Whether death penalty is just or unjust has been a hot topic of debate since ages, and the controversies regarding its application have not come to end till today. It is also known as corporate punishment, meant for those who violate the criminal law; and, has been in practice since ancient times. Sometimes it becomes necessary to take the life of the criminal; while, at other times, it takes the life of an innocent person due to lack of evidence. A punishment, which was put into effect in 1500 in England, was opposed by many academics in 1750. These academics included Cesare Beccaria who was the Italian jurist; Voltaire who was the French philosopher; and, Jeremy Bentham and Samuel Romilly, who were the English law reformers. They presented the argument that death penalty was the cruel form of punishing the criminals, and it is most often applied on innocent people. However, there are many counter-arguments that support the death penalty. This paper intends to juxtapose the arguments and counter-arguments regarding death penalty; and, support the statement that capital punishment or death penalty is cruel, and should be abolished.
Ethics do not allow a government to take lives of its nationals. There is good number of chances that innocent lives will be put to death under this punishment, and there can be no compensation for this. It is possible that capital punishment converts to manslaughter by killing someone convicted of murder, when the murderer says that it was not murder but an inadvertent killing, such as killing in self-defense. An example is the open and shut case of James McNicol, who was put to death in December 1945. Although James did not oppose the conviction of murder; yet, after his death, Elaine Merrilees, his niece discovered that he was only guilty of manslaughter and not murder. Hence, death penalty can be understood as a violation of human or civil rights. Wrongful conviction also includes cases where people make false confessions. Such people are innocent in actual, and are penalized to death. Whether the court announces death penalty for a convict or not depends less on the criminal act and the evidences, and more on the skill of the lawyers, the financial status of the criminal, the socio-economic status, and the race and color. These factors result into biased decisions from the court, resulting in either making the real criminal escape the punishment or enforcing death penalty on to some other innocent person. This makes the whole system of death penalty illogical and heinous. However, it cannot be stated as a final decision that murderers should be given relaxation in punishment, which makes the debate of adopting or banning the capital punishment all the more daunting.
Death penalty has deepened its roots strongly in many countries, and the victims are often Hispanics and the minorities, who are killed due to racial discrimination. It would have been somewhat acceptable if the punishment was for everyone, regardless of what race, color, or ethnic group the murderer belonged to, but since most of the times racial biases come across, the situation gets worse. This also becomes the cause for hatred between different ethnic groups, and may give rise to riots and a long sequence of killings based on racial differences. Marquart, Ekland-Olson and Sorensen (86) affirm that:
Rather than systematically sentencing younger minorities to death, murderers of all racial categories who received death tended to be younger than the larger pool of imprisoned convicted murderers- although the difference in age between Hispanics sentenced to death or those imprisoned was not statistically significant.
The family of the one who is being put to capital punishment suffers very badly. Negative impacts are inflicted on their innocent minds because they have to come to terms not only with the sentence of their loved one but also with his death, and that too so cruelly. Therefore, the agony of the murderer’s family and relations should not be ignored. The lawyer, John B.S. Edwards (10), writes in the Rotarian magazine that many countries have now abolished the capital punishment because “society in those countries is more shocked by the death penalty than impressed with the need for it”. The criminals are also human beings, and it is necessary that their feelings toward their family should not be ignored when the crime is not that violent. This can be better understood by the example that China shot an 18-year-old girl in 1998 who was convicted of drug trafficking. There is not a single humane method of killing the murderer in law. Kronenwetter (3) calls it deliberate, cold-blooded, brutal and uncivilized killing. And when it is about minorities like the Hispanics in Texas, it is the responsibility of the government to consider that they should not be left feeling that they are being treated violently just because they are minorities. Marquart, Ekland-Olson and Sorensen (24) give statistics that minorities which included blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be put to capital punishment as compared to whites.
Besides considering what effect capital punishment has on the murderer, his family, or the society, another fact is worth giving a thought; that is, capital punishment cases cost a lot in terms of finances. The courts have to go through lengthy and complicated process of collecting evidences and implementing death penalty, as compared to the situation where death penalty has not been implied. The process is lengthy because it takes a lot of time to consider whether the accused person is actually guilty of the crime or not. Even after this consideration, the chances of innocent people getting the death penalty cannot be eliminated. Hence, a better solution is that instead of death penalty, courts should announce Sentence for Life, which not only costs much lesser than death penalties, but is also less cruel. The money that is saved in this alternative can be spent on many other beneficial programs intended for prisoners, or programs that are meant to support children, women, and old age people. According to a Report of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice (Erickson, para.10):
The additional cost of confining an inmate to death row, as compared to the maximum security prisons where those sentenced to life without possibility of parole ordinarily serve their sentences, is $90,000 per year per inmate. With California's current death row population of 670, that accounts for $63.3 million annually.
However, it cannot be stated for sure as to how courts will ensure that innocent people do not get Sentence for Life. The problem of punishing the actual criminal remains there.
