Capital Punishment: A Double-Edged Sword

This was a paper I wrote at the age of 18 for my American Government class. I really dived into working on this paper and had a lot of help editing it from my good friend Jorge and my brother-in-law, Raymond. It was after this paper that I realized I loved writing and doing research and now, I share it with you guys. Sidenote: my personal beliefs on this topic have differed only slightly, but nevertheless, please enjoy and see how I’ve grown as a writer. 

 

Throughout ancient history, Capital Punishment has been a common form of justice and continues in worldwide nations and in some states of the U.S. even today. However now that the times have changed, Capital Punishment (or often called: The Death Penalty) has become an extremely controversial topic and people are questioning whether or not the Death Penalty is a proper way of judging criminals.

The meaning of Capital Punishment is defined as a form of punishment in which a criminal is executed based upon the crime they have committed. And at certain times in history, criminals that were sentenced to execution were the ones that were guilty for acts that included: murder, rape, treason and even theft where the executioning methods would vary from time to time and nation.  During the medieval times, the executions would involve the criminal be burned alive. Later on in 18th Century, the French took a more humane approach by inventing the guillotine, where the criminal would be laying down a platform and a humongous blade would come down at the pull of a lever and have the criminal be beheaded. Eventually the more common executioning method was being hanged in different countries. Finally the United States invented both the electric chair and lethal injection as methods of punishment (WiseGeek). Granted, methods of the death penalty have taken more humane approaches as time has taken its course, however there is still a huge controversy in regards to the death penalty, and the question for those that are for the death penalty will still ask “Why? After we have made so many safer ways to execute criminals”

Even after these changes, some argue that the death penalty is unethical because of the possibility of a wrongful execution; there is a fear that the condemned criminal is actually innocent. In contrast, others argue that this kind of punishment provides a good example to other criminals, and it will discourage the crime and murder rate from increasing. Yet these arguments still don’t hinder other states in the U.S. from proceeding with the executions.

Currently 34 states in the United States like: Texas, Maryland and Nebraska still enforce the death penalty while the remaining 16 states have abolished the act of capital punishment like: West Virginia, Michigan and Illinois (Recently abolished in 2011)(Death Penalty Information Center). And while some states like Rhode Island, which was one of the first states to ban the death penalty in 1852, tried to repeal the act (where it was somewhat successful over the years) it has remained banned in the state of Rhode Island since May 9, 1984(Death Penalty Information Center). The state which people are most familiar with by being one of the biggest supporters of the death penalty is Texas and as said earlier; with the changing of times, methods of execution have changed in order to take a less horrifying approach and Texas was no different. From 1923, the Electric Chair was the way the state of Texas would execute their criminals and it was used all the way until about 1964, electrocuting a total of 361 convicted felons. Then in 1982, Texas adopted Lethal Injection and has continued to use it ever since as a better alternative, however still many people (even in the state of Texas) oppose the death penalty because of the accidental execution of an innocent individual (Texas Execution Information).

There was a quote from an episode of The Simpsons, where Homer exclaimed, “And that life was taken away from me, and the taking of a life is Murder. And the punishment for murder is, well it varies from state to state and by race.” As silly and quite droll this statement is, it does also play an important role in the Death Penalty. Statistics show that the race of defendants that were sentenced to death in the United States since 1976 were Caucasian and African Americans came in second and the same statistics were shown in regards to the race of the victims of those that were executed (Death Penalty Information Center). What was particularly strange about the statistics involved in the victim’s race was that:

“In 82% of the studies [reviewed], race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty, i.e., those who murdered whites were found more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks”

-United States General Accounting Office, Death Penalty Sentencing, February 1990

Currently, the U.S. death row population has a combining total of over 3000 inmates being sentenced to death with the ethnicity still ranking with more Caucasian Americans being executed than African Americans but the difference between the two is by only 2%. And since the death penalty is such a huge controversy in the U.S. the annual rate of executions vary greatly as shown in the graph below:

Source:

“Race of Death Row Inmates Executed Since 1976.” Death Penalty Information Center. Web. 11 Feb. 2012. <http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/race-death-row-inmates-executed-1976&gt;.

 

The argument still remains whether or not Capital Punishment should be enforced or not. And in order to make a proper decision, one must explore both sides of the issue.

One may believe that those who oppose the death penalty are mostly opposing it on moral grounds. However while that does play a major part in why they are against capital punishment, there must be more to their argument than simply that.

