The Death Penalty Controversy
Usage of the death penalty has been debated many times and has long been a very
controversial issue. Supporters see it as a form of retribution for the crimes that have been committed and as a deterrent; however, the death penalty is a cruel punishment that should be abolished. The Eighth Amendment states, “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted”, killing someone no matter the circumstance is a cruel and unusual punishment that is unacceptable.
According to the website, deathpeanltyinfo.org, the death penalty was established long ago in the Eighteenth Century B.C. in Babylon and was part of King Hammurabi’s Code; throughout the centuries the death penalty has been used as a punishment for multiple crimes (Part). The methods of execution ranged from crucifixion, beating to death, and burning a person alive to beheading and hanging those condemned to death (Part).
European settlers that came to America brought with them the use of the death penalty (Williams 17). According to the website, deathpenaltyinfo.org, the first recorded execution in the new colonies was in 1608, Captain George Kendall was executed for being a spy (Part). Death by electrocution, a gas chamber, and lethal injection have been used more recently; in the U.S., lethal injection is the most widely used method of execution (Friedman 89).
Many people rationalize the use of the death penalty by seeing it as a form of retribution, “the punishment fits the crime”, or the old-adage “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”; this is the number one reason for support of the death penalty (Friedman 31). After being harmed many have desire to seek revenge, “make someone pay” for the wrong they have done. This anger is understood; nonetheless, this impulse it is not “sufficient justification” to take someone’s life (Williams 40). A civilized society strives towards a more humane and moralistic way to deal with criminals, not vengeance disguised as justice. As Hugo Bedau and Paul Cassell explain in the book, Debating the Death Penalty, “imprisonment of a criminal already constitutes one evil, the loss of freedom, but the death penalty imposes a more severe loss, that of life itself” (61).
The website, deathpenalty.procon.org, points out that, “when the government metes out vengeance disguised as justice, it becomes complicit with killers in devaluating human life and human dignity. In a civilized society, we reject the principle of literally doing to criminals what they do to their victims: The penalty for rape cannot be rape, or for arson the burning down of the arsonist’s house. We should not punish murder with death.” (Is Immoral). The punishment of death for someone who has committed murder contradicts the government’s intent of establishing the value of a human life. Use of the death penalty is simply a primitive strategy once used by an uncivilized society.
The purpose of the criminal justice system is to maintain social control, diminish crime, and impose penalties on those who break the law; with the goal of ensuring the safety of society. So, the question arises, can the safety of society be established without putting criminals to death? The punishment of imprisonment for life without parole guarantees the public’s safety without sacrificing a human life.
The death penalty as a crime deterrent is another reason people support capital punishment; however, for the death penalty to be a deterrent, criminals must see it as a threat to their life. According to the website, suicidology-online.com, a study of fifty-eight serial killers, showed that 26% of these killers committed suicide before trial (Lester 23).
In the book, Reviving the Death Penalty, Gary E. McCuen and R.A. Baumgart point out that “there are also criminals who commit murder as a way of punishing themselves, and others that see it as a way to gain notoriety” (62). Many murders are unplanned, happen in the heat of passion, and are committed by people who have psychological disorders. Generally, criminals are uneducated and have little knowledge of when the death penalty is applied.
According to Williams, “experts have stated that based on literature and research in criminology, the death penalty does not have significant deterrent effects” (117). A 2016 FBI Uniform Crime Report on the website, deathpenaltyinfo.org, shows that “the South had the highest murder rate; the South accounts for over 80% of executions” (Facts). Research also shows that police chiefs and sheriffs believe that “reducing drug abuse,” and “a better economy with more jobs” are the most effective crime deterrents (Williams 116).
Deterrence, by implementation of the death penalty, is clearly not a factor to support the use of capital punishment. As stated by David A. Becker and Cynthia S. Becker authors of the book, Problems with Death, “whatever deterrence factor exists for capital punishment probably exists almost equally for life imprison” (91).
