SHOULD CAPITAL PUNISHMENT BE BANNED?
The right of the state to take the life of a person convicted of certain crimes is deeply rooted in concepts of governmental sovereignty and has been recognized in England as the source of our Common Law and most other historic governmental systems around the world throughout history. In the beginning of the twenty-first century, many are beginning to doubt the wisdom of government sanctioned murder under the name of capital punishment in criminal justice system. There is debate over the morals and effectiveness of such a harsh and irreversible sentence. Most commonly, the death penalty is challenged as a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which says that the U.S. cannot use “cruel and unusual.” punishment. The purpose of our entire criminal justice system is to protect the rights of life, liberty, and property for all its citizens. To do this, the punishment for crime must be harsh enough to deter potential criminals. Unfortunately, the death penalty may just be an easy escape for the criminal. Criminals should have to face the enormity of the crimes they committed everyday of their lives — they need a punishment to fit their crime. If the society kills the killers, then the moral line between the killer and the society becomes blurred. The death penalty is state sponsored killing. Capital punishment should be stopped, because it is unjust, ineffective deterrent, and a broken system.
First, capital punishment cannot be justified. Capital punishment is a serious failure of humanity, immoral and an act of torture. Every human being deserves the dignity of life. This includes the most brutal of murderers. It is an indication of how little our government values human life. We do not condone torture or cruelty but it cannot be denied that some executions are botched and those executed suffer extended pain. Even those who die instantly suffer mental anguish leading up to the execution. Examples of torture and cruelty are documented in Florida within the last few years. In 1997, Pedro Medina’s head caught fire while he was being electrocuted in Florida (Progressive 65). State attorney general Bob Butterworth commented, “People who wish to commit murder, they better not do it in the state of Florida, because we may have a problem with our electric chair (Progressive 65). In 1999, that state had another botched execution in June; Allen Lee Davis started to bleed profusely from the nose and appeared to suffer extreme pain during electrocution. After the machine was turned off, he continued to breath. “Witnesses say his chest rose and fell about ten times before he went still,” reported the New York Times (Progressive 65). Florida’s legislative solution to these atrocities has been to offer an alternative method of execution in the form of lethal injection. Although the electric chair is gruesome, other methods of execution currently practiced in other areas of the United States- particularly hanging and the gas chamber- are capable of producing excruciating pain as well. Robert Murray was sentenced to death for two murders he committed with his brother in 1991 who is imprisoned in Arizona. Murray expressed his own feelings in the following statement,
They have given me two methods to consider: lethal injection and lethal gas. I often imagine myself in the gas chamber and try to guess at the difference between dying there and dying by lethal injection. But I just keep coming back to the outcome. I wanted to ask someone’s advice about which method I should choose, but dead is dead,… there is much more to death by injection than just falling asleep, beginning with the long wait on death row, the terror of being taken to the death house, the helpless panic of being strapped to a table, and finally the sense of utter loss as the curtain is opened. (Murray 60)
Sunil Dutta is a sergeant of the Los Angeles police department, expressed his own opinion about capital punishment. As a police officer, I often see the results of human depravity. I see incidents of such brutal behavior that my compassion dissolves like a candle flame swept by a tornado… the practice of capital punishment, particularly by our “justice system,” reveals a serious failure in our humanity. We no longer burn witches or keep slaves or have monarchs dictate our lives. Capital punishment is similarly anachronistic. (Dutta 41).
In addition to inhumanity, by providing death penalty-the society is playing as a god which is an immoral activity. Not only do the societies play the role of God by judging who will die and who will live, by supporting the death penalty we send out the dangerous message to impressionable minds that violence is a way to resolve problems.
