The most severe of all sentences: that of death. Also known as the death penalty, capital punishment is the most severe form of corporal punishment. It has been banned in many countries, in the United States, an earlier move to eliminate capital punishment has now been reversed and more and more states are resorting to capital punishment for serious offenses such as murder. An Eye for and eye, a life for a life, who has never heard of the famous Lex Talionis? The Bible mentions it, and people have been using it regularly for centuries. We use it in reference to burglary, adultery, love and many other situations. However, some people use it on a different level, some people use it in reference to death. One steals from those who have stolen from him, one wrongs those who have wronged him, but do we really have the right to kill those who have killed.
Today, there is a big controversy over capital punishment whether or not it works, or if it is morally right. We have a certain privilege on our own lives, but do the lives of others belong to us as well? Do we have the right to decide the kind of lives others can or cannot live? We find someone guilty of murder and sentence him to death, does that not make murderers out of ourselves? Can justice justify our acts? Those who assist in the death penalty are they not partners in crime? Is the death penalty a “Cruel and Unusual” punishment or is it now a necessary tool in the war on crime? With the increase in crime and violence in our society, how does the death penalty affect a North American family. Use of the death penalty has declined throughout the industrial Western World since the 19th century.
In 1972, movement in America to have the death penalty declared unconstitutional during the landmark case of Furman v. Georgia, which declared the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment. However, after a supreme court decision in 1975, Gregg v. Georgia, which stated capital punishment did not violate the eighth Amendment, executions commenced again under state supervision. (Van der Haag, 1975, 3-4). There are seven main types of execution: Hanging, where the prisoner is blindfolded and stands on a trap door, with a rope around his neck. The trap door is opened suddenly.
The weight of the prisoner’s body below the neck causes traction separating the spinal cord from the brain. The second most widely used technique is shooting, where a firing quad shoots the prisoner from some meters away. Another method is Guillotine, a device consisting of a heavy blade held aloft between upright guides and dropped to behead the victim below. Then there was garroting, in which a tightened iron collar is used to strangle or break the neck of a condemned person. One of the more recent is Electrocution where the prisoner is fastened to a chair by his chest, groin, arms and legs. Electrodes are placed around a band around the head, then jolts of 4-8 amperes at voltage between 500 and 2000 volts are applied at half a minute at a time.
The newest forms of execution are Lethal Injection where a lethal poison is injected into the prisoners arm or the Gas Chamber where the prisoner is placed in a room with Sodium Cyanide crystals and left to die. (Meltser, 1973, 21-26) There are four major issues in the capital punishment debate, the first being deterrence. A major purpose of criminal punishment is to deter future criminal conduct. The deterrence theory suggests that a rational person will avoid criminal behavior if the severity of the punishment outweigh the benefits of the illegal conduct. It is believed that fear of death deters people from committing crimes. Most criminals would think twice before committing murder if they knew their own lives was at stake.
That if attached to certain crimes, the penalty of death exerts a positive moral influence by placing a stigma on certain crimes like manslaughter, resulting in attitudes of disgust and horror to such acts. (McCuen, 1985, 11) Studies of the deterrent effect of the death penalty have been conducted for several years, with varying results. Most of these studies have failed to produce evidence that the death penalty deterred murders more effectively then the threat of imprisonment. The reason for this is that few people are executed and so the death penalty is not a satisfactory deterrent. If capital punishment were carried out more it would prove to be the crime deterrent it was partly intended to be. During highly publicized death penalty cases the homicide rate is found to go down but it goes back up when the case is over. (Bailey, 1994, 42)
When comparisons are made between states with the death penalty and states without, the majority of death penalty states show murder rates higher than non-death penalty states. The average murder rate per 100,000 population in 1996 among death penalty states was 7.1, the average murder rate among non-death penalty states was only 3.6. A look at neighboring death penalty and non-death penalty states show similar trends. Death penalty states usually have a higher murder rate than their neighboring non- death penalty states. (Death Penalty Information Center) The second issue in the capital punishment debate is retribution. The need for society to express sufficient condemnation for heinous murders. Supporters of the death penalty contend that the only proper response to the most vile murders is the most sever punishment possible.
Therefore, society should literally interpret the “eye for an eye” principle when an individual takes a life, society’s moral balance will remain upset until the killer’s life is also taken. (Block, 1983, 112) Although death penalty opponents disagree society should be able to express its outrage with a vile crime by inflicting capital punishment. They suggest that they are showing outrage for taking a life by talking the life of another. (Bedau, 1982, 88) Use of the death penalty as intended by law could actually reduce the number of violent murders by eliminating some of the repeat offenders thus being used as a system of justice, not just a method of deterrence.
