The death penalty is considered one of the most controversial punishments in our justice system. From a personal standpoint, many people opine that it is an inhumane punishment and that the principle of commensurate punishment does not mean that a death sentence should be imposed on the offender. Other people however, insist that the death penalty is the best punishment which can be imposed on heinous crimes in order to inflict the right punishment for the offender and in order to deter the rest of society from committing similar acts. This paper shall discuss the position stating that the death penalty should be abolished in all fifty states. It shall discuss the different legal and academic papers which support this position and shall focus on the following issues surrounding the imposition of capital punishment: whether or not its administration is affected by race and whether or not it actually deters the commission of crimes. These concerns are crucial in determining the appropriate application of capital punishment and would help this student arrive at a logical conclusion to this paper.
In Supreme Court of Louisiana No. 98-KA-1078 v. Allen Snyder (1998), Louisiana Supreme Court Justice J. Johnson entered his dissenting opinion to the court’s decision by firmly stating that he would “have more confidence in the fair-mindedness of this jury and the jury’s pronouncement of the death sentence, had the state not used its peremptory challenges to exclude every African American juror, resulting in an all white jury for this black defendant”. His statement provides one of the crucial reasons why the death penalty should be abolished in all fifty US states. There have been various instances of cases involving discriminatory juries. Such instances include the “Texas shuffle”, where African American jurors were not allowed to be part of the jury in death penalty cases (Miller-El v. Cockrell, 2003). District attorneys have a belief that black jurors often have doubts about a defendant’s liability for killing and that they also believe that such defendants are remorseful of their crimes regardless of their seemingly uncaring behavior. On the other hand, white jurors see these defendants as dangerous. And black jurors feel that the white jurors do not actually comprehend the environment where the black defendant comes from (Amnesty International, 2009). In a paper by Loury (2001) he assessed the trend in the felony division jury trials in Cook County Circuit Court between January 1 and June 30, 2000 and he found out that in juries with about three people from white neighborhoods, a guilty verdict for black defendants was reached in 76% of the cases; this is in contrast to 67% in cases where the juries included 3 or more people from mostly black neighborhoods (Loury, 2001). Conviction rates for black defendants were higher when the number of jurors from mostly white areas also rose; it decreased when the number of jurors from mostly black neighborhoods also increased. Loury (2001) also found out that the incidence of conviction in black defendants decreased when the number of jurors from areas with below-average incomes increased. All in all, Loury’s (2001) assessment implicated that jurors with different backgrounds were more inclined to disbelieve the credibility of the poor and the minority witnesses and defendants.
Based on data gathered from the American Civil Liberties Union, in 38 states which allow capital punishment, 98% of the prosecutors are white and they also completely control which cases will be tried as capital cases (2003). In one of the judicial districts of Georgia, the district attorney was able to try about 30 capital cases from 1974 to 1994 with 24 of these cases being against black defendants; in instances where the defendant was black and the victim was white, the prosecutor used 96 of his 103 jury challenges against the black defendants (American Civil Liberties Union, 2003). Other instances of jury rigging have been seen in the US justice system. We note the case of Harold Williams – a man who spent more than sixteen years in prison on death row after a Pennsylvania jury gave him three death sentences (Goodman, 2005). During Williams’ trial in 1989, his prosecutor was Jack McMahon. McMahon was known for his discriminatory practices during jury selection. In fact, he is known for being in a training video which demonstrates to new prosecutors how to utilize race in selecting juries for death penalty trials (Death Penalty Information Office, 2010). In 2003, armed with new DNA evidence, Williams was granted a new trial where he was later acquitted of all charges. His case is just one among many questionable convictions with death penalty sentences; and race seems to play a crucial role in the correct adjudication of these cases.
In many cases, race plays a crucial role in the imposition of the death sentence. The American Civil Liberties Union (2003) makes mention of the fact that about 80% of the victims in capital punishment cases are white. In 2002, there were twelve individuals who were executed under the death penalty sentence where the victim was black and the defendant was white; in contrast, there were 178 black defendants with white victims who were put to death under the death penalty sentence (American Civil Liberties Union, 2003). And when we consider the fact that the overall black population in the United States is about 14% versus the total population of whites, the fact that racial discrimination is a reality in the US justice system is put into sharp focus. Measures to eliminate racial considerations in the determination of jurors have been implemented by some states. In fact, in 1977, the Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors are not allowed to use race in removing jurors from the jury choices. In order to circumvent this provision, many District Attorneys in some US states came up with instructions on how to eliminate African American jurors from the pool (Department of Penalty Information Office, 2010). However, any real progress towards the elimination of racial discrimination in choosing jury members was only made by Kentucky when it passed the Racial Justice Act which essentially prohibited the imposition of the death penalty on the basis of race. This law was not passed in other states where it was introduced (Department of Penalty Informational Office, 2010).