Secondly, capital punishment does not deter crime. It is not a deterrent because anyone that would be deterred by the death penalty would already have been deterred by life in prison, and people that are not deterred by that would not be stopped by any punishment. This argument is typically supported by claims that those states which have implemented the death penalty recently have not had a reduction of violent crime. A stronger variant of this argument suggests that criminals who believe they will face the death penalty are more likely to use violence or murder to avoid capture, and that therefore the death penalty might theoretically even increase the rate of violent crime. January 17, 1997 on the 20th anniversary of the first execution in the United States, a University of Florida researcher’s study shows 90 percent of the nation’s top criminologists say killing people to deter violent crime is an immense waste of time and money (Hunter 125). If somebody knew that if a person killed someone, the person would automatically be executed, they might choose not to kill. The fact is, it is not certain that all murderers will be executed. Some will be finding innocent, some sentences will be appealed, and some defendants will be found insane and not even go to jail. The point is that right now murderers are not faced with the certainty of their deaths. In 1995, a total of 3,054 prisoners were sentenced to death, but of those only fifty-six were actually executed (Hunter 119). It is hard to fear for death when there is a very small risk of actually dying. The death penalty does not deter murder because most murders are either “crimes of passion” or are planned by people who do not think they will be caught. Further, the system interferes with the international prosecution of criminals who commit serious crimes because countries which do not favor capital punishment in their own borders refuse to extradite criminals sought by the United States where there is a possibility of the death penalty if the fugitive is returned to this country.
In addition to not being effective deterrent, the death penalty certainly does not give equal justice under the law. For it to be an effective deterrent, the death penalty must not be racially or economically biased. The human cost of this racial injustice is incalculable. The decisions about who lives and who dies are being made along racial lines by a nearly all white group of prosecutors. The death penalty presents a stark symbol of the effects of racial discrimination. In May of 1994, the New York Times stated, “A report to Congress in March found that of the 37 people whom the justice Department had sought to execute for drug-related murders since 1988, 33 of the 37 were black or Hispanic inmates, while three-fourths of those charged under this statute were white”(Hunter 123), A black murderer whose victim is white is the most likely to end up in the execution chamber, while a white murderer whose victim is black has the best chance of avoiding the executioner. “Since the death penalty was restored in 1976, only six white people have been executed for murdering a black person, while 112 black people have been executed for murdering whites” (Costanzo 174). There are obviously signs of racism in the administration of the death penalty. It is very sad to see that this racism is still rooted in the society after all that has been done to get rid of it. The issue of class and economic status is also a big problem in death penalty cases. Probably the simplest way to escape the executioner is to be rich. Discrimination against the poor is especially blatant when it comes to deciding who lives and who dies. Although poor defendants on trial for murder are entitled to a lawyer, they are not necessarily entitled to a good lawyer. The poorly trained and poorly paid court-appointed lawyers usually represent poor defendants. In February of 1991, the New York Times reported, “Most indigent defendants in capital cases are represented by inexperienced, ill-paid lawyers who do lackluster, routine work” (Hunter 124). Not surprisingly, defendants represented by court-appointed attorneys are more than twice more likely to be sentenced to death than those represented by private attorneys or public defenders.
Furthermore, capital punishment increases the violence in the society. Some people argue that the death penalty brutalizes society, by sending out the message that killing people is the right thing to do in some circumstances. Statistics show that more murders are committed in some societies than in others. That suggests that society-at-large influences the number of murders and bears some responsibility for some of them. Therefore, it is unfair to differently punish the murderers the society itself has incidentally produced. It denies the possibility of rehabilitation. Some hold that a judicial systerm should have the role of educating and reforming those found guilty of crimes. If one is executed he will never have been educated and made a better person. The U.S. justice system has reverted to a strictly punitive method in order to prove “tough on crime” and in the hope that stronger punishment will somehow deter future criminal activity. The reality is that severe punishment is not working. Younger people and petty offenders under the current system become hardened, violent, and persistent criminals. In a study of young murderers, Cornell University human development professor James Garbarino observes:
Epidemics tend to start among the most vulnerable segments of the population and then work their way outwards, like ripples in a pond. These vulnerable populations don’t cause the epidemic. Rather, their disadvantaged position makes them a good host for the infection….The same epidemic model describes what is happening with boys who kill. (Grant 123)
