The death penalty is the ultimate penance. There is no harsher punishment, other than perhaps solitary confinement. Currently, fifty-six nations exercise the death penalty. The United States is one of the fifty-six nations that practices capital punishment. Individuals that believe in the death penalty usually believe that capital punishment deters murderers, or helps “make whole” the victim’s family, making the punishment more about revenge and retribution than justice. My argument is that the death penalty does not deter criminals and that the United States should outlaw the practice.
The tradition of capital punishment was brought over from Europe, when we immigrated here originally. At the time, people loved the death penalty, and it was considered a festive occasion. The first recorded execution in America occurred in the Jamestown colony in 1608 when Captain George Kendall was executed for spying for the Spanish government. However, in 1789 when the Bill of Rights was adopted, the amendments included prohibited cruel and unusual punishment, as well as the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. How can these rights co-exist with a legal death penalty?
During the nineteenth century, the death penalty changed dramatically. Around this time the death penalty started to lose popularity, and some states abolished it altogether. States no longer committed public executions; instead all were now done behind walls, in private. Pennsylvania was the first state to implement this practice. Currently, nineteen out of the fifty states no longer carry out the death penalty.
Starting in the fifties, a series of court cases regarding the death penalty went to the Supreme Court. Many tried to argue that the death penalty violated the eighth amendments and that capital punishment is cruel and unusual. In 1972, Furman v. Georgia brought a (temporary) end to the death penalty. Eventually the death penalty was restored, and came back with a literal bang with the execution of Gary Gilmore on January 17, 1977. Gary Gilmore was an unusual case, in that the prisoner was requesting to have the execution granted.
As of today, the United States still practices capital punishment. However there are limitations. It can only be used in capital murder cases, and the jury must unanimously vote for the sentence. The government cannot execute the mentally handicapped, and cannot impose the death penalty on anyone who was under the age of eighteen at the time of the crime. The United States has five ways to execute; lethal injection, electrocution, gas, firing squad and hanging.
Individuals and groups that are for the death penalty claims that the death penalty will serve as a deterrence and is the only way for retribution against murderers. Both issues are highly debatable and have been a focus of criticism.
Punishment as a deterrence has been the mindset for ages. This impression does work, but it cannot be applied to all criminals. Pro capital punishment individuals claim that it is an efficient prevention against crime. In the article “Death penalty is deterrence”, the authors claim that by practicing the death penalty, violent crimes will decrease. “Violent crime has declined 11 percent, with murder showing the largest decline at even more than 22 percent. We believe that this has occurred in part because of the strong signal that the death penalty sent to violent criminals and murderers. The statistics taken from this article may be inaccurate and should be closely examined. There is a huge amount of conflicting evidence from similar studies done currently and in the past.
Retribution has also been a goal for punishment. Logically, if a murderer is put to death then there will be no more killings, from that particular criminal at least. American society, especially the south, seems to favor retribution. An eye for an eye has been rule of thumb for ages. In a pro death penalty article, the author believes that, “When someone takes a life, the balance of justice is disturbed. Unless that balance is restored, society succumbs to a rule of violence. Only the taking of the murderer’s life restores the balance and allows society to show convincingly that murder is an intolerable crime which will be punished in kind.” This ideology has many flaws, mainly with morality issues. For example, if the country is punishing one for killing, what gives the country the right to kill?
Both articles’ fail to present any solid evidence that supports their hypothesis. “Death penalty is deterrence” had statistical information, but fail to present how the information was obtained. Depending on the researcher’s information gathering methods, the statistical information could have been different. For example “In an article in the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, Dr. Jeffrey Fagan of Columbia University describes numerous serious errors in recent deterrence studies, including improper statistical analyses and missing data and variables that are necessary to give a full picture of the criminal justice system. Fagan writes, “There is no reliable, scientifically sound evidence that shows that executions can exert a deterrent effect.” These flaws and omissions in a body of scientific evidence render it unreliable as a basis for law or policy that generates life-and-death decisions.” There needs to be solid evidence in order to prove a theory. Those who claim that the death penalty is an efficient deterrence fail to submit conclusive evidence, therefore as a critic, we should dismiss the claim that the death penalty works as deterrence.
