In the following pages, I will discuss the history, debate, past and current public opinion, and how it applies to American ideology and opposing values. Both sides have a fair amount of support and I have included direct quotes and paraphrasing from authors, celebrities, journalists, and ordinary people arguing both sides. The history of the death penalty goes back to the earliest civilizations where it was used to punish all sorts of crimes from robbery, to murder, to different forms of heresy.
In the United States it evolved to just punish murder, treason, and some cases of rape. It has been an issue that has sparked a never ending debate that goes back to colonial times. The general public traditionally supported the death penalty in a majority with only a few politicians speaking out against it (i. e. , Benjamin Rush, Ben Franklin and later on Horace Greeley). Once the U. S. gained independence, each state went back and forth in abolishing and reinstating the death penalty and methods of execution.
The 1960s saw many trials concerning capital punishment cases that led to a ten year halt in executions. In 1965, the American Civil Liberties Unions (ACLU) announcement of their anti-death penalty stance was a sign of things to come. It was particularly important because the ACLU had always neglected to have an opinion on the issue because they believed it was not a civil rights issue. They now determined that capital punishment was inconsistent with underlying values of a democratic system.
They explained that it discriminated against blacks and other minorities and did not comply with the eighth amendment of the constitution, in other words, it was cruel and unusual punishment (Vila, Morris:127). The National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples Legal Defense Fund (NAACP-LDF) also began to speak out in the mid-sixties. They agreed that the death penalty discriminated against blacks and launched a campaign against the death penalty around the same time.
The LDF poured its resources into aiding death row prisoners which tied up the capital punishment cases for years allowing them to achieve their goal of a moratorium on the death penalty (Vila, Morris:131). From 1967 to 1977, there were no executions anywhere in the United States because of groups like these that rallied to oppose it, the particularly low public support of it, and a number of supreme court cases that decided in the favor of the abolitionist movement.
One crucial case was Witherspoon v. Illinois in 1968. The supreme court ruled that prospective jurors who oppose the death penalty can not automatically be excluded from juries in possible capital punishment cases. The court said that having jurors that oppose the death penalty is part of a fair, impartial jury as dictated by the Sixth Amendment. Some dissenters claimed that people who were ethically opposed to the death penalty were biased because they would never vote to give the death penalty to people who deserved it.
Some historians say that this marked the first time that the supreme court was persuaded by public opinion against capital punishment. The following statement was made by Justice Potter Stewart who spoke for the majority, In a nation less than half of whose people believe in the death penalty, a jury composed exclusively of such people cannot speak for the communityIn its quest for a jury capable of imposing the death penalty, the State produced a jury uncommonly willing to condemn a man to die (Gottfried:60).
Scholars and lawyers also thought this would be the end of capital punishment for good because the courts willingness to accept people who fundamentally opposed the death penalty, but this turned out not to be true because of details in the decision that allowed courts and legislatures to work around it. The 1972 case of Furman v Georgia was seen as a complete victory for abolitionists at the time, but proved to be more complicated than it appeared.
It said that the death penalty, as it was administered, violated the Eighth Amendments because it was cruel and unusual punishment and violated the Fourteenth Amendment because it did not guarantee equal protection under the law (Costanzo:18). The crucial part of this statement was .. as it was administered because it left the law open to be revised and then reinstated if in compliance with the Constitution. The important thing to realize was that the court did not say that the death penalty itself was unconstitutional, it said the current way it was being administered was unconstitutional.
The court said that juries were not given adequate guidance in imposing a death sentence and the jury systems were different in every state. This did put a halt to all executions in the country, but only until the laws were re-written. Many states rewrote their death penalty laws that were all deemed acceptable only four years later. The apparent abolition of the death penalty was very short lived. After many states changed their laws concerning the death penalty, criminals sentenced to death, and then given life sentences, were put back on death row. In Gregg v.
