The United States is one of the few countries left in the world to practice the savage and immoral punishment of death. Retentionists argue that the consequence of death prevents people from committing the crime of murder. It is proven that the death penalty does not deter persons from committing murder, nor does it serve as an example of the consequences of capital crimes to society. Furthermore, it is impossible to guarantee that the criminal justice system will not discriminate against or execute the innocent. Above all, the methods of execution are horrifying and barbaric, as well as the devaluing of a human life. We must realize that the life of a murderer is worth as much as the life of the victim. An indecent justice, one that takes human lives based on ideals of vengeance and violence, is an immoral system that is unacceptable.
The most widely used argument in support of capital punishment is that the consequence of execution influences criminal behavior more effectively than imprisonment does (Against the Death Penalty). Although the argument may sound reasonable, in reality the death penalty fails as a deterrent. First, punishment can only be a useful deterrent if it is rational and immediately used. Capital punishment cannot meet those conditions. The number of first degree murderers who are sentenced to death is small, and of this group an even smaller number of people are eventually executed. Moreover, the possibility of increasing the number of convicted murderers sentenced to death and executed by requiring mandatory death sentences was declared unconstitutional in 1976
(National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty).
Murder and other crimes of violence are not always premeditated. For example; gang violence, drive by shootings and kidnaping for ransom are serious crimes that continue to be committed because the criminal thinks he is too clever to be caught. Most capital crimes are committed during times of great emotional trauma or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, when logical thinking is in no doubt absent (NCADP). In such cases, a person will commit a crime of violence regardless of the consequences.
The majority of the evidence shows that the death penalty is in no way more effective in deterring murder than life imprisonment.
Evidence of past use of the death penalty establishes reasonable doubt that it does not deter murder, and there is no evidence to prove otherwise. In a thorough report on the effects of criminal sanctions on crime rates, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that it is misleading to justify the use of capital punishment on such fragile and uncertain results (NCADP). Moreover, there are clinically documented cases that reveal the death penalty actually provoked the capital crimes it was intended to prevent (Mappes). These include cases involving the so-called suicide by execution syndrome in which a person with a desire to die but also fears taking his own life will commit murder, believing the state will execute him. The use of the death penalty obviously guarantees that the criminal will never commit another crime, for the murderer is dead, but, there is no evidence that capital punishment deters another individual from committing murder (Glover 139). Furthermore, it is a high moral price to pay when studies have proven that few convicted murderers commit further crimes of violence. An alternative, one that is far less inhumane, is a policy of life imprisonment without the
possibility of parole (139).
It is commonly reported that Americans approve of the death penalty. But, more careful analysis of the attitudes of the public shows that
Americans prefer alternatives to capital punishment (Smart). In fact, most Americans would oppose the death penalty if convicted murderers were sentenced to life without parole and required to make some form of financial restitution. In a 1993 nationwide survey 77 percent of the public approved of the death penalty, but the poll dropped to 41 percent if the alternative is no parole plus restitution (Smart). Only a minority of the American public would favor the death penalty if offered alternatives. By law, the trial and sentencing of the accused must be conducted with the utmost fairness, especially when incorporating the irreversible sanction of the death penalty. Only 88 percent of all executions since 1930 have been for murder (Warner). It is evident that courts have sentenced some criminals to prison while putting others to death, which clearly demonstrates uncertainty, racial prejudices, and simply unfairness.
In his article American Dilemma (1944) Gunnar Myrdal reported that the South makes the widest application of the death penalty, and sadly Negro criminals are in for much more than their share of the executions (Warner). Recently a study of capital punishment showed that the current system is an outgrowth of the racist legacy of slavery (NCADP). Between 1930 and 1996, 4,220 prisoners were executed and more than half were black. A disproportionately large number of African Americans have always occupied the nations death rows, considering the percentage of African Americans in the overall population (Dieter 144). During the past century, blacks were more often executed for what were considered less-than-capital offenses for whites,
such as rape and burglary (Dieter 145).
Furthermore, a large percentage of the blacks who were executed were juveniles, and the number of executions without having ones conviction reviewed by a higher court was higher for blacks (NCADP). In recent years, there has been wide belief that racial discrimination is a thing of the past. However, since the renewal of capital punishment in the mid-1970’s, approximately half of the death row population, at any given time, have been black (Smart). When those under the death sentence are examined more closely, it is apparent race is a factor after all. A statistical study of racial discrimination in capital cases in Georgia showed that those convicted of killing a white person were more likely to receive the death penalty in all indicted cases. Further evidence proved unfairness in capital cases as reported by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO). The GAO review concluded that of the 28 studies there was a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty, and that the race of victim influence was found at all stages of the criminal justice system process (Dieter 144). One can conclude that in the courts of the nation, even today, the murder of a white person is treated much more severely than the murder of a black person. Therefore, it can be noted that our criminal system reserves the death penalty for those murderers (regardless of their race) who kill white victims (Dieter 145). Gender and socio-economic class also aid in the discrimination of those who will receive a death sentence. Only one percent of all those on death row were women, although women commit about fifteen percent of all criminal homicides (NCADP). Only 33 women, of whom 12 were black, have been executed in the United States since 1930.
