Capital Punishment and The Death Penalty
Capital punishment and the death penalty are very controversial issues
concerning modern times. Many people have different opinions about how a
criminal should be disciplined in the court of law, but there is no one right or
correct answer. Although, 80% of Americans are for the death penalty.
Presently, thirty-eight states have the death penalty, but is the concept of “a
life for a life” the best way to castigate a criminal? Of the thirteen states
that do not have the death penalty, is crime more likely to occur there than in
states that have the death penalty? (The Economist, April 1, 1995, p. 19) Have
there been criminals wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death row? Does the
death penalty really scare criminals off and make them think twice about
committing a crime? Is the death penalty fair to everyone, even the minorities
and the poor? How does mental illness and retardation come into play?
When a person is sentenced to death by lethal injection in New Jersey,
the provisions of N.J.S. 2C: 11-3 say that the “punishment shall be imposed by
continuous, intravenous administration until the person is dead of a lethal
quantity of an ultrashot acting barbiturate in combination with a chemical
paralytic agent in a quantity sufficient to cause death.” Prior to the lethal
injection, the person shall be sedated by a licensed physician, registered nurse,
or other qualified personnel, by either oral tablet or capsule or an
intramuscular injection of a narcotic or barbiturate such as morphine, cocaine,
or demerol. In the provisions of the N.J.S. 2C: 49-3, it says that the
Commissioner of the Department of Corrections determines the substances and
procedure to be used in execution.
The Commissioner shall also designate
persons who are qualified to administer injections and who are familiar with
medical procedures, other than licensed physicians. Also, persons conducting
the execution must be unknown to the person being executed. Under the N.J.S.
2C: 49-7, only certain people are allowed to be present at the execution. They
include: the Commissioner, execution technicians, two licensed physicians, six
adult citizens, no more than two clergymen not related to the person, two
representatives from major news wire services, two television representatives,
two newspaper representatives, and two radio representatives. No one related
either by blood or by marriage to the person being executed or to the victim is
permitted to be present during the execution. (New Jersey Statutes Annotated:
Title 2C Code of Criminal Justice: 2C: 37 to 2C: End)
There are two very important Supreme Court cases dealing with capital
punishment. In 1972, in the case of Furman vs. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled
that under then existing laws, “the imposition and carrying out of the death
penalty…constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth
and Fourteenth Amendments.” Four years later, in the case of Gregg vs. Georgia,
the Supreme Court shifted in the opposite direction, and ruled that “the
punishment of death does not invariably violate the Constitution.” The Court
ruled that these new statutes contained “objective standards to guide,
regularize, and make rationally reviewable the process of imposing the sentence
of death.” (Bedau, Hugo Adam, American Civil Liberties Union, prodigy)
There are many different reasons, pro and con, for the death penalty.
The following are the most frequently cited arguments for the death penalty.
Some believe that those who kill deserve to die. When someone takes another
person’s life, they forfeit or sacrifice their own right to live. Murder is one
of the worst crimes a person can commit and it deserves the worst penalty. The
death penalty is the greatest deterrent to murder. If people know that they
will be punished by death, they will be less likely to commit crimes and kill.
Statistics show that since 1976, fewer than two hundred of the 2500-plus people
on death row have been executed.
Some say that more than 20,000 murders that
take place each year could have been prevented if criminals believed they would
be executed for their crimes. Murders pose a threat to everyone and should be
isolated from society. The death penalty guarantees that the killer would not
be able to kill again. Life imprisonment does not guarantee that. Criminals
can be released on parole or escape from prison, giving them opportunities to
murder again. (Scholastic Update, Sept. 4, 1992, p. 13-16)
The arguments against the death penalty are just as strong. Two wrongs
do not make a right. How many times have children heard that from their
parents? Adults should follow their own advice. Murder is murder and it is
wrong no matter what, even if it is ruled constitutional. In the civilized
society that we live in, is the notion of “an eye for an eye” acceptable?
Should the punishment for a rape, be another rape? Or for arson, should we burn
down the arsonist’s house? One of the government’s jobs is to protect its
citizens, but there are others ways to do it without killing. There are no
creditable studies that show that capital punishment acts effectively as a
deterrent to crime, murder, and other capital offenses. Most crimes are
committed on the spur of the moment or in the heat of passion, and the person is
usually either under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. Therefore, most do
not think about the consequences of their wrongful actions. States that have
death penalty laws do not have lower crime rates or murder rates than states
without such laws. And states that have abolished capital punishment show no
significant changes in either crime or murder rates. Also, the death penalty
rarely discourages murderers who plan to kill because they do not believe that
they will be caught. Humans are errable.
