Death Penalty Essay

Abstract

Application of capital punishment is an issue that usually splits opinion down the middle with sizeable support and equally sizeable opposition. The punishment has been slapped on the most serious of criminals in society for centuries and reference of the same made even in the bible through the eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth analogy. In the last century, however, human rights activists, religious leaders, and sometimes the public have termed the punishment as inhumane and archaic leading to abolishment or non-application of the punishment in a majority of countries today. However, the United States, arguably the most civilized democracy of the 21st century, still largely applies the death sentence and, more surprisingly, its application enjoys the support of a majority of the American public. This paper seeks to deeply discuss the debate on capital punishment and its applicability in the United States. The paper will highlight the main arguments of the proponents and opponents of the punishment in the United States before ending with a conclusion. .

Introduction

Capital punishment, or the death penalty, has been in existence for centuries with various methods of execution used, all with varying degrees of crudity and brutality. The death penalty, according to Stearman (2007), is when the government takes a person’s life as a punishment for wrongdoing. The death penalty is, according to Stearman (2007), the most extreme punishment a government can use on its citizens. Though initially practiced in a majority of countries just a century ago, the death penalty has been abolished in most countries today. For the last century, the pros and cons of capital punishment have been a subject of hot debates with the issues of whether the punishment is morally and ethically right, whether it actually deters crime and whether life imprisonment can serve as a more acceptable alternative, eliciting differing opinions.

In the modern world, executions, particularly in industrialized countries, have either been abolished or dormant. Currently, there are over 130 countries that have abolished capital punishment in law or practice and around 60 countries that still have this means of punishment (Petrezselyem, 2008). The United States is among the approximately 60 states, and the only western civilized state, that still applies the death penalty.

Apart from a brief period from 1972 to 1976, capital punishment has been in continuous use in the United States, although the situation varies between states (Stearman, 2007). Since that brief execution hiatus that ended in 1976, there have been more than 1,000 executions in the United States using a variety of methods, the most common of which is lethal injection. According to Stearman, the state of Texas has the highest number of executions, with one third of the executions in the United States, followed by Virginia, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Florida. Additionally, more than 3,000 people remain on death row, and some have been there for 20 years or more (Stearman, 2007). Although, a majority of Americans support the death penalty, it remains controversial. As Marzilli (2009) argues, abolitionists (those calling for the abolition of the death penalty) are very dedicated to their cause and extremely vocal, but capital punishment has many supporters and is often a key issue in political races. Therefore, despite significant support from the American public, capital punishment, in the United States, is still a matter that raises plenty of heated debate and controversy.

Debate On Capital Punishment In The United States

The moral debate over capital punishment, according to Mandery (2011), is strikingly and uniquely robust. This is because, unlike most matters of public policy where people on both sides of a debate usually find some consensus, death penalty proponents and abolitionists share no such common ground (Mandery, 2011). Many Americans today, according to Petrezselyem (2008), regard the death penalty as a highly controversial topic and questions of whether capital punishment is a morally and ethically tenable punishment have arisen many times.

Since the 18th century, abolitionists in the United States have constantly challenged capital punishment, sometimes with more, sometimes with less success (Petrezselyem, 2008). These efforts by abolitionists have led to clearly observable results including; abolition of capital punishment in certain states, reduction in the number of crimes punishable by death, and restrictions in the methods of execution.

Popular arguments about the death penalty are, according to Mandery (2011), divided into three broad classes: retributive arguments, utilitarian arguments, and egalitarian arguments. Utilitarian arguments are appeals to the common good, and they consider the costs and benefits of competing forms of punishment. Mandery argues that such arguments are forward looking as they seek to punish offenders for the future benefit that might be gained from punishment. This, according to Mandery, refers to the deterrent effect the punishment might have against other prospective offenders and the offender himself and for the benefit to public safety gained by incapacitating the offender.

Unlike utilitarian arguments, for retributive arguments, the future benefit that might be gained from punishment is irrelevant as all that matters is that offenders are given what they deserve (Mandery, 2011). Mandery adds that for retributivists, the costs and benefits of punishment are inconsequential as the ultimate objective is to do the right thing regardless of the consequences. Proponents of the retribution argument usually cite the bible’s idea of an “eye for an eye calling for punishment that fits the committed crime. Considering retribution is linked closely to the idea of vengeance or revenge, some abolitionists, according to Gershman (2005), argue that it is not appropriate for the state to be in the business of meting out revenge.

