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Wrongful Convictions and Imprisonment and Capital Punishment Essay Sample

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Wrongful Convictions and Imprisonment and Capital Punishment Essay Sample

There are many sociological issues or concepts worthy of any man’s attention but this essay will deal with only two of them: wrongful convictions and imprisonment and capital punishment. Obviously these two issues are related to committing offenses (more specifically, murders, rape, treason, etc) and the execution of justice or punishment.

When speaking about wrongful convictions and imprisonment it is clear that this concept deals with the miscarriage of justice. In this case, either the supposed offender was inaccurately judged to commit a certain crime (for example, he was judged for murder when he was actually committing only manslaughter) or that an “innocent” man was sentenced to suffer the punishment of a crime that he did not actually commit.

In the first case, the offender was guilty of a crime but was only inappropriately convicted and these affects the kind of punishment he was to receive (either his punishment was either too severe or too lenient for his actual crime). The second case can be considered more “wrong” than the first, for in this situation an innocent man is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit and a real offender in turn was enjoying a freedom he should not have.

Convicting an innocent man had always been a part and parcel of society’s effort to deter and punish crimes. In the olden days, most ancient societies had used magic and superstition to determine whether an accused person was guilty or not. Depending on their tradition or laws they employed certain methods to know the truth. In most cases, they used trial by ordeal wherein an accused person had to go through some hard and painful processes to prove his guilt or innocence. If he had successfully completed the test or a certain outcome had resulted as expected or outlined by their tribal laws, then the person may then be declared innocent.

Otherwise he would be judged as guilty. This process of course is inefficient and unfair not to say erroneous and obviously was prone to a greater risks of wrong judgment.  This incident alone points to the fact of the surety of convicting an innocent person even in the days of old. In present society, in spite of the fact that modern men are considered to be more educated, and therefore more scientific and realistic in their approaches to society’s problems, especially in legal or judicial matters, men are still wrongfully convicted or imprisoned. The media or firsthand experiences had revealed the disturbing scenario that most likely there are innocent men serving prison sentences in most, if not all countries, today.

There are several reasons why innocent men are wrongfully convicted or imprisoned. If a person reads a newspaper or is an avid fan of movies or TV series he may easily point out these reasons. One of the reasons would be that the defendants or accused were not able to afford competent legal representation. The lawyers that defended them were not competent enough or were inexperienced to prove their innocence. Oftentimes,   defendants cannot afford the high fees of experienced defense lawyers. This situation may be aggravated by the fact that most innocent defendants lacked funding or resources to get the means or necessary documents that would clear their name in court. Another reason would be the absence of witnesses to help them “get off the hook”.

In most cases, it is not because there were no   witnesses but primarily because the witnesses were afraid to testify due to threats or intimidation from the true assailants. Another reason would be due to public pressure, the police were pressured to somehow arrest someone and to convict that unlucky someone, especially for sensationalized heinous crimes or crimes committed against a popular public figure. If the police were not able to run after a person to be made responsible for the crime, there is fear that the public will judge them as incompetent or useless. Another popular reason would be coerced confessions. The accused is made to admit the crime through physical and mental torture.

The next reason would be “frame ups” wherein an innocent individual is made to appear that he committed the crime with the help of planted evidences. This is a favorite plot of the movies where typically the hero or somebody close to the hero is deliberately framed for the crime. Usually the frame up is intentional and is rooted in revenge. In most cases, the real murderer or rapist is part or member of certain gang or terrorist group. The last popular reason that can be pointed out is the incompetency    of the justice system. The appeal process were limited, the jurors and judge were racially biased, the evidences were tampered or suppressed or the higher  court refuses to consider new evidences that will most likely prove the innocence of the accused( Thomas, 1999 ).

In an article entitled “DNA Tests Help Free Man Who Spent 26 Years in Prison” in  USA Today dated January 4, 2008 , the Associated Press relates the tragic story of  Charles Chatman , 47,  who was imprisoned in Dallas for 26 years for  raping a woman in her 20’s  who lived five houses down from him. The victim had picked Chatman from a lineup. In the trial Chatman had defended himself that although he lived five houses down from the victim for 13 years he never knew her.

Besides, at the time of the crime he had no front teeth, so certainly that feature would set him apart from the real assailant. Apparently, Chatman’s lawyer was never able to convince the court of his innocence and so at 20 years of age he was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to 99 years in prison. Imagine what Chatman would have felt to be wrongly convicted and imprisoned in a crime he did not commit (Associated Press, 2008).

In Chatman’s case, we would wonder what had gone wrong in his trial 26 years ago that eventually landed him  in prison. The first question would be, what made that woman picked him up from the lineup? Did Chatman resemble the real assailant? Was Chatman in trouble with the real assailant and if so, was the woman intimated or threatened by the real assailant to especially identify Chatman?  Or what it really just an honest mistake in the part of the victim? And why was not the lawyer been able to prove Chatman’s innocence?

