When Erroneous Convictions Lead to Death

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In the history of the United States, there have been many issues that have been polarizing and full of heated debate. The death penalty tops this list as one of the most divisive issues of current discussion. The use of capital punishment in the United States should be abolished in all situations. Capital punishment should be made illegal for many reasons and the most important of them being that they are not cost-effective and too expensive to justify, and there is always the possibility of punishing the wrong individual and the mere fact that there are more effective punishments available. All of these reasons create a scene where the death penalty does not serve our needs as a nation, society or even a criminal justice system. The court systems and legislators could better serve the people of this nation by focusing on punishment that is effective, humane and fair across the board.

The cost must be taken into account when making all decisions in any country. This may seem to be a callous or cold comment to bring into the debate on capital punishment, but it is quite useful and relevant. Proponents of capital punishment point to the money saved by ending the convicted individual’s life as a reason for the practice to exist. Many have countered by stating that in actuality the cost of a capital punishment case is significantly higher at nearly every single stage of the legal process (Nakell 69). These cases require that a jury is used and also allow room for an appeals process that must be honored. Both of these add to the high cost of a capital case that is unmatched in non-capital cases. These defendants use every possible tool from appealing to the Supreme Court, filing Habeas Corpus and involving state governors. The main fact that is important is that if all things were equal it would be cheaper to execute an individual rather than keep incarcerated for life. However, this is fantasy world that does not exist. It is more than just these two options living in a bubble immune from the realities of the legal system. This legal system is needed and is costly to operate, and that cost goes through the roof when each capital case drags on for decades exhausting every single possible avenue. We cannot remove these safeguards, they are the core of what justice means to us as a nation. So we must decide if the act of capital punishment can survive scrutiny when money is looked at, and it does not.

Mistakes are made in the legal system every single day and some mistakes we can recover from and others are final and irreparable. Nothing could be truer than mistakes made in the case of capital punishment. There is no coming back from the final act in a capital case and this should be reason enough to reconsider its legality. Researchers have concluded that erroneous sentences are quite common in our legal system (Gross 469). This should cause intense fear and panic in every single citizen of this country because this means it can happen to anyone. New technology like DNA analysis has released many people from death row over the last few decades alone (Aronson and Cole 603).

It begs the question of how many people did we put to death who also could have benefited from modern technology? If we wrongly send an individual to prison for life and find out a decade later with even newer technologies that we were wrong, we can rectify the situation. If we find out even one hour too late that we put to death the wrong individual we are nothing short of a failure. Killing the wrong person betrays everything this country is and hopes to accomplish. Every person fails, not only the court system. Nothing could be worse than ending an innocent life and every individual in this country should be mindful of the implication doing so means on our country.

Other punishment options are available that can and should be used in our legal system. The number of jails and prisons are quite unfortunately growing every single day in the United States. We actually happen to have some of the highest arrest and incarceration rates in the world, as well as the highest number of jails and prisons. Prisons are made specifically to house those who are high risk and have committed the worst offences in our society. A life spent in a maximum or super-maximum prison is a punishment like no other. Some who are against making capital punishment illegal argue that life in prison without the possibility of parole is not a sufficient punishment because it is too lenient. Nothing could be further from the truth. As human beings our desire to be free is one of our greatest driving forces. The loss of that freedom is one of the worst possible sentences that can be passed down, regardless of the length. Even a few short weeks of being bound in a room is a punishment that can hurt an offender. A lifetime of confinement and solitude is a punishment as severe, if not more severe than death itself, and should not be minimized.

The debate over the use of capital punishment is as divided in this nation as it ever has been. The issue has been dealt with high courts and low courts across every single one of our states. This has led to very different death penalty laws in each state, with some states having moratoriums on the use of capital punishment while all options are looked at. The nation would save money, time and avoid possible mistakes by making the practice illegal in every state. Further, we have one of the largest correctional systems in the entire world, while this is an unfortunate fact, it means that we of all people are capable of housing an inmate for life. The sentence of life applies to those who will never leave a cell, and this is a viable option that should be relied on in place of capital punishment. There are many reasons and alternatives to making capital punishment illegal, and they are all worth taking very seriously.

Works Cited

Aronson, Jay D. and Cole, Simon. “Science and the Death Penalty: DNA, Innocence, and the Debate over Capital Punishment in the United States.” Law & Social Inquiry, vol. 34, 2009, pp. 603–633.

Gross, Samuel R. “The Risks of Death: Why Erroneous Convictions Are Common in Capital Cases.” Buffalo Law Review, vol. 44, 1996, p. 469.

Nakell, B. “Cost of the Death Penalty” Criminal Law Bulletin, vol. 14, no. 1, 1978, pp. 1-12.