The United States is one of the few industrialized, democratic nations in the world which still permits capital punishment on a state-by-state basis. Not all states have the death penalty but executions are still carried out in the United States and the punishment remains controversial.
Despite the singularity of its status internationally, the death penalty has historically been a popular policy in the United States, even though it has been hotly debated throughout US history in the legislature and the courts. This essay on death penalty will examine its legal status in the United States, its history, and its future.
Table of Contents
The Future of the Death Penalty in America
Why America Has a Death Penalty
Death Penalty: Arguments and Counter-Arguments
Death Penalty Pros and Cons
[ more topics for death penalty ]
A Comparison of the Death Penalty in Different Countries and the United States
The Death Penalty Debate in the United States
The Death Penalty: Is it Just and Fair?
Death Penalty: A Legal Overview of the Death Penalty in the United States
A. Status of the Death Penalty in the United States
B. The Troubled History of the Death Penalty in the United States
C. Arguments Against the Death Penalty
D. Arguments in Favor of the Death Penalty and Counter-Arguments
Given that public opinion has increasingly turned against the death penalty in the United States, combined with the expense of capital cases and concerns about the innocence of convicted defendants, it is time for the United States to take a stand with the rest of the democratic, industrialized world community and abolish the death penalty.
According to a recent poll of US voters which asked them about their views of the death penalty, support for the punishment is at a historic low. For the first time, a minority of US citizens oppose the death penalty, according to a poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. “Only about half of Americans (49%) now favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, while 42% oppose it. Support has dropped 7 percentage points since March 2015, from 56%” (Oliphant 2016). Support peaked in the mid-1990s, “when eight-in-ten Americans (80% in 1994) favored the death penalty and fewer than two-in-ten were opposed (16%)” (Oliphant 2016). Opposition to the death penalty was also vocal in the 1970s, particularly after the US Supreme Court decision Furman v. Georgia (1972) which briefly declared all death penalty statutes unconstitutional, deeming them discriminatory in the ways in which they were enforced.
The Supreme Court later found in Gregg v. Georgia (1976) that the death penalty itself was not cruel and unusual punishment, provided it was appropriately administrated and so long as its use was “judicious” and “careful” (“Gregg v. Georgia,” 1976 ). Post-Gregg, states with the death penalty have introduced safeguards, such as a separate process for determining if death is warranted, versus the subject’s guilt alone. The existence of the death penalty at all remains controversial within America, particularly given that the United States remains relatively isolated in terms of its insistence upon permitting the death penalty amongst modern, industrialized democracies. Other nations which still permit the death penalty include China, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia—hardly illustrious company in the sphere of human rights (“Death penalty statistics by country,” 2011).
Image Credit: The Economist http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/images/EconomistMap.png
History of the Death Penalty in the United States
The history of the death penalty extends far back into history, longer than the United States has existed as an independent nation. Even in the ancient world, the death penalty was practiced. “Code of King Hammurabi of Babylon codified the death penalty for twenty five different crimes, although murder was not one of them” (Reggio 2014). In Europe, by the tenth century, hanging was commonly used as a means of execution and by the Middle Ages in Great Britain and the rest of Europe, prisoners were often tortured before being executed, even for relatively minor crimes or for their religious affiliations. Well into the eighteenth century, stealing small sums of money were capital offenses although by the early nineteenth century in Great Britain, only serious offenses were capital crimes. This was also true of colonial America. “By 1776, most of the colonies had roughly comparable death statutes which covered arson, piracy, treason, murder, sodomy, burglary, robbery, rape, horse-stealing, slave rebellion, and often counterfeiting” (Reggio 2014). The US Constitution expressly forbids cruel and unusual punishments under the Eighth Amendment of the Bill of Rights.