Finally, egalitarian arguments are appeals to equity; people in the same position should be treated the same. In the context of the death penalty, egalitarian arguments are used to demand fairness for all convicts. For instance, according to Mandery (2011), several studies have shown a strong race-of-victim effect in the administration of the death penalty in the United States: people who kill whites are far more likely to receive the death penalty than people who kill blacks. However, some proponents of capital punishment reject the desirability of equity completely arguing that evenhandedness is not generally an objective of the criminal justice system. Additionally, few people contend that the distribution of criminal penalties should be halted because it is anti-egalitarian (Mandery, 2011). Egalitarian arguments, therefore, hold little water in debates for the abolishment of capital punishment.

Therefore, an important issue in capital punishment debates is whether the death penalty deters crimes. As Gershman (2005) argues, society has always lived by a system of negative reinforcement with the expectation that punishing criminals discourages would-be criminals. Some of the strongest arguments for capital punishment’s deterrent value, according to Marzilli (2009), are based on common sense. Simply put, people are afraid of dying and, therefore, the possibility of being sentenced to death for committing certain crimes discourages people from committing those crimes. Marzilli (2009) provides the experience of the U.S. criminal justice system as an example supporting this logic. According to Marzilli (2009), almost everyone who is sentenced to death appeals the sentence exhibiting a wish to continue living. Therefore, the inevitability of appeals seems to contradict abolitionists’ claims that a sentence of life in prison without parole is as effective a deterrent as a death sentence. In addition to discouraging would-be criminals, proponents of capital punishment also argue that execution ensures a criminal is permanently excluded from carrying out future crimes.  

Abolitionists, however, disagree with these justifications arguing that the notion of deterrence is unproven. Additionally, opponents of capital punishment argue that life imprisonment can also equally serve in removing criminals from society but in a more humane manner (Gershman, 2005). Additionally, some researchers, as Gershman (2005) argues, suggest that the sanctioning of executions by states has a negative effect on society, by validating the taking of life. However, this argument is termed as fallacious by supporters of capital punishment for several reasons. First, by taking a murderer’s life, the state is attempting to demonstrate to society that murder is an unacceptable crime and whoever commits it will pay the ultimate price (Gershman, 2005). Therefore, the argument by abolitionists that executions legitimize murders is, according to Gershman (2005), challenged by the notion that although the state imprisons people, it does not legitimize kidnapping. Furthermore, proponents of capital punishment argue that the society is consciously aware of the difference between murder and state executions one being an illegal crime while other is a lawful, warranted punishment for committing a crime. Proponents are also of the opinion that life imprisonment is not a guaranteed means of keeping a criminal away from society as the criminal, for instance, can escape, commit murder within the prison, or even benefit from a future amendment in law permitting parole for life imprisonment convicts.

The debate on whether capital punishment actually deters crime has led to the carrying out of several studies over the years. Among these studies are “before-and-after” analysis and comparison studies between abolitionist states and non-abolition states. Before-and-after analysis compares murder rates before and after the abolition of capital punishment or following abolition and reinstatement of capital punishment while comparison studies compare the rates of crime between states supporting the death penalty and those not supporting it. If indeed capital punishment has a deterrent effect, abolitionist states would be expected to have higher rates of murders than non-abolitionist states, but this is usually not the case.

Thorsten Sellin, a criminologist, is famous for conducting some of the most ground breaking studies on the deterrent effects of capital punishment. Sellin, according to Marzilli (2009), made two main types of comparisons. First, he compared the murder rates in sets of neighboring states, some of which allowed capital punishment and some of which did not (cited in Marzilli, 2009). For instance, he compared Indiana and Ohio, which had a death penalty statute, to Michigan, which did not and made other similar comparisons between other states. Sellin reported that states without the death penalty had similar or lower rates of homicide compared to states with the death penalty (cited in Marzilli, 2009).

