The death penalty is a topic of much controversy in the modern world both on a personal level and a geopolitical level. There are many arguments for and against it but I feel that, though many people may and will disagree with me, there is a black and white correct answer, which I will discuss at the conclusion of this paper.
Through history the death penalty has taken many incarnations: the gallows, the gas chamber, the firing squad, the electric chair and finally, to where most executions fall within today, the lethal injection. Using a punishment of death finds itself held up by many major solid arguments such as deterrence of criminal behavior, reduction of repeat offenders, and safety and retribution for the families of victims.
Though there is no measurable way to acquire statistics on the deterrent effect of the death penalty, it would seem logical to assume that many crimes that could have been committed, were walked away from unfinished because of the fear of a potential punishment of death. Ernest van der Haag, a Fordham University professor of jurisprudence, explains deterrent qualities, as “Whatever people fear most is likely to deter most.” Looking at it from that angle, once again a reasonable person may be able to ascertain that death is the ultimate deterrent. In that vein, a 1973 study done by Isaac Ehrlich which employed a distinctive form of analysis showed results that for every inmate that was executed, 7 lives were spared to a death by murder due to the deterrent nature of the death penalty.
Reduction of repeat offenders certainly finds its argument on grounds that are a bit more stable. According to Georgetown University constitutional law professor emeritus Walter Bern “The most defensible justification for capital punishment is incapacitation.” A man who commits a crime worthy of capital punishment and is executed unarguably cannot commit any crime again. A 1978 case in California found defendant Lawrence Singleton guilty of the rape and mutilation of a teenaged hitchhiker. He was paroled years later and soon after convicted of murdering Roxanne Hayes, a 31-year old mother of three and subsequently sentenced to death. Had Lawrence found himself incapacitated by ways of capital punishment in 1978, he would have never had the chance to commit murder after his release. There are countless instances like this one and each story seems worse than the last.
In the final major argument for the death penalty, we find the retribution and safety of the victim’s family. This one is a bit more complicated than the others mostly because families of victims don’t have one concrete historical choice or opinion that proves it entirely. With regards to the safety of the families, I suppose there is irrefutable evidence that an executed convict has a lower chance of seeking out and harming the family of a former victim than one who remains alive; however, the retribution factor is where the complexities of morality and differing opinions come into play. A case in favor of the death penalty comes to us from Ohio’s Franklin County where Caron Montgomery was sentenced to death for the murder of his girlfriend, Tia Hendricks and their two children. A source close to the mother of the victim stated that Tia’s mother “felt comforted knowing that he will be put to death.” This certainly shows the positive side of the death penalty’s retributive effects but it seems for every story that praises it for its positives, there are twice as many who disagree.
A 1983 Texas case where the sister of Ronald Carlson was murdered started with a similar ring to the one explained in Franklin County. Carlson wanted vengeance for his sister and at the time “would have killed those responsible with [his] own hands.” After fifteen years of deliberation, appeals and bureaucratic proceedings, the killer was executed and Carlson described that the experience “left [him] with horror and emptiness” and concluded that “capital punishment only continues the violence that has a powerful and corrosive effect on society.”
This seems an appropriate segue into explaining the arguments against the death penalty. There are a vast number of reasons many find the death penalty objectionable; however, the main points one may utilize come down to the fact that capital punishment is seen as cruel and unusual punishment, it is a wasteful and costly process, and that its deterrent effect is a nonfactor.
The most divisive and debatable argument against the death penalty is found in the definition of a cruel and unusual punishment. Supposedly the most obvious factor in this argument against capital punishment is the fact that the practice of punishing those convicted of crimes worthy of the death penalty goes back to ancient times where Hammurabi’s code outlines the clichéd “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” doctrine. The United States is one of very few of its civilized neighbors who still carry out the death penalty. The United States finds itself, according to Amnesty International’s 2011 figures, to have carried out 43 executions and the 17 nations the US finds itself in the company of includes China (2000+ executions), Iran (360+ executions), Yemen (41+ executions), Iraq (68+ executions), Saudi Arabia (82+ executions) and North Korea (30+ executions).
Now, simply to join the European Union a nation must not practice capital punishment, and most of the western world has either completely or in part eliminated the death penalty from being a potential punishment. In 2005, researchers at the University of Miami did a study on the toxicology of 49 inmates executed by way of the lethal injection and found that concentrations of sodium thiopental, the barbiturate initially administered to those receiving the lethal injection, were in 88% of the cases lower than required for routine surgery to stop pain and in 43% of the cases consistent with concentrations warranting awareness. Because of these dosing issues, the patient can be cognizant and silently paralyzed while receiving the other two chemical components, causing pain not humanly imaginable within one’s scope of understanding—essentially being awake, paralyzed, unable to move or breathe, while potassium chloride burned through one’s veins.
