which have abolished the death penalty averaged lower murder rates than states which have not” (Bedau 142). Furthermore, the states that establish death penalty laws do not reap any significant benefits in reducing crime or murder rates. Research shows that a large percentage of the murderers do what they do because of passion, malevolence, and/or because they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs (Bedau 170). This statistic demonstrates the fact that the murderer gives little thought to the consequences he or she might have to face later on for the crime. According to Bedau, murderers are not influenced by the death penalty as a punishment, since they carefully plan their murders thinking that they will not get caught (171). Therefore, the criminals do not think about the consequences they will face if they are captured.
Although many arguments can be made in favor of capital punishment, the arguments against capital punishment are more convincing. First, the justice system is not infallible. Too many innocent people lose their lives for a crime they never committed; “At a time when capital punishment has become widely accepted for the worst crimes, critics say a strange brew of prosecutorial misconduct, racial bias and inadequate legal defense is sending innocent people to death row” (Vilbig 2). The risk of executing the innocent is too high. Unlike the other criminal punishments, the death penalty is final. If new evidence is brought up proving the innocence of a convicted criminal, he or she would lose this chance at freedom since the death penalty was already applied. Once the court rules that one is guilty and the state executes that person, it is impossible to reverse the execution. Since 1973, 1,861 cases, thirty-five percent, of all death row cases were called back for process reasons. From those 1,861 cases, as many as 52 of those cases were invalidated based on some evidence of innocence. Even with those destructions, further studies demonstrated that at least twenty-three innocent persons were executed since 1900. Additionally, another 350 cases, out of the 7,200 cases, were considered wrongly convicted. That is almost four cases per year in which an innocent person was convicted for a murder. These statistics show the fallibility of human judgment and how erroneous a decision of death penalty can be. As Marquis de Lafayette from the French Chamber of Deputies once said, "I shall ask for the abolition of the punishment of death until I have the infallibility of human judgment demonstrated to me" (Bedau 8).
In all, there are many different difficulties exist with the use of the death penalty as an attempt to decrease and prevent crime. Since the issue of capital punishment started in the early 1900's, it has been a burning issue throughout the nation. The country is divided between people who support capital punishment and people who are against capital punishment. After evaluating the arguments on both sides, it is very clear that the death penalty is unreasonable and should be illegal. Capital punishment is not deterrence to crime. Although it does eliminate the chance of a criminal to commit another crime because the person is dead, it could also end the life of an innocent person. Statistics gathered from comparisons between the states with and without capital punishment reveal that the death penalty does not deter criminals from committing crimes. There are many arguments against capital punishment including its unconstitutionality because capital punishment violates two amendments, the Eighth Amendment, since the death penalty is a cruel and unusual punishment, and secondly, the Fourteenth Amendment, since it displays unequal protection of the laws and due process. Racial discrimination, sex discrimination, and socio-economic class discrimination are factors that unfairly decide the death penalty. The last two reasons that support the claim that the death penalty should be illegal are the risks of executing an innocent person and the obvious fact that the death penalty does not deter crime. For these reasons, capital punishment should be illegal throughout the nation.
Bedau, Peter. Death is Different. Massachusetts: Northeastern University Press, 1987.
Kaminer, Wendy. It’s All the Rage: Crime and Culture. New York: Addison-Wesley
Publishing Company, 1995.
Vilbig, Peter. “Innocent on Death Row.” New York Times Upfront 18 Sept 2000: 1-11.
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