Capital Punishment: An Eye For An Eye?
In the United States, the use of the death penalty continues to be a controversial issue. Every election year, politicians, wishing to appeal to the moral sentiments of voters, routinely compete with each other as to who will be toughest in extending the death penalty to those persons who have been convicted of first-degree murder. Both proponents and opponents of capital punishment present compelling arguments to support their claims. Often their arguments are made on different interpretations of what is moral in a just society. In this essay, I intend to present major arguments of those who support the death penalty and those who are opposed to state sanctioned executions. I do not pretend to be neutral on the issue; the application of the death penalty is the ultimate and irreversible sanction. However, I do intend to fairly and accurately represent both sides of the argument.
Proponents of capital punishment persuasively argue that a “central principle of a just society is that every person has an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Cauthen, p 1). Within this principle, the deliberate (premeditated) murder of an individual is viewed as a heinous act, which prevents the person from realizing his or her right to pursue happiness. They strongly feel that persons convicted of first-degree murder must, themselves, pay the ultimate price. They claim that the death penalty must be imposed in order to maintain the moral standards of the community.
Proponents of capital punishment are aware that many people who oppose the death penalty are fearful that innocent people may be wrongfully executed. They insist, however, that numerous “safeguards” are built into the criminal justice system which insures the protection of those facing capital punishment. Among the safeguards are:
1.Capital punishment may be imposed only for a crime for which the deathpenalty is prescribe by law at the time of its commission.
2.Persons below eighteen years of age, pregnant women, new mothers or persons who have become insane shall not be sentenced to death.
3.Capital punishment may be imposed only when guilt is determined by clear and convincing evidence leaving no room for an alternative explanation of the facts.
4.Capital punishment may be carried out only after a final judgment rendered by a competent court allowing all possible safeguards to the defendant, including adequate legal assistance.
5.Anyone sentenced to death shall receive the right to appeal to a court of higher jurisdiction.
6.Capital punishment shall not be carried out pending any appeal, recourse procedure or proceeding relating to pardon or commutation of the sentenced.
In view of these safeguards, proponents of capital punishment believe that state executions are justified sentences for those convicted of willful first-degree murder. They do not think sentencing murderers to prison is a harsh enough sentence, especially if there is the possibility of parole for the perpetrator. A final argument posed by proponents of the death penalty is that execution is an effective deterrence. They are convinced that potential murderers will likely think twice before they commit murder.
Despite the rhetoric of politicians for the increased use of the death penalty, a number of prominent individuals and organizations have emerged to express their opposition to capital punishment. Along with families of death row prisoners, the International Court of The Hague, the United Nations, Amnesty International, the Texas Conference of Churches, Pope John Paul II, Nobel Peace recipient, Bishop Tutu, numerous judges and former prosecutors, former Attorney General, Ramsey Clark, actors, and writers are waging a determined struggle against the death penalty. They invariably argue that capital punishment is wrong and inhumane. Religious folk generally evoke the nature of an “ideal spiritual community” (Cauthen, 1). Within this perspective, a moral and ethical community does not insist on a life for a life. While a community must act to protect law- abiding citizens, an ethical response would be to imprison persons who have demonstrated a flagrant disrespect for life, without the possibility of parole, if necessary. Cauthen states, “An ideal community would show mercy even to those who had shown no mercy” (Capital Punishment 2).
Most opponents of the death penalty find fault with the supposed safeguards offered by those in favor of state executions. Specifically, they charge that more innocent people have been executed by the criminal court system than the two wrongful deaths that proponents admit to.Two dramatic events illustrate that fact. In 1998, a conference, “Wrongful Conviction and the Death Penalty” received much media coverage. The conference brought together twenty-eight women and men who had been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for murders they had not committed. Only through the efforts of volunteers, activists, family members, and independent research, were the prisoners freed (Guiterrez 8). Another example occurred in February, 1999. In this case, students from a journalist class at Northwestern University, along with their professor, provided the necessary evidence to prove the innocence of a man who had been on death row for sixteen years in an Illinois prison. His execution date was just days away.
