The Death Penalty and Arguments Against It

Do we really need the death penalty? You might think that the death penalty is the only way of keeping the worst persons far away from our society but much evidence points the other way. On a practical level, the practice is not a deterrent to future crimes. On a moral level, it is racially biased and innocent persons have been murdered by the government. At least 130 innocent people formerly on ‘death row’ in the United States have been exonerated. This fact alone would make a reasonable person to seriously question if it should be done away with. A sentence to life in prison without possibility of parole is punishment which will make a person understand his mistakes. Every life should be valued and imprisoning a person for life without the possibility for parole is adequate punishment for any crime even murder.

Historically speaking, the rationale for punishing criminals has been to avenge the crime, to protect society by imprisoning the criminal, to deter that person and other potential offenders from the commission of crimes and to obtain reparations from the offender. Throughout the history of civilization, this rationale has not changed substantially. Executions have been practiced all over the world for a long time. In England during reign of Henry VIII (from 1509-1547) 72,000 people are estimated to have been executed (“Capital Punishment,” 2009). Criminal law included some 220 crimes punishable by death. Executions for robbery, burglary and murder were common and even children were executed for such minor crimes as stealing. The punishment by death was very painful in England. They used various methods of killing, such as hanging by turning the victim off a ladder or by dangling them from the back of a moving cart, which causes death by suffocation. The whole world was trying to find a way of making the execution less painful, except England. Until 19th century they used the worst method of drawing and quartering while a person was alive. They banned their method in the early 19th century, after which the United States introduced the electric chair and the gas chamber as more human way of execution, but some countries still use the slow hanging methods (“History”). By whatever method, the death penalty is a cruel punishment, what could be more so than death? The fact that there are varying degrees of pain while killing someone does not make a ‘humane’ death such as by injection more acceptable.

The four fundamental reasons society punishes can be classified into two areas. One is to obtain desired consequences which includes protecting society, seeking compensation and deterrence. The other, retribution, or vengeance, involves punishment for a wrong perpetrated on society. Revenge is wrong and ultimately more destructive to the value system and very fabric of society than is the crime itself. In addition, opponents feel that outlawing the death penalty will “allow opportunities for confronting those who had been hurt most and possibly encourage remorse or reconciliation (and) suggest those that have killed be made to service the community as a way of partially making amends” (Olen & Barry, 1967: 272). According to opponents, capital punishment is ethically and morally objectionable in today’s society. Some oppose it based on religious grounds citing morality as the fundamental issue; however, differing religions and people within those religions have differing opinions. Christians who live in Europe, for example, tend to oppose capital punishment but in America, they tend to support it.

Many Americans who support the death penalty assume that those sentenced to die are guilty. However, the growing number of wrongful convictions challenges the concept of fairness in capital punishment. In the online journal Death Penalty Information Center, executive director Richard Dieter says that for every 7 executions, 486 since 1976, one other prisoner on death row has been found innocent. (Dieter, 1997) The danger that the wrong person will be executed because of errors in the criminal justice system is getting worse. According to retired Washington State Supreme Court Robert F. Utter “With growing technology and new scientific techniques now some cases with wrongful convictions are discovered; for example DNA, which has helped to save the lives of those who were on death row, however it is only available in less than 10 percent of all homicides and is no guarantee that innocent people will not be executed.” (Utter, 2009) The increasing number of innocent defendants being found on death row is a sign that our process for sentencing people to death is fraught with fundamental errors-errors which cannot be remedied once an execution occurs.

When the wrong person is convicted, the real perpetrator goes unpunished and remains free to commit additional crimes. Innocent people can be isolated from their family, friends and society because of wrongful convictions. One can only imagine the hellish mental and psychological torment an innocent person experiences in prison. Wrongful convictions are more common than anyone would like to believe. Many are based on eyewitness error. Police collaborating with corrupt prosecuting attorneys to ‘frame’ a defendant occurs, again, more than people would like to believe. Police all too routinely, (twice is too routinely) attempt to force a confession using what some would characterize as torture. Additionally, jailhouse snitches have been known to supply false testimony to gain a reduced sentence. (“Causes of Wrongful Convictions”).The system is too easily corruptible to think innocent people aren’t being legally killed. I would rather a hundred guilty persons be set free than one innocent jailed and/or killed. Who does it serve anyway? The death of a murderer does not compensate for the lives of victims. It’s all about revenge, nothing more.