Mistakes are made in trying capital
cases very often and can and have taken innocent lives. A recent study showed
that 350 people who were convicted of crimes for which they could have been put
to death for, were later found to be inculpable. Tragically, twenty-three were
executed wrongly. Some find that the death penalty discriminates against the
minorities and the poor and is not administrated fairly. Approximately 20,000
murders are committed each year, but only one out of a hundred convicted
murderers are sentenced to death. Almost half of those sentenced to die are
black and 84% of those were convicted of killing a white. Furthermore, more
than 90% of the inmates currently on death row were too poor to hire a lawyer to
represent them at their trial. People are being executed not because of the
heinousness of their crimes, but because of the incompetence of their lawyers.
(Scholastic Update, p. 13-16 and prodigy)
The American Civil Liberties Union believes that capital punishment is
an intolerable denial of civil liberties. They feel that the death penalty
essentially violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment
and the guarantee of due process of law and the equal protection of the laws.
The state should not take unto itself the right to kill human beings, especially
when it kills with “premeditation and ceremony, under color of law, in our names,
and when it does so in an arbitrary and discriminatory fashion.” (Bedau, Hugo
Adam, American Civil Liberties Union, prodigy)
The cost of an execution is extravagantly costly. Every study carried
out and completed have shown that it is far more expensive to put someone to
death than to jail him for life. Two Duke University professors calculated that
between the extra costs of litigation, and of housing and guarding the inmates
as they wait on death row, the extra cost to taxpayers was $2.2 million per
execution. The Sacramento Bee estimates that California spends $90 million each
year on the death penalty; in eighteen years the state has put precisely two
people to death.
Conservatives say that the solution to this high cost is to
curtail or cut back the number of death row inmates to appeals. This way the
time that he is in jail will be shorten and execution will take place sooner.
The Supreme Court’s rulings on the matter rest on the notion that, as a
punishment, death is different. It cannot be infringed arbitrarily, it must be
imposed consistently. (The Economist, 1995, p. 19-20)
Have criminals been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death row?
The answer is yes. Astonishingly enough, a recent report revealed that between
1900-1985, 350 people have been wrongfully convicted of capital offenses. In
the last two decades, forty-eight wrongfully convicted people have been released
from death row because of innocence.
Unfortunately, twenty-three of the three
hundred and fifty people wrongfully convicted, were already executed before the
evidence came about. Justice Thurgood Marshall, a long time opponent of the
death penalty feared that “if an individual is imprisoned for an offense he did
not commit, the error can to some extent be rectified, but if he is executed,
the wrong that has been done can never be corrected.” (Jet, March 13, 1995, p.
William Hance, a former marine, was sentenced to death for the murder of
two prostitutes and awaiting the “chair of death”. The day before, the Georgia
board of pardons and paroles rejected Hance’s appeal for clemency. The day of
the execution both the state and federal court refused to halt the execution.
Then the Supreme Court denied Hance’s appeal. The legal skirmishing had gained
him ninety extra minutes of life. This execution was different though. One of
the twelve jurors to sentence Hance to death swore that she never agreed to the
supposedly unanimous vote.
Gayle Daniels, the only black juror, swore on an
affidavit the she did not vote for the execution because she “did not believe
[Hance] knew what he was doing at the time of his crimes. There was also
shocking evidence that race prejudice played a central role in the jury’s
deliberations. Finally, Hance may have been mentally retarded. The prosecutor
who helped investigate the first murder case, Douglas Pullen, argued that “at
the very least, this man has a borderline I.Q. That is not retarded.” But
Hance’s trial in a military court for the second murder ended in the reversal of
a life sentenced after jurors determined that he lacked the capacity for
premeditation. (Smolowe, Jill, Time, April 11, 1994, p. 61)
Fortunately, not all cases end unhappily. In several cases the accused
were found innocent just in time. Andrew Golden was very lucky. His case was
reversed twenty-six months after he was put on death row. He was sentenced to
death for the possible murder of his wife, Ardelle. She drowned in a lake.
Apparently, she died after driving down an unli