Death penalty is an issue that tends to generate much controversy in the United States of America. It is an issue which if on the one side is linked to the maintenance of the law and order in the nation, on the other side this issue has to do with human values and social ethics. Hence, it is easy to understand as to why the public opinion regarding death penalty happens to be so emotive and polarized. There are people who strongly support the provision for death penalty in the law of the land, believing it to be a must for retaining a healthy social order. There also happen to be experts who think that practically speaking, death penalty is a statutory provision that has failed to deliver results over time, irrespective of being so harsh and stringent. Hence, death penalty is a legal option which if on the one side is strongly criticized by many people and scholars for being inhuman, socially unjustifiable and financially costly; it on the other side is validated by many experts for its deterrence impact and its scope for extending justice to the families of the victims of inhuman and rare crimes.
There is a strong body of opinion in the country that believes that death penalty is a form of punishment that happens to be utterly cruel and inhuman. As per the experts supporting this opinion, death penalty happens to be against the values and norms imminent in the Western liberal polity, and thereby it should be banned or prohibited at the earliest (Grant, 1998, p. 20). Such people, who decry death penalty for being inhuman, consider that death penalty is a sentence that happens to be disproportionately severe in terms of the pain it inflicts on an accused and the finality of its scope. In other words such opinions hold that death penalty not only dehumanizes the individuals accused of serious crimes, but also treats them like animals that need to be slaughtered to meet the cause of justice. The important thing is that such opinions tend to be backed by the contemporary international trends in the area of jurisprudence (Grant, 1998). It is a reality that death penalty is not allowed in many parts of the world, including the European Union nations. Such experts also gain support from the fact that the provision for death penalty in America violates the international human rights laws (Grant, 1998, p. 21). There is no denying the fact that this line of argument draws much support from the international community and a majority of the Western liberal democracies. If the nation gives in to such views, this will certainly align the United States Constitution with the prevailing international trends. At least this is what is believed by many critics of death penalty. However, this approach seems to be one sided and gives least consideration to the victims of serious and rare crimes.
The inhuman implications attributed to death penalty are further backed by people who believe that death penalty is a legal provision that is based on faulty reasoning and logic and is no way socially and morally justified (Nuechterlein, 2000, p. 9). This line of argument opposing death penalty gathers support from the beliefs and values like forgiveness, kindness and mercy existing in the Christian theology (Nuechterlein, 2000, p. 10). Such critics hold that it is God that gives life to an individual. Hence, it is God who only has the right to take life away from a person. It is not up to the society or the courts to decide as to whether to deprive a person of one’s life by making one sit on an electric chair or injecting one with a lethal injection. The thing that comes out clearly in such line of reasoning is that it happens to be utterly emotional and religious in its scope. This line of reasoning fails to consider the secular functions and duties of law. Yet, it is also a fact that this approach towards death penalty is based on higher human values like kindness and forgiveness. Combined with the human rights argument, it does extend a strong case against death penalty.
It may sound surprising, but death penalty also has a fiscal facet in the sense that many experts believe that death penalty should be discontinued with because it costs too much to keep an accused on the death row (Williams, 2011, p. 55). The most important attribute of this argument is that it is based on credible data and figures and hence is logically reliable and valid. For instance it has been estimated that it costs the state almost $ 2 million to make a criminal sit on the death row and go through the process of continual appeals (Williams, 2011, p. 55). In contrast, it is much affordable for the state to allow an accused a life imprisonment sentence without parole. However, many critics argue that justice cannot depend merely on financial considerations. They believe that a just and viable society merely cannot rely on financial considerations while meting justice to the perpetrators of violent and horrific crimes. The judicial system needs to give consideration to the dictates of justice and the larger social good while deciding on the punishment to be met to the perpetrators of horrific crimes.
There are also legal and social experts who hold that death penalty should be supported because it deters the people from engaging in violent and serious crimes (Rubin, 2002, p. 10). Such scholars argue that the purpose of a death sentence is not merely to punish a convict, but also to set an example for other people and to deter them from engaging in violent crimes. The line of argument pursued by such experts is that people are less likely to commit murders or other violent crimes, if they know well in advance that it may cost them their life. This approach towards death penalty relies primarily on practical implications and sets aside they moral, human and religious issues associated with death penalty. There are critics who counter this approach by arguing that a serious issue like death penalty does need to have a moral and religious basis also. They criticize an approach towards justice that ignores the set theological and ethical traditions.
There is a salient school of thought that justifies death penalty on the basis of extending justice to the victims of horrific crimes and their family members (Levey, 2006, p. 289). It is indeed true that most of the approaches towards death penalty discussed till now give little consideration to the rights of the victims of serious crimes and the rights of the family members of such victims. Indeed, a sentence should be such that it should make the family members of the victims feel satisfied. Thereby, the experts extending this logic hold that it is much easier for such people to have a detached and somewhat intellectual attitude towards death penalty who do not happen to be the family members of the victims of serious crimes. They believe that death penalty is totally justified because it helps the family members of the victims believe that they have received justice (Levey, 2006). The most noteworthy practical aspect of this approach is that it does recognize the pain and anger of the family members of the victims of serious crimes.
There is no denying the fact that death penalty is an issue that could be analyzed from multiple angles. The need for respecting human rights and the imperative to uphold values like kindness and mercy make the provision of death penalty seem wrong and extreme. Yet, on the other side, if one takes into consideration the pain and suffering of the victims of horrific crimes and the need to maintain social order, death penalty comes out as a practical and valid option. Thereby, an individual’s views regarding death penalty are greatly influenced by the context in which one analyses and considers this issue.
Grant, S. (1998). A Dialogue of the Deaf? New International Attitudes and the Death Penalty
In America. Criminal Justice Ethics, 17(2), 19-26.
Levey, D.S. (2006). Balancing the Scales of Justice. Judicature, 89(5), 289-290.
Nuechterlein, James. (2000, April). Forgiveness & the Death Penalty. First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religious and Public Life, 9-10.
Rubin, P.H. (2002). The Death Penalty and Deterrence. Phi Kappa Phi Forum, 82(1), 10-11.
Williams, R. (2011, July-August). The Cost of Punishment: The Expense of the Death
Penalty has Law Makers Reconsidering and Old Debate. State Legislatures, 37(7), 55-56.