Was it because he/she was not competent enough or was there any lack of evidence to prove Chatman’s innocence? Was the jury biased in their decision? Was the trial conducted fair? The answers to this question are yet to be discovered provided of course the Dallas court would diligently look into Chatman’s case and determine why the wrongful conviction had occurred. According to Mike Ware, head of the Conviction Integrity Unit in the Dallas County District Attorney’s office, he was not sure why Chatman ended up on that photo spread to begin with.

Luckily for Chatman, result in new DNA testing had overturned his conviction. And more luckily for him, this painful experience occurred in Dallas where a crime lab used by police and prosecutors retains biological evidence which means that DNA-testing is a viable option for decade old crimes. Fortunately for him also, District Attorney Craig Watkins had launched a program in which he required law students, supervised by the Innocence Project of Texas, to review 450 cases of convicts who had requested DNA testing. The reasoned why District Attorney Watkins had launched such a program was because he had discovered that in the past, Dallas convictions were brought about by overly aggressive prosecutors seeking conviction at any cost.

Because of this awareness, DNA testing was made available for decade old convicts and it was discovered that many convicts were in fact innocent. This admirable move   had exonerated many convicts and study showed that Dallas exonerate more inmates than any other county in the whole of US (Associated Press, 2008). In view of this development, imagine what would have happened if modern-day DNA testing was available 30, 60 or 100 years ago. Surely, many dozens of inmates would have been proven innocent.

But for Charles Chatman, it was not luck that had freed him. According to him, it was his faith that kept him from giving up. And now at 47, he is free at last to move outside of prison walls and begin a new life.  He is still young so he can still established his own family, find a job and enjoy life to the fullest. But what would have it been like if Chatman was not exonerated? For sure, he would still be in prison, trying to be as good as he can to avail a parole (that is if he is eligible for parole) and living with the real criminals who endangered his life everyday.

If he dies, to the eyes of some he was a rapist, a bane of society. But what if Chatman was never wrongly convicted? Most likely, if he had played his card right, he would have finished school, got a respectable job, and have a family. He could have freely pursued his lifetime goals and hopefully contribute something good to society. And most importantly, he and his family would never have to go through the disgrace and painful experiences associated with his conviction and imprisonment.

Chatman’s case had actually proven the reality that there are in fact innocent lives wasting in prisons. They were not supposed to be there but due to some circumstances that could have been avoided they were there languishing in prison year after year. Either the reason was largely due to a miscarriage of justice or it was actually intentional designed to protect the real powerful assailant. Most of these innocent convicts would be poor people who cannot afford to defend themselves or were the scapegoats of the rich and powerful. Whatever is the case, however, the bottom line of wrongful conviction and imprisonment is the reality that man is susceptible to err with regards to administering justice.

Another sociological concept to be considered is the capital punishment. Capital punishment is the lawful infliction of death as a punishment and since ancient times, it has been used for a wide variety of offences depending on the countries of which they enforce. Usually, crimes that were judged worthy of a death sentence were treason, murder, larceny, burglary, rape and arson. Capital punishment or the death penalty is a very highly debatable issue. There are those who support it while there are those who were against it.

Each opposing side had its own supporting arguments.  There are ethical, moral and philosophical issues that are being weighed upon in the capital punishment which proponents of both death penalty and anti-death penalty had been relentlessly waging war with. The ethical and moral issue is that whether the execution of criminals is ever justified, and, if so under what circumstances it is permissible. On the other hand, the philosophical issue of capital punishment is whether it actually deters crime and whether it creates a greater balance of happiness versus unhappiness.

The ethical and moral argument of capital punishment had helped to tip the balance in this sociological concept. Many had doubted whether it is right to take another man’s life or in some terms, whether it is right to deprive a man of his right to life. Many had argued that the death penalty is undignified, inhumane, or contrary to love. However, those who supported death penalty had pointed out that although man had the responsibility to respect the dignity and humanity of another human being and to treat him with love, man also had the moral duty to maintain social order and bring about retribution in some offenses (The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2001).

Provided that it is morally right to take another man’s life in payment for his crime, another moral dilemma that needs to be addressed is what crimes should be considered worthy for death penalty. Should we only execute people for the most awful multiple murders or should we execute all murderers irrespective of the degree of guilt purely as a retributive punishment for taking another person’s life and in the hope of deterring others?

In the philosophical point of view, there should be punishment for a crime committed. But punishment in general is justified only as long as it creates a greater balance of happiness versus unhappiness. For most people capital punishment is justified only under two conditions: 1) if it prevents the criminal from repeating his crime or (2) it deters crime by discouraging future would-be offenders. Both conditions contribute to a greater balance of happiness in society.

For the first condition, obviously an executed criminal will no longer be able to commit another crime, and for the second condition, it needs a scientific proof to know whether capital punishment actually deters crime. Those who were against death penalty had presented evidences that showed capital punishment does not in fact deter crime while those who supported the death penalty had dismissed the evidence of the anti-death penalty supporters and claimed that their study was misleading. On the other hand, the latter presented their counter data that showed that capital punishment did deter crime (citing examples of Britain and Singapore).