The question of whether the death penalty is cruel and unusual has been hotly debated. It may come as a surprise that as early as the mid-nineteenth century there was a robust movement to abolish the death penalty and many states elected to do so. In 1846, Michigan abolished the death penalty, followed by Rhode Island in 1852 (Reggio 2014). The abolitionist movement was extremely influential in supporting the abolishment of capital punishment as well. However, even while many states banned the death penalty, other states began to simply search for new methods to use to execute prisoners. “Between 1917 and 1955, the death penalty abolition movement again slowed. Washington, Arizona, and Oregon in 1919-20 reinstated the death penalty. In 1924, the first execution by cyanide gas took place in Nevada, when Tong war gang murderer Gee Jon became its first victim,” and the electric chair, versus hanging, became more common (Reggio 2014).
Arguments Against the Death Penalty
The legal argument most frequently used to protest the death penalty is that it is cruel and unusual punishment and thus a violation of the US Constitution Bill of Rights. However, the US Supreme Court has not found the death penalty in and of itself to be a cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment, although it has found abusive treatment within prisons to be cruel and unusual. The Supreme Court performs a so-called “ proportionality analysis” when evaluating a punishment according to the following three tests: “Consideration of the offense’s gravity and the stringency of the penalty; a consideration of how the jurisdiction punishes its other criminals; and a consideration of how other jurisdictions punish the same crime” (“Death penalty,” 2017).
Another important argument against the death penalty is its discriminatory nature. Historically, African-Americans have been executed in greater numbers than whites, even for the same offenses. The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) notes that while “56% of death row inmates are black or Hispanic” and despite the fact that “racial minorities comprise half of all murder victims nationwide, a far greater proportion (77%) of the victims in capital convictions were white,” indicating that the act of an African-American or Hispanic individual murdering a white person may lead to a higher conviction rate (Love 2012). Furthermore, the humanitarian watchdog group Amnesty International notes “20% of blacks nationwide were convicted by all-white juries” (Love 2012).
There is also a significant state-by-state discrepancy that can result in entirely different systems of justice being dispensed, simply depending on the location of where a crime has occurred. For example, “nationally, Alabama ranks 23rd in population, but second in executions in 2011” and “African-Americans are 27% of the population, yet comprise 63% of the prisoners” (Love 2012). The former states of the Confederacy make up the vast majority of the states executing criminals in the US. “Over three quarters of executions take place in the states of the former Confederacy (including 35% in Texas alone) with their history of racial violence, lynching and arbitrary Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, which sanctioned death for blacks for certain offenses” (Love 2012).
Image Credit: No to War – http://www.notowar.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/death6-500×375.jpg
The discriminatory nature of the death penalty is one of the major reasons that the US Supreme Court found the way in which the death penalty was enforced in the US to be unconstitutional in Furman v. Georgia (1972): “The Court reasoned that the laws resulted in a disproportionate application of the death penalty, specifically discriminating against the poor and minorities. The Court also reasoned that the existing laws terminated life in exchange for marginal contributions to society” and found no evidence of any deterrent value (“Death penalty,” 2017). Yet while this temporarily required states to review how their death penalty statutes were written, it merely prolonged rather than terminated the use of the death penalty in the United States, as states reviewed how death penalty cases and sentencing were administrated. “In Gregg v. Georgia, the Court held the death penalty was not per se unconstitutional as it could serve the social purposes of retribution and deterrence” and “upheld Georgia’s new capital sentencing procedures, reasoning that the Georgia rules reduced the problem of arbitrary application as seen in earlier statutes” given that the new death penalty was not discriminatory against African-Americans nor arbitrary as previous death penalty statues of the kind overturned in the Furman case (“Death penalty,” 2017). Yet the statistics still indicate that the death penalty is being administered in a discriminatory fashion.
The US Supreme Court has had to act in numerous instances to prevent certain states in engaging in egregious actions and stepping beyond the bounds of the law to use the death penalty in cruel and unusual ways. A good example is that of the execution of mentally incapacitated defendants with low IQs. In Atkins v. Virginia, (2002), the Court found that executing patients classified as mentally handicapped was cruel and unusual because the nature of their disability “lessens the severity of the crime and therefore renders the extraordinary penalty of death as disproportionately severe” (“Death penalty,” 2017). The Court similarly found this to be the case with the execution of juveniles. In Roper v. Simmons (2005), the Court found that given that the justice system does not regard juveniles as mentally competent adults “juvenile offenders assume diminished culpability for their crimes” and death is therefore not a just punishment (“Death penalty,” 2017). The fact that state legislatures permitted such executions upon the mentally incapacitated and very young to take place in the past highlights the extent to which emotion can affect the administration of justice.
