The Case Against Capital Punishment Essay Research

The Case Against Capital Punishment Essay, Research Paper John H. Whitehead Professor Roth Whitehead 1 A Moratorium on The Death Penalty Should Be Enacted In Illinois

The Case Against Capital Punishment Essay, Research Paper

John H. Whitehead

Professor Roth

Whitehead 1

A Moratorium on The Death Penalty Should Be Enacted In Illinois

Due to the recent releases of newly exonerated Death Row inmates,

individuals and organizations are calling for a moratorium- a cooling off

period for state executions. The cases of just a few inmates makes it

apparent that this would be a necessary step to save innocent lives.

After 17 years in prison, Illinois Death Row inmate Anthony Porter was

released from jail after a judge threw out his murder conviction following

the introduction of new evidence. This reversal of fortune came just two

days before Porter was to be executed. As reported in USA Today, Porter’s

release was the result of investigative research as conducted by a

Northwestern University professor and students. The evidence gathered

suggested that Porter had been wrongly convicted.

Were these new revelations and the subsequent release of Porter a lucky

break or a freak occurrence? Not likely, reports DeWayne Wickham, also of

USA Today. He points out that since the reinstatement of the death penalty

in the United States in 1976, of those sentenced to death, 490 people have

been executed while 76 have been freed from Death Row. This calculates into

one innocent person being released from Death Row for every six individuals

that were executed. This figure correlates with the 1996 U.S. Department of

Justice report that indicates that over a 7-year period, beginning in 1989,

when DNA evidence in various cases was tested, 26% of primary suspects were

exonerated. This has led some to conclude that a similar percentage of

inmates presently serving time behind bars may have been wrongly convicted

prior to the advent of forensic DNA typing.

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Amnesty International, in its 1998 report “Fatal Flaws: Innocence and the

Death Penalty”, supports the American Bar Association’s call for a death

penalty moratorium. Michelle Stevens, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times,

reported that in 1998 Illinois State Representative Coy Pugh (D-Chicago)

introduced a resolution calling for a bi-partisan panel to study the death

penalty in Illinois. During the study all executions would be postponed.

This proposal was initially killed but revived following the recent


Yet, this call for a moratorium on the death penalty is not the first time

that state executions have been opposed. Throughout its history capital

punishment has been opposed on many premises. In discussion forums across

the world many individuals often cite deterrence of crime as a viable

defense of capital punishment. However, comprehensive studies, including the

1994 FBI Uniform crime Report, indicate that capital punishment does not

serve as a deterrent to crime. According to the American Civil Liberties

Union, the death penalty not only does not deter crime- among states that

have either abolished or instituted the death penalty crime and murder rates

have remained unchanged. Additionally, Eric Pooley of Time magazine, in his

research, reports that no proof exists to substantiate claims that capital

punishment discourages crime by anyone other than the criminals whom are

executed. Glenn Lammi, of the Washington Legal Foundation is quoted as

saying that “there are no convincing studies” [connecting] the death penalty

and the crime rate.

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In the absence of persuasive studies linking capital punishment and crime

rates, who better to turn to than the individuals who walk the thin blue

line- law enforcement officials may be better equipped to address this

subject. Time magazine reports that 67% of polled police chiefs also did not

believe that the death penalty deters [crime such as] homicide.

According to a 1994 Government Accounting Office report (GAO) substantial

evidence indicates that courts have been unfair in death sentencing. The

1990 GAO report, summarizing numerous capital punishment studies, confirmed

“a consistent pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the

charging, sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty.” The GAO also

revealed that those who murdered whites were more likely to be sentenced to

Death Row than those who murdered blacks. According to the Death Penalty

Information Center (DPIC) nearly 40% of those executed since 1976 have been

black although blacks only comprise 12% of the U.S. population. And in just

about every death penalty case, the race of the victim was white. The DPIC

goes on to report that in the previous year, 89% of the death sentences

involved victims whom were white. U.S News and World Report writer Ted Gest

reinforces his concept. He writes that on Death Row race really does matter.

