IS CAPITAL PUNISHMENT JUST?
Is capital punishment just? The death penalty is a controversial issue for most people. Supporters claim that it eliminates repeat offenders, deters potential murderers and is the ultimate retribution. Opponents denounce it as murder, say that it does not cause deterrence but rather promotes violence and claim that it introduces the chance of an innocent person being executed. Due to the arguments presented by both sides and because of my own personal beliefs, the argument against legal execution is most compelling. The idea of putting another human to death is hard to completely fathom. The physical mechanics involved in carrying out a death sentence on another person, regardless of how much they deserve it, is beyond human understanding.
In the United States, there are thirty-eight states that have the death penalty and twelve without capital punishment. The first method used was in New York in 1890 and is still in use in thirteen states. “Old Sparky” was the horrific outcome of Thomas Edison’s attempt to show the dangers of the AC power supply being promoted by his rivals (Anderson, 51). The condemned is strapped to a wooden chair, electrodes are attached, and a shock of thirty thousand watts is applied. The prisoner is literally cooked internally, and death may require multiple shocks. When someone was executed with the electric chair the ceremony usually took place close to midnight. This was because at that hour they knew not many people were using electricity; the chair needs thirty thousand watts or the equivalent of four hundred seventy-five-watt light bulbs turning on at the same time. More than one shock was usually required to kill the criminal, so it drained a massive amount of electricity from the power company. Since the electric chair, midnight has become the fixed execution time.
The next method of execution developed after the electric chair was the gas chamber. The gas chamber was first used in 1921. This chamber of death is an airtight room with a chair into which the accused is strapped. Death is caused by exposure to cyanide gas, produced when sodium cyanide is dropped into sulfuric acid. The suffering caused is deliberate and plain to see: writhing, vomiting, shaking and gasping for breath for many seconds. This horrendous technique is used only in a few states.
Another form of the death penalty is lethal injection. This form was introduced in the U.S. in 1977 and is now in use in twenty-three states. This is the most widespread method and arguably the most humane. The condemned is strapped to a table and injected with sodium triopentone, losing consciousness in ten to fifteen seconds. This is followed by pancuronium bromide, which blocks respiration and finally potassium chloride to stop the heart (Jackson, 38-43).
Finally, the last two forms of execution are death by firing squad and death by hanging. These two forms of capital punishment are very rarely ever used. In 1999 there were only two hangings and one death by firing squad. The convicted sometimes have the opportunity to decide how they wish to be executed, which was the case in these three executions.
Religious people, especially those faithful to the Catholic religion believe that the death penalty is morally wrong. The Catholic Church believes that all human life is sacred and that we as Catholics are obligated to protect all forms of human life. Life is a gift from God. God is our creator and only he has the right to give or take away a life, man should not have the power to take another man’s life in any situation. The Catholic Church does not believe that capital punishment is the solution to or cure for the violent crime of murder. Capital punishment fails to create a society free from crime because we are still committing a murder upon the perpetrator. The death penalty is enforced to teach that every life should be valued and respected. Consequently, it is not right to teach society that killing is wrong by killing. Those who disagree with the Catholic community say “an eye for an eye” which can be found in the Bible. This verse is referring to God and God only, he is the only one who can take away a life.
The belief that execution costs less than imprisonment is false. The cost of the apparatus and maintenance of the procedures of the death penalty, including death row and the endless appeals far outweigh the expense of maintaining in prison the tiny fraction of criminals who would otherwise be slain (Anderson, 46). In most states the price of life without parole ranges from $75,000 to $1.1 million. While this might sound expensive it is pennies when compared to the expense of killing a criminal. Statistics have shown that the average price in trying, convicting, and sentencing a killer with the added expense of death row for years, equals to around $3 million. That is the same amount it takes to hold three prisoners in a maximum-security cell for 40 years. It has been estimated that California could save as much as $90 million a year if they abolish the death penalty. In New York $ 118 million could be saved, more than any other state. Other states that could also save money include New Jersey $16 million annually, Kansas 11.4 million annually and Indiana $5 million annually (Prothrow-Stith, 134). In California the average cost for the death penalty is $3.2 million and $2.3 million in Texas. Life without parole is the only way to go it costs less than a third of what it costs to execute a person on death.