In the second comparison, Sellin published a study examining changes in murder rates in states that had either adopted the death penalty statute or had eliminated the death penalty. The states surveyed by Sellin included: Arizona, Delaware, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Kansas, Missouri, Oregon, Tennessee, South Dakota, and Washington. The study reported that neither instituting nor discounting the death penalty had any significant effect on the rates of murders in the states (cited in Marzilli, 2009).     

Roger Hood (as cited in Simon &Blaskovich, 2007) also published a research on the potential deterrent effect of the death penalty. Hood identified four categories of deterrence theory analysis: examination of rates of murder between jurisdictions that differ in their application of capital punishment; examination of crime rates in one location before and after a publicized execution; examination of murder rates before and after the abolition or reintroduction of capital punishment; and studies that apply statistical theory and econometric analysis.

On the effect of abolition or reintroduction of capital punishment on murder rates, Hood reported that countries need not fear sudden and serious changes in the crime rates if they abolish capital punishment (cited in Simon &Blaskovich, 2007). For instance, both Australia and Canada experienced no change and a decrease in murder rates, respectively, after abolishing the death penalty, and both the United States and Nigeria experienced increases in the rates of crime after the introduction and reintroduction of the death penalty. However, the United Kingdom experienced an increase in homicides following the abolishment of the death penalty although the rate of murders lagged a long way behind increases in violent crimes in general (cited in Simon &Blaskovich, 2007). Studies on deterrent effects of capital punishment have, therefore, been largely inconclusive. If anything, they have demonstrated that execution has no deterrent effect on the society.

On the short term effects on a society following a publicized execution, some studies have reported that such executions do not appear to deter homicides, but they might actually encourage them by lowering inhibitions against killing (cited in Simon &Blaskovich, 2007). In what is referred to as the “brutalization theory,” abolitionists argue that murder rates increase in the period immediately following publicized executions. The brutalization effect, according to Marzilli (2009), holds that when a state or the federal government executes a prisoner, the very violence of the act devalues human life in the society’s eyes and makes individual members of society more likely to kill.

In addition to using the inconclusive findings from studies on the deterrent effect of the death penalty to discredit the punishment, abolitionists also argue that psychological issues facing most would-be murderers may prevent them from worrying about the consequences of their actions and, consequently, the fear of the death penalty is unlikely to deter them from committing a crime.

Although the usually heated debate on capital punishment has been in existence for centuries, it has become more heated in recent years due to a number of issues including; increased human rights activism and law reforms. For instance, the debate has, according to Mialon & Rubin (2008), heated up in the United States in recent decades following the Supreme Court-imposed moratorium on capital punishment.

In a ruling on whether capital punishment is a cruel punishment, the Supreme Court introduced a special angle to the debate on capital punishment in the United States. This angle, according to Dworkin (2006), hinges on whether the eighth amendment to the constitution, which outlaws “cruel and unusual punishments”, incorporates some moral standard for appropriate punishments, which capital punishment might well be thought to fail, or whether, on the contrary, it incorporates no moral standard but instead prohibits only punishments that the statesmen and politicians who made the amendment – or the general public to which it was addressed – thought cruel.  

The issue of capital punishment and the eighth amendment was put to rest in the Gregg v. Georgia ruling of 1976. Gregg had been convicted of premeditated murders, and the court imposed a death penalty. Gregg launched state appeals that ended unfavorably and was forced to file a federal habeas action and the Supreme Court granted review. In the Supreme Court’s holding and decision a cruel and unusual punishment, as outlined in the eighth amendment, was described as a penalty that “is out of favor with public attitudes, or is excessive for the crime” (Cited in Aspen Publishers, 2007). The court held that: the death penalty clearly enjoys the support of the public and was envisioned by the amendment framers; capital punishment, though grim, is an expression of society’s outrage at particularly heinous crimes; and although the deterrent effect of capital punishment is open to question, it serves a retributive function that is essential in preventing citizens from resorting from self-help (Cited in Aspen Publishers, 2007). For these reasons, capital punishment was ruled as not being a violation to the eighth amendment.
However, the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court on the applicability of the Eighth Amendment to capital punishment has been somewhat inconsistent. On one hand, juries cannot have unbridled discretion to impose the death penalty. On the other hand, they must have some discretion. Accordingly, the Supreme Court has struck down mandatory capital punishment statutes that eliminate jury discretion completely (Aspen Publishers, 2007). The ruling by the Supreme Court made it a requirement for states to clearly specify which crimes carried the death penalty. Consequently, supporters of capital punishment have used the perceived avoidance of crimes carrying the death sentence by criminals as proof of the deterrent effect of capital punishment. As Marzilli (2009) argues, death penalty supporters believe that criminals know which crimes are punishable by death, and that criminals avoid these crimes. Marzilli cites a U.S. senator, Arlen Specter, who reported that, while he was a prosecutor in Philadelphia, he had seen “many cases where professional burglars and robbers refused to carry weapons for fear that a killing would occur, and they would be charged with murder in the first degree, carrying the death penalty.”