Modern supporters of capital punishment no longer view the death penalty as a deterrent, but just as a punishment for the crime, one source said, “…in recent years the appeal of deterrence has been supplanted by a frank desire for what large majorities see as just vengeance.” (Bailey, 1994, 55) The third major issue is arbitrariness determined by or arising from whim or impulse rather than judgment or reason. “From the days of slavery in which black people were considered property, through the years of lynching and Jim Crow laws, capital punishment has always been deeply affected by race. Unfortunately, the days of racial bias in the death penalty are not a remnant of the past.” (NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund)
Fairness requires that people who break the same law under similar circumstances should meet with the same punishment, however the justice system is not consistent. Statistics show that a black man who kills a white person is 11 times more likely to receive the death penalty than a white man who kills a black person. And blacks who kill blacks have even less to worry about. It’s almost like we kind of say, “Oh, well, he needed killing anyhow.” (NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund) The fourth debate is the danger of mistake. In the past, there were many people wrongfully executed for crimes that they did not commit all in the name of justice. It has happened that after the execution of the alleged guilty party, the real murderer confessed to elevate his guilty conscience.
“No matter how careful courts are, the possibility of perjured testimony, mistaken honest testimony, and human error remain all too real. We have no way of judging how many innocent persons have been executed, but we can be certain there were some.” –J. Marshall (Bailey, 1994, 38) The unique thing about the death penalty is that it is final and irreversible. Since 1970, 77 people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence. Researchers Radelet & Bedau found 23 cases since 1900 where innocent people were executed, and the numbers are growing.
With stories of people like Rolando Cruz, released after 10 years on Illinois’s death row, despite the fact that another man had confessed to the crime shortly after his conviction; and Ricardo Aldape Guerra, who returned to Mexico after 15 years on Texas’s death row because of a prosecution that a federal judge called outrageous and designed to simply achieve another notch on the prosecutor’s guns. (Death Penalty Information Center) There are safeguards guaranteeing protection of those facing the death penalty. These safeguards are : The defendant can not be insane, and the man’s real or criminal intent must be present.
Also, minors very rarely receive the death penalty because they are not fully mature and might not know the consequences of their actions. Finally the mentally retarded are very seldom executed. The reason for not executing the retarded is that they often have difficulty defending themselves in court, have problems remembering details, locating witnesses, and testifying credibly on their own behalf. These safeguards are to try to insure that justice will be served without having it suffer. (Bailey, 1994, 147) It costs up to three times the amount to keep a prisoner on death row than it would be to keep them in prison for the rest of their lives.
The expense comes from the long drawn out appeals process that we are giving our criminals, and the court appointed attorneys that the poor are receiving. (Death Penalty Information Center) The death penalty costs the state of North Carolina 2.6 million per execution while it costs the whole nation [United States] 700 million since 1976. And it’s the same everywhere, Florida spent an estimated $57 million on the death penalty from 1973 to 1988 to achieve 18 executions – that is an average of $3.2 million per execution. (Miami Herald, July 10, 1988). In Texas, a death penalty case costs an average of $2.3 million, about three times the cost of imprisoning someone in a single cell at the highest security level for 40 years.
However it is also a form of insurance that the criminal will never commit another crime again. (Death Penalty Information Center) In the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) the death penalty was required for a wide range of offenses, both civil and religious. In the following passages from the King James Version of the Bible, Jehovah required the state to execute a person for murder: Genesis 9:6 states: Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man. If sufficient proof were provided that a person had committed a crime, the state imposed the death penalty on the guilty person(s). They were either stoned to death, impaled or burned alive. Witnesses who testified at the trial would often participate in the killing.
To their credit, the courts of ancient Israel required very high levels of proof of criminality before they would order the death penalty (Horwitz, 1973, 36) Of course, a person may think it is immoral to kill someone no matter what they have done. When I say it is retributive justice to take the life in turn for the taking of another life, it could be argued that a criminal is not able to learn a lesson since he dies as an immediate result of the punishment. How can this be called punishment if no lesson is taught? In my opinion, the only way for justice to be served is to have the criminal pay with their life, “ an eye for an eye.”
Many people believe that capital punishment does not belong in a civilized society. I believe it is needed because we do not live in a civilized society, if we did there would be no crime. We live in a day and age where killing happens everyday, and many get away with it. Those who do get caught, don’t stay in a jail cell for the rest of their live. If we could rig our streets of murderers, it could mean a safer place for everyone. Men and women could feel safer jogging or doing errands at night. Single women could feel safer in their homes. Children could feel safe playing in their yards. No executed murderer has ever killed again.
The Death Penalty in America 256-63 (H. Bedau ed., 3d ed. 1982) E. Van den Haag, Punishment as a Device for Controlling the Crime Rate, 33 Rutgers L, Rev. 706, 719 (1981) H. Gross, A Theory of Criminal Justice 489 (1979) Ehrlich & Gibbons, On the Measurement of the Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment and the Theory of Deterrence, 6 J. Legal Stud. 35 (1977). Bedau & Radelet, Miscarriages of Justice in Potentially Capital Cases (1st draft, Oct. 1985) E. Van der Haag, Punishing Criminals 196-206 (1975). C.F. Phllips, The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: New Evidence on an Old Controversy, 86 Am. J. Soc. 139 (1980). Baumgart, R. A. & McCuen, Gary E. Reviving the Death Penalty. Madison, WI: Gary McCuen, 1985: 22. Electrocution.” Academic American Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Grolier, 1993: 113. Clark, Lesley. “Florida execution of 350-pound inmate turns bloody.” Miami Herald. 10 July 1988.