Furthermore, there is mounting evidence that innocent individuals have been found guilty of capital crimes, further highlighting the risks of subjecting criminals to the ultimate punishment. According to Levy (2014), in a study published in the peer-reviewed journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “since 1973, 144 people on death row have been exonerated” and an estimated “innocence rate is 4.1 percent, more than twice the rate of exoneration.” A lack of access to adequate representation can cause many defendants to languish in the criminal justice system.
Despite claims that the death penalty is just because it does not require the tax payer to subsidize a criminal for the duration of his or her existence, the actual evidence suggests that the death penalty is more expensive than imprisoning an individual for life because of the prolonged duration of the judicial process. “Death penalty cases are much more expensive than other criminal cases and cost more than imprisonment for life with no possibility of parole. In California, capital trials are six times more costly than other murder trials” due to “complex pre-trial motions, lengthy jury selections, and expenses for expert witnesses are all likely to add to the costs in death penalty cases” (Dieter 1992). Given the budget-strapped nature of many states, arguably such money is better invested into improving law enforcement and drug treatment efforts, versus the expense of bringing death penalty cases to trial.
The US Supreme Court has also increasingly limited the range and type of offenses which may receive the death penalty. Proportionality is a key criteria for allocating the ultimate punishment to prisoners, according to the Court. In the case Coker v. Georgia, the US Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty cannot be applied to rape cases (“Death penalty,” 2017). Interestingly enough, one of the arguments used by the court in Coker was that public opinion did not support the use of the death penalty for rape. The fact that opposition to the death penalty is at an all-time low is thus extremely significant, given that notions of proportionality and what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment are even, from a court perspective, somewhat subjective. Additionally, the public has also expressed fears and concerns about the way the death penalty is administrated. In the Pew Research study on public opinion and the death penalty, “majorities said there was some risk of an innocent person being put to death (71%) and that the death penalty does not deter serious crime (61%)” (Oliphant 2016). This fear underlines the moral principle that it is better to let a guilty person go free than to see an innocent person condemned to suffer an unjust punishment.
Arguments in Favor of the Death Penalty and Counter-Arguments
Given that a large percentage of the population still supports the death penalty, it is still important to give careful consideration to their counterarguments. When arguing for the death penalty, the punishment’s deterrent value is often cited. Simply put, this suggests that when people fear the loss of their lives if they are convicted of a heinous crime, they are less apt to engage in such crime. The principle of deterrence is inherent to the criminal justice system itself, given that punishment is allocated and based upon the presumption that people are less apt to commit crimes when they will suffer unpleasant consequences.
But according to the humanitarian watchdog group Amnesty International, there is no significant statistical evidence that the death penalty acts as a deterrent. It cites the nonpartisan National Research Council’s conclusion of a meta-analysis of studies “claiming that the death penalty affects murder rates were ‘fundamentally flawed’ because they did not consider the effects of noncapital punishments” and used “incomplete or implausible models” (“The death penalty and deterrence,” 2012). If life in prison has an equally deterrent effect, it should be used instead, given the possibility of judicial error. Additionally, a 2009 survey of criminologists found that 88% stated that there was no evidence that the death penalty acted a deterrent to heinous crimes (“The death penalty and deterrence,” 2012).
Also questioning the deterrence value of the death penalty is the fact that it is unjustly applied—as noted before, the death penalty’s effects are disproportionately felt by minority communities. The uncertainty as to how this ultimate punishment may be allocated argues against the idea that people, regardless of race or class, will think twice before committing an evil action because they fear the death penalty. There is also evidence that the death penalty is not a deterrent because “murder rate in non-Death Penalty states has remained consistently lower than the rate in States with the Death Penalty,” suggesting that other social forces are significant in terms of the behavior of individuals and their decision to violate or to act in accordance with the law (“The death penalty and deterrence,” 2012).
