Death Penalty Essay, Research Paper
The Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the land. No law, policy, or practice of the federal government or any state is legally valid if it conflicts with the Constitution. The Constitution is made up of a preamble, seven articles, and twenty-six amendments. Three of those amendments relate to the death penalty: the Fifth Amendment, the Eighth Amendment, and the Fourteenth Amendment. The Fifth Amendment states that a person who commits a capital or infamous crime shall not be held to answer unless in the presence of a Grand Jury. The Eighth Amendment says that excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted. And in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment extended the Fifth Amendment s protections to cover the states, forbidding them to deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
In the United States the moral debate over capital punishment has always had a distinctly religious flavor. Those on both sides have used both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament as authority for their beliefs. People against the death penalty use the Hebrew Bible in quoting that thou shalt not kill , and people in favor of the death penalty use the New Testament in stating thou shalt not kill: and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment. Many other quotations in both documents have also been used, giving reason to both dispositions of society.
The Supreme Court has dealt often with the death penalty, but two rulings stand out Furman v. Georgia, which temporarily ended capital punishment in 1972, and Gregg v. Georgia, which reinstated it in 1976. The key question in each case was whether the death penalty was a cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.
The Courts decisions in both cases reflected the controversy and mixed feelings among the society at that time. In each case the decision was split: 5 to 4 in Furman and 7 to 2 in Gregg. Each event produced several concurring opinions, in which even those justices who agreed on the ultimate decision insisted on explaining their different and sometimes conflicting reasons for arriving at the same result.
Most of the justices on the majority in Furman v. Georgia argued that the death penalty was unconstitutional because of the discriminatory way in which it was then administered. Justices Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan, however, argued that the death penalty would be unconstitutional no matter how it was administered. Therefore, in 1976, after thirty-five states and the federal government had reinstated capital punishment, the Supreme Court ruled that, in view of new statutes designed to reduce the arbitrary imposition of the death penalty, it was no longer cruel and unusual. Since 1976, more than five hundred prisoners have been executed in the United States and more than thirty four hundred convicts are on death row waiting to be executed.
In the past and in the present there have always been good arguments for whether the death penalty should exist. In both cases these arguments are strong, making it harder for society to decide whether the death penalty is right or wrong.
The historical argument in favor of capital punishment has been the deterrent theory that person contemplating the crime of murder will be dissuaded by the prospect
of being executed for his or crime. This argument has been around for a good while, and has somewhat lost its effect. The deterrent theory is undermined by the fact that executions are carried out in secret. Although news reporters are allowed to attend executions, they are not allowed to film the execution, even if the condemned person agrees to being filmed. As executions have become more common, they are less frequently reported in the media, and thereby losing a good portion of whatever deterrent effect they might have had. Therefore, the deterrent theory has been replaced with a stronger argument that capital punishment is justified on retributive grounds and will certainly prevent a killer from ever being released from prison and killing again.
Some of those who support the death penalty defend it also as a cost-effective alternative to life imprisonment. These people think that it costs less to have a criminal executed then to keep them imprisoned for the rest of their lives, when in reality it actually costs more to execute them. A 1982 study in New York concluded that the average capital murder trial and the first stage of appeals cost U.S. taxpayers 1.8 million dollars. It is estimated that this is less than it would cost to incarcerate someone for one hundred years.
For the argument against the death penalty there are many issues that are used to defend it. Those who base their opposition to the death penalty on moral grounds argue that life is sacred and killing is always wrong, whether it is done by an individual or by the state. The desire for vengeance or retribution is the desire to see persons suffer, or be punished for their actions. The principles of retribution suggests that a murderer should be executed because he or she deserves or has earned the sentence of death. In addition, people have questioned whether we as individuals or as a society have the right to decide that another must die. Therefore suggesting that the death penalty is completely wrong.
It is indisputable that executing a murderer renders him or her unable to kill again. However, those who support the concept of rehabilitation for murderers believe that imprisonment is effective in preventing murderers from killing again. Murderers have one of the lowest recidivism rates of all offenders. In fact, people who have served time in prison for other offenses are more likely to commit murder upon their release than are convicted killers.
One of the strongest arguments against the death penalty is that, inevitably, someone will die who is innocent. Nobody knows for sure how often this has happened, but many death penalty opponents point a few men and women on death row that claim to be innocent. In 1988, Bedau and Radelet studied capital convictions for the period from 1900 to 1986 and identified 350 cases in which defendants were erroneously convicted of capital crimes. Twenty-four of these people were executed for crimes that they did not commit. Society must determine whether the benefits gained through execution of convicted killers outweigh the risk of executing innocent persons.
Another argument is whether it is right to execute the mentally ill, the retarded, and young people under the age of 18. When asked in a nation wide poll most people disapproved of the executing of retarded criminals. But it is difficult to measure a person s capacity for judging whether things are right or wrong. And it is just as difficult for juries to decide what role a criminal s mental state played in his or her crime. This is
Also brought up with criminals under the age of 18. The United States is one of very few countries that execute people for crimes committed when they were under 18 years of age. Did they know what they were doing at the time? And do they know how to tell if what they are doing is right or wrong at the age they are? Although the American public opinion favors the death penalty in general, it opposes executing those under 18.
Lastly, the argument on whether capital punishment is a cruel and unusual punishment is always brought up when killing a criminal. Many people believe that the methods used to execute criminals are extremely cruel to be brought upon a human being. What about the methods used in the United States today lethal injection, electrocution, gas, and the firing squad? Each was originally proposed as being more humane than the methods used before it. Each has been hailed as quick and virtually painless by its defenders. However, each has also been protested as cruel and unusual. Clearly none of these methods is foolproof. Electrocution may or may not be relatively painless when death is virtually immediate; but several electrocutions in the 1980s in at least three different states required more than one charge to kill and at least one victim took ten minutes to die.
Opponents of the gas chamber argue that it is excruciatingly painful and slow. Arguing that it is cruel to let a human being be put through such pain, no matter what he or she has done. Some of the worst problems have occurred with the most modern and most frequent method of execution in the United States lethal injection. In some cases it took more than one poke to finally kill a criminal, putting them through such agony and despair, unbearable to a human being.
No matter what type of execution is made up next, there will always be some argument against it of why it is cruel and unusual , that is why in today s age it is hard to judge, whether the death penalty should exist, with all sorts of arguments that seem right but just might be wrong.
If not the death penalty then what? What alternatives are there to capital punishment? One gets the impression all too frequently, that the only alternative to capital punishment is no punishment at all; that, if the death penalty does not deter, then surely no lesser societal response to the violation of the laws and injury to its citizens will prove effective.
In many records of past crimes there has been evidence that keeping a criminal imprisoned has actually shown equal or greater protective value to society than has capital punishment. And in some cases retaining the death penalty has lowered capital crime rates compared to the crime rates of jurisdictions that execute people more frequently . Therefore bringing up the question: Is capital punishment right or is it wrong.