Granted, the use of capital punishment may be a more permanent method to keep criminals off the street as opposed to life in prison. However the economic cost to the tax payers may not be worth that warm feeling inside. According to an article from Dallas Morning News, “Each death penalty case in Texas costs taxpayers about $2.3 million. That is about three times the cost of imprisoning someone in a single cell at the highest security level for 40 years” (Death Penalty Information Center). However this is not just a financial problem in Texas; many other states such as: Maryland, California, and Indiana agree that the states could save a lot more money by using incarceration as a result (Death Penalty Information Center).

Incarceration has also taken its effect on young adults and teenagers that are breaking the law. When an individual under the age of 18 commits a crime or a misdemeanor, they are often sentenced to a Juvenile Correctional Facility where they are tried as a minor. Yet there are cases in which the minor may commit a crime that would be intolerable to adults and as a result, are tried as an adult. And in the case of Thompson vs. Oklahoma, where a man named Charles Keene was brutally murdered by four men including his fifteen year old brother-in-law William Thompson in 1983; the argument was whether or not Thompson should be tried as an adult and be sentenced to death along with the other three members who were held responsible for the murder (Stevens). However the court ruled that Thompson not be tried as an adult because in doing so, it would violate the eighth amendment of the U.S. Constitution involving the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. And while the death penalty does not necessarily give an age limit,

“The basis of [having a minor suffer capital punishment] is too obvious to require extended explanation. Inexperience, less education and less intelligence make the teenager less able to evaluate the consequences of his or her conduct while at the same time he or she is much more apt to be motivated by mere emotion of peer pressure than is an adult” (Stevens).

If minors were to be sentenced to capital punishment, it would not only be a careless mistake, but it would also “offend civilized standards of decency to execute a person who was less than 16 years of age” (Stevens).

That being said, many individuals (who were not minors) were found to be wrongfully sentenced to death due to the idea of capital punishment being a more efficient way of getting rid of criminals. Unfortunately, some of these individuals were found to be wrongfully convicted after they were executed; making the death penalty not only wrong but also unfair (Rosenbaum). Things that would cause individuals to be wrongfully convicted include: Prosecutorial misconduct (involving perjury), police misconduct (to which false confessions become coerced or negligent investigations and evidence being suppressed take place), and all leading up to corruption in the court trials (Rosenbaum). An example of an unjust case would be the involvement of a man named Dwayne McKinney, who was wrongly accused and looking at the possibility of a death sentence for murdering a Burger King Manager (FCLEF). McKinney however, ended up avoiding the death penalty due to the mercy from the jury and instead was sentenced to life in prison without parole; after twenty years behind bars, his conviction “was finally cleared by new evidence” (FCLEF).

Those who argue for the death penalty from a religious perspective believe that capital punishment is permissible by God and their evidence to support that is a quote in the Old Testament which states:

“Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”

-Deuteronomy 19:21 (Overberg)

The quote is taken to seem that if one person cuts another person’s finger off their hand, then the individual who got his finger cut has the right to do the same to the person who cut his finger first. However, after being interpreted by religious scholars shows that the quote is actually meant to keep order with crime without the use of violence (Costanzo). In contrast to the old testament, “the New Testament, which goes much farther in repudiating revenge…emphasizes love, compassion, mercy, charity, forgiveness” (Costanzo). People that argue from a religious perspective may also forget that the sixth commandment also states, “Thou shalt not kill”, so to essentially use religion as an example of why the death penalty is morally acceptable, can be a contradiction to itself.

The immorality of the death penalty has become recognized internationally as well. Varieties of countries around the Earth have abolished capital punishment and say it, “…has been proved to be contrary to the order and happiness of society by the experiments of some of the wisest legislators in Europe. Such people that agree are: “The Empress of Russia, the King of Sweden, and the Duke of Tuscany,” (Rush). These wise individuals have addressed the problem with capital punishment of its entirely contradictory purpose, “[which] lessens the horror of taking away human life, and thereby tends to multiply murders” (Rush). As a result, some countries like: West Germany, France, Portugal, and the Netherlands keep the death penalty solely for the purposes of treason and piracy (Stevens).

Steps have been taken to abolish the death penalty in the U.S. and those that argue in favor of the death penalty have also taken steps to make capital punishment less inhumane to please those that argue against the death penalty. However these steps taken to make capital punishment morally acceptable do not seem to be enough. However in order for the decision and choices of the death penalty to be properly implemented, it is imperative to take this opportunity to look at the death penalty through the eyes of one who believes that capital punishment should continue.