Fairness in capital cases requires most a competent counsel for the defendant. Yet, 90 percent of those on death row were unable to afford a lawyer when tried. The most common characteristics among death row defendants are poverty, lack of social community, and inadequate legal representation at trial or on appeal (NCADP). The above flaws in the actual administration of capital punishment are only one of the many clear reasons for abolition. In the judgement of the fair-minded and unprejudiced capital punishment is a power that cannot be exercised fairly and without discrimination (Smart). Therefore, we cannot put human lives in the hands of a flawed system, for society will suffer the consequences, as well as the victims. Unlike all other criminal punishments, the death penalty is irreversible. Once a criminal is put to death no once can bring back the human life taken when a mistake is discovered too late. However, some supporters of capital punishment argue that its advantages are worth the sacrificing of innocent people, as well as the ideal that there is little chance that the innocent would be executed.
Nevertheless, there is evidence showing that from the 1980’s to the 1990’s innocent people have been convicted of capital crimes as well as executed (Against the Death Penalty). Since the 1900s there have been an estimated four cases a year in which an innocent person was convicted of murder, in addition to the many that were sentenced to death (Against the Death Penalty). In many cases a reprieve or commutation arrived just hours, or even minutes before the scheduled execution (Against the Death Penalty). Those wrongful convictions have occurred in almost every jurisdiction in the nation. Furthermore, despite the new death penalty statutes approved by the Supreme Court, the numbers of the wrongfully accused have not declined. Unfortunately, the innocent persons convicted of crimes they did not commit are not always saved from execution or released from their sentences. There are several other cases in which evidence that would have released the convicted was discovered after the execution. These examples explain why the judicial system cannot guarantee that justice will never make mistakes. To retain the death penalty
and overlook the serious flaws in the system is unacceptable, especially since there are no strong overriding arguments to favor the death penalty (Glover 145-146).
Among the flaws of the justice system, we must remember that the taking of a human life is immoral. The methods used to perform these violent executions are barbaric and unnecessary. But, prisoners continue to be executed in the United States by any one of five methods; in a few jurisdictions the prisoner is allowed to choose which fate he or she prefers. The methods of capital punishment in use in 1997 included hanging, firing squad, electrocution, suffocation in the lethal gas chamber, and lethal injection (NCADP).
The traditional execution by hanging is still used in a few states today. Death on the gallows can make for a slow and agonizing demise by strangulation if the drop is too short. Or, if the drop is too long, the head will be torn off. Two states still use the firing squad method, in which the condemned is hooded, strapped into a chair, and a target is pinned on the chest. Five marksmen take aim and fire (NCADP).
During the twentieth century, electrocution has been the most widely applied form of execution in the United States, and still used in eleven states. The prisoner is placed in the death chamber and strapped into the chair with electrodes strapped to the head and legs. When the chair is activated the body strains and jolts as the intensity of electricity is raised or lowered. It is not known how long the prisoner retains consciousness. In some cases, as with the electrocution of John Evans in Alabama, it takes more than one jolt of electricity to kill the prisoner. An eyewitness illustrated the barbaric ritual in which it took three charges at thirty second intervals and ten minutes before doctors pronounced Evans dead (NCADP). The witness then went on to
say that the officials were apparently embarrassed and one official remarked that the execution was supposed to be a very clean manner of administering death (NCADP).
The gas chamber was supposed to be a step ahead of the electric chair. In the gas chamber method, the prisoner is strapped into a chair with a container of sulfuric acid underneath. the chamber is then sealed and cyanide is dropped into the acid to create a lethal gas. As with electrocution, suffocation by inhalation of a lethal gas is not always a quick and clean way of death. In the case of the execution of
Don Harding in Arizona, U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens said that it took Harding more than ten minutes to die.
The latest mode of infliction of the death penalty is lethal injection. Some believe that this method is more humane, although killing in itself is plainly inhumane (NCADP). The U.S. Court of Appeals stated that there is substantial and uncontested evidencethat execution by lethal injection poses a serious risk of cruel, protracted deatheven a slight error in dosage or administration can leave a prisoner conscious but paralyzed while dying, a sentient witness of his or her own asphyxiation (NCADP). As with the other methods of execution, death by lethal injection does not always proceed smoothly as planned. In 1985 the authorities jabbed needles intoStephen Morin, when they had trouble finding a usable vein because he had been a drug abuser (NCADP). In a 1988 case during the execution of Raymond Landry, a tube attached to a needle inside the inmates right arm began leaking, sending he lethal mixture shooting across the death chamber toward witnesses. Adam Bedau writes that its veneer of decency and subtle analogy with life-saving medical practice no doubt makes killing by lethal injection more acceptable to the public (NCADP).
