Death Penalty Essay Research Paper The Debate

Death Penalty Essay, Research Paper

The Debate On Capital Punishment

What act by the United States government kills almost a hundred people every year? The United States Department of Justice legally executes criminals who commit certain crimes. The crimes for which a person can be executed for are named Capital offenses, thus the name Capital Punishment. The debate over capital punishment originates in the seventeenth century and still continues today. Many different arguments shine throughout the debate which I will be reviewing both sides.

Capital punishment has been in America since the early seventeenth century. The first recorded execution in America was that of Captain George Kendall in the Jamestown colony of Virginia in 1608. Crimes advocating capital punishment varied among settlements during the Colonial period. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, crimes such as witchcraft, rape, perjury, adultery, and murder warranted capital punishment. In the Quaker society, crimes such as treason and murder warranted capital punishment. In 1787, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, held a meeting at the home of Benjamin Franklin calling for an end to public executions. In the fall of 1787, Rush developed the Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. The society was instrumental in the development of the prison system in the United States. In 1790 the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia was converted into the nation’s first modern prison. The emergence of the new prison system in the United States provided an alternate means of punishment for crimes. Rush was the first prominent American to publicly urge the abolition of capital punishment. Over the next two decades, prisons in the United States were constructed, and the number of crimes warranting capital punishment decreased considerably. Capital punishment in the United States has undergone many modifications since the early nineteenth century. Its use gradually has become more limited and constrained. However, the death penalty has endured as a basic fact of debate in the United States. The debate over capital punishment throughout American history has been characterized by the struggle of a relative handful of groups and individuals to change the nation’s broad and consistent support for the sanction. The level of opposition has varied greatly. More often than not, its strength and success have been affected by other historical events. Today thirty-seven states and the federal government authorize capital punishment for the commission of certain crimes. In most states, only murder is a capital offense. In order for a specific murder to warrant the death penalty, the Supreme Court requires that two conditions must be met. The crime must be a first-degree murder and one or more aggravating circumstances must be present. First-degree murder involves the deliberate and premeditated taking of a life. Aggravating circumstances refer to those aspects of a crime that increase its severity but are apart from the essential elements of the offense itself.

The majority of the population in the United States argues pro capital punishment. The first argument the public cites is that the death penalty deters criminals from committing the vial act of murder. Deterrence is the fear created by the death penalty to stop criminals from committing these crimes. Perhaps the most frequent argument for capital punishment is that of deterrence. The prevailing thought is that imposition of the death penalty will act to dissuade other criminals from committing violent acts. Numerous studies have been created attempting to prove this belief; however, all of the evidence taken together makes it hard to be confident that capital punishment deters more than long prison terms do. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the overall crime index has declined eleven percent since 1991 and is now the lowest it has been since 1985. Violent crimes in the United States are at its lowest since 1989. The amount of murders in the United States declined thirteen percent since 1991. The number of rapes in the United States is at the lowest level since 1991, and the number of burglaries is at its lowest level in two decades. In some of the biggest cities in the United States the amount of violent crimes decreased to astonishing levels. In New York City alone the amount of violent crimes decreased forty percent. It is hard to see why opponents of the death penalty do not believe that it has an impact when in the 1940’s and 1950’s executions took place more frequent, and the murder rate was much lower. In the 1960’s, the murder rate increased dramatically and did not decrease until the reinstatement of the death penalty. The taking of a life by society, through the court of law, eliminates personal vendetta and sends a message that society will not tolerate this criminal action. Public opinion in America supports the death penalty by a more than two to one margin, and this view rests largely on the deterrence of crime from this severe punishment. An example of these statistics comes from the state of Florida. Support for death penalty changes when alternatives are added. When asked simply whether they favor the death penalty, 80 percent of Floridians said they did.

Retribution refers to the penalty a society exacts for wrongful behavior. Retribution is another leading argument in the pro capital punishment movement. The criminal law of a society reflects its value system or moral code. Proponents of capital punishment believe that the law should place less value on the life of a convicted murderer than on the life of an innocent person. Proponents insist there is no valid substitute for the death penalty. More serious offenses should be met by more severe penalties. Proponents emphasize that retribution is not revenge, but the individual’s desire for revenge replaced by a concept of lawful punishment. It is important that the penalty for a crime fulfill society’s sense that justice has been served. For certain horrid infractions, only the execution of the offender will satisfy the public that justice has been attained. Why should a person such as OJ Simpson or Charles Manson get the satisfaction of life imprisonment. Why should they be treated fairly or nice when they took someone’s life. Why give them the satisfaction of living in a cell with cable TV and many other emenities that the general public does not receive. Why should they sit in jail and take up valuable space and waist important tax money that many people could use.

The issue of expense is the most recent argument for the opponents of capital punishment. People commonly assumed that it cost less to execute a person than it does to imprison them for life; however, the price of execution is more costly than the cost of imprisonment. The costs of capital cases have increased in recent years. Several reasons account for these costs: Capital trials take longer to litigate; a second penalty phase is required if a guilty verdict is returned; a protracted appeals process normally follows all death sentences; and death row facilities where defendants often await execution for many years require more money to staff and maintain. The result is that capital cases are significantly more expensive than trials for serious felonies where the death penalty is not applicable. Instead of dedicating scarce resources to executing a handful of prisoners, it would be more worthwhile to sentence capital offenders to long prison terms and use the money saved to fully fund efforts such as victim-assistance programs. In North Carolina an execution cost two million six-hundred thousand dollars, and in Texas an execution costs two million three-hundred thousand dollars. California alone spends ninety million dollars a year to execute prisoners on death row. In Florida, it costs three million two-hundred thousand dollars on each death row inmate, compared to about five-hundred thirty-five thousand for an average of forty years for each prisoner sentenced to life. This is a huge amount of tax payers money, but the public looks at it as an investment in safety since these murderers will never kill again.