Georgia, the Supreme Court decided that under the new revised laws regarding capital punishment cases that the death penalty was indeed constitutional. The new laws stated that juries had to be under the guidance of a trial court during decision making in the death penalty phase and also there was to be a mandatory state appellate court review of all death sentences (Vila, Morris:161). Justice Stewart even pointed out that public opinion had flip-flopped since the late sixties and early seventies and there was now heavy support for capital punishment (Gottfried:62).
The Supreme Court was not only persuaded by public opinion in this case, but came right out and sited public opinion polls as a reason for the courts decision. The first person to die under the new court decision was Garry Gilmore. For the general public he was the perfect example of someone who deserved the death penalty because of his blatant apathy towards human life. This confirmed the public consensus that in certain extreme cases, the death penalty is the only reasonable punishment. The case of Ted Bundy is another example.
He was a serial killer that was responsible for the deaths of 50 young women and kidnapping a 12 year old girl. There was no doubt that the majority of Americans thought the death penalty was appropriate for him and other cases like his. Despite the support of the majority of the public supporting capital punishment, many politicians and organizations still condemned the death penalty throughout the eighties and nineties. Groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, religious figures like the Pope John Paul II and Mother Theresa, politicians like Jimmy Carter and Mario Cuomo all publicly stand against the death penalty.
In the eighties, there were court cases that concerned specific issues regarding the death penalty such as the execution of minors and mentally handicapped people. This is one of the many issues I will discuss in the next section of this paper that deals with the different arguments of the debate. I have separated the arguments regarding the death penalty debate into two separate categories: the issues concerning the moral and social aspects of the debate and the issues concerning legal and constitutional aspects.
A good place to start in the moral and social realm of the debate would be the issue of the death penalty as a deterrent. Aside from the need for justice and the safety of society, this is the reason the death penalty exists. Opponents of the death penalty say that fear of punishment will not stop people from committing horrendous crimes for a few reasons. The first is that people who engage in the type of crimes punishable by death are not rational people and/or are not rationally considering the consequences when committing the crime.
The second one is that the alternative to the death sentence, which would be life imprisonment without parole, actually might sound worse to someone that is considering the crime. Supporters of the death penalty say that fear of being put to death does deter would be murderers from pulling the trigger. Some cite statistics that crime has gone done after death penalty laws are enacted, but the opponents have said that overall, it hasnt changed that much.
An important point that supporters contend is that the death penalty doesnt apply to all murders, but just the especially horrific ones, so it might deter potential kidnappers and rapists from taking those extra steps. They also believe that the fear of death is a fundamental human motive that everyone, including crazed murderers, will consider. In an article in New Republic, former New York City mayor Edward Koch gives an example of a confessed murderer Luis Vera. He shot and killed neighbor Rosa Velez when she found him robbing her apartment.
Yeah I shot her, she knew me and I knew I wouldnt go to the chair. Another aspect in this realm of the debate is retribution vs. revenge: Is it morally just to kill someone for killing? Opponents say capital punishment for murderers is simply revenge and is just state-sanctioned murder. Their argument is simply – two wrongs dont make a right. Supporters would argue the eye for an eye theory – if you take someones life, yours shall be taken too. This is just a simple question of how far you personally take the idea of forgiveness.
Many clergymen and women have addressed this issue using religious references to support either side. Sister Helen Prejean (author of Dead Man Walking) makes an obvious point: it is curious that those who so readily invoke the eye for an eye, life for a life passage are quick to shun other biblical prescriptions that also call for death, arguing that modern societies have evolved over three thousand or so years since biblical times and no longer consider such exaggerated and archaic punishments appropriate.
She is basically saying that anyone who cites the eye for an eye law because it is in the Bible also has to support the death penalty for pick-pocketing and different forms of heresy. Most people would assume a Christian to turn the other cheek, but in an essay published in The Death Penalty – Opposing Viewpoints, Charles W. Colson insists that capital punishment is necessary in extreme cases: I believe that God requires capital justice, at least in the case of premeditated murder where there is no doubt of the offenders guilt.