After witnessing an execution, Journalist Susan Blaustein said We have perfected the art of institutional killing to the degree that it has deadened our natural, quintessentially human response to death (NCADP). Most people who observe an execution are mortified and disgusted. Public executions were common in this country during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. One of the last public executions occurred in Kentucky when 20,000 people gathered to watch the hanging of a young African American male (NCADP). It is that inhumane delight in brutality and pain that the supporters of death penalty have cause against, yet they are at the level of murder themselves.
Society must insist that the law not encourage such violent crime, for when the government ceremoniously carries out the cruel execution of a prisoner, the violent side of human nature is being allowed. Cesare Beccaria, an Italian jurist said The death penalty cannot be useful, because of the example of barbarity it gives men. Even if capital punishment was useful it would still be an example of the very brutality and violence the death penalty is supposed to prevent (Against the Death Penalty). Such methods of human torture and killing is allowed by retentionists to be hidden in the system we call justice. Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Godberg wrote the deliberate institutionalized taking of human life by the state is the greatest conceivable degradation of the dignity of human personality (Against the Death Penalty).
Society not only suffers from the burden of dealing with those lives which have been lost to an immoral and brutal execution, but will also suffer from the great deal of tax dollars spent to put their unjustified ways into action. From the time of arrest to the point of execution, it can be estimated that a single death sentence costs between one to three million dollars per case (NCADP). Some studies have figures as high as seven million per case. Life imprisonment, including incarceration, costs roughly five hundred thousand dollars. The millions of dollars spent on the unnecessary killing of one individual cuts into funds for more important needs, such as public safety and education (NCADP).
Justice often insists that the death penalty is the suitable punishment for brutal crimes. According to Bedau, by its nature, all punishment is retributive (Against the Death Penalty). Therefore, a punishment can be satisfied without killing. Moreover, the death penalty could only be used for the crime of murder and not for any of the several other crimes that have recently been considered as capital crimes such as rape, kidnaping, treason, drug trafficking, and espionage. Execution is an unnecessary punishment for murder. Albert Camus wrote that for there to be equivalence, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life (Warner).
It is also often argued that death is what murderers deserve, and that those who oppose the death penalty violate the eye for an eye principle, the ideal of making the punishment fit the crime. If this rule means that punishments are unsuitable unless they are like the crime, then the principle is unacceptable. Such an ideal would mean that we must rape the rapists, torture the torturers, and inflict other degrading punishments on the convicted (Nathanson 133). We would have to betray traitors, and kill multiple murderers multiple times, which are obviously penalties impossible to impose. Since we cannot reasonably punish all crimes according to this ideal, it is irrational to impose execution as a required punishment for murder. Criminals do deserve to be punished, and the severity of punishment should be appropriate to the harm they have caused the
innocent. But the severity of punishment must have limits limits enforced by both justice and
our common human dignity (Barzilai). Governments that enforce these limits do not use premeditated, violent homicide as a tool in society.
There are people who have lost a loved one to murder that believe that they cannot rest until the murderer is executed, but not all of those inflicted with such a loss feel the same. Coretta Scott King said that as one whose husband and mother-in-law have died the victims of murder and assassination, I stand firmly and unequivocally opposed to the death penalty for those convicted of capital offenses. An evil deed is not remedied by an evil deed of retaliation. Justice is never advanced in the taking of human life. Morality is never upheld by a legalized murder (Barzilai). Victims to the loss of a loved one do not need to reduce themselves to the evil level of the murderer, but those families need to replace their anger and hate towards the criminal in a more healthy manner for both the offender and the survivors. Although it can be easier said than done, the right to live belongs to all of the members of society regardless of what crime one has committed. It is not the right of the government, nor the right of any individual to inflict such cruel and hateful punishments onto another human being.
Beyond the statistics we can see a brutal and unnecessary punishment. There must be limits to the power that a government has, as well as the power individuals in a society have. We degrade the murderer, yet the supporters of capital punishment reserve the passion to kill. As sane people with a respect for human life and dignity, we must not turn into the vicious murderer some of us fight to kill. According to Stephen Nathanson, we must set an example of the behavior we find acceptable in society. He goes on to say that even though this person has done wrong and
even though we may be angry, outraged, and indignant with him, we will nonetheless control
ourselves in a way that he did not. We will not kill him ( Nathanson 137). We must not contradict the principle that murder is wrong, including the murder of a criminal. We must not kill, nor must any government hold the power to take a human life, no matter what the crime.