For some, the ultimate punishment, the death penalty or Capital Punishment is morally and legally justifiable. It’s only fair. You take a life; society takes yours, an eye for an eye. Others don’t think the government should be given the authority to kill its citizens and regard the death penalty as an example of cruel and unusual punishment which is forbidden by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The barbaric custom is also very costly, ethnically biased and does not achieve the intended result. Advocates consider it a fair and just punishment and neither cruel nor unusual, quite the opposite; they consider it a fair and ethical punishment. This paper discusses why society feels the need to punish along with the legal, logical, and moral implications of the death penalty. This subject is literally of life and death importance and a major barometer for establishing the collective conscience of the American culture which is behind its European cousins on this as well as other moral and ethical issues such as health care, drug laws, education and gun control.
Why We Punish
Historically, the justification for punishing lawbreakers has been to “avenge the crime, to protect society by imprisoning the criminal, to deter that person and other potential offenders from the commission of crimes and to obtain reparations from the offender” (Wolfgang, 1998). Throughout recorded history, this reasoning has not changed much. The four main reasons the justice system punishes criminals can be categorized by two main rationales. One is to obtain desired results which are deterrence, protecting society and seeking compensation. The other, retribution, involves punishing for crimes committed on humanity. Retribution is simply a fancy word for revenge. The need for revenge is one of the lowest forms of human emotion, a condition that is understandable in many circumstances, but is not a rational response to a serious situation. “To kill the person who has killed someone close to you is simply to continue the cycle of violence which ultimately destroys the avenger as well as the offender. That this execution somehow give 'closure' to a tragedy is a myth.” (Schroth, 2008)
Those who think that vengeance is a justification for continuing the death penalty usually point out the Old Testament reference of ‘an eye for an eye.’ Aggressive behavior must be met with equally aggressive forms of punishment. Interestingly, people who quote this Biblical passage to justify their position of using the death penalty is either intentionally ignoring or never read one of the most popular quotes in the Gospels of the New Testament. Jesus recalls the ‘eye for an eye’ reference and clearly rejects the statement before asking his gathered followers to ‘turn the other cheek’ instead. On the weight of that quote alone, all Christians should be strongly against the death penalty. However, the ‘eye for an eye’ excuse is still widely employed by people today. Those who adopt this viewpoint are certainly correct when they say that using the death penalty guarantees that the convicted murderer will not kill again. Additionally, the death penalty is the ultimate preventative measure. Persons opposed to capital punishment consider all life to be sacred and should be respected. Putting a murderer in prison for life with no possibility of parole is adequate punishment, is less expensive and achieves the desired result of segregating the person from society, forever, the same as the death penalty. By any religious or philosophical interpretation, legalized revenge is wrong and in the end more destructive to the fabric of society and its value system than was the crime itself. The decision to impose the death sentence is more of a cultural difference than one based on religious beliefs. Christians in America are generally in favor of the death penalty while their Christian counterparts in Europe generally oppose it.
Both Cruel and Unusual
On numerous occasions the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on the merits of capital punishment, whether or not the Constitution considers it cruel or unusual punishment. On every occasion the high Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment does not disallow death being used as punishment. However, the Constitution is a flexible document and open to interpretation. The legal explanation of cruel and unusual has changed to some degree over the years and the Court could possibly change their opinion in the future as a result of changing public values. For instance, whipping criminals was commonplace until the later part of the Eighteenth Century. This practice came to be though of as unacceptable due to society’s attitude evolved to include whipping people as a ‘cruel’ punishment. The death penalty has not yet crossed this societal benchmark. “The Court has maintained that there remains broad public support for the death penalty as a remedy for the most serious of crimes” (Mott, 2004).
Wealthy, white, criminals are far less liable to get the death penalty than persons of color and poor people. If the victim of the minority member’s was white they are even more likely to receive the ultimate punishment. The statistics gathered over many decades offer considerable, inarguable evidence for this. Over the past 30 years more than 50 percent of the prisoners on death row and nearly half of people legally put to death in the U.S. have been minority members although a far smaller percentage are represented among the general populace. “About half of those murdered in the U.S. are white but 80 percent of all murder cases involve white victims. From 1976 to 2002, 12 whites were executed for killing a black person while 178 blacks were executed for murdering a white person” (“The Case”, 2011). Studies involving the causes and outcomes of the death penalty in Texas, for example, have clearly shown that today’s judicial system is a direct result of the bigoted “legacy of slavery.” “Between 1930 and the end of 1996, 4,220 prisoners were executed in the United States; more than half (53 percent) were black” (Bedeau, 2011). These facts prove the case for the unusual aspect of the death penalty; it is unusually unfair and racist. However, the Court has ruled that a challenge to the practice must show intent to discriminate. That is difficult to prove conclusively even though the statistics strongly suggest it. Growing awareness of instances where innocent people being incarcerated for many years and some executed can be considered unusual has ignited a renewed conversation on the issue and the tide seems to be slowly, very slowly, turning toward eradicating the practice. The State of Connecticut abolished the death penalty just last month. Any justice system that legally kills its citizens disproportionately must be considered biased and corrupt which lessens the validity and integrity of the entire justice system.