Table 1

Source: Warden, Causes of Wrongful Convictions

The table 1 shows the numbers of cases with those errors, which were analyzed by the Northwestern Law School. The most common mistake is the “eyewitness error” and there are forty five cases in which mistaken or perjured eyewitness testimony put innocent persons on death row. The story from summaries of 46 Cases with Eyewitness Error is about a person who was convicted in the crime he didn’t commit and was almost put to death. He had to wait on a death raw for 14 years. Clemmons Eric (convicted 1987-exonerated 2000) – Mr. Clemmons, a Missouri prison inmate, was sentenced to death for the fatal stabbing of another prisoner. The case rested solely on the testimony of the corrections officer who saw the murder. He testified that, during actual stabbing, he was too far away to see that the killer was, but gave chase and saw that the man was Mr. Clemmons. At the trial in Greene County, Missouri, the defense called several prisoners who claimed the murder had been committed not by Mr. Clemmons but by a prisoner who died three months after the crime – a contention the prosecution portrayed as self-serving and unworthy of belief. After his conviction, Mr. Clemmons, working on his appeal, discovered an internal prison memorandum, prepared by a prison supervisor immediately after the crime, stating that the murder had been committed by the prisoner whom the defense witnesses had identified at the trial. Based on that and other new evidence, the US Court of Appeals for the Eights Circuit granted Mr. Clemmons a new trial, at which he was acquitted. Mr. Clemmons was black and the victim white.

The government misconduct is another example from the graph, which includes repeating mistakes when innocent persons are executed. In the online newspaper New York Times, journalist Schwartz describes how Texas Judge refused to keep the court offices open past 5 p.m. on September 2007, when lawyers for a convicted rapist and murderer awaiting execution pleaded for a little more time to file a last minute appeal in the case. Judge Keller, who had served on the court since 1994, had left her office that afternoon to meet a repairman at home. She refused the request, and the prisoner, Michael Richard, was put to death later that evening by lethal injection. The charges could get Judge Keller removed from the bench, and she is in a fight for her career and her reputation.

Of course, besides those two wrongful convictions there are many more errors going on in the Criminal Justice System of the United States. Two examples were enough for me to realize that we don’t need the execution, that’s why I shall ask for the abolition of the death penalty until more innocents are in the same situation as Mr. Clemmons and Michael Richard. As King writes: The death penalty is an imperfect, inhumane punishment dolled out not to those who commit the most serious offenses but to the most vulnerable in our society – the young, the mentally impaired, and the poor. You don’t find rich people on America’s death rows. (“Causes,” 2001) Rich, white criminals are less likely to be executed than underprivileged minority members and if the victim is white or wealthy, the death penalty is more likely to be imposed. The statistics provide evidence for this claim. Since 1976, 43 percent of executions in the U.S. have been black or Hispanic. This group accounts for 55 percent of those currently on death row. About half of those murdered in the U.S. are white but 80 percent of all murder cases involve white victims. From 1976 to 2002, 12 whites were executed for killing a black person while 178 blacks were executed for murdering a white person (“Race”, 2003). It would seem that the ‘unusual’ aspect of the death penalty continues to be a valid argument but another aspect must be present for the practice to again be abolished. A justice system that disproportionately kills its own people cannot be considered anything but corrupt which devalues the entire system.

The death penalty does not discourage crime, which the statistics prove. Opponents also deny that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime because of the nature of the reasons people commit homicide. People cannot conceive their own demise therefore cannot contemplate or appreciate the consequences. In addition, these crimes are usually committed as a result of impulsive actions and not carefully considered beforehand. Therefore, “the deterrent case has no validity” (Johnson, 1968). If the person committing the murder does contemplate the consequences, they may kill not only the victim but any witnesses as well rather than risk being caught (Olen & Barry, 1996). Again, the opponents view has been substantiated. Many studies have been performed to determine if the death penalty is indeed deterrence. They are conducted by “comparing homicide rates in contiguous jurisdictions, some of which had abolished capital punishment; examining time series data on homicide rates within a jurisdiction during the years before and after the abolished capital punishment; and comparing homicide rates in a jurisdiction before and after the imposition of the death sentence or execution” (Hagan, 1985). These studies have unanimously demonstrated that the death penalty does not deter crime.