The other argument that the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment lies within the possibility that the person is innocent though still convicted by the court. While there is still debate as to whether DNA evidence has made this argument against capital punishment a thing of the past there are still recent cases that prove the true irreversible impacts of execution. Since 1973, over 138 people have been released from death row nationally because of innocence. That means one person is exonerated for every ten alleged criminals executed. In a 2004 case in Texas, Cameron Willingham was executed for the alleged arson-murder of his three children. Independent sources and experts in fire science came to the conclusion that the fire was an accident.
Though, in spite of this evidence, Willingham was executed, and the report that was to be issued by the Texas Forensic Science Commission that concluded the accidental nature of the fire in 2012 was no longer even relevant. The plain and simple truth is that the justice system is an imperfect institution which is unavoidable and to be almost expected, but in cases where a defendant was convicted, sentenced to jail, and later proven innocent, at least there is a way to compensate him—even if inadequately. With execution, there is no turning back when new evidence is found. Death is a permanent and absolute punishment.
Waste and cost attributed to the death penalty is another field where there is much evidence against its use. In Texas, per individual case, the costs associated to a death penalty ruling are approximately $2.3 million or about three times the cost of imprisoning one in the highest security level cell, alone, for 40 years. In Florida that same figure grows to $3.2 million. In California, a study estimates that the state could save $90 million annually by abolishing the death penalty and the New York Department of Correctional Services estimated that by utilizing the death penalty, it would cost the state $118 million per year. Perhaps the biggest argument for the fiscal benefits of the death penalty is the reduction in the overcrowding of prisons.
Looking past the blatant lack of respect of human life and dignity, as previously stated, the US executed 43 prisoners in 2011. Assuming that figure stays consistent and by overcompensating for states that don’t employ the death penalty currently by multiplying that number by ten, it would still only alleviate 0.019% of the prison population per year. The fiscal impact of that would equate to virtually nothing and honestly the amount it would help would be negated massively by the costs of death penalty cases. This is possibly the most important side of the debate in the necessity or usefulness of capital punishment because moral issues so rarely are easy to quell but in the face of a prolonged recession, it is difficult to overlook the financial savings from the abolition of the death penalty.
In the final major argument against the death penalty we find the deterrence of capital punishment up to debate. In a study done in 2009 by the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology finds that 88.2% of the 76 criminology experts surveyed answered “no” when asked whether they felt the death penalty acts as a deterrent to the commitment to murder. Another 86% said that abolishing the death penalty would not have any significant effect on the murder rate in a particular state. Beyond this study, a punishment can only be an effective deterrent if it meets the criteria of consistency and prompt employment. This is untrue of the death penalty across the board. Even in examining it on a state basis it seems as though states employ capital punishment arbitrarily and without a solid rubric.
In the aforementioned case against Cameron Willingham, just six months after his execution another man imprisoned and tried for an arson-murder backed on the same sort on inconclusive evidence was acquitted and freed. Another reason the deterrent effects of the death penalty are less credible comes from the fact that many who commit capital crimes do not premeditate their actions. Personal violence and murder are often the reaction to a circumstance that the person committing them has little time to stop and rationally parse his next move. The deterrence of death to one even premeditating his capital crime does little more than the threat of life in prison without chance of parole. Even officers of the law see the death penalty as an ineffective method of crime reduction and deterrence. A survey of police chiefs found that they ranked the death penalty lowest amongst ways in which to reduce and deter violent crime—the highest ones were more police officers, reduction of drug abuse, and a better economy.
The moral implications of the death penalty, I feel, should make an appearance in this paper, but because of the inexpert and indemonstrable nature of morality, I wish to keep it brief. The many arguments for the morality of the death penalty state that death can be less a cruel punishment than life imprisonment and that the death penalty shows sympathy for the victim’s family. The vast argument against includes arguments for the sanctity of human life, the barbaric nature of showing killing is wrong by killing, and that execution is unfair and discriminatory.
If it hasn’t occurred to you, the reader, through the prior portions of this paper I firmly and correctly oppose the utilization of the death penalty. The inexactness and margin for error speak for themselves in proving the sheer ignorance in using the death penalty; however, beyond that it simply gives society no benefit to use capital punishment. I have read no study that shows provable instances where the death penalty deters violent criminal behavior and not a single state or federal report has even hinted that the death penalty saves money in the grand scope of things. Morally speaking, it is primitive and absolutely inhumane to put men to death like animals and foolish to act as though it can mend the wounds they have caused through their criminal acts.
Though society would have one look at the topic of the death penalty through a lens that showed much gray area, after parsing through all of the arguments for and against, I can indiscriminately and absolutely say that in this argument there is black and white. There is a right and a there is a wrong. The death penalty is wrong. I will conclude with one of my favorite quotes regarding the death penalty from American political activist Ralph Nader that I feel gives an accurate overview of my argument: “Since I was a law student, I have been against the death penalty. It does not deter. It is severely discriminatory against minorities, especially since they’re given no competent legal counsel defense in many cases. It’s a system that has to be perfect. You cannot execute one innocent person. No system is perfect. And to top it off, for those of you who are interested in the economics it, it costs more to pursue a capital case toward execution than it does to have full life imprisonment without parole.”