Of most concern for the public and supporters of anti-death penalty is the possibility that innocent convicts may be executed. Since there are wrongful convictions it cannot be ruled out then that there are innocent inmates condemned for execution.

In the US, lawful execution of condemned criminals is widely practiced. In other words, the arguments against death penalty had been decided upon and lawmakers in the 36 states in the US had opted to make death penalty as part of the judicial punishment. In the earlier days, execution was primarily done by flogging, hanging or burning at the stake. Later on, electrocution and gas chamber were introduced. At present this method is fast disappearing and most executions are now carried out through hanging, shooting and lethal injection. Lethal injection is popularly used in the US and in China, Thailand and Guatemala. The injection method has been a part of a continuing quest to find a more humane means of killing.

Lethal injection, as the name implies uses lethal drug combination. In an article entitled “Prisoner Lethal Injection Stirs Debate” in USA Today dated January 4, 2008, Joan Biskupic reported that the drug combination in question in Kentucky involves thiopental (intended to make the prisoner unconscious); pancuronium (to prevent muscle reaction) and potassium,( to stops the heart) . The issue being covered by the article does not surround only on the appropriateness of the drug combination but also on the expertise of those who were assigned to administer the execution. There was fear that the teams who will administer the drugs can actually botch the execution(Biskupic , 2008).

In the article, what concerned the public and defense attorneys alike was the violation of the Eight Amendment. David Barron, an assistant public advocate of two condemned prisoners Ralph Baze and Thomas Bowling, had urged the Kentucky court to rule that the Eight Amendment is violated when an execution method creates “a significant and unnecessary risk of pain that could be prevented”. In present lethal drug combination he further stressed that prisoners may suffer torturous pain and agonizing death if not properly anesthetized.

Based on Barron’s argument and his quoting of the Eight Amendment it is clear that America is concerned with the last minute comfort of the criminals. It can be safely said, that in taking a criminal’s life they were hopefully trying to make up for it by making his exit from this world as painless as possible. One would wonder if the condemned murderer had actually made the same caring thoughts with regards to the worldly exit of his victims.

The truth is, most murders worthy of a death sentence   were done with brutality and torture (that is why they are considered heinous!). But nevertheless, the Eight Amendment had supported the idea that executions of condemned criminals must be torture-free and as much as possible agony should be eliminated. That is why State lawyer Jeffery Middendorf had argued that any method “that does not minimize the risk’ of pain could be unconstitutional (Biskupic, 2008).

            The Supreme Court had considered the above appeals of the lawyers and was looking into the constitutionality of the common lethal injection method. What was actually significant about this decision was that it prompted a nationwide temporary halt in executions. This move was very crucial for the supporters of anti-death penalty for although the basic constitutionality of capital punishment was not an issue here, the case however had raised larger questions about the death penalty. Critics of death penalty were hoping that the issue of three-drug lethal injection will provoke a larger examination of capital punishment. The case with the lethal injection had been the first one ever to have caused a nationwide stir with regards to death penalty since the Supreme Court reinstated it 1976(Biskupic , 2008).

            The article cited that in the early 2000, new concerns about executing an innocent inmate had began to emerge following after DNA testing result had proven the innocence of some inmates. Because of this, the Supreme Court had look more closely at problems in the judicial system and was more cautious to throw out death sentences on convicts based on the competence of their defense lawyers. They also removed death sentences on mentally retarded convicts and for inmates who were younger than 18 at the time of their crimes (Biskupic , 2008).

            If one will study closely, what is of greater concern in the US at the moment with regards to capital punishment would not be whether the drug lethal injection used is painless but whether the person undergoing a painless or torturous execution is in fact guilty of the crime. It is very important for the courts to review previous cases, especially those inmates who were requesting to undergo DNA testing in order to prove or disprove their guilt. The lost lives of innocent inmates who died while in prison or executed in the years past can never be regained again but the lives of innocent living inmates can still be salvaged.

            However, in spite of the improvement in technology in tracking down criminals and even with the best and efficient judicial system in the world, there is still the possibility for wrongful convictions and hence innocent executions. Man’s intelligence had given him the capability to manipulate and distort evidences and his lust for money, life and power will still subject him to coercion, intimidation and threats.

At the same time, lawyer’s incompetence will also caused his clients to be wrongly convicted. Because of man’s susceptibility to error, there is actually no guarantee that all criminals will be apprehended and that no innocent person will ever reside in prison. With such a case, a wrongly convicted person’s   option would be to hang on with faith and hope that heaven will grant him the miracle he need.


Associated Press. (2008, January 04). DNA Tests help free man who spent 26 years in prison. USA Today, pp. 2A.

Biskupic, Joan. (2008 January 04). Prisoner lethal injection case stirs debate. USA Today, pp. 2A.

“Capital Punishment”. (2001). The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved January 7, 2008 from  http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/c/capitalp.htm

Thomas, James. ( 1999). Prosecutorial Misconduct and Wrongful Convictions. Critical Criminology Homepage. Retrieved January 7, 2008 from http://sun.soci.niu.edu/~critcrim/wrong/tribpros.html

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