Killing cannot be made to look like a heinous crime when it is followed by another killing, that of the murderer. Killing cannot justify a killing, nor can reverse it. Death penalty is also a killing of a human being. No human being has the right to take the life of another human being. It is against human rights. Thus, death penalty becomes a violation of human rights. How can the society get the message that taking the life of a person is wrong, when the act is penalized in the same way, that is, of taking the life of a person? Death penalty justifies the fact that it is okay to undervalue the life of an individual, and that the life of people is in the hands of people and not of God. However, it can still not be justified that the criminal should be let walking down the streets with glad face. There should be a punishment for someone who dares to kill a human being.
Nonetheless, there is a counter-argument on death penalty by Shepherd (283) who argues that “each execution results in, on average, three fewer murders”, and that “capital punishment benefits people of all races”. She states that since murder rates are lowering with the enforcement of capital punishment, hence legislation should strengthen the need for it. However, Shepherd has totally ignored the counter-effects of such a punishment, and is only focusing on the murder rates in relation to death penalty. Hence, it is not acceptable that capital punishment should be enforced when there are other proofs in research that show that murder rate is not related to death penalty. For example, Feinberg and Feinberg (235) argue that murder rates in those countries are higher where capital punishment is being practiced as compared to those countries where it has been abolished. They give the example of Canada which abolished death penalty in 1967 for five years, and saw no increase in murder rate. This shows that the murder rate or violent crime rate is not related to the presence of such a heinous punishment as capital punishment. Hence, the argument that capital punishment will lower down the number of murders, can be challenged.
There are many other counter-arguments supporting capital punishment, the strongest of which is that the one who takes the life of another should not be allowed at any cost to live and execute more murders. This will be a lesson for the whole society, as Chamberlin (12), the operating director of Chicago Crime Commission argues that “the only proportionate punishment for deliberate murder is a similar sacrifice.” However, everyone who argues in support of it talks about deliberate murder and nobody talks about the illegality of this punishment in case of inadvertent or accidental murder. Many researchers also argue that the capital punishment is proved in Bible, because there are statements in Bible which say that whoever shed man’s blood should be done the same. Researchers talk about the biblical aspects of it, and come to the conclusion that it is supported by God. However, the scripture can be interpreted in several different ways. The statement may also mean banishment of the murderer from the society rather than being put to death. Thus, there has not been one interpretation of this statement, and hence, it is wrong to use Bible to support death penalty.
There is another squabble that is in favor of the application of death penalty; that is, death penalty causes murderers to repent, as there have been cases when murderers showed remorse and repented upon their act, and even went through spiritual rehabilitation before execution. Although that did not change the penalty announced for them, but at least they were able to confess that what they did was wrong. However, this argument is nothing but based on illogical perception of rehabilitation. There is no use of repenting or showing remorse when wrong has been done. Spiritual rehabilitation right before execution will do no good, neither to the murderer nor to the dead person and his family. Hence, just because death penalty causes murderers to show remorse, does not mean that it becomes a favorable kind of punishment. Repenting or no repenting has nothing to do with the crime or the punishment. The wrong that has been done cannot be reversed.
Hence, deeply studying the arguments for and against capital punishment, it is concluded that it is a cruel punishment for the criminal. Although killing a person as retribution is nonetheless a killing in itself, yet it is not logical for one to state that a killer should be given any sort of relaxation. Yet, death penalty often takes lives of those who are innocent or committed murder in self-defense. Minorities, like Hispanics in Texas, face discrimination in this context. The families are affected badly. The society takes worse impact. The cases cost a lot to the constitution, as death penalty cases are long and expensive. The money can better be spent on beneficial programs that serve the society better. The punishment is also not related to the increase or decrease in murder rate. Also, this punishment cannot be supported just because it causes the murderers to repent upon their wrongdoing, as what wrong has been done cannot be undone by any means. Hence, capital punishment should be abolished in all the countries, and some other sort of punishment should be enforced which should prove to lower down the crime rate.
Chamberlin, HB. “Capital Punishment?” The Rotarian 43.5(1933): p.12.
Edwards, JBS. “Capital Punishment.” The Rotarian 94.5(1959), p.10.
Erickson, David. “Capital Punishment at What Price: An Analysis of the Cost Issue in a Strategy to Abolish the Death Penalty.” The High Cost of the Death Penalty. U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Public Policy, 1993. Web. 3 Apr 2013. .
Feinberg, John S., and Paul D. Feinberg. Ethics for a Brave New World. Illinois: Crossway, 2010.
Kronenwetter, Michael. “Why Death?” Capital Punishment: A Reference Handbook. USA: ABC-CLIO, 2001.
Marquart, James Walter, Ekland-Olson, Sheldon, and Jonathan Roger Sorensen. The Rope, the Chair, and the Needle: Capital Punishment in Texas, 1923-1990. USA: University of Texas Press, 1998.
Shephard, Joanna M. “Deterrence of Capital Punishment.” The Journal of Legal Studies 33.3(2004): pp. 283-321.