Of course, another popular argument used to defend the death penalty is the idea that it is just retribution for a heinous act. Once again, this traces back to the ancient notion of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth being the only fair and just punishment to be meted out for the taking of a life. But once again, the fact remains that not all murders are punished by death in the US and the ways in which the death penalty is enforced vary considerably based upon the state where the trial takes place and the racial identity of the criminal versus the victim. Furthermore, given the presumption that murder is the most evil action which can be performed, the potentiality of the state taking the life of an innocent person, which is a very real possibility, argues against the notion that the death penalty is in any way just.
Opponents of the death penalty also argue that it is irrelevant if other nations, including most industrialized European nations, have prohibited the death penalty. They argue that it is important for the United States to take a stand for its own moral values. However, given that the United States wishes to take a bold stand in favor of human rights, it cannot afford to disregard what other nations do and the standards other moral nations have set regarding how criminals are treated within their justice systems. According to a 2011 study published in The Guardian: “China, together with Iran, North Korea, Yemen and the US (the only G7 country to still execute people) carried out the most executions last year” (“Death penalty statistics by country,” 2017). The US is in a poor position to criticize other nations when it carries out similar policies in regards to its prisoners. The United States should stand as a beacon of moral light to other nations in regards to its policies versus engage in troubling practices in terms of the ways in which it treats its own prisoners.
The history of executing prisoners has had a long and troubling history throughout civilization since the ancient world, but particularly in the United States, which espouses the value of freedom and democratic values. Today, the tide of public opinion is increasingly against the idea that capital punishment is aligned with the principles of the United States. There has been increasing attention drawn to notable cases of individuals who were exonerated after languishing for years on death row. The potential failures of the justice system suggest that wielding a permanent punishment is unwise, unjust, and cruel and unusual. The US Supreme Court has increasingly restricted the ability of state legislators to execute criminals, even though it has drawn the line against declaring the death penalty itself to be cruel and unusual. Finally, the fact that the death penalty has been disproportionately used against persons of color and historically-discriminated against minorities, versus in a fair and just fashion, further underlines the need to abolish the death penalty.
References (APA Format)
Furman v. Georgia. (1972). Capital Punishment in Context. Retrieved from: http://www.capitalpunishmentincontext.org/resources/casesummaries/furman
Death penalty. (2017). LII. Retrieved from: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/death_penalty
The death penalty and deterrence. (2012). Amnesty International. Retrieved from: http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/death-penalty/us-death-penalty-facts/the-death-penalty-and-deterrence
Death penalty statistics by country. (2011). The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2011/mar/29/death-penalty-countries-world
Dieter, R. (19992). Millions misspent: What politicians don’t say about the high costs of the death penalty. Death Penalty Information Center. Retrieved from: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/millions-misspent
Gregg v. Georgia. (1976). Bill of Rights Institute. Retrieved from: https://www.billofrightsinstitute.org/educate/educator-resources/lessons-plans/landmark-supreme-court-cases-elessons/gregg-v-georgia-1962/
Levy, P. (2014). One in 25 sentenced to death in the US is innocent, study claims. Newsweek. Retrieved from: http://www.newsweek.com/one-25-executed-us-innocent-study-claims-248889
Love, D. (2012). Racial bias of the US death penalty. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cifamerica/2012/jan/03/racial-bias-us-death-penalty
Oliphant, B. (2016). Support for death penalty lowest in more than four decades. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/09/29/support-for-death-penalty-lowest-in-more-than-four-decades/
Reggio, M. (2014). History of the death penalty. PBS. Retrieved from: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/execution/readings/history.html
Works Cited (MLA Format)
“Furman v. Georgia.” Capital Punishment in Context. Web. 16 Mar 2017.
“Death Penalty.” LII. 29 Mar 2011. Web. 16 Mar 2017.