As stated earlier, capital punishment has been practiced for many years. However, times have changed and people argue that capital punishment is morally unethical. And while some argue with the morality of the issue, there are plausible reasons for others to argue that not executing dangerous criminals would be morally unethical.

The rationale behind having the death penalty as only option for some individuals is that their chances of committing another crime are terminated. Those who oppose the death penalty claim that life in prison would be a better alternative. However, despite the little possibility of the prisoner escaping his/her sentence, the chance for them to find their way back to society still exists. Whereas “capital punishment sets a societal standard that assaults on human life, will not be tolerated” (Goodlatte).

Some question whether or not the methods of executing criminals are cruel and unusual, and for all intents and purposes:

 

“The execution of a murderer sends a powerful moral message: that the innocent life [they] took was so precious, and the crime [they] committed so horrific that [they] forfeit [their] own life to remain alive. When a killer is sent to the electric chair or strapped onto a gurney for a lethal injection, society is condemning [their] crime with a seriousness and intensity that no other punishment achieves” (Jacoby).

 

For capital punishment to serve as a positive message to the community, the sentence for the criminals must be applied fairly. While some protest that capital punishment is not applied fairly, others argue that the injustice lies within the court trial. An example to this would be the O.J. Simpson trial in 1994 where the former football star had been accused of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman. Various issues during the trials (including O.J. Simpson’s blood being found at the scene of the crime and his faulty whereabouts during the crime) proved Simpson guilty; however he was acquitted for reasons some would deem as “unfair” such as Simpson being able to have some of the best lawyers as a result of his fame and fortune (Skipworth). With that said it also must not be forgotten that O.J. Simpson was an African American which would enable the public to think the jurors are racists for thinking Simpson was guilty. The sympathy in the courts has not only let guilty criminals back on the streets but also has made people forget the fact that the individual has committed a murder.

By using examples such as: insanity, racism, and sexism to prove the innocence of accused individuals, citizens are blinded from the big picture and an unnecessary second chance is offered as punishment. Because those who oppose the death penalty are unable to understand that rehabilitation is not always necessary in some cases, a bad name is given to those who support the execution of such criminals. Take the example of a woman named Betty Lou Beets who was convicted of shooting her fifth husband in order to gain life insurance benefits and later sentenced to death row. During her trials, Beets gained sympathy from supporters because “she claimed that she had suffered years of domestic abuse” (Rapaport). As a result of that saddening story, her supporters also failed to realize that “the police found [Beet’s husband’s] body buried in her front yard… [and] also discovered the body of her fourth husband who had also been shot in the head” (Rapaport). This was not Beet’s first offense, “years earlier she had been convicted of shooting and wounding her second husband” (Rapaport). Even if Beets had suffered years of domestic abuse, one would come to the conclusion that her motive for killing her fifth husband is incomprehensible.

Beet’s domestic abuse is irrelevant to her crime and those who support capital punishment argue that the reasons for prosecuting a guilty convict are indeed relevant to what the said convict is guilty of. Thus the death penalty is able to protect innocent people rather than convict them and “lethal force is met with lethal force for the victim’s sake” (Jacoby). However people against death penalty fear for the accidental sentence of an innocent convict. What they don’t realize is that, “the benefits of [the death penalty] in which judges and juries have the option of sentencing the cruelest or coldest of murderers to death far outweigh the potential risk of executing an innocent person…no matter how depraved the killing or how innocent the victim” (Jacoby).

To respond to the claims of cruel and unusual punishment taken place during the execution of criminals, supporters of the death penalty have done their best to lessen the severity of the executions by using lethal injection. One of the medications used during the procedures is called pancuronium bromide which is “a federally approved medication used routinely in hundreds of thousands of medical procedures in [the United States] every year” (Janek). Critics say that pancuronium bromide is a horrific drug but in actuality, once the pancuronium bromide is injected into the convict, “those drugs paralyze the body’s skeletal muscles… [and] the effect of the drug is to relax the chest wall muscles and the diaphragm in the now unconscious inmate” (Janek).

Personally, my arguments support those that are in favor of the death penalty. I do strongly believe that if an individual has done wrong, they should be held accountable. However economically speaking, I do believe that capital punishment is a stress for tax payers and agree that incarceration would be a more fiscally responsible alternative for convicted felons.