A more historic move towards the passage of the Racial Justice Act was seen when three African-Americans, previously convicted and meted the death sentence, and later exonerated, took part in a Senate hearing for the passage of the act (Fitzsimon, 2008). These three men spent many years behind bars and as death row inmates until, with the proper administration of justice, they were declared innocent. Their cause was also supported by Darryl Hunt who spent about 19 years in jail before being declared innocent of his crimes (Fitzsimon, 2008). Senator Vermon Malone remarked in a press conference following the passage of the Act that it is very unfortunate that there is a need to pass such an act; but such act is really needed in order to eventually gain improvements in the implementation of the justice system. The efforts of legislators to remedy the lopsided implementation of the death penalty sentence have not been effective because in the past decade or so, “race still plays a role and the Senate ought to do something about it by passing the Racial Justice Act…” (Fitzsimon, 2008). The need to implement the provisions of the law implies that discriminatory practices in the justice system are rampant. When the lives of innocent people are at stake, there is an imperative need to impose tighter and stricter non-discriminatory practices in the jury selection and in the entire justice system.
From a financial standpoint, there is also a need to abolish the death penalty because the cost of trying capital cases is astronomical with about $1.6 billion spent from 1982 to 1997 alone (Baicker, 2008). This is a considerable amount which could be better spent in behalf of the taxpayers. In New Jersey, capital trials cost the taxpayers $253 million. This is equivalent to the cost allotted to prosecutor’s offices, public defenders’ offices, courts, and correctional facilities (Forsberg, 2005). And the same report was able to reveal that in 23 years (counted backwards from 2005), the New Jersey taxpayers paid about a quarter of a billion dollars on capital punishment trials that has not executed any one (Forsberg, 2005). These death row convicts are costing the government 11 million dollars a year to feed and to house. Due to the above considerations, a bill was submitted in an effort to abolish the death penalty. Such bill was passed by both houses in 2007 (Mears, 2007). New Jersey eventually realized the fruitlessness of the death penalty and they pointed out that the death penalty costs so much; it brings so much pain to victims’ families; and it imposes risks on innocent lives (Dieter, as cited by Mears, 2007).
In Washington, the Bar Association was also able to discover that capital punishment cases cost the state 470,000 additional dollars, as compared to life in prison cases which cost the taxpayers about $50,000 to $70,000, a difference of close to $100,000 (Washington Bar Association, 2006). In California, they report that the death penalty system costs the state close to 130 million per year (Uelman & Boscia, 2008). In Maryland, a report from the Urban Institute (as quoted by McMenamin, 2008) was able to establish that the death sentence costs the government an additional $71 million. Other states also registered similar figures. And these reports indicate that from an economically practical point of view, there is a need to abolish death penalty because it would save the state and the taxpayers the expense of having to prosecute and house these convicts for an indefinite period of time.
Since 1976, states have applied different methods of execution. These methods include: electrocution, lethal injection, gas chamber, hanging, and firing squad (Pro Death Penalty, 2001). In 1976 when the death penalty was first reinstated in many US states, John Louis Evans III from Alabama became the first inmate to be executed (Loughlin, 1990). The execution was a prime example of a botched execution as it took several jolts of electricity for Evans to finally perish. In the process, the execution room was pervaded with the smell of burning flesh and with sparks and smoke emanating from Evans. And all in all, it took 14 minutes to execute Evans (Canan, as quoted by Loughlin, 1990). Due to the brutal nature of some methods of execution, the lethal injection has now been adopted by many states as the sole means of execution (Loughlin, 1990). The lethal injection uses three drugs with each drug to be administered into different veins in the prisoner’s body at specified times (Death Penalty Information Center, 2003). This process has gained more controversy with doctors participating in this procedure because they are bound by their Hippocratic Oath; and many organizations have even asked their members not to participate in executions (Cadena, 2007).
An article from the New York Times points out the logical and viable ideas being forwarded by several inmates who are lobbying for the abolition of the death penalty. The inmates emphasize that the issue surrounding the death penalty is not based on its being constitutional or unconstitutional, it is rather, “the standard by which courts are to evaluate the evidence that lethal injection, predictably and with some regularity, goes wrong…”(Greenhouse, 2007). And this is when unnecessary suffering is visited upon the inmate. Instances when paralyzing drugs are used on the inmate leaving the inmate “inadequately anesthetized…with the ability to feel severe pain as another drug stops the heart, without the ability to move or call out for help” (Death Penalty Information Center, 2003). Moreover, some inmates have been drug users throughout their lives and consequently have veins that have been rendered unusable. Consequently, having to find usable veins often delays the execution and causes further pain and suffering on the inmate as his wait for his execution is prolonged (Greenhouse, 2007). However, death penalty advocates insist that the imposition of the death penalty is necessary in heinous crimes. Their conviction is based on the belief that the death penalty is the “appropriate sanction in extreme cases [as] an expression of the communities belief that certain crimes are themselves so grievous an affront to humanity that the only adequate response may be the penalty of death” (Gregg v. Georgia, 1976, as cited by Longstreet, 2009). This contention however cannot be given enough credence in the face of the fact that there can be errors in the administration of the death penalty. And this risk is not worthwhile when innocent lives may instead be lost.
