This paper looks at both the positive and negative aspects of the death penalty. It tries to discern the practice of capital punishment from the law and look at it from different perspectives. The paper also looks at the implication of death sentence and how the death sentence of an innocent person through capital punishment is perceived by society and the measures that have been taken to make sure there is no such occurrence. This paper also looks at a brief history of the death sentence in America, starting from when it was introduced, all the way to the current trend of capital punishment. The practice of capital punishment in America has generated various arguments in favor and against the death penalty, with abolitionists and supporters of the death sentences both forming very strong lobbing forces for and against the death sentence.Life is considered sacred and should not be put in the hands of another human being. Even though one has committed a crime, the death sentence is morally grey and it gives room for human emotions and subjective thinking. What this does is it leads to a wrong conviction, which could be instigated by framing or judicial prejudice. The American judicial system however, has various mechanisms in place that are aimed at preventing such an occurrence. There has been a reduction in the number of crimes punishable by death, and conclusive evidence must be produced to warrant a death penalty.
The death sentence has its American history traced back to the European settlers in America. Americans who have practiced it to this day albeit currently with reservations then took it up. To the contrary, Europe has managed to abolish the death penalty and very few countries if any in Europe still uphold the death penalty.
The death penalty also known as capital punishment was first introduced to America by the British as they ventured and settled into new lands in the United States. The first recorded case was in 1608, in the Jamestown colony of Virginia, where Captain George Kendall was executed after being convicted of being a spy. Capital punishment varied in different colonies in regard to the offences punishable. The Virginia Governor, Sir Thomas Dale in 1612, enacted the Divine, Moral and Martial Laws, which provided the death penalty for even minor offenses such as petty theft and dealing with Indians (Schabas, 1997). On the other hand, The New York Colony established the Duke’s Laws of 1665 under which offences such as blasphemy or even hitting one’s parent had the offender put to death. In 1776, Cesare Beccaria wrote an essay that discussed crime, punishment and the validation of state to take a life. From here stemmed the abolitionist movement that was so forcefully against the death sentence and this movements led countries like Austria to abolish capital punishment. America’s first challenged the death penalty through Thomas Jefferson who introduced a bill to amend Virginia’s death penalty laws (Rogers, 2008). In my view, this paper looks at both the positive and negative aspects of the death penalty and society’s perception on it.
The bill proposed the death penalty be applied in homicide and spying culprits. It failed to sail through and was defeated by only one vote. Philadelphia Attorney General William Bradford, with the help of a few colleagues rallied and led Pennsylvania to repeal the death sentence in 1794 for all offenses except first-degree murder and consequently the first state in 1834 to move executions away from public viewing and carrying them out in restricted places like correctional facilities instead. By the end of the 19th century, countries like Venezuela, Portugal, Netherlands, Costa Rica, Brazil and Ecuador had all completely abolished capital punishment (Mayer, 1987).
After the civil war, new introductions in the means of executions emerged that were supposed to be more humane, the most popular being the electric chair that was first assembled in New York in 1888, and was used to execute William Kemmler in 1890, leading to its adoption by other states there after. By 1917, a total of six states had completely prohibited capital punishment, a few limiting it only to treason and murder. Cyanide gas was introduced in 1924, by the state of Nevada, which sought a more civilized way of implementing capital punishment on its inmates. There was renaissance in the use of the death penalty between 1920 and 1940 with more executions in the 1930s than in any other decade in American history as per documented research by criminologists, who argued that capital punishment was essential in the limitation of crime. Public support for the death penalty slumped in the 1950s and by 1980 support for capital punishment had dwindled to an all time low. About 1099 people have been executed since 1976, with 1999 recording the highest number of 98 executions. There were very few executions in the years between 1976 and 1983 with a recording of only 12 executions, (Johnson, 2005).
Positive aspects of the death penalty
Over the years, supporters of the death penalty continue to give more and more convincing reasons as to why America at large should advocate for the death sentence. Some of the reasons include the following:
Humane form of justice
A self-confessed convict on death row has an opportunity to prepare his death, craft a will, speak to his loved ones, apologize to the victim’s family make a confession and pray. In early years, the harmed person did not get a chance to prepare for death and they died or get injured in an abrupt and violent manner (Rogers, 2008).
The natural fear of death is a sobering reminder to criminals who are planning to commit crime. The uncertainty and mystery that surrounds death gives it a competitive edge over other forms of punishment as no one has ever experienced death and lived to tell. Capital punishment therefore indirectly saves the lives of thousands of possible victims who might be at risk of an attack (Schabas, 1997).
The costs that are associated with running a prison are large and are a burden to the state. Inmates need feeding, clothing, recreation, security and other basic human necessities that are all procured and maintained by the state. This can be a drain for the states resources as there are many prisoners serving life sentences or on death row. Capital punishment is a cost effective way of cutting down on judicial expenditure considering the equipment used for execution only needs minor maintenance, instead of building another vast, expensive high security prison, (Bessler, 2003).
Witnesses and family members never face retribution from criminals. Repeat or serial murders are purged from society thereby preventing probable future murders, in a sense saving the prospective victims from harm. It is in this context that the death penalty is actually viewed as a lifesaver and not as a life taker.
Evidence above innocence
Contrary to what many think, there has never been a recorded case in the recent past where an innocent person was executed. A study was carried out that identified a number of wrongful executions. It was however in error for it failed to provide proof of the convicts’ virtue. However, it is highly unlikely that an innocent person would be executed, considering the American justice system takes stringent measures to ensure the innocent and their rights are protected, (Schabas, 1997).
