The use of capital punishment is a highly controversial issue that oftentimes dominates the national public policy debate. The case of Furman v. Georgia in 1972 deemed capital punishment to be illegal and declared a moratorium on the practice until 1976, when Gregg v. Georgia saw the Court reinstating capital punishment. However, it is clear that this practice should be outlawed once again. First, capital punishment is unfair and unjust and how it is applied to individual cases is not objective and often dependent on the highly variable quality of defense attorneys and legal representation. Second, capital punishment removes the ability of an individual to claim his innocence, and dozens of death row inmates have regained their innocence with the exoneration provided by DNA evidence. Third, capital punishment is heavily concentrated in the American South, and the highly racialized nature of society in the South lends itself to questionable applications of judicial honesty.
The use of capital punishment in the United States is, at its core, an arbitrary application of justice on behalf of the state. Hull (2010) argues that “the death penalty [is] applied in an arbitrary and capricious way” (p. 14). The use of the death penalty is highly dependent on external factors, like whether the attorneys involved feel they can pursue a death penalty case with success. Moreover, capital punishment is applied in a completely arbitrary manner: in 1999, Illinois sentenced two per cent of their murderers to death (Hull 2010). The other ninety-eight percent, then, were not charged or subjected to capital punishment. There is no internal legal justification that supports an objective way of determining when the death penalty should be pursued; indeed, there is “no uniformity in the way the cases are charged and prosecuted. The resulting unfairness leaves one defendant on death row while others […] were sentenced to life in prison” (Hull, 2010, p. 14). Capital punishment, then, lacks a uniform application of justice across the entire system.
The vagaries of capital punishment are even more pronounced when one considers the fact that capital punishment is unique as a retributive act that prevents any chance of future appeal or rehabilitation. Dolinko (2012) argues that capital punishment alone appeals to the “unique irrevocability” of the death penalty (p. 585). Mistakes in procedural operations are not uncommon, and the justice system itself is not infallible in its methodology. The use of the death penalty, however, commits the state to a course of action that, once initiated, cannot be stopped or halted. Individuals that have been “erroneously executed” have no chance of redemption at the hands of the state; unlike all other forms of punishment, the death penalty stands alone as the single great act of ending a person’s life, and the act of doing so is utterly permanent.
Lastly, it is important to note the significance of race with regards to capital punishment. On one hand, “defendants who kill Caucasians are more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murder a black or Latino” (Hull, 2010, p. 18). The application of the death penalty can be correlated to not necessarily the severity of the crime, but rather the race of the alleged perpetrator. Indeed, “the racial combination of a black killing a white was virtually” the single best predictor of a “first degree murder indictment in any of the legal relevant factors” (White Paper on Ethical Issues, 2012). While the racist nature of the application of capital punishment is so obvious, it would be unethical to continue the use of a practice that delineates so clearly between different racial groups.
Capital punishment is highly controversial, but it is clear that the continued use of the death penalty is unfair to defendants, as it is applied in an arbitrary manner in many cases. Capital punishment is irrevocable, and the growing presence of DNA evidence continues to reveal increasingly higher levels of innocent death row inmates. Moreover, capital punishment is highly racialized, and the higher tendency of ethnic minorities to receive the death penalty in comparison to their white counterparts reveals a structural bias in the application of justice.
Dolinko, D. (1986). Foreword: How to criticize the death penalty. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 77(3), 546-601.
Hull, E. (2010). Guilty on all counts: The death penalty in the United States. Social Policy, 39(4), 11-25.
White paper on ethical issues concerning capital punishment. (2012). World Medical Journal, 58(3), 82-87.