“The Death Penalty and Deterrence.” Amnesty International. 2012. Web. 16 Mar 2017.
“Death Penalty Statistics by Country.” The Guardian. 29 Mar 2011. Web. 16 Mar 2017.
Dieter, R. “Millions Misspent: What Politicians Don’t Say About the High Costs of the Death Penalty. Death Penalty Information Center. Web. 16 Mar 2017.
“Gregg v. Georgia.” Bill of Rights Institute. 29 Mar 2011. Web. 16 Mar 2017.
Levy, P. “One in 25 Sentenced to Death in the US is Innocent, Study Claims.” Newsweek. 2014. Web. 16 Mar 2017.
Love, D. “Racial Bias of the US Death Penalty.” The Guardian. 3 Jan 2012. 29 Mar 2011. Web. 16 Mar 2017.
Oliphant, B. “Support for Death Penalty Lowest in More than Four Decades.” Pew Research Center. Web. 16 Mar 2017.
Reggio, M. “History of the Death Penalty.” PBS. Web. 16 Mar 2017.
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Example Persuasive Paper on the Death Penalty
Death penalty has been an inalienable part of human society and its legal system for centuries, regarded as a necessary deterrent to dangerous crimes and a way to liberate the community from dangerous criminals. However, later on this type of punishment came to be regarded as a crime against humanistic ideals by many, and its validity in the legal system has been questioned. Until now, the debate rages on. This resulted in a wide discrepancy of laws on this issue. Some nations including China, the US, Iran, Belarus, and others preserve the death penalty as an option, while others like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and almost all European nations have abolished capital punishment. Still others keep the norm in their legislations, but have de facto suspended execution of criminals sentenced to capital punishment. This paper will seek to prove that death penalty has to be preserved as a valid means of prevention serious crimes. It will examine the effect of death penalty on society and its relevance to the protection of interests of common citizens.
The history of death penalty is almost as old as the history of mankind. Various means of capital punishment involved burning, hanging, drowning, crucifixion, breaking on the will, boiling to death, electrocution, firing squad, gassing - the list can be continued. The choice of a particular method in Europe in the Middle Age, for instance, depended on the social status of the condemned. Painless and respectable ways were reserved for the aristocracy; and more painful for the common people, such as hanging or breaking on the wheel. In other cases, the choice of the method was warranted by the time of crime: witches and heretics had to be burned at the stake. Capital punishment was envisaged for a broad array of crimes, “including robbery and theft, even if nobody was physically harmed in the action” (Wikipedia). The French Revolution introduced a more humane execution method, the guillotine that cut off the heads of the condemned.
The first decision to abolish capital punishment was made by the Grand Duke Leopold II of Habsburg in Granducato di Toscana (Tuscany) on 30 November 1786. The duke cancelled the penalty and ordered to destroy all the instruments of murder in his nation after being influenced by the book the Italian Cesare Beccaria Dei Delitti e Delle Pene "On Crimes and Punishments". The anniversary of the decree is since 2000 celebrated as a holiday in Tuscany.
In 2004, as reports Amnesty International, 3,797 people in 25 nations were executed. China accounts for the bulk of these executions - 3,400 cases. Kuwait is the leader in the number of executions per 100,000 residents - 400 compared to 260 in China and 230 in Iran, the runner-up on the total number, 159 (Wikipedia). In most nations, death penalty is used to punish criminals for war crimes or serious crimes associated with physical injury. In Asia (Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand) it is used to punish for drug-related crimes, even though these crimes are mot related to physical injury.
As part of anti-death penalty movement, this call to repeal this measure has been upheld by various international organizations. For instance, “the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which among other things forbids capital punishment for juveniles, has been signed and ratified by all countries except the USA and Somalia” (Wikipedia). Some international conventions such as the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Sixth Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights have been adopted, although they only bind nations that have ratified them. Organizations like the European Union demand from new members the abolition of death penalty as a condition of entry. Thus, there is a significant pressure on nations to cancel it. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are two prominent organisations fighting against death penalty.