He points out that on Death Row whites and minorities are represented

roughly equally.

The disparity in allocation of the death penalty preempted the American Bar

Association, in it’s 1997 article “The Task Ahead; Reconciling Justice with

Politics, to call for jurisdictions that exercise capital punishment to refrain from its

use until fairness

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and due process could be assured. The ABA further called for the examination

of procedures and practices for each state.

State and federal justices have also spoken out against capital punishment

according to Jack Callahan of the Rochester Institute of Technology. To

point out an instance, Callahan cites U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry

Blackmun as declaring that he henceforth opposes the death penalty on the

bases of the failure of the death penalty experiment. Blackmun, is further

cited to state that the [potential] execution of an innocent individual

comes “perilously to simple murder.” Justice Clarence Thomas is cited as

having stated that “the possibility of perjured testimony?mistaken testimony

and human error remain all to real. We have no way of judging how many

innocent people have been executed but we can be certain that there were


The United Nations, during an April 3rd 1997 press briefing, announced that

its Commission on Human Rights had voted overwhelmingly to abolish the death

penalty. The resolution called on member states that still maintained the

death penalty to restrict the number of offenses for which the death penalty

could be imposed and to consider abolishing executions completely. This

opposition to the death penalty intertwined with new revelations all

highlights the fact that innocent people are being wrongly sent to Death


“I had”, said he, “come to an entirely erroneous conclusion which allow, my

dear Watson, how dangerous is always is to reason from insufficient data.’

Said Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventures of the Speckled


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Since the 1976 reinstatement of the death penalty in the United States, 490

people have been executed while 76 have been freed from Death Row, DeWayne

Wickham of USA Today points out. The Death Penalty Information Center’s 1997

report on Innocence and the Death Penalty attributes these releases to

scientific advancements such as DNA testing and journalistic investigations.

Numerous factors such as overzealous prosecutors, deliberate actions of

police, inadequate counsel, convictions based solely upon questionable

eyewitness reports, laboratory error and unreliable evidence have all

resulted in innocent individuals being sent to Death Row. This strengthens

the call for a death penalty moratorium in Illinois.

Inadequate counsel is a major contributing factor that has landed the

innocent on Death Row, according to Ted Gest of the US News and World

Report. According to Gest courts in southern states, the location of most

American executions, are only able to find poorly paid lawyers for many

defendants. Attorneys diligent enough to input 500-1000 hours in a death

penalty case must often work [well] below minimum wage. According to Amnesty

International, the average salary of court appointed lawyers was $11.70 per

hour. The 1996 National Institute of Justice also cites inadequate counsel,

specifically in failing to consult competent scientific experts, as a

contributing factor to the dilemma of individuals being false sentenced to

Death Row.

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According to the National Institute of Justice, prior to the advent of DNA

typing courts were forced to rely on less reliable types of evidence such as blood

typing and eyewitness accounts. Blood typing, it is reported by the National

Institute of Justice, has oftentimes yielded completely erroneous results. This logically indicates

the possibility that individuals may have been erroneously convicted based

upon this evidence.

According to the National Institute of Justice 1996 report, courts relying

solely upon eyewitness accounts wrongly convicted individuals in 28

documented cases. DNA evidence later cleared these individuals. In this

report, Supreme Court Justice Brennen in the United States vs. Wade, 12 was

quoted as saying that “The vagaries of eyewitness identification are well

known; the annals of criminal law are rife with instances of mistaken

identification.” Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a noted critic of the reliability of

eyewitness testimony noted that witnesses are susceptible to intentional or

unintentional suggestions from police. She explains that there is pressure

on the part of witnesses to see the crime solved. This susceptibility may

contribute to false eyewitness identifications.