Delivery of justice
Supporters of the death penalty argue that people are not maltreated by capital punishment rather they are exploited by society’s lack of appropriate punishment for a specific crime. It is possible for a criminal to be imprisoned for life and still commit the same atrocious acts of violence on other inmates or may be released on parole (Johnson, 2005). Other criminals have no active life within society and commit crime so they can be incarcerated because they get food and shelter. The death penalty is therefore viewed as a greater threat to crime than imprisonment.
Negative aspects of the death penalty
America in recent years seems to have faltered in its support for capital punishment. Various abolitionist movements still challenge the death penalty, with quite successful results in Europe. America still retains the death penalty but drastically limited the number of offences where it is to be applied. Some of the negatives aspects of death penalty include:
Lack of fundamental accomplishment
Capital punishment fails to uphold the primary role of punishment and that is rehabilitation. By putting to rest a convict, there is no actual sense of justice that is put across. Unlike incarceration where a convict is locked up and rehabilitated, capital punishment does not offer the offender a second chance to transform and therefore goes against the purpose of justice itself, bearing in mind that the offender is usually not in his/her normal mind when committing the crime. An offender who confesses to a crime is normally remorseful and in a state of regret and is highly unlikely to commit that same crime again. In addition, the apprehension of the death penalty has never reduced crime even though some executions especially in the 17th and 18th century were public and quite brutal (Bessler, 2003).
Violates human rights and dignity
The face value of capital punishment is the act of killing another human being in accordance to the law. No human being should have a higher moral ground over another, for we all break the law at one time or the other. A person has a right to life and that life can only be given by a supreme being who acts as the creator. It is therefore irresponsible to take what you cannot give and considering capital punishment was an ancient practice, as civilized, highly educated societies, we should have a deeper understanding to life and its value. Conversely, society ends up sympathizing with the offender, raising him/her to a higher social stature especially when they insist on their innocence (Bohm, 2007). All religious convictions believe having life is sacred. If the state deprives someone else of his/her life, they end up suffering emotionally when anticipating death and during the death process hence belittling human life.
Bears the potential of encouraging crime
Death penalty cases and executions that are highly publicized usually elevate offenders to martyr or celebrity status depending on their personality. This has the ripple effect of encouraging other socially or mentally challenged criminals to commit similar crimes for they look at a convicted offender as their role model. They lionize and identify with him/her and their execution only creates space for another offender to take their place. Criminologists gathered data to support this during the Linberg kidnapping where statistical figures show that kidnapping actually increased, even with the adoption of the death penalty by various states for punishing similar crimes (Johnson, 2005).
Does not influence crime rate
There are daily reports in America of various crimes having been committed like murder, robbery with assault rape and several other heinous and hateful crimes. These crimes occur in both states that have and those that lack the death penalty. If the death penalty really acted as a deterrent to crime then the states with no death penalty would have a higher crime rates as compared to states without capital punishment.
Possibility of a wrong conviction
One major predicament associated with the death penalty is that life is irreplaceable. Death is absolute and one cannot be brought back. There are higher chances that human error, prejudice and subjective thinking may be involved in the conviction of a suspect. A suspect may insist on their innocence while others feeling hopeless and unaided when it is claimed that they are guilty when they are actually not. The purpose of justice at large is to punish the offender of a specific crime and not any other offender. Therefore, a person may be put to death only for the real culprit to be apprehended later. Maine and Rhode Island realized this vacuum for error and abolished capital punishment but only after putting to death a number of guiltless suspects (Mayer, 1987).
Act of revenge
If critically examined, the death punishment is nothing more than an act of revenge carried out by the justice system. The victims or their families never really experience closure by the death of a suspect rather it leaves them exclusive of the only person who last saw their loved one alive. Malicious individuals can also take advantage of this form of punishment to frame and set up their colleagues and enemies for execution (Rogers, 2008).
The death sentence has been for a long time subjected to various heated debates on its importance and justification. Americans for a greater part of the 20th century have been against this practice with abolitionism taking a firm hold in the mentality of many citizens. Institutions such Amnesty International, Death Penalty focus, Catholics Against Capital Punishment, American Civil Liberties Union, The European Union and the World Coalition against the Death Penalty have been formed to lobby against capital punishment. Their reasons vary as to their intentions, but over the years they have managed to push capital punishment to extreme limits. It has been abolished in several states in America and the remaining 23 states that still practice it do so with much restraint. A similar but opposing force comprises of the pro-death penalty group which supports the application of capital punishment and some encourage the swiftness of how it should be carried out. Organizations such as British National Party, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, Off2DR.com, Pro Death Penalty.com among numerous others, support the application of capital punishment to committers of atrocious crimes. According to the law, these crimes must be serious, revolting and hateful and which because of their intrinsic or apparent impiety and ferocity are repulsive and contemptible to the universal values and standards of consideration and decency in a just, sophisticated and structured society.
The early 17th century saw an influx in the practice of capital punishment in America, and petty crimes like stealing were punishable by death. Mid 18th century saw an emergence of the abolitionist movement which quickly gathered momentum with the support of writings by Cesare Beccaria which questioned the morality and essence of the death penalty. This movement has to this day helped in pushing for the abolishment of capital punishment in hundred of countries and in 28 American states. Even though one has committed a crime, the death sentence is morally grey and it gives room for human emotions and subjective thinking even though if viewed in a different perspective it seems to be right to a certain group in the society.
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Bohm, R. (2007). Death Quest III: An Introduction to the Theory & Practice of Capital Punishment in the United States. Chicago: Anderson Publishing.
Johnson, R. (2005). Justice Follies and the Crying Wall. London: Willo Trees Press.
Mayer, R. (2004). The Dreams of Ada. New York: Doubleday Broadway.
Rogers, A. (2008). Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts. Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press.
Schabas, W. (2006). The Abolition of the Death Penalty in International Law. London: Cambridge University Press.