The issues involved in the discussion of death penalty usually focus around two main parts. First, this punishment is analysed from a purely utilitarian perspective in an effort to find out whether application of capital punishment really helps to deter crime and reduce the risk of recidivism, when criminals commit repeated crimes. The evidence for this is sought in crime rates in regions and nations where executions are carried out. Second, supporters or opponents of death penalty need to find out whether this penalty can be acknowledged on moral grounds, solving the problem of whether human beings are justified in killing other human beings.
Although the arguments stated remain basically the same throughout history of the discussion, evidence can vary, and the findings, although controversial, can tilt the public opinion to one or the other side. Thus, the support for death penalty surges in nations where especially outrageous murders take place. On the contrary, a lower criminal rate reduces the support.
Death penalty, in my view, has to be supported on the ground of just retribution for murder. Still, I do not believe in death as a form of punishment for drug dealers, however heinous their activities might be, since they did not violate human lives. Political crimes should not be punished with death either, as this would open the way to political repression and physical elimination of political rivals, as it happened in Stalin's times in the Soviet Union. However, when a person murders another person, death is the right kind of retribution. This is analogous to penalties imposed for instance for robbery or theft - the criminal often has to forfeit one's possessions for taking the property of another person. Similarly, it is fair that one who has consciously taken the life of another person should suffer death.
In a research paper “Is Capital Punishment Morall Required? The Relevance of Life-Life Tradeoffs” by Cass R. Susstein and Adrian Vermeule, the authors suggest that death penalty is morally justified on the basis of distinction between acts and omissions. Most opponents of death penalty argue that it is barbaric for a government to take a human life since there is a difference between an act, such as killing a person, and omission, such as refraining from the act. But, researchers argue, by forbidding official penalty, government officials de facto allow numerous private killings that are left unpunished. However, a government that fails to maintain the welfare of the citizens by omitting death penalty from the criminal code will leave citizens unprotected and decrease their welfare “just as would a state that failed to enact simple environmental measures that could save a great many lives” (Sunstein, Vermeule 2005:41). Therefore, punishing the criminals is a necessary part of any state policy. The interests of victims or potential victims of murders cannot be overlooked in order to consider the interests of the criminals guilty of the most heinous crime - taking a person's life.
One of the most important arguments in favor of death penalty is the fact that it helps to deter capital crimes. This issue is debatable since there have been suggestions that application of death penalty has no serious effects on the rate of murders, for instance. Besides, opponents of death penalty claim that it is not possible to deter so-called crimes-of-passion committed in an emotionally affected state when a person is not capable of thinking about future punishment. However, there is evidence that application of capital punishment can indeed prevent crimes, even those that are committed by intimates.
A study by Joanna M. Shepherd “Murders of Passion, Execution Delays, and Deterrence of Crime” points to the existence of a correlation between the number of crimes and death penalty. To find this relationship, she looks at monthly murder and execution data using least squares and negative binomial estimations. Her conclusion is that one execution helps to avert three killings on average. Capital punishment also has an effect on murders by intimates and crimes of passion. The influence is evidenced by rates of crimes committed by victims of both European and Afro-American descent. The deterring effect of death penalty, however, was found to be reduced by longer waits on the death row. As a result of this trend, “one less murder is committed for every 2.75-years reduction in death row waits” (Shepherd 2003:27).
Another paper exploring the relationship between crime rates and death penalty is “State Executions, Deterrence and the Incidence of Murder” by Paul R. Zimmerman uses U.S. state-level data over the years 1978-1997 to find out if capital punishment indeed has a deterrent effect. The paper, in evaluating the deterrent effect of capital punishment, adjusts the data for the influence of simultaneity and therefore comes up with estimates of a deterrent effect that greatly those of previous findings. Zimmermann has found that “the estimates imply that a state execution deters approximately fourteen murders per year on average” Zimmerman 2004:163). Besides, he has established that it is the announcement of death penalty that drives the effect.