Various supporters of the death penalty point out that the death penalty is a deterrent to the commission of violent crimes in society. However, in a study by Donohue and Walters (2006), they were able to establish that no actual studies have been undertaken and have proven that death penalty is an actual deterrent to violent crimes. Most of the studies which claim that the death penalty has a deterrent effect on the commission of violent crimes have not firmly established the relationship between crime and deterrence. When numbers for violent crimes have registered lower numbers, these studies cannot definitively claim that such lower numbers were due to the imposition of the death penalty (Donohue & Peters, 2006). Based on the doubts on the deterrent effect of the death penalty on violent crimes, sound conclusions cannot be outrightly made. “The data are simply too noisy, and the conclusions from any study are too fragile” (Donohue & Peters, 2006). And in the face of these uncertain figures, the authors pose the question of whether or not it is prudent to spend millions of dollars on a legal remedy which would bring forth no clear benefit and would increase the risk of executing innocents?
It is also important to note that our current prison system is hardly effective in deterring crime. And many people are now wondering how the death penalty would help in minimizing criminality. Many incidents of assaults, rapes, and stabbings are seen in these prisons because of the ineffective rehabilitation systems (Kynzer, 2008). These prisoners are forced to live with the guilt of their actions without opportunities to improve their lives and their mentality. The conditions of these inmates may dangerously prompt criminal and violent activities (Kynzer, 2008). Many prisoners see violence as their way out with many of them preferring death to brutal raping. And with this analysis, we can assess that the problem of our justice system does not depend on the severity of the punishment. No matter how harsh or how light the sentence may be, if the criminal itself is not rehabilitated, then crimes will remain rampant in our society. What is then the point of imposing the death sentence which does not prevent commission of violent crimes and which may just endanger the lives of innocent individuals wrongly convicted of death penalty crimes? The risks are just too crucial and important to ignore because they spell the difference between life and death.
It cannot also be denied that the death penalty is often being used by prosecutors as a bargaining chip to get information from suspects of criminal elements (Locke, 2009). When the offender admits his guilt or testifies against an accomplice, his sentence can either be reduced or he may not be prosecuted at all. The danger in this situation is that the accused may now be prompted to say anything just to avoid prosecution for his crime. This happened in the case of Anthony Porter who was wrongly convicted and sent to death row on the strength of a confession by another man. The man’s testimony was later recanted and the charges against Porter were dismissed (Northwestern University, 2006). In the case of Laurence Adams, he was also sent to prison based on the testimony of two witnesses who later had unrelated charges dropped against them after they testified to Adams’s alleged acts (Boston Globe, 2004).
Many people have the perception that death penalty gives closure to the victims’ families; that it somehow strikes the balance between good and evil and justice. It may “take years for a victim’s family to recover from the loss of a loved one” (Messerli, 2009). However, the death penalty does not really put an end to their suffering. Their loss remains, and in instances where the trials are often prolonged, the family continually suffers as they are forced to relive the horror of losing their family member and of reliving what the victim went through on the last few hours or minutes of his/her life (Messerli, 2009). The death penalty imposed on offenders may serve as the commensurate punishment for the offender’s actions, but it does not diminish the death of a loved one. Why then should it be imposed on an offender if it would not serve the purpose of easing the family’s loss? Why then should it be imposed when it would just increase the risk of innocent individuals being wrongly convicted and wrongly executed of violent crimes? The cases cited above clearly illustrate that wrong convictions and wrong executions almost did happen. Would our law enforcement authorities still claim that every person in death row deserves to be there?
The imposition of the death penalty also, unintentionally can build sympathy for the offenders. This can be seen in the cases of Ralph Baze who was convicted of killing a sheriff and a deputy sheriff and in the case of Thomas Bowling who was convicted of killing a couple (CBS News, 2008). There are no doubts in the fact that these two individuals are cold-blooded murderers. However, they seem to have attracted the sympathy of those who oppose the death penalty (CBS News, 2008). This should not even be the case. They do not deserve our sympathy and they do not deserve to be figures in the movement to abolish the death penalty. However, the passion being built up over the imposition of the death penalty has prompted support and sympathy for those who are guilty of violent crimes.
The overall principle within the current legal system is that the punishment should fit the crime and this mantra is even supported by the Bible when it teaches “an eye for an eye”. However, based on the discussion and the reasons given above, the principle of “eye for an eye” should not be used lightly. After all, we are not talking here about eyes; we are talking here about lives. The more important concern of all is the innocent lives that are put at risk of being wrongly executed for violent crimes. The value of human life, no matter how warped or evil other people claim it to be, should not be taken lightly. Just as violent criminals take the value of human life too lightly, society should not take up a similar cause. The discussion above was able to prove that the death penalty has not so far set out to accomplish what it set out to accomplish with its initial implementation. Why then should it still be imposed? There are other sentences and punishment which would not bring as much risk to human life or as much cost to the taxpayers. We should impose these, and abolish the death penalty, not just in one state, but in all states as well.
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