Negating the Use of the Death Penalty
America has been deluded into believing that the death penalty is an effective deterrent for homicide. It is a hot issue, a favorite amongst politicians. But what these political pundits fail to mention is that conclusive evidence proves that not only is the death penalty an ineffective crime deterrent, it is also an expensive, unjust and undignified policy for any government to enact.
The dignity preserved by any government that lawfully practices execution is highly contested, as the death penalty is an inhumane and archaic method of punishment. Perhaps in this instance we can supplement “human dignity” with the word “justice,” because preserving human dignity is certainly a matter of what is and is not just. Dr. Ernest van den Haag, a fierce proponent of the death penalty, states that “I must confess that I have never understood the assorted arguments claiming that the death penalty is inconsistent with human dignity [justice] or that, somehow, society has no right to impose it” (“For the Death Penalty” 207). The death penalty is not consistent with human dignity. There must be a standard set that will state what is and is not permissible. The value of a human life is an obvious one. “How does killing people who kill teach us not to kill” is a popular slogan used by abolitionists that sums up the irony of the death penalty. It is a mouthful, granted, but it makes a strong point. The government, by enacting the policy of death, lowers itself to the level of those whom they are punishing. There is no doubt that the world around us considers the death penalty to be morally flawed and lacking in human dignity. The UN Commission on Human Rights, an international body that sets the standards for human rights policies, has called for a moratorium on the death penalty in all countries that still practice it. Of the G8 nations, a collective of the eight largest, “civilized” and most economically powerful countries in the world (Canada, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Japan and the US), the United States and Japan are the only countries that still practice the death penalty. And to their credit, Japan does not have a policy of executing children as we practice in the United States. How can anyone say that the lawful killing of a child is consistent with human dignity or justice? But van den Haag insists that the threat of execution is enough of a deterrent to warrant its use. But let us be honest. How plausible is it to execute children? Because crimes of passion are not capable of receiving the death penalty, we must assume that those who commit homicide have the ability to comprehend and take responsibility for their actions. We cannot vote in this country until we are 18; one can assume that this is a generally accepted age of responsibility. So how can we expect a child who commits a murder to have a full understanding of his actions? Some of our congressmen and senators have proposed lowering the age of execution to 13, despite the fact that basic human rights declarations consider the execution of anyone under the age of 18 to be a gross violation of natural and understood rights standards. Van den Haag also claims that the imposition of the death penalty maintains the dignity of a society because it creates security, vindication of the law, and “retribution on those who horribly violate it” (208). But the case is rather to the contrary. Society loses its dignity when the state takes revenge into its hands. The right to kill for retribution is not acceptable when it takes the form of state mandated murder: vindictive behavior that results in legally ending a life. If it is all right to kill those who kill, why then, as Professor Conrad reasons, “rapists cannot be raped; robbers cannot be robbed; burglars cannot be burglarized?” (“Against the Death Penalty” 201). The idea of retribution for one’s crime is only fair if it is carried out on a broad scale. There is no selective justice; for what is just will remain so and that which is not will fall. There is no reason for a state to kill people when not at war. It is not at all consistent with any acceptable definition of dignity or justice, and it reflects poorly on any governmental body that practices it. There is no true sense of security found in the death penalty. The way our court system works insures that the eventual execution of any death row inmate is years after the conviction. Any security that could be found in the death of a murderer is, by the very virtue of the system, nullified, as the death, or “retribution” as van den Haag says, is not an expedient event, but rather drawn out and painful.
Any system of punishment is not immune to human errors. Inevitably, as is acknowledged by both Conrad and van den Haag, some innocent people will be wrongly accused and convicted. But the attitude taken by the retentionists, that these possible mistakes are no reason to abolish the death penalty, is blatantly undignified, unfair and inconsistent with justice. The notion that “If they make mistakes, one can hope that God will correct the courts hereafter” (208), is a callous attitude. The essence of van den Haag’s argument is to kill them all and let God sort them out. This argument is a deceptive way for supporters of the death penalty to avoid accountability and pass responsibility to a source “higher” than the laws of the land. There is not a great deal of public awareness about the number of innocent people on death row, but since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1972 over 75 death row inmates have been exonerated and released, with many being exonerated posthumously. Texas, in particular, has sentenced and executed inmates who had unfair trials, resulting from defense lawyers who fell asleep during the trial or were open bigots. Defendants with mental incompetence have still been tried and executed, due to the zealous nature and incompetence of prosecutors and court appointed lawyers. All of these examples serve to undermine the judicial process. When faced with these statistics, how can anyone say that it is acceptable to let the innocent die, because in the end justice is being served? Dr. van den Haag’s own argument, that it is immoral to let the innocent die, only serves to strengthen the case for the abolition of the death penalty.
Retentionists like van den Haag would have us believe that keeping this law on the books acts as a deterrent to crime, when statistically speaking it has been proven that there is no direct relationship between homicide rates and the death penalty. For example, the south, which has the highest homicide rate in the nation, accounts for over 80% of all executions. Whereas the northeast has the lowest murder rate in the nation, and yet it accounts for less than 1% of the
nation’s executions. Van den Haag insists that statistical evidence is not needed, because no matter what the statistics say, harsher penalties, namely the death penalty, are more effective than milder ones. In fact it is as Professor Conrad says: “Under the circumstances, how can the criminal justice system deter any man or woman desperate enough to gamble on engaging in a criminal career” (200). It is evident that van den Haag’s argument is flawed and lacking in common sense. Even more ridiculous is his comparison of penalizing our family and friends to the lawful killing of an inmate. Perhaps van den Haag discredits statistics because he knows that they explicitly prove the ineffectiveness of the death penalty.
Another argument clung to by the retentionists is that the death penalty is cost efficient. This could not be further from the truth. The reality of the situation is that it costs the state more to sentence a man to death and see the execution through than it does to sentence a convict to life in prison without parole. Most states moderately estimate that it costs 1-3 million dollars to prosecute a death penalty case. The reason for the high costs again goes back to the constitutional workings of the justice system. Every death row inmate is automatically granted several appeals, a process that takes years and millions of dollars of the taxpayers’ money for legal fees.
Perhaps the most incomprehensible of Dr. van den Haag’s arguments is that most men are capable of murder, and that the only thing keeping society from murderous chaos is the death penalty. It is an almost arrogant assumption to make. He puts too much faith in a method of punishment that has not withstood the test of effectiveness. Even our law enforcement officials, when polled, put the death penalty at the bottom of the list of effective methods for deterring crime. To paraphrase Professor Conrad’s statistics, the actual percentage of murders in our population is so low that it is statistically ridiculous to claim that the reason that you or I haven’t murdered is because we fear the hangman’s noose (202). Most of the population abstain from murder because they believe that it is morally wrong, and therefore have no real intention of committing homicide.
Retentionists’ arguments have fallen one by one in the light of conclusive evidence that many choose to ignore or deem invalid. The death penalty has proven to be an outdated method of punishment. It belongs in the past; buried with other shameful things our country has engaged in.