In assessing physical evidence, the National Institute of Justice indicated

that the common practice of blood typing, as the primary source of

indicating guilt, is faulty in its unreliability. The deterioration of the

genetic material in blood typing procedures could yield completely erroneous

results. This logically implicates the possibility that individuals may have

been erroneously convicted based upon this form of evidence. In cases where

new DNA forensic was tested, 26% of primary suspects in similar cases

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were exonerated. This has led some to conclude that a similar percentage of

inmates many have been wrongly convicted prior to the advent of forensic DNA


DNA testing, though a conduit for exoneration in these cases has also been

challenged and the courts in at least one case have been refused to admit

analyzed laboratory results because the lab failed to reveal its testing

methods. Such an omission can prevent replication of the results and may

result in an innocent person being wrongly convicted.

The deliberate misconduct of the prosecutor’s scientific experts has been an

issue in a number of cases in which formerly convicted individuals were

later exonerated. The NIJ reported that the West Virginian Supreme Court

indicted Fred Zain, a forensic scientist for perjury. This following his

failure to disclose information relating to the high unliklihood that fluid

samples could have come from the defendant. The subsequent investigation

resulted in the courts declaring Zain’s testimony, in more than 130 cases


Technical issues aside, the violence and barbarity of executions is

considered by some as a justification to end capital punishment. Some

American states continue to utilize such methods as death by electrocution,

hanging, gas chambers and firing squads. Many question the humanity of these


Let’s take a look at exactly what most execution methods entail. Hanging, a

method of execution that dates back to the American colonial times, is

described in the official hanging protocol as developed for the state of

Delaware (Execution by Hanging, 1990).The official procedure for handing

involves the inmate being dropped a distance

Whitehead 8

and being stopped by a rope fasten around the neck, the force of this

drop-and-stop method breaks the bones of the neck, thus severing the spinal

cord. This causes the inmate to become unconscious, and at this point,

strangle to death due to lack of oxygen. The individual should be brain dead

within six minutes and heart dead in about eight. The report indicates that

the individual may experience pain-briefly. However, an error in the hanging

procedure could possibly result in instances where the spinal cord is not

severed and the inmate is conscious during strangulation. A drop of too far

a distance will result in the decapitation of the subject.

In gas chamber executions, a cyanide pellet is placed in a container below

the inmate’s seat. A switch is thrown and the cyanide reacting with a

sulfuric acid solution releases lethal gas. The inmate is denied air and

thus suffocates. The time that elapses from the time that the prisoner is

restrained to death is about 38 minutes, though it is believed that death

occurs 6-18 minutes after the gas is released.

According to the 1997 sate of Florida Corrections Commissions Annual Report

Michael Radelet, chairman of the University of Florida sociology department

has documented 22 cases where executions have been botched. For example,

officials in Mississippi were forced to clear the room eight minutes into

the execution of Jimmy Lee Gray after his desperate gasps for air repulsed

witnesses. David Bruck, a writer for the New Republic, reported that Lee

died banging his head against a steel pole in the gas chamber-while

reporters counted his moans.

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Also documented is the case of John Evans. According to Radelet, after the

first jolt of electricity, sparks and flames shot from the electrodes that

were attached to Evan’s leg. The electrode then caught fire. Smoke and

sparks shot from underneath the hood that was attached to his head. Soon,

Evan’s flesh began to smoke and burn. Doctors rushed in, discovered a

heartbeat and applied additional jolts. This continued for an additional 14

minutes despite the pleas of Evan’s attorney.

Lethal injection heralded by some as a more humane method of execution also

has its share of problems. It was reported by Michael Radelet that in a 1989

Texas execution, inmate Stephen McCoy had such a violent reaction to the

drugs (i.e. heaving, coughing, gasping) that a male witness fainted-

crashing into and knocking over another witness. In Texas, December 1988,

Raymond Landry was pronounced dead 40 minutes after being strapped to the

table. Two minutes into his execution the syringe came out of his vein

spraying deadly chemicals across the room towards the witnesses of the

execution. The U.S. Court of Appeals in 1983 made the observation that

“?Lethal injection poses a serious risk of cruel, protracted death?even a