LIFE OR DEATH: CAPITAL PUNISHMENT IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Since the execution of James Kendall in 1608, capital punishment “has been an accepted form of justice” in what is now the United States (Smith 2). Capital punishment can be defined as “the penalty of death for the commission of a crime”. In colonial America, both violent and non-violent crimes could merit the death penalty. Murder was not the only crime punishable by death. Criminals responsible for committing any crime against God would be executed. While our society does not execute individuals supposedly practicing witchcraft or committing other sins, there is still a need for capital punishment. Not only should the death penalty be condoned, but improved upon to give criminals punishments comparable to the brutal crime responsible for their prosecution. The methods of executing criminals have evolved greatly since colonial times. Our government now uses the method of lethal injection, which causes the criminal to lose consciousness before he is injected with a poisonous substance. Preceding lethal injection was the gas chamber, the electric chair, the firing squad, and the hanging. The death penalty has been improved upon not only to execute the criminal faster, but to be as humane as possible.
As with all controversial issues, capital punishment is no stranger to opposition. Activist groups have gathered and published information pertaining to the inability of capital punishment to deter crime and of the United States justice system’s tendency to be prejudice in executions. The Moratorium Campaign, an anti-capital punishment group, posts information on their website regarding the flaws of capital punishment. Anti-capital punishment topics such as “Innocent people are sentenced to die” and “The death penalty is racially inequitable” are posted freely for anyone interested in such information to read. Perhaps the most common argument against capital punishment is its effectiveness. The Moratorium Campaign states: States that do not have the death penalty have an average murder rate that is actually lower than states that do have the death penalty. In 1995 the police chiefs across the United States were polled by a bi-partisan polling firm and ask to rank the ten things that reduce crime – the death penalty was almost unanimously ranked last.
The second most effective argument against capital punishment is cost efficiency. Various states have estimated that the cost of execution ranges anywhere from $1 million to $7 million, whereas the cost of life imprisonment is estimated around $500,000. Another major argument presented against capital punishment is the prejudice tendencies of execution. The Moratorium Campaign posts the following information: Over 82 percent of those on death row were convicted of killing a white person, though people of color make up more than 50 percent of all homicide victims in the U.S. […] In addition, 43 percent of those on death row are black, though only 12 percent of the U.S. population is black.
Aside from these arguments, opposition groups also bring in to account human rights and question the government’s role in executing criminals. Not only do such arguments come from an economical point of view, they also come from a moral point of view.
Supporters of capital punishment tend to turn to biblical evidence in order to defend their viewpoint. Kerby Anderson, president of Probe Ministries, explains:
Throughout the Old Testament we find many cases in which God commands the use of capital punishment. We see this first with the acts of God Himself. God was involved, either directly or indirectly, in taking of life as a punishment for the nation of Israel or for those who threatened or harmed Israel.
Anti-capital punishment groups bring into the spotlight the effectiveness of capital punishment to deter violent crime by proving that crime rates are not affected by the execution of violent criminals. We must first realize that crime rates have been on the rise for several years. Without a steady increase or decrease in crime it would be impossible to be sure how effective the death penalty is. The poet Hyman Barshay writes:
The death penalty is a warning, just like a lighthouse throwing its beams out to sea. We hear about shipwrecks, but we do not hear about the ships the lighthouse guides safely on their way.
We do not have proof of the number of ships it saves, but we do not tear the lighthouse down.
Without hard evidence that capital punishment is ineffective, our society should continue to use it as a deterrent to
violent crime. Dr. Isaac Ehrlich at the University of Chicago has conducted research showing “that if the death penalty is used in a consistent way, it may deter as many as eight murders for every execution carried out”. It must also be realized that capital punishment is not the ultimate answer in preventing violent crime. Criminals with mental illnesses or members of organized crime will undoubtedly still commit crimes due to mental health and the fact that crime does, in a sense, pay.
Anti-capital punishment organizations also argue that the courts are prejudice in their convictions of non-white criminals. The Moratorium Campaign states:
Over 82 percent of those on death row were convicted of killing a white person, though people of color make up more than 50 percent of all homicide victims in the U.S. Where is the outrage for their deaths? Do we value people of color less? In addition 43 percent of those on death row are black, though only 12 percent of the U.S. population is black.
The Moratorium Campaign tries to turn the percentage of colored death row inmates into a racial situation. A suspect who can afford a high priced attorney will usually have a better chance of avoiding conviction, whereas a suspect with little money and a state appointed attorney will be more likely to be convicted of a crime and sentenced to death regardless of his ethnic background. This has nothing to do with racial inequality. Every American citizen has the right to attorney in court and is guaranteed legal representation regardless of financial status. However, individuals who can supply their own representation have a much better chance of avoiding conviction than an individual with state representation. Aside from representation, appearance and attitude play a major role in conviction. A well dressed suspect who shows courtesy to the judge and others in the courtroom is more likely to escape conviction than a suspect who shows up in dirty clothes and has outbursts in court. While anti-capital punishment organizations say that racial background has a lot to do with conviction, it is more practical to blame conviction on financial status and behavior.
While both opposing and supporting sides of capital punishment serve as opposites of one another, each side makes valid arguments. Perhaps capital punishment is an issue that will never be resolved. Anti-capital punishment organizations bring the inhumanity and cruelty of the government executing criminals for crimes of murder to the public. Our legal system is not perfect and will only aspire to reach perfection. As with all imperfect systems, mistakes are made and, in the case of capital punishment, innocent people have been sentenced to die for another man’s crime. It is with these imperfections that our legal system is constantly being improved upon in order to avoid convicting innocent people. While the validity of anti-capital punishment arguments is evident, the validity of pro-capital punishment arguments is also evident. Criminals who have murdered other human beings have, in their actions, forfeited their rights as Americans as well as their right to live their lives. The punishment for taking a human life should be the loss of life for the perpetrator.