Another issue used by supporters of capital punishment to support their notion that the death penalty deters future crimes is the plea bargaining process. A plea bargain, according to Marzilli, is an arrangement between a prosecutor and a criminal defendant under which the defendant agrees to plead guilty, and the prosecutor agrees to recommend a specific sentence. The fact that defendants are more willing to accept a plea bargain, when offered in trials that might lead to the death penalty, shows the fear of the death penalty. Supporters of capital punishment also argue that because it is not feasible to end poverty or drug abuse through social programs, or to remove illegal hand guns from the streets, the death penalty is needed to help law enforcement keep pace with crime (Marzilli, 2009).

Abolitionists, on their part, cite the sanctity of life as a reason why the state should not tyrannically take away life regardless of the crime involved. Another popular argument used by abolitionists in the campaigns against capital punishment is the potential innocence of the convicted person. There is a danger, according to abolitionists, of innocent people getting wrongfully executed.

Conclusion

In general, supporters of capital punishment argue that the state must keep the death penalty because it is the only fitting and effective punishment for the most serious crimes. The supporters argue that its use prevents future crimes by permanently getting rid of violent criminals and deters others while at the same time bringing retribution relief to victims. On the other hand, opponents argue that the deterring effect is unproven, and an error in conviction is irreversible following execution making life imprisonment the more preferable and more humane option than capital punishment. Proponents of the death penalty counter this by arguing that life imprisonment is not permanent as convicted prisoners can escape, kill within the prison, or benefit from probable future legislations that might grant them parole. Additionally, abolitionists argue that the punishment is cruel, painful and against the sanctity of life something countered by proponents who argue that even the bible calls for an eye-for-an-eye notion making a crime of killing punishable by death. Therefore, there appears to be no common ground in this debate, and it is expected to continue for the near future.

An analysis of the arguments from either side develops a strong case for each of the sides making it difficult for a neutral to side with either the proponents or the abolitionists. A decision to make a stand alongside the abolitionists might crack faster than a dry twig under pressure when one is directly affected by being a victim in a crime punishable by capital punishment, such as the murder of a loved one, which might trigger feelings of retribution crowding earlier judgments and leading to support for the execution of the perpetrator. Additionally, a decision to side with proponents of the death sentence might waver when one’s loved one is wrongly accused of a crime and, subsequently, convicted and sentenced to death. Making a stand on capital punishment is, therefore, not a straightforward decision. However, considering the irreversibility of execution it is better to sentence a convict to life imprisonment as any mistakes in conviction can be corrected down the line, albeit partially, by granting the wrongly convicted person their freedom back something which is not possible following the finality of execution. Furthermore, denying one their freedom is just as punishing as denying one their life or perhaps even more punishing as one has to reflect on his/her mistakes and the life they are missing out on every day they wake up behind bars. Therefore, on weighing the pros and cons of capital punishment and the passionate arguments from proponents and abolitionists, my support would be for the abolition of the death penalty. 

 Is Death Penalty Really Effective or Should it be Abolished?

Martin and Law (2006) define the death penalty (also called capital punishment) as the legal imposition of death on a convicted offender. As a practice, the death penalty has been exercised in many countries all over the world for a long time, with initial methods used to effect the punishment being stoning to death (Kim, 2016). Historically, the death penalty is associated with Britain and the country has influenced the modern death penalty activities around the world. The death penalty started when the European settlers traveled to various parts of the world and they brought the practice of capital punishment to their new settlements. Moreover, the first recorded execution due to death penalty was witnessed in past colonies when Captain George Kendall was sentenced to death in the late 1608 (Blocher, 2016).