The death penalty is irrevocable. In case of mistake, the executed prisoner cannot be given another chance. Justice can miscarry. There have been cases where innocent people have been executed. In the last hundred years there have been more than 75 documented cases of wrongful conviction of criminal homicide. The death sentence was carried out in twenty-three of these cases. Undoubtedly many other cases of mistaken conviction and execution occurred and remain undocumented (Anderson, 47). One case that was actually documented was that of James Richardson. Richardson had been accused of killing his seven children in 1968. He was sentenced to death. During his trial, many documents and files were hidden, by the prosecutor, which would have proven Richardson’s innocence. It was not until twenty-one years later when someone learned of these hidden files and stole them. The thief turned the files over to the press who published them. The files proved that it was his neighbor not he who had killed his children. This leads to his release in 1989 (Cabana, 64-65). James Richardson was an extremely lucky man, but what about those who died knowing the whole time that they were innocent. A prisoner discovered to be blameless can be freed but neither release nor compensation is possible for a corpse.
Another huge question in our American society is whether or not the death penalty is constitutional. In our U.S. Constitution under Amendment 8 it states that cruel and unusual punishment shall not be inflicted upon a lawbreaker. Making a person sit on death row for multiple years is cruel. In 1967 the death penalty was suspended in order for the federal appellate courts to decide on its constitutionality. In 1972, in Furman V. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in the way it was being implemented. The Supreme Court ruled that states were applying the death penalty arbitrarily and irregularly. In one swoop, every death penalty was rejected as unconstitutional. In 1976, in Gregg V. Georgia, the Supreme Court decided that capital punishment was constitutional but states had to implement it fairly. I would totally have to disagree with this ruling. On March 10, 1992, Robyn Parks reacted spasmodically for almost a minute due to lethal injection, then choked to death (Gross, 92). That incident sounds pretty cruel and unusual to me. The death penalty is an insufficient and inhumane form of punishment because it is cruel and inhumane and clearly goes against our U.S. Constitution.
Contrary to popular belief, the death penalty does not act as deterrence to crime. “Expert after expert and study after study have emphasized the lack of correlation between the threat of capital punishment and the occurrence of violent crime” (Prothrow-Stith, 69). Isaac Ehrlich’s study on the deterrent effect of capital punishment in America reveals this. It spans twenty-five years, 1957-1982, and shows that in the first year the study was conducted there were 8,060 murders in 1957 and 65 executions. However, in the last year of the study, there were 22,520 murders committed and only one execution performed. The absence of deterrence is clearly shown. One other example that helps show the death penalty does not deter crime is the stance that many police chiefs take. Less than 2% of police chiefs surveyed see the death penalty as an effective tool to help reduce crime (Jackson, 1). This proving those who support the death penalty wrong, that say that capital punishment actually deters potential murderers.
An alternative to the death penalty should be that the offender is required to compensate the victim’s family with the offenders’ own income from employment or community service while in jail. There is no doubt that someone can do more alive than dead. By working, the criminal inadvertently “pays back” society and also their victim’s family. There is no reason for the criminal to receive compensation for his work. Money is of no value in jail. One of the most well known examples of the criminal contributing to the betterment of society is the case of Leopold and Loeb. Leopold and Loeb were nineteen years old when they committed one of the crimes of the century. In 1924 they kidnapped and murdered a fourteen-year-old boy just to see what it was like. They were both spared the death penalty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Together their accomplishments include working at hospitals, teaching illiterates to read, creating a correspondence school, making significant developments in the World War II Malaria project and writing a grammar book. “An inestimable amount of people were directly helped by Leopold and Loeb, both of them making a conscious commitment to atone by serving others” (Horwitz, 109) Imagine all that could be accomplished if those on death row’s lives were spared.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition defines execution as the act of or instance of putting to death or being put to death as a lawful penalty, this statement is false. The death penalty has been a gross failure. The bottom line is that one method of execution is just as brutal and as barbaric as the next. Beyond its horror and incivility it has neither protected the innocent nor deterred the wicked. The recurrent spectacle of publicity sanctioned killing has cheapened human life and dignity. Capital punishment is not just and should be abolished from all remaining states that it still exists in.