In addition, many studies seem to disprove the theory that the death penalty is a good deterrence against violent crimes and murders. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, states without the death penalty have had lower murder rates. In their seventeen-year old study, states without the death penalty showed a 40% decrease in murder rates. In regards to the article “Death penalty is deterrence”, New York has now abolished the death penalty and their murder rate has gone down significantly compared to when the state was still practicing capital punishment. In fact, in the first year that New York abolished the death penalty they saw a four percent decrease in their murder rates.
The reason why the death penalty does not serve as deterrence is that no one believes they’re going to get caught, or they don’t care in the heat of the moment. No one is going to kill someone for money, revenge, or drugs and start thinking rationally about the death penalty. Most murders are spur of the moment, not grandiose plans.
The death penalty as retribution is circular reasoning. By executing an offender, our government, is sending mixed messages. The point of capital punishment is because the United States government wants to express that killing is a heinous crime. By killing this person, the government is contradicting itself. In addition, the death penalty can be seen as payback. We are simply taking an eye for an eye. Killing a killer will not bring back the victim. In the 21st century our laws should reflect a higher standard than the biblical ‘eye for an eye’.
In current times, there are huge delays in carrying out the executions of an inmate. Figures show that most, if not all, inmates have at least a decade wait before their execution takes place. In fact, most death row inmates die of old age or disease. California’s death row is a great example. There have been no executions since 2006, yet there are currently over 700 inmates on California’s death row. This means virtually all of these inmates will die of natural causes before their sentence will be carried out. This is a ridiculous cost to the people of California, since it costs so much more to house a death row inmate rather than a regular jailhouse inmate. Why not sentence these people to life without the possibility of parole, and avoid this whole rigmarole?
Those that claim the death penalty as retribution fail to realize the actual execution process in our criminal justice system. Legally, an inmate is granted an automatic appeal to their case. Appeals are needed in the criminal justice system because the process is designed to protect against human error. The average appeal can take over ten years. There is simply not enough time to response to all case reviews quickly. Every year, the courts receive thousands of case reviews, but only a handful of cases are reviewed, making the wheel turn very slowly for all involved.
Throughout America’s history, many have tried to abolish the death penalty, and some were successful in temporarily abolishing the death penalty. Most states reinstated the death penalty after judicial review, with some limitations. The most current issue regarding the abolishment of the death penalty was Baze v. Rees. Baze V. Rees was an attack on the process of execution, specifically lethal injections. Baze argues that lethal injections are a form of cruel and unusual punishment and therefore violate constitutional rights. That debate failed, and the judges ruled in favor of the death penalty. “The trial court held extensive hearings and entered detailed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law. It recognized that “there are no methods of legal execution that are satisfactory to those who oppose the death penalty on moral, religious, or societal grounds, but concluded that the procedure “complies with the constitutional requirements against cruel and unusual punishment”. Baze V. Rees was a good attempt in trying to abolish the death penalty, but in the end was ineffective because they were attacking the process not the problem.
In addition, Baze fail to show any solid evidence that lethal injections may cause pain.
Some will argue that by abolishing the death penalty, crime rates will increase. Studies have already shown that the death penalty does not and will not deter criminals. If juries can impose a sentence of true life without parole, this is a punishment that can address both the fear of putting a murderer back on the streets and the desire for retribution.
Currently there is no solid evidence that proves that the death penalty will deter criminals; however, there is much evidence showing that states with no death penalty have a lower murder rate than states with the death penalty. In a recent examination, “researchers concluded that the estimates claiming that the death penalty saves numerous lives are simply not credible. In fact, researchers stated that using the same data and proper methodology could lead to the exact opposite conclusion: that is, that the death penalty actually increases the number of murders”.
Conclusive evidence should dismiss any criticism regarding the death penalty and murder rates.
The death penalty should be abolished. Those that believe in the death penalty have failed to make their case. There is no conclusive evidence that supports their claims. There is evidence however, that the death penalty is failing. The Innocence Project is clearing innocent people from death row every year. DNA evidence should be looked at on every person that is sitting on death row, because what if? What if we execute an innocent person? There is no bringing that person back once they’re dead, but we can release them from prison and try to compensate them for their time and let them live out the rest of their life in freedom. For all the reasons stated above, the United States should abolish the death penalty.
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