The story that shocked the whole world was about the serial killer in the Russian Federation will support my idea. Andrei Chikatilo was a Russian serial killer who was found guilty in fifty two murders out of fifty three and sentenced to death for each offense. When he was given a chance for the last word at one point he claimed that he had done favor to society by cleansing it of “worthless people.” On February 14, 1994 Chikatilo was taken to a soundproofed room in Novocherkassk (Russian city in Rostov Oblast) prison and executed by a single gunshot behind the right ear (“Andrei Chikatilo”). Did Chikatilo deserve such an easy death? I think killers like him should be isolated from the society and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Does executing the murderer helps heal the victim’s family pain? Most murderers hope leaving this life as fast and without pain as possible and by sentencing them to death we are giving them this chance. I believe the death penalty is simply the “cycle of killing” and executing a killer will not stop the crime as we are also committing a crime and a dead person can not learn something from his mistakes. There is a hope that a murderer will realize his guiltiness when deprived of a range of personal freedoms. The mission of justice should be finding the way of making criminals and killers think of their acts. Among the victims of Chikatilo there were young girls and boys. The youngest victim was 7 years old boy and the 9 years old girl (“List of Victims”). The lives of more than fifty people can be equal to the death of one man. I can’t even imagine myself for a minute in the place of a mother whose child was killed and tortured, because it’s the worst thing that can happen in any mother’s life.

The death penalty is not a solution to violence and nothing will erase the pain and loss that we must learn to live with. Instead of focusing on the death penalty, we need to put out our resources up front into prevention so that we can prevent murder in the first place. Because of various mistakes during the trial innocent people are being isolated from our society for the crimes they didn’t commit and putting them on the death row and let them wait for the day of their execution, can cause a serious mental illness and pain to the families, which can not be reimbursed. Our criminal justice system has still not figured out a way to impose death sentences fairly. The victim’s families are doubly wounded because a real killer has taken not only the life of their loved ones but any chance of enjoying their own life. In order to reach justice, death penalty should be abolished and serious criminal should be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The societies in European countries have already formed the opinion that the death penalty is both ‘cruel’ and ‘unusual’ punishment that remains largely ineffectual. Most European citizens enjoy cradle to grave health care and are much less likely to be incarcerated than those in the U.S. Though there is much evidence to the contrary, American society is growing more compassionate through time. The 1964 Civil Rights Act is but one example of this. One day, it will be a compassionate society that does not use the emotion of revenge to decide its laws and the death penalty will go the way of the Salem witch trials, a barbaric punishment of the distant past.

Work Cited

  1. “Andrei Chikatilo.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. (2009). Web.
  2. Capital Punishment.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. (2009). Web.
  3. “Causes of Wrongful Convictions.” Death Penalty Information Center (2001).
  4. Dieter, Richard. “Innocence and the Death Penalty.” Death Penalty Information Center (1997) Web.
  5. History.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. (2009). Web.
  6. King, Rachel. “Families of Murder Victims Speak Out Against the Death Penalty.” New Jersey: Rutgers. (2003).
  7. List of Victims.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. (2009). Web.
  8. Olen, Jeffrey & Barry, Vincent. Applying Ethics. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co. (1996).
  9. Schwartz, John. “Texas Judge Asks State to Pay Her Lawyer.” New York Times (2009). Web.
  10. Summary of 46 Cases with Eyewitness 1st Attach. Northwestern School of Law. (2001)
  11. “Race and the Death Penalty.” Unequal Justice. New York: American Civil Liberties Union. ( 2003). Web.
  12. Utter, Robert. “New Voices: State Supreme Court Justice Resigned Over the Death Penalty.” Death Penalty Information Center (2009). Web.
  13. Warden, Rob. “Causes of Wrongful Convictions.” Death Penalty Information Center 2 (2001) Web.

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DemoEssays. "The Death Penalty and Arguments Against It." December 24, 2022.