The above-mentioned findings suggest that the deterrent effect of capital punishment is present and should not be neglected. If the killing of one criminal can prevent at least three, or fourteen deaths, by different calculations, this opportunity has to be exploited. We cannot forgo an opportunity to save the lives of honest, innocent, law-abiding citizens. Although any human life is precious, the efforts of the society have always been directed mostly at maintaining the well-being of those who live by its rules. They are getting more economic benefits that anti-social elements and can enjoy a more secure future. Thus, these people have to be protected by the law in the first place.
Death penalty, however improper it may seem from the point of view of defending criminals' interests, is “a guarantee of no repeat crime” (NCWC). Evidence of repeat offenders returning to normal life is scarce, and instances of recidivism are abundant. Once again, the solution depends on the main goal set for the legal system: is it to defend the interests of everybody alike or is it designed to support those who spend their lives without harming each other? If we side with those who believe that the system should in the first place support those who are law-abiding, the focus will be on prevention of deaths though murders as the greatest evil generated by crime. Despite the above-mentioned deterrent effect, we cannot effectively prevent crimes by first-time offenders. It is much easier to prevent those by repeat offenders.
One of the most outrageous instances supporting the above claim was the incident that happened in Alabama prison in 2001: Cuhuatemoc Hinricky Peraita, 25, an inmate who was serving life without parole for 3 murders was found guilty of killing a fellow inmate (Recidivism). The killer was finally sentenced to electrocution. However, if he had been sentenced to death right after the first murder, the other three could have been prevented. The life of an inmate who died at the hands of Peraita is no less valuable than his own. In fact, I strongly believe that it could have been more valuable: maybe that person has repented and was going to return to the society a re-born person? Maybe that person was not guilty of such a heinous crime as murder? Unfortunately, there is too much evidence that certain individuals tend to commit murder while others are less prone to it. Death penalty would then free society from the return of such individuals.
Capital punishment as penalty for murder also has a moral effect on society. It signals to the criminals that murder is a serious crime the community feels strongly about. In fact, it creates the useful perception of human life as something so precious that taking it has no justification. Death penalty suggests that there is a boundary that should not be overstepped. This should send a message to society members that taking a person's property, however reprehensible, is not to be condemned via taking a life. On the contrary, murder will not be tolerated, and people who have committed this crime should be removed from society as incapable of social living.
Another common argument given in favour of death penalty is an economical consideration. Comparisons differ depending on the bias of the people carrying out the comparison. Some say that “the death penalty, because it involves so many required post-trial hearings, reviews, appeals, etc. ends up costing more than life imprisonment” (NCWC). However, these extra expenses have to be diminished through increasing the cost-efficiency of the legal system, and society that is spending huge amounts on legal services would benefit from such a reform. Just considering the cost of keeping a 25-year-old inmate incarcerated till the end of one's life is startling and endorses the view that society has to select death penalty as a cheaper option.
Opponents of death penalty have given a number of arguments to support their position. In the first place, it is opposed by people on religious grounds. Representatives of various religious groups claim that only God can take a human life and human being are then not sanctioned to kill each other. However, in the Hebrew Scriptures there is evidence that Jews applied death penalty to criminals for selected types of crime. The only instance in the Christian Scriptures includes punishing by death “for lying about Church donations: Acts 5:1 to 11 describe how a couple, Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of real estate” (Religious Tolerance). The couple was killed for lying about the size of the proceeds from the sale of a house in an effort to conceal part of their income.
Proceeding to the Christian Scriptures, one finds some evidence that was said to be indicative of Christ's opposition to death penalty questionable. Thus, there is a renowned episode with the female sinner (John 8:3 - 8:11) who was supposed to be stoned to death and saved by Christ saying “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her”. Jesus was not in fact censuring the right to kill the woman according to the ancient law. Besides, there is evidence suggesting that this passage was not present in the original version of the Scripture and was later added by an unknown person (Religious Tolerance). Besides, the passage from Matthew 5:21-22 is supposed to condemn killing: "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment..." These words implicate a person who kills out of anger, but is hardly applicable to cases where a person is murdered through a verdict of qualified jury.