The Case for Capital Punishment
Those who oppose the use of the death penalty say that the punishment is unjust but proponents disagree with this opinion because they believe what is actually unjust is to intentionally take another person’s life and not pay with your own. An injustice that should not be allowed is for murderers to keep their life after they impose the death penalty on another. By doing so they also sentenced the victim’s friends and family to a life-sentence of heartache. If a thief stole a vehicle and was allowed to keep and drive it around town without fearing legal retribution, no one would think that neither were fair or just nor is it just to allow a person who steals another’s life from them to keep their own life. Human life is greatly devalued when murderers who have been convicted by a court of being a self-appointed judge, jury and executioner are allowed to live. According to persons who are in favor of the death penalty, opponents ignore reasonable logic by claiming that the taking a murderer’s life acts to cheapen human life. Evidently, they never had their car stolen and do not understand the example or they consider the murderer’s life is more important than their victim. Taking a felon’s freedom is a way society demonstrates how much it treasures freedom. Taking a murderer’s life away is a way society demonstrates how much it treasures life.
Although the U.S. justice system is among the most equitable in the world, no legal system can offer flawless results in every case. Mistakes are made in every justice system because all count on humans for witnesses, gathering and weighing evidence and for final judgment. Our system of justice properly demands that a high standard be used for determining guilt in death penalty cases. With the extraordinary due-process that is used in all death penalty cases, the likelihood of a mistake occurring is very small. From 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstatement the death penalty, no convincing evidence has been presented that proves any innocent persons have been executed. It has been extensively reported that “hundreds” of ‘innocent’ people have been exonerated from death row. This figure is highly exaggerated. The figure is actually closer to 40 which should be taken in proper context. There have been more than 7,000 prisoners sitting on death row since 1976. “Mistakes within the system, though few and unavoidable, should not serve as justification to eradicate the death penalty. We should never disregard the dangers of permitting murderers to kill again” (Stewart, 2006).
The Death Penalty is Illogical
Opponents of the death penalty contend that it does not deter other people from committing murder, which statistics show. In addition, if acts that did not cause harm to society were not illegal such as gambling, prostitution and drug possession, the prison population would be decreased by at least half. This would make sure the violent criminals served their entire sentence without being paroled prematurely due to prison over-crowding. As a result of keeping ‘animals’ who cause people harm in cages for the full duration of their sentence, society would be better protected. The death penalty does not deter future crime due to the common motives for committing murders. “Homicides are usually committed as a result of spontaneous actions and not thoroughly considered beforehand therefore the deterrent case has no validity” (Johnson, 1968). No one can visualize their own death therefore cannot contemplate or appreciate the consequences of their actions.
Interestingly, states that employ the death penalty usually have higher murder rates than states that do not. You would think having the death penalty deters instead of inviting murders. According to a poll conducted by the New York Times, “the 12 states that did not reenact the death penalty following the Supreme Courts reinstatement in 1976 have reported similar murder rates as have those states did.” (“States”, 2009). Statistics obtained from the Federal Bureau of Investigation show that 10 of 12 states that do not use the death penalty actually experienced murder rates below the national average. Additionally, half of the states that use the death penalty as punishment have murder rates that exceed the national average. These statistics reveal the death penalty seldom deters crime, if ever. If fact, maybe counter-intuitively, the opposite is generally the case. “It is difficult to make the case for any deterrent effect from these numbers,” according to criminologist Steven Messner, of the State University of New York at Albany. “Whatever the factors are that affect change in homicide rates; they don't seem to operate differently based on the presence or absence of the death penalty in a state” (“States”, 2009).
The case against the death penalty usually centers on the idea that a society has the moral responsibility to protect its citizens lives, not take it. Taking a person’s life is acceptable only if it is a necessary action in the attempt to achieve a balance of good over evil for society as a whole. “Given the value we place on life and our obligation to minimize suffering and pain whenever possible, if a less severe alternative to the death penalty exists which would accomplish the same goal, we are duty-bound to reject the death penalty in favor of the less severe alternative.” (Waller, 2008) It has been clearly demonstrated that the death penalty does not benefit society. It does, however, cause serious costs to society. The death penalty is immoral because it wastes lives. Not all but a great many of inmates sentenced to death could live productive lives following a suitable, extensive rehabilitation program, a concept that should be employed for all prisoners to help them and to better protect society once they got out. “Carrying out the death penalty destroys any good such persons might have done for society if they had been allowed to live.” (Andre/Velasquez, 2012) Because mistakes are routinely made at various points of the justice system and innocent people have been put to death, continuing its use can only be thought of as immoral. In too many cases eye-witness testimony has been enough to convict a person to death. Because this type of testimony is greatly flawed, the bar set too low for imposing death. In addition to wasting lives, the death penalty also wastes society’s money. It’s cheaper to keep a prisoner in jail.
“Contrary to conventional wisdom, it's much more costly to execute a person than to imprison them for life.” (Andre/Velasquez, 2012) The death penalty is a premeditated murder, a deed even more calculated than the murder by the perpetrator. It is therefore more morally heinous. An example of the equivalence would be for the criminal to have told his future victim of the date they would be killed and put them in the closet until that far-off day. Imagine how monstrous a person who did this would appear to the rest of society.
The death penalty is detrimental to society because it lessens the value society puts on human life. Permitting the government to impose death on some of its citizens, some of which innocent, legitimizes the killing of a person. The murder of anyone, even a convicted murderer, devalues everyone. Society has a responsibility to stop this practice which causes harm but produces few, if any benefit. The American culture seemingly finds pleasure in punishing its fellow citizens. By percentage (per capita) the U.S. incarcerates more of it people than any other industrialized country. The State of Connecticut abolished the death penalty last month in what is hopefully a trend that will continue. Someday, maybe our society will be more empathetic and will not apply the emotion of revenge to determine types of punishments and the death penalty will go the way of the Salem Witch Trials, another type of barbaric punishment.
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