Evidently, laws and policies associated with death penalty can be traced back to Eighteenth Century B.C. in the Code of King Hammurabi of Babylon (Blocher, 2016).  The Kings of Babylon formulated death penalty policies for more than twenty-five different crimes in society. This made death the only punishment for criminals in Babylon. The Roman laws and policies also included death penalty models in the Fifth Century. During this time, the majority of death penalty conditions were carried out by various means such as crucifixion as well as through drowning and beating to death. Some policymakers also used burning people alive and impalement as part of death penalty measures.

Currently, diverse methods are used to carry out the execution, with the most common ones being the use of the gas chamber, electric chair, lethal injections, and most prominently, hanging. The issue of the death penalty has been under intense debate in the recent past with its proponents overemphasizing its role in deterrence while its antagonists watering down its purported efficiency in reducing crime (Anckar, 2014).   Death penalty is evident in various countries around the world today. For example, more than twenty-nine states in the United States currently practice the death penalty. Other major countries that practice death penalty around the globe include China as well as Thailand and Vietnam (Blocher, 2016).

In total, there are more than fifty countries that practice the death penalty around the world. However, it is also worth noting that more than one hundred countries have abolished capital punishment in their jurisdiction (Blocher, 2016). Additionally, there are countries that use death penalty in cases of serious crimes such as war crimes. This is because the use of death penalty has been controversial in many countries around the world.  In Europe, Protocol 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights does not support death penalty and European countries do not support the practice. However, countries such as Armenia, Russia, and Azerbaijan are supporting death penalty practices (Blocher, 2016).

Despite the high dangers associated with capital punishment, it should be noted that more than sixty percent of the world population lives in regions where the death penalty is practiced (Blocher, 2016).  The top countries known for practicing death penalty include China, India, and the United States as well as Indonesia and Pakistan. Moreover, countries such as Bangladesh, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Egypt also support the practice. There are also those who argue that Saudi Arabia, Iran, Japan and South Korea are supporting death penalty practices. However, recent reports also indicate that the death penalty practice has been used effectively in China to kill many people than all other countries around the world (Blocher, 2016).

Arguably, in late 2017 more than one thousand people were sentenced to death in Malaysia and this was done due to offences including murder, drug trafficking, and treason.  In 2018, a man was also sentenced to death in Gambia. In the United States, more than twenty-three people were sentenced to death by October 2018. From the programs, it was evident that the practice was applied arbitrary and also include racially-biased procedures (Blocher, 2016).

The death penalty is ineffective in that it does not lead to the deterrence of crime. Data derived from statistics from the United States of America shows that when there was no death penalty (1973-1984); murders were fewer than when the death penalty was introduced later on (Hood, 2002). In addition, murder and homicide became more common in the US in years after the introduction of the death penalty compared to other countries where there was no death penalty. These statistics question the deterrence effect of capital punishment as it would be expected that countries with death penalty could have fewer homicides.  In addition, numerous studies have been conducted on focus groups and all the results have pointed to the fact that capital punishment produced no deterrent effect on the people (Blocher, 2016). It would be expected that the rate of homicides would drop immediately after public executions of death penalty convicts; however, a study by Robert Dan in 1935 showed that homicides increased in Philadelphia within 60 days after several executions of convicts.

Notably, the death penalty does not produce a deterrent effect beyond what long-term imprisonment of convicts produces. A number of studies have been conducted by scientists and economists on this topic but the results have always been contradicting (Kim, 2016). However, research conducted on criminologists all around the world showed that the vast majority of this group believed that death penalty produces no deterrence (Hood, 2002). They agree that much of the research that shows the presence of deterrence are so limited and flawed to ascribe confidence on their validity. Long-Term imprisonment (perhaps life imprisonment) would thus be preferable as it enhances deterrence which death penalty cannot produce (Radelet & Lacock, 2009). In addition, Bedau (1997) asserts that people who commit murder and other violence in most cases do not premeditate their crimes and are in most instances under influence of alcohol and drugs; crimes under such circumstances cannot be deterred by the death penalty.

