The notion of the death penalty is one of the most divisive issues in societies worldwide since it raises numerous related questions concerning ethics, morality, and humanity. The problematic nature of the debate about whether it is acceptable to implement the death penalty lies in the fact that it essentially refers to the idea of the legality of taking another person’s life. The U.S. is among few developed nations which still use this means of punishment for crimes which causes many critics to voice their concerns. The majority of them believe that such a method cannot be utilized in the twenty-first century because there is a chance that an innocent individual can be executed. Nevertheless, despite a certain risk of executing the wrong person, the death penalty remains an effective way of preventing crime and serving justice and is supported by the majority in the U.S.
The primary argument in support of the death penalty is the potential of this type of punishment to serve as a preventive measure to warn others against engaging in criminal activity. The logic here is that a person who considers committing an offense or violating the law may see the possible outcome for them if they are apprehended and proven to be guilty. As a result, this person may decide against becoming a criminal, not willing to become subject to the risk of being electrocuted or injected with a lethal drug. Moreover, since the crimes which entail the death penalty are usually particularly heinous and atrocious such as homicide and drug-trafficking, the death penalty compares to them in its severity. This discourages would-be murderers and other individuals viewing criminal activity as a way to advance in life from taking steps in this direction by making them fear the repercussions.
The support in favor of the argument that capital punishment is effective means to prevent future crime can be drawn from academic literature and scientific studies, many of which prove it to be true. For instance, Dezhbakhsh and Rubin (3655), who examined existing research on the topic, discovered that the death penalty had a positive impact on deterrence and established a link between the severity of punishment and criminal activity. Such findings demonstrate the viability of the idea that the death penalty can prevent future crimes or at least function as a warning for the offenders not to continue performing illegal actions. Certainly, capital punishment cannot be considered the most effective measure of deterrence, and the existing debate on its benefits proves it. Yet, using it as one part of a complex strategy which additionally involves the implementation of violence prevention programs and the work of law enforcement agencies can be a reasonable decision.
Another argument which can be used to support the notion that the death penalty is an acceptable means of punishment is that it constitutes compensation for the loss of human life or damage to society. If a person intentionally prepares for the killing of another individual, carefully plans the process, and then commits homicide without experiencing any remorse and empathy, then they must be ready to experience the same outcome. Similarly, those who engage in drug trafficking, especially by shipping heroin, have to suffer capital punishment for the harm they inflict on vulnerable members of society who are addicted to illegal substances. Moreover, drug trafficking usually involves networks of people who commit all kinds of crimes, including rape which must entail severe consequences for the perpetrators and capital punishment is one of the possible measures. Essentially, the death penalty is the ultimate retribution a person has to provide for their misconduct, and which, nevertheless, should be proportionate to a particular crime.
Additionally, there are often other parties involved in the cases when a murder occurs, for example, parents, siblings, or relatives in general of the victim who also want the perpetrator to suffer consequences. Heinous crimes such as homicide disturb the balance of justice, which has to be restored for the victim’s relatives to receive at least partial satisfaction. Thus, they must be able to expect the court and jury to decide to rule in favor of capital punishment since it is often the only sanction the relatives are ready to accept. Yet, apart from the relatives, there is also a society which is directly affected by crime which, if not met with a reasonable response, will only continue to grow. Charles Stimson, an expert in national security, believes that imposing a punishment which is proportionate to the perpetrator’s crime is a manifestation of society’s right to pass moral judgment (Stimson). Therefore, by implementing the death penalty, the court as the representative of society demonstrates that certain crimes do not imply any leniency since they are extremely atrocious.
It is also important to explore society’s perspective on the topic of the death penalty by assessing the data of various polls and surveys to better understand whether this measure has the support of the people. According to Pew Research Center, in 2018, 54% of Americans expressed their support for capital punishment, which indicated a 5% increase compared to 2016 results (Oliphant). This is not surprising, especially in light of major criminal incidents which took place over the past five years, such as the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas. People realize that such events cannot be tolerated in a democratic society and believe that only strict measures can provide a reliable response to high-profile crimes. Yet, the most significant conclusion which can be made based on the results of the aforementioned poll is that the death penalty remains a legitimate measure because the absolute majority of citizens favor it.
There are also views against the use of the death penalty, and one of the main arguments voiced by the opponents of the measure is the risk of executing a person who is not guilty. They believe that subjecting people to capital punishment is dangerous since there is always a possibility that an individual sentenced to death was wrongly convicted and, as a result, will be erroneously killed. Supporters of the idea usually state that cases involving people being released from death row after the emergence of the new evidence must indicate the fact that the execution of some individuals was a mistake. The primary factor here is the unreliable law enforcement system which cannot function perfectly, which leads to significant errors even in such serious cases such as murder and robbery. Removing the death penalty from the list of possible punishments can increase the margin of error and guarantee that an innocent person will not lose their life because of investigators’ mistakes.
This argument could be a potentially viable one if there was any evidence of the actual execution of an innocent individual, yet currently, there is no data on such cases. Moreover, the fact that since 1976, more than one hundred people have been exonerated from death row shows that the existing system has mechanisms for those not guilty to escape capital punishment (Farivar). A long period of time before an execution presents an opportunity for attorneys to collect all the necessary evidence and prove their clients’ innocence. Moreover, local governors also can pardon the wrongly convicted person by granting them clemency if substantial facts exist that demonstrate that they did not engage in the criminal activity. Therefore, an individual put on death row has a significant chance of being released, provided they can prove their innocence.
The death penalty is a means of punishment which is necessary for discouraging individuals from engaging in illegal activity and ensuring reasonable rebuttal for the damage inflicted by a perpetrator. It functions as a warning to people who consider committing a crime about the severe consequences which may ensue for their actions, and, as studies show, it is an effective deterrence measure. Additionally, the death penalty constitutes a society’s response to a considerable disturbance of the justice balance inflicted by crimes such as murder and drug trafficking. Moreover, the majority of the U.S. citizens support capital punishment, which shows that it is legitimate and motivated by public demand. Finally, there is no evidence which could prove that over the years, there was at least one incident of execution of a wrongly convicted person.
Dezhbakhsh, Hashem, and Paul, H. Rubin. “Econometrics of Capital Punishment” to the “Capital Punishment” of Econometrics: On the Use and Abuse of Sensitivity Analysis. Applied Economics, vol. 43, no. 25, 2011, pp. 3655–3670. doi:10.1080/00036841003670804.
Farivar, Masood. “More Innocent People than Previously Known Came Close to Being Executed, U.S. Study Finds.” Voice of America, 2021.
Oliphant, Baxter. “Public Support for the Death Penalty Ticks Up.” Pew Research Center, 2018.
Stimson, Charles. “The Death Penalty Is Appropriate.” The Heritage Foundation, 2019.