Finally, capital punishment is a broken system. It is expensive, executes people wrongfully and flawed. The death penalty is not more cost effective than life in prison. The numerous frivolous appeals and constitutionally mandated safeguards make death penalty more expensive. A single execution costs more than two million dollars and it is $800,000 more than incarcerating a person for life (Hunter 123). It seems to be almost hypocritical of our society to keep spending so much money on the death penalty. The cost of the death penalty can be measured in more than just dollars and cents. Capital cases take up tremendous amounts of court time, thereby delaying the processing of other important cases. In addition to expense of death penalty, capital punishment can be inflicted upon an innocent person who is wrongfully convicted. There is a possibility of wrongly sending an innocent man to prison, or wrongly fining an innocent man. The death penalty, once applied, is irrevocable. The record of false convictions for those who end up on the death row provides no reassurance that innocent people are not being executed. In 1999, eight people were freed and declared innocent of their crimes, bringing the total of those exonerated from death row to eighty-four since 1973, or about one-seventh of all those executed (Progressive 62). One other prisoner on death row found innocent in every seven execution and the total innocents since 1976 are 486. (Shapiro 57). Gerald Kogan a former chief justice of Florida’s Supreme Court says, “If one innocent person is executed along the way, then we can no longer justify capital punishment” (Shapiro 57). A 1996 Justice Department report Convicted by Juries, Exonerated by Science: Case Studies in the use of DNA Evidence to Establish Innocence After Trial found that in 8,048 rape and rape- and- murder cases referred to the FBI crime lab from 1988 to mid-1995, a staggering 2,012 of the primary suspects were exonerated owing to DNA evidence alone (Progressive 66). The irreversibility of the death penalty is especially significant in light of the percentage of innocent people on death row. If an innocent person is put to death, the mistake can never be corrected; all compensation, all reparation for the wrong is impossible.
As demonstrated criminal adjudication system is flawed and the use of capital punishment in such a flawed system is irresponsible and indefensible. The risk of errors is troubling to an increasing number of Americans. From Supreme Court justice to Republican Illinois Governor George Ryan, a growing number of Americans are expressing grave concerns about the fairness of the administration of the death penalty; it is not just a question of access to modern DNA testing. A number of factors have resulted in unfair or even wrongful convictions such as incompetent counsel, sleeping lawyers, drunk lawyers, police misconduct, etc Governor Ryan of Illinois took a very important first step in 2000 when he had the courage to recognize these flaws, declared a moratorium on executions, and created a blue ribbon panel to review the fairness of the Illinois death penalty system (Feingold 143). Ray Krone walked out of an Arizona state prison in April, 2002 and became the 100th innocent person to be released from death row in the modem death penalty era. He spent the last ten years of his life in prison for a crime that he did not commit. Krone said upon his release,
What if? What if we hadn’t caught this mistake? What if an innocent man ate his final meal, took his last breath, said goodbye to his family and was put to death, alone, silenced by a failing system? What if we don’t ask ourselves these questions? What if we could have saved a life and we didn’t? What if we acknowledged that the system is unfair, and yet we didn’t do anything about it at all? (Feingold 143)
Furthermore, as a flawed system, capital punishment does not ensure same treatment for everybody around the country. The death penalty is hardly applied evenhandedly across the country. Two people can commit the same offense but receive very different treatment, depending on where they live. The percentage of execution in the South (eighty percent) as opposed to the rest of the country (eleven percent in the Mideast, eight percent in the West, and 0.5 percent in the Northeast) which is striking evidence that geographical distortion mark executions in the United States (Progressive 67). According to the Death Penalty Information Center, in 1999, Connecticut had five people on death row, Kansas had two, while Texas had 443 (Progressive 67).
So for many in our current society, capital punishment is an idea which should be permanently and promptly consigned to the historic junk heap. They argue passionately that the state sponsored murder of a human being is wrong on its face and no better than the murder the convicted criminal may have committed. They argue that even if the act were not immoral, it is as inefficient and ineffective as a deterrent that it just does not make sense any more. Finally they argue that the system of adjudicating criminal cases in this country is so flawed and unreliable that the attachment of a final penalty to such a process is appalling and indefensible because the possibility of an error which cannot be corrected after an execution is too great for a society that prides itself on the rule of law. It is time for the United States to join with the majority of nations of the civilized world in banning the cruel and unusual practice of capital punishment.