The death penalty is unfair and inequitable in practice; it has been used by governments and people in power to carry out political repression as a means of silencing their political opponents (Bedau, 1997). This wrong use of death penalty has diluted its intended effect and this could be the reason why it enhances rather than deters crime. Individuals have been put to death by governments only to be recognized as innocent after their deaths. According to Amnesty International, the death penalty has not served its purpose, thus accepting it as a legal form of punishment enhances its possible misuse by people in oppressive governments (Amnesty International, n.d.).

Despite its negative effects, there are those who argue that death penalty is effective in controlling serious crimes around the world. This is because countries such as China that have employed death penalty experience low serious crimes with high levels of accountability among government officials. Death penalty can be used to control corruption problems evident in many African countries.  In Countries such as United States of America, death penalty has been used to control violent crimes.  Death penalty also provides justice to the victim family and it discourages criminals from committing crime in the society.

From my viewpoint, I believe that death penalty is a matter of life and death and its use, therefore, must be without doubt about its effect. A number of research-based studies and reports on different models (scientific, economic, and criminology) have failed to prove the deterrence effect of death penalty. Most of the findings indicate minimal or no deterrence (in fact in some instances, an increase in crime) after executions. In addition, human rights forum has constantly questioned the ethics of death penalty with Amnesty international pinpointing its probable misuse. Therefore, I conclude that death penalty is not an effective method of deterring crime.

I believe that death penalty can lead to the execution of innocent people in society. It should also be noted that countries which support death penalty such as the United States of have higher murder rates than those without it. In most cases, criminals break laws whether death penalty is present on not. Moreover, from a religious perspective, it is only God that has the right to take human life since He is the sole creator of the universe.  Death penalty lowers population and it does not give people a second chance to avoid crime.

There are also a high number of cases where officials have misuse death penalty to control the prison population. There are also cases where politicians can use death penalty conditions to eliminate their enemies. With death penalty practices, the world cannot witness peace since people will commit serious crime expecting the death penalty. This can increase social problems and economic crimes around the world. Therefore, I fully believe that the death penalty should be abolished to promote peace and love among people in society. Without death penalty, people are able to settle criminal cases outside the court and this promotes world peace, love and unity.

 

References

Aspen Publishers. (2007). Criminal Law: Keyed to courses using Dressler’s cases and materials on criminal law. New York: Aspen Publishers.

Dworkin, R.M. (2006). Justice in Robes. Harvard University Press.

Gershman, G.P. (2005). Death Penalty on Trial: A Handbook with Cases, Laws, and Documents. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Mandery, E. (2011). Capital Punishment in America: A Balanced Examknation. Sudbury: Jones & Bartlett Publishers.

Marzilli, A. (2009). Capital Punishment, Second Edition. New York: Infobase Publishing.

Mialon, H.M., Rubin, P.H. (Eds). (2008). Economics, Law and Individual Rights. Oxon: Routledge.

Petrezselyem, L. (2008). Capital Punishment in Contemporary US America. GRIN Verlag.

Simon, R.J., & Blaskovich, D.A. (2007). A Comparative Analysis of Capital Punishment: Statutes, Policies, Frequencies, and Public Attitudes the World Over. Plymouth: Lexington Books.

Stearman, K. (2007). The Debate about the Death Penalty. The Rosen Publishing Group.

Amnesty International (n.d.). Amnesty International: The Death Penalty Questions and Answers.

Anckar, C. (2014). Why Countries Choose the Death Penalty. Brown Journal of World Affairs, 21(1), 7-25.

Bedau, H. (1997). The Case against the Death Penalty. Washington DC: American Civil Liberties Union

Blocher, J. (2016). The Death Penalty and the Fifth Amendment. Northwestern University Law Review, 111(1), 275-293.

Hood, R. (2002).  The death penalty: A Worldwide Perspective (3rd Ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Kim, D. (2016). International Non-Governmental Organizations and the Abolition of the Death Penalty. European Journal of International Relations, 22(3), 596-621.

Martin, A., & Law, J. (2006). Oxford Dictionary of Law (6th Ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Radelet, M., & Lacock, T. (2009). Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates? The Views of Leading Criminologists. The Journal of Criminal law and Criminology, 99(2), 489-508