The death penalty, known as capital punishment, is a form of punishment for severe crimes. Crimes that are considered worthy of the death penalty have changed over time however in our time murder is the main crime that will result in an execution sentence. People who are convicted in a court of these crimes are put to death by various forms of execution. These forms of execution have varied over time and between nations. These methods have included hanging, electrocution, and most recently lethal injection. The death penalty is an unjust form of punishment and the United States should outlaw the practice as many other industrialized nations have already done.
The death penalty has been used as a form of punishment since early civilizations. However, the death penalty was used not just for murder but for minor crimes such as theft or adultery. “Today even capital punishment's most ardent supporters would recoil at the notion of executing thieves or counterfeiters, We have a consensus that if the death penalty is to be used at all it should be reserved for those who commit the gravest crimes.” (Banner, pg. 6) Executions in the past had also been places for public shaming. Executions were also used as a way to control political revolutions or movements. Over time the death penalty was used for capital crimes such as murder. Movements were also made towards developing more humane ways of using the death penalty. The electric chair and lethal injection replaced the guillotine or hanging as a way to administer the death penalty. In our modern era many industrialized nations have begun to outlaw capital punishment as a penalty for murder. However the United States has lagged behind many of these nations as it allows the individual states to make their own decision about whether an individual should or should not be put to death for their crimes.
Other industrialized nations have moved towards abolishing the death penalty mainly because the death penalty is considered a violation of human rights. “Once a virtually universal practice, only about 100 of the world’s 180 or so nations still take the lives of those who commit serious violations of their laws. Executions have become especially rare among industrialized democracies” (Haines, p. 3). Every individual has the right to life and the death penalty takes that away from them. Placing a prisoner on death row is also a form of cruelty as they have to sit for many years on death row while they wait for their death. Punishment in the form of life in prison does not violate an individual's human rights. The United States as a whole nation should abolish the death penalty as the right to life and liberty is part of the Declaration of Independence.
Another argument against the death penalty is that there could be a chance of an innocent person being executed. As the criminal justice system is not perfect there have been reported incidents of innocent people being executed for crimes they did not commit. “As of January 2002, ninety-nine innocent people have been released from death rows nationwide and the one-hundredth exoneration is imminent...As of February 2000, 94 percent of Americans believed that an innocent person had been executed within the past five years.” (King, p. 3). Criminal trial proceedings can have errors which result in wrongful convictions. The advent of DNA has increasingly been used as evidence in trials to prove innocence or guilt. DNA evidence has also been used to prove the innocence of death row inmates.“The United States criminal justice system is in the midst of a revolution. Spawned by the advent of forensic DNA testing and hundreds of post-conviction exonerations, the innocence revolution is changing assumptions about some central issues of criminal law and procedure.” (Marshall, pg 573). The hope would be that the increased use of DNA evidence would keep innocent people from being sentenced to death row. However this cannot be a guarantee and if even one innocent person is wrongfully convicted and then given the death penalty, it should be reason enough to outlaw the death penalty.
Wrongful convictions often occur for disproportionately African-American individuals. In fact, individuals of minority race or ethnicity are more likely to be convicted and sentenced to death than white offenders of the same crimes. This demonstrates that capital punishment is administered unfairly to minorities. This is apparent as African-Americans and other minorities make up a small number of the population however they are more subject to the death penalty. Issues of capital punishment and race also occur conversely “...the hidden message of more recent capital sentencing patterns in the United States has been that the lives of nonwhite murder victims are worth less than those of whites; killers of African American are seldom sentenced to die and even less often executed.” (Haines, pg. 14). This demonstrates that the criminal justice sentence has not only been unfair to prisoners but also victims of murder as the victims’ race is being taken into account when determining how the murderer will be sentenced. The inequality demonstrated through rates of conviction for capital crimes is another reason why the death penalty should be abolished
The death penalty also finds itself in a sticky situation when dealing with another form of minority in the United States, individuals with diminished capacity or the mentally ill. Both these groups of people have committed heinous crimes which have resulted in a death penalty punishment. However, debates have raged over whether an individual can be put to death if did not have the full capacity to understand their crimes. The death penalty places individuals who are already vulnerable in an even more unstable position by allowing states to execute these individuals. The death penalty has also come into question in cases involving juvenile offenders who commit terrible crimes. Juveniles could be considered as having diminished capacity as well as they could still be considered children who are incapable of making rational decisions. Both of these ethical dilemmas provide the death penalty debate a starting point to begin a discussion on the morality of the punishment.
Wrongful conviction and human rights are both arguments which are instilled in morality. The basic moral argument against the death penalty is that it is wrong. While this argument is simple it basically sums up the reasons why many individuals are against the death penalty. We punish those who kill others by killing them. Religious principles are also against the death penalty. “There are few direct references to capital punishment in the New Testament. But unlike the Old Testament's harsh treatment of sin and punishment, it stresses forgiveness and mercy.” (Haines, pg. 104) Christianity and many other religions teach forgiveness however this is not being demonstrated when prisoners are put to death for their crimes. This demonstrates why other industrialized nations have turned away from the death penalty as basic rules of morality state that it is wrong.
The United States position on the death penalty puts it in a difficult position with these other industrialized nations, especially with European nations. The United States has held its own distinct views from other industrialized nations in areas such as taxation, welfare, and healthcare. However in these areas European nations have not become involved in the debate. The issue of the death penalty has been another story. “In recent years, the United States has come under growing pressure, if not attack, by its European allies over its use of the death penalty.” (Demleitner, pg 181). Since 9/11 and the war on terror has begun European nations have refused to extradite suspected terrorists to the United States if they will be instituting the death penalty. This has put the United States in a difficult position politically and demonstrates the disdain that other nations have towards the United States for its policies on capital punishment.