Yet even with all these reasons and alternatives, the debate for the continuation of the death penalty will never be settled due to the fact that the topic is like that of a double edged sword. Should an innocent person be murdered for a crime he/she did not commit? Or should a guilty convict be free to live and in the process risk the life of another innocent individual?

-Mr. Writer

Originally written on April 23, 2012 

 

Sources:

  1. “Executions by Year.” Death Penalty Information Center. Web. 11 Feb. 2012. <http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/executions-year&gt;.
  2. “History.” Texas Execution Information. Web. 11 Feb. 2012. <http://www.txexecutions.org/history.asp&gt;.
  3. “Race of Death Row Inmates Executed Since 1976.” Death Penalty Information Center. Web. 11 Feb. 2012. <http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/race-death-row-inmates-executed-1976&gt;.
  4. “Rhode Island.” Death Penalty Information Center. Web. 11 Feb. 2012. <http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/rhode-island-0&gt;.
  5. “States With and Without the Death Penalty.” Death Penalty Information Center. Web. 11 Feb. 2012. <http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/states-and-without-death-penalty&gt;.
  6. McGuigan, Brendan. “What Is the Death Penalty?” WiseGEEK: Clear Answers for Common Questions. Web. 11 Feb. 2012. <http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-the-death-penalty.htm&gt;.
  7. Rogers, Simon. “Death Penalty Statistics from the US | Guardian.co.uk.” Web log post. Latest News, Sport and Comment from the Guardian | The Guardian. Web. 11 Feb. 2012. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/sep/21/death-penalty-statistics-us&gt;.
  8. “Causes of Wrongful Convictions.” Death Penalty Information Center. Web. 23 Mar. 2012. <http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/causes-wrongful-convictions&gt;.
  9. Costanzo, Mark. “Is Killing Murderers Morally Justified?” Just Revenge: Cost and Consequences of the Death Penalty. New York, New York: St. Martin’s, 1997. Print.
  10. “Costs of the Death Penalty.” Death Penalty Information Center. Web. 23 Mar. 2012. <http://deathpenaltyinfo.org/costs-death-penalty&gt;.
  11. Friends Committee on Legislative Education Fund. “Attorney Incompetence Makes the Death Penalty Unfair.” The Death Penalty: Opposing Viewpoints. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven, 2006. Print. Opposing Viewpoints.
  12. Grunfeld, Daniel. “Understanding the Juvenile Delinquency System.” Http://probation.lacounty.gov. Public Counsel, 2005. Web. 23 Mar. 2012.
  13. Overberg, Kenneth R. “The Death Penalty Is Not Consistent with Religious Ethics.” The Death Penalty: Opposing Wiewpoints. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven, 2006. Print. Opposing Viewpoints.
  14. Rosenbaum, Mary I. “Many People Have Been Wrongfully Sentenced to Death in New York.” The Death Penalty. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven, 2005. Print. An Opposing Viewpoints Ser.
  15. Rush, Benjamin. “The Death Penalty Is Immoral and Should Be Abolished.” The Death Penalty. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven, 2005. Print. An Opposing Viewpoints Ser.
  16. Stevens, John P. “Executing Juveniles Is Cruel and Unusual Punishment.” The Death Penalty. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven, 2005. Print. An Opposing Viewpoints Ser.
  17. Goodlatte, Bob. “Executions Deliver Reasonable Retribution.” The Death Penalty: Opposing Viewpoints. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven, 2006. Print. An Opposing Viewpoints Ser.
  18. Jacoby, Jeff. “The Death Penalty Protects Innocent People.” The Death Penalty: Opposing Viewpoints. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven, 2006. Print. An Opposing Viewpoints Ser.
  19. “The O. J. Simpson Trial: The Incriminating Evidence.” UMKC School of Law. Web. 10 Apr. 2012. <http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/Simpson/Evidence.html&gt;.
  20. Rapaport, Elizabeth. “Women Are No Longer Spared the Death Penalty Because of Their Gender.” The Death Penalty: Opposing Viewpoints. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven, 2005. Print. An Opposing Viewpoints Ser.
  21. Janek, Kyle. “Lethal Injection Should Be Maintained.” The Death Penalty: Opposing Viewpoints. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven, 2006. Print. An Opposing Viewpoints Ser.
  22. Skipworth, Sean. “Introduction to Government.” Intro to Govt. 2302 Lone Star College: Victory Center, Houston. 1 Feb. 2012. Lecture.

 

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