Thus, Christian intolerance of death penalty appears doubtful. To negate death first of all would mean the moratorium on wars that take lives of more people than death penalty. The war casualties are often innocent peaceful people who just happened to be caught in the cross-fire, unlike recidivist criminals who end up on death row. Yet most Christian states prepare military doctrines and demonstrate to each other readiness to employ their military machine to kill people if necessary. Still others are practicing war if it suits their political goals. How significantly will then abolition of death penalty forward the goal of living a Christian life?
The same argument applies to the anti-death penalty claim that the legal system should not be allowed to execute because there is a possibility of a legal mistake that will result in the death of a wrong person (NCWC). On these grounds, wars have to be forbidden in the first place since they keep killing people that are not to blame at all. They either do their best fighting for their motherland in expectation of a heroic death or just, as mentioned before, get caught in cross-fire. Thus, any nation that does not exclude a war should not exclude death penalty that is a much more balanced mechanism. Besides, the legal system is unfortunately prone to mistakes, as are all social institutions, but this does not mean that they should not be used to carry out their functions. Most other penalties like imprisonment take a heavy toll on human life, yet they are applied to criminals, even if there is a threat of ruining a person's life by mistake. Besides, returning to the incident in Alabama in the previous section, a person dying at the hands of an acknowledged murderer in prison is also a fatal mistake of the legal system. If the system rightfully recognized the capacity to continue killing in the criminal, his final victim would have saved his life.
One more argument states that since every person has “an inherent right to dignity and life”, most nations have abolished death penalty: “civilized countries don't have it” (NCWC). First, it is still preserved in many nations including the US that fits into many criteria of a civilized country. Besides, quite a few nations that have it in their penal codes like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Barbado, Bangladesh enjoy a relatively low crime rate. This underscores that death penalty adequately serves the main purpose of the legal system: to protect law-abiding citizens.
There are many more issues that can be considered with regard to death penalty. One can evaluate the racist argument, for instance, claiming that death penalty is more often imposed on Afro-Americans than European Americans and see how it relates to crime rate in the two groups. Besides, ethical perspectives on this issue can be diverse and supported by many different theories. With the arguments presented above, however, it seems clear that there are many valid reasons in support of death penalty. On the contrary, anti-death penalty arguments need to be assessed critically, as, for instance, the religious argument.
Further research into the topic is necessary, with more authoritative studies on the deterrent effect of death penalty on the criminal rates, tracing various states in the US as well as evidence from other nations. It would also be interesting to examine the historical background of nations that have both capital punishment in their law codes and extremely low crime rate to see how death penalty affects crime rates. On the more practical level, it is my deepest belief that currently capital punishment has to be preserved in order to protect potential victims. Any consideration of the crime rate cancellation would become viable if the crime rate at least for murders goes sharply down. At present, however, capital punishment serves as an important barrier on the way of criminals ready to take another person's life.
North Carolina Weslyan College. Death Penalty Arguments & Internet Resources. <http://faculty.ncwc.edu/toconnor/410/410lect15.htm>.
Recidivim. < http://www.prodeathpenalty.com/repeat_murder.htm>.
Religious Tolerance. Capital Punishment: The Death Penalty: All Points Of View. <http://www.religioustolerance.org/execute.htm>.
Shepherd, Joanna M. Murders of Passion, Execution Delays, and the Deterrence of Capital Punishment. Journal of Legal Studies, vol. 33, no. 2, pp. 283-322. <http://people.clemson.edu/~jshephe/DPpaper_fin.pdf >.
Sunstein, Cass R., and Adrian Vermeule. Is Capital Punishment Morally Required? The Relevance of Life-Life Tradeoffs. Working Paper 05-06. <http://aei-brookings.org/admin/authorpdfs/page.php?id=1131>.
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. “Capital punishment”. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment>.
Zimmerman, Paul R. State Executions, Deterrence and the Incidence of Murder. Journal of Applied Economics, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 163-193. <http://www.cema.edu.ar/publicaciones/download/volumen7/zimmerman.pdf>.