Opponents of capital punishment discount the argument that the extensive use of the death penalty acts as a deterrence. According to Amnesty International (1994) and a United Nations document (1988), there is no “scientific evidence” to show that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than other forms of punishment. Additionally, the United Nations study showed that countries, which had abolished the death penalty, did not experience an increased number of homicides. In fact, the Canadian homicide rate declined in the twenty-year span after the death penalty had been abolished.
A compelling argument against the death penalty is that the United States is out of sync with most other countries. Of the approximately 180 countries in the world, more than half of them no longer execute its citizens. And in countries which have retained the death penalty, the number of people executed is still far less than in the United States.Interestingly, the United States is the only Western industrialized nation to practice capital punishment. Another aspect of the United States being out of sync with other countries is in the death penalty for juveniles. Contrary to the alleged safeguards, Amnesty International notes that the United States has executed more juveniles (persons less than eighteen years of age at the time homicides were committed).The only other countries guilty of juvenile executions were Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. Is this really a list we want to be on?
Finally, and perhaps, most importantly, the use of the death penalty has been shown to be racist and class-biased in its application. Many researchers confirm that minority populations, particularly Black and Latino defendants, are substantially more likely to receive the death penalty than White defendants charged under similar circumstances. More damning, researchers have found evidence of “double discrimination”. That is, the race of the victim and the offender affects just who will be given the death penalty. In Florida, for instance, African Americans who are convicted of killing Whites are “forty times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who kill Blacks” (Weinglass ). In terms of the class nature of capital punishment, consider this: Currently, there is not a single rich person on death row. In fact; 90% of those on death row could not afford good, legal representation, leading observers to conclude that the decision as to who dies and who lives has more to do with poor representation and the personal wealth of an individual.
Finally, opponents of the death penalty note the shift in public opinion regarding state-sanctioned executions. Recent poll findings consistently show that support for the death penalty is waning in the thirty-seven states with the death penalty, including Ohio, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Kentucky. Typically, pollsters are finding that increasing numbers of the public prefer alternatives to the death penalty, especially when convicted murderers had no possibility of parole. For instance, 54.8 percent of Virginians, when assured there would not be the possibility of parole for a minimum of twenty-five years, coupled with restitution for the victim’s family, agreed to alternatives (Recent Poll Findings www).
The most dramatic event to date has been a moratorium on executions issued by Illinois Governor George Ryan on January 31, 2000. The governor, an avid proponent of the death penalty, now says he can no longer support the system after a thirteenth death row prisoner was exonerated during the 1990’s. A panel has been convened to investigate all facets of the court system, including the racism of the police, the district attorneys’ prosecutorial misconduct, the all too often incompetence of underpaid public defenders, and the politicians who cut funding for attorneys and pass laws which limit the appeals available to prisoners (Butterfield, Death Penalty Turmoil 7) .
In light of these many considerations, opponents of capital punishment ask: Does the state have the right to take another person’s life? How can the death penalty continue to be justified in the face of over-whelming evidence which shows that innocent people have been wrongfully executed, that people are not deterred from committing murder, and that, in practice, the death penalty is racially biased and reserved for the poor. In a New York Times Op-Ed piece (July 14, 1995), writer, E.L. Doctorow, speaking in behalf of an inmate on death row wrote, “If the death penalty must exist in this country, it is the burden of the public servants charged with applying it to do so only from the most unanswerable and awesome judicial imperatives–or state-administered death becomes morally indistinguishable from any other murder.”
Butterfield, Greg. Repression Spurs Resistance. Workers World. 2/24/00 pg. 7
Cauthen, Kenneth. Capital Punishment: Maximum public safety (11/18/00) Online.available:
Doctorow,E.L. and Weinglass, Leonard. Race for Justice. Monroe, Maine 1995
Guiterrez, Tony. Crime in America NewYork 1997
Rubac, Gloria. Illinois moratorium accelerates anti-death–penalty across U.S. Workers World. 2/17/00. pg. 5
Capital Punishment: An Eye For An Eye?