This is, after all, the one crime in the Bible where no restitution was possible. * You cant debate the issue of the death penalty without considering the issue of race and class. According to Amnesty International (in the late nineties), African Americans make up about 12 percent of the population, they are almost half of the countrys death row population. In southern states they are even higher, reaching almost sixty percent of the death row population. The reason could simply be that Blacks commit more crimes than whites, which could, in turn, relate to certain class issues.
But many people who oppose the death penalty do not believe this to be the case. They contend that it is the conscious or subconscious prejudice of white jurors and the prosecutors seeking the death penalty. There is evidence that they are much more likely to seek the death penalty when the victim is white and the accused is black. Also blacks who are convicted of killing whites are more sentenced to death than any other kinds of offenders (Gottfried:51).
The argument to this is that these statistics are misleading because of added circumstances that make it much more complicated. I just dont have the space to dive into that here! Another major complaint about the application of the death penalty is that it is unfair to those who dont have big budgets. Thats what capital punishment really means: those who aint got the capital, get the punishment, convicted murderer and death row inmate Mumia Abu Jamal contends in the spoken word CD accompanying his book All Things Censored (2000).
Accused criminals that can not afford a lawyer to represent them are appointed a lawyer by the court, but it is well known that in most cases, lawyers appointed by the court will not put the same effort into the defense that lawyers someone like O. J. Simpson san buy. So defendants from a lower class will not have the same defense as someone who can afford an expensive, prestigious lawyer. You could say that the cause for the abundance of poor people on death row is because of the obvious reason that poorer people are more inclined to commit crimes in general, including the harsher crimes that are punished by the death penalty.
Some opponents focus on limiting the cases that the death penalty can be applied to. The 1988 case of Thompson v. Oklahoma, the Supreme Court ruled that minors could be put to death (Vila, Morris:232). Soon after, James Terry Roach was executed for a crime he committed when he was seventeen. In Penry v.. Lynaugh a year later, they decided that a mentally handicapped person was not protected under the Eighth Amendment, either. The defendant wasnt capable of reading or writing and his confession was written by the police.
Some people feel that certain crimes are so bad, that even though the person might not have been in a normal mental capacity for whatever reason, society needs to be protected from them and incarcerating them is not enough. One more simple issue concerning morality and society is the issue of innocent people getting executed. Some people think that it is better to let some guilty people go than execute even one innocent person. Many death penalty opponents say that the capital punishment should never be used in a case where the jury or judge is not 100% sure of guilt.
They say that, because it is impossible to ever be 100% sure about anything, the death penalty should not be used when someone might be innocent (deathpenalty. org) The other side argues that more innocent lives will be saved in the long run if murderers are executed or possibly deterred by strict capital justice. There are certain legal and constitutional issues that rise when discussing capital punishment. The Eighth Amendment is consistently brought up by abolitionists because they believe that all death sentences are cruel and unusual punishment.
Also the Fourteenth Amendment and Fifth Amendment is brought up because they believe that defendants are not getting equal protection under the law and/or due process of law for the racial and class reasons stated previously. The Supreme Court has determined that with all the opportunities for appeals and reviews that both of those concerns are met under the constitution according their decision in Gregg v. Georgia (1976). A crucial issue for both sides of the debate is the length of time between the time criminals get convicted and the time they are executed.
Many people were outraged at the fact that Ted Bundy remained alive for about ten years while his appeals went through. Both sides think that the ability to have appeals is necessary but people who support the death penalty generally think it should be shorter while opponents say that a long process is necessary to ensure fairness. This ties into another dispute regarding the length of time on death row. Supporters of the death penalty dont believe that society should be paying for prisoners who committed horrific crimes to live out their lives in prison .
The abolitionist argument against that is that the death penalty process of appeals actually costs more than to support a prisoner for the duration of his or her life. So the pro-death penalty side argues back that the appeals process should be shorter because it is costing society (including the innocent victims family) so much tax money. Of course, these few pages come no where near covering all the issues surrounding the debate, but they are the most outstanding issues that people are concerned about.