The debate over the death penalty has raged in the United States for many decades. While the arguments against the death penalty have been explored extensively, the arguments for the death penalty need to be taken into account as well. The main argument for the death penalty is that it is considered to keep people from committing crimes such as murder as they do not want to be placed on death row. Supporters of the death penalty will also state that by using the death penalty individuals are removed who would drain the penal system of resources. Arguments have also been made that families of murdered victims need retribution for the murder of their loved ones.
The death penalty as a deterrent could be considered the reason the death penalty was put into place centuries ago. However, despite the death penalty being in place across time and various civilizations, murder still occurs. “In particular, it could not be an effective deterrent. Unless capital punishment could be administered in a way that made it effective in controlling crime or doing justice, it could not be allowed to exist.” (Haines, pg. 6). When crimes are committed individuals are rarely thinking about the punishments they will receive if they act upon their impulses. Having to spend the rest of your life in prison should be considered enough of a deterrent to prevent a crime from occurring. Although supporters of the death penalty do not appear to want to support murderers or a serial killer who spend their lives on death row. Despite the lack of evidence which supports the deterrent effect, individuals continue to support the death penalty.
This argument against supporting someone in prison for the rest of their life seems unreasonable as thousands of individuals are placed in jail for minor crimes and our taxes support their incarceration. Supporters of the death penalty assume that it is ok to maintain certain prisoners in prison while others should be executed. The argument has also been made that putting prisoners to death costs the states a lot of money. Criminal justice systems must develop the policies which will put people to death. “The board of Indigents defense services for the state releases estimates in December 1986 that the creation of a new office to try the 70 to 80 capital cases that might be expected each year would cost about $1.4 million.” (Haines, pg. 13). Prisons must build death rows to house the prisoners and then pay for the method of execution that is going to be used. This could involve building a unit that has an electric chair or paying for the repeated lethal injections death row prisoners must receive. Debates can be held back and forth regarding which costs more: placing a prisoner in prison for the rest of their life or executing a prisoner. However, how will the costs of human life lost to execution be measured up?
Supporters of the death penalty often state that capital punishment allows families to achieve some sort of retribution for the crimes committed against their family. The revenge argument is just as weak as the moralistic argument can appear to be during debates over the death penalty. Oftentimes these families fail to achieve some sort of retribution. Organizations have been developed on behalf of these families who oppose the death penalty. As Rachel King (2003) discovered when she was researching her book. “It is called Murder Victims' Families for reconciliation, or MVFR, and its membership requirements are that someone in your family was murdered and that you oppose the death penalty. The people in this book reject the concept of retribution and believe that no one is beyond redemption.” (King, pg. 1). These individuals are often rejected by the criminal justice system which often seeks the testimony of family members as justification for sentencing a person to death. If individuals whose family members were brutally murdered can have compassion and forgiveness for prisoners, the criminal justice system and our society should begin to develop forms of punishment that allow for redemption rather than just punishment.
Over recent decades many organizations have developed both domestic and international to fight against the death penalty. These organizations vary from attempting to get individuals off of death row, such as the Innocence Project. Or in attempting to change legislation and policy in individual nations so that the death penalty is abolished. “Amnesty International brought to the movement a global membership, significant organizational and monetary resources, and a global human rights frame that sought to take the death penalty debate beyond the cramped vocabulary of criminal justice.” (Haines, pg. 16). These organizations are mainly established by international organizations such as the United Nations. Abolitionist movements have developed in the United States for many years which have strived to abolish the death penalty. Despite the long term crusading of these organizations the death penalty continues to exist in 35 states, demonstrating that the abolition movement has a long way to go in the United States where people are still being executed. Clearly, more work needs to be done in order to fully get rid of the death penalty. However, it is evident that organizations have emerged with the sole intent of helping eradicate the nation of the death penalty. Such commitment on behalf of so many organizations shows that it is a serious matter.
The death penalty is a blight on the United States as a nation that promotes democracy as a form of achieving life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As other industrialized nations have been able to see the errors of their past and abolish the death penalty so should the United States. However, movements towards abolishing execution have received little recognition. Politicians also stay away from the political discussion surrounding the death penalty. This may partly be due to the fact that they may believe in the death penalty. However, the main reason is that most Americans are in favor of the death penalty. The recent trial of Jodi Arias and impending sentencing will reignite the debate over the death penalty. The brutality of her crime will have supporters of the death penalty looking for blood which is reflective of the culture of our time. As long as the culture of the United States and public opinion of Americans continue to support revenge for crimes the death penalty will continue to be prominent in the criminal justice system. Ideas of forgiveness and redemption need to be included in the criminal justice framework so that we are not just murdering people but providing them with a chance to reform their ways and improve their quality of life. This change in mindset would influence not only the criminal justice system but the beliefs of Americans in general.
Banner, Stuart, and Stuart Banner. The death penalty: An American history. Harvard University Press, 2009.
Demleitner, Nora V. "Death Penalty in the United States: Following the European Lead, The." Or. L. Rev. 81 (2002): 131.
Haines, Herbert H. Against capital punishment: The anti-death penalty movement in America, 1972-1994. Oxford University Press on Demand, 1996.
King, Rachel. Don't kill in our names: Families of murder victims speak out against the death penalty. Rutgers University Press, 2003.
Marshall, Lawrence C. "Innocence Revolution and the Death Penalty, The." Ohio St. J. Crim. L. 1 (2003): 573.