Cruel and unusual punishment has been at the top of the Abolitionist argument throughout the years. The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution states, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” On June 29, 1972, a split five to four vote by the Supreme Court reached the landmark decision in case of Furman versus Georgia. The decision rendered that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution by being, “Cruel and unusual.” However, the Supreme Court’s ruling was overturned in 1976. The argument of cruel and unusual punishment has been around since the Colonial days. Back in those days prisoners were shot by firing squads, hanged in public, and many other barbarous forms of execution. During hangings prisoners sometimes had there heads severed by the rope. Prisoners sometimes suffered the agony of being shot numerous times by a firing squad. Even when the invention of the electric chair came about, tales of flames leaping out of the heads and legs of victims and eyeballs popping out of their heads were common. The Department of Justice is always looking for methods that are less cruel and unusual than these methods. Even today the methods of execution are inhumane. Such instances as doctors taking an hour to find a vein to hook up the needles of the injection machine are commonplace in prisons across the nation. Some people think that homicide is heinous, so is hanging; they call hanging or capital punishment “judicial murder.” According to them the vindictive impulses of society should not be accorded legal sanction. The death penalty has been regarded as barbaric and forbidden by law. Many examples of this were used before the eighteenth century such as impalement, burning alive, and crushing by stones. These forms of punishment are barbaric and should not be used, but modern technology allows us to exterminate criminals in a more fashionable manor as the gas chamber or lethal injection. In the United States the death penalty is currently authorized in one of five ways: hanging, electrocution, gas chamber, firing squad, or lethal injection.

Another controversial aspect opposed to the death penalty is that innocent people are killed even though they did not commit any crime. The executing of the innocent is rare. From 1900 to 1985, a recent survey found that 7000 people were executed by the means of the death penalty and 35 were innocent of capital crimes. Since 1973, eighty people on death row have been released due to their innocence. In all the years of capital punishment the government should have perfected the process of executing prisoners.

In the United States, the main objection to capital punishment has been that it was always used unfairly, in at least three major ways. First, females are rarely sentenced to death and executed, even though twenty percent of all murders that have occurred in recent years were committed by women. Second, a disproportionate number of non whites are sentenced to death and executed. A black man who kills a white person is eleven times more likely to receive the death penalty than a white man who kills a black person. In Texas in 1991, blacks made up twelve percent of the population, but forty-eight percent of the prison population and fifty-five and a half percent of those on death row are black. Before the 1970s, when the death penalty for rape was still used in many states, no white men were guilty of raping nonwhite women, whereas most black offenders found guilty of raping a white woman were executed. This data shows how the death penalty can discriminate and be used on certain races rather than equally as punishment for severe crimes. Finally, poor and friendless defendants, those who are inexperienced or of court-appointed counsel, are most likely to be sentenced to death and executed. Opponents of capital punishment have replied to this by saying that the death penalty is subject to miscarriage of justice and that it would be impossible to administer fairly.

Through the complex debate of capital punishment I have to looked at both sides of the argument thoroughly. I am pro capital punishment but only if certain regulations are followed. The first reason I am pro death penalty is I believe that a person should act as though the same action could happen to them. If a criminal decides to brutally murder a innocent person, he or she needs to think about the consequences of their actions. If the criminal robs a person I believe he or she needs to be robbed themselves. I believe this process especially goes for the unlawful taking of a person’s life. Some situations I believe that this process does not work. If a person kills someone in order to protect him or herself or people they care for, I feel that the death penalty is unjust. If a man or woman finds outs that their spouse is cheating on them, and they kill the person the spouse is cheating with then the death penalty is not warranted. However, the crime does need to be punished but not given the death penalty. These crimes are called Crimes of Passion and are commonplace in the United States. The second argument I offer is that the death penalty rids the streets of the nation from the scum in our society. Most people that are on death row are career criminals. This means that these people spend their whole life committing crimes to make the streets more dangerous. When the death penalty is enacted on these vial examples of people, the streets become more safe. I know you are thinking why would not life in prison rid society of these criminals which it does, but there is always the possibility of the prisoner escaping the prison and committing more acts against society. The final argument I have to offer is of deterrence. The death penalty spreads fear across the nation to criminals by showing that the United States Department of Justice does not tolerate these vial actions.

The debate over capital punishment coincides with the arguments I have reviewed. At present the United States government is in no real danger of losing the death penalty, but the push for the review of the corrections system is in heated debate. In the future there will always be arguments for and against such complex issues. By looking at both sides of the debate I hope you come to your own conclusion on this issue.

Stewart, Gail B. The Death Penalty. San Diego: Greenhaven Press Inc., 1998.

Flanders, Stephen A. CAPITAL PUNISHMENT. New York: Facts On File, 1991.

Williams, Mary E. Capital Punishment. San Diego: Greenhaven Press Inc., 1998.

Jacobs, Nancy R., Alison Landes, and Mark A. Siegel. Capital Punishment-Cruel and Unusual?

Texas: Information Plus, 1996.

“Capital Punishment.” World Book. Volume 3. 1989.

History of the Death Penalty. 8 July 2000 **


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