The question of the constitutionality of the death penalty has been debated in court multiple times. The Eighth Amendment states, “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishment inflicted” (Atherton and Barlow 44). What constitutes a cruel and unusual punishment? According to the website, death penalty.procon.org, “death is not only an unusually severe punishment, unusual in its pain, in its finality, and in its enormity, but it serves no penal purpose more effectively than a less severe punishment.” (Is Unconstitutional). In the 1972, the Supreme Court heard the case of Furman V. Georgia and ruled that the death penalty was “so arbitrary it violated the Eighth Amendment”(Bedau and Cassell 23). The court declared that the death penalty did not conform to the country’s “evolving standards of decency” and placed a temporary ban on the death penalty at that time (Temkin).
Then, in the 1976 case of Gregg v. Georgia, the court ruled that “the death penalty per se was not unconstitutional”; nonetheless, in the 1976 case of Woodson v. North Carolina, “the mandatory death penalty was declared unconstitutional” (Bedau and Cassell, 23). More recently, in March of 2005, the U.S. Supreme court ruled that “it was unconstitutional to execute juveniles, or those who committed capital murder when they were juveniles” (Becker and Becker 105). As stated on the website, deathpenalty.procon.org, “the fatal constitutional infirmity in the punishment of death is that it treats members of the human race as nonhumans, as objects to be toyed with and discarded.” (Is Unconstitutional).
Additionally, statistics reveal that the death penalty is not applied equally. Criminals are more likely to be sentenced to death if they are of a racial minority group (Williams 117). According to the website, deathpenaltyinfo.org, “over 75% of the murder victims in cases resulting in an execution were white, even though nationally only 50% of murder victims generally are white” (Facts). Another study on the website, deathpenaltyinfo.org, shows that “in 96% of states where there have been reviews of race and the death penalty, there was a pattern of either race-of-victim or race-of-defendant discrimination, or both” (Facts).
In many cases, a person’s wealth affects the possibility of being condemned to death, as McCuen and Baumgart point out, “those who can afford good, private lawyers invariably live, while those who are represented by over-worked, under-experienced court-appointed lawyers often die (73). U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Douglas once noted, “One searches our chronicles in vain for the execution of any member of the affluent strata of our society” (McCuen and Baumgart 73).
The second president of the United States John Adams long ago said, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” In contemplating the death penalty, moral values must be taken into great consideration, being that they are the basis of decision making. Leo Tolstoy, a Russian novelist, proclaimed, “The recognition of the sanctity of the life of every man is the first and only basis of all morality.” The morality of the death penalty is influenced by a person’s religious beliefs, and most religions denounce the use of the death penalty (Williams 37). Based on morality, the death penalty is inexcusably unethical.
Supporters of the death penalty argue that death sentences are carried out “humanely”, but is there a humane way to kill? Participants of simulated executions, bare witness that “there is no humane way to kill” (McCuen and Baumgart 52). Friedman declares that “it is never humane to intentionally murder, regardless of the circumstances” (71). Criminals who kill, as heinous as they may be, are still human beings and should be treated with human decency. Yes, there must be severe punishment for heinous crimes, but as Williams said, “that does not obligate us to kill those who have killed” (40).
Furthermore, there are those who say that the death penalty is morally necessary to ensure justice is served; however, as Mary E. Williams questions in the book, Capital Punishment, “if killing is morally wrong, it is wrong for both the individual and the state?” (39). The state orders an executioner to engage in an “unnecessary killing” (Williams 39). As Williams explains, “this killing that has nothing to do with self-defense, imminent danger, or the protection of society” (39). It is simply an act of cruelty performed that contradicts the basis of all morals and human rights.
According to the website, amnesty.org, “the death penalty breaches two essential human rights: the right to life and the right to live free from torture” (Amnesty). Nevertheless, the execution procedure is “slow, deliberate, methodical, and largely stripped of human emotion” (Williams 40). Any human death is tragic and as Williams affirms, “to take a human life, even that of someone who is guilty, is awesome and tragic” (53).
The death penalty will continually be a controversial issue, but reviewing the facts proves that the death penalty is a “cruel and unusual” punishment that should be abolished. Steve Earle, an American singer proclaimed, “My objection to the death penalty is based on the idea that this a democracy, in a democracy the government is me, and if the government kills somebody then I’m killing somebody”. Most Americans agree that “we want our country to be characterized by justice, not revenge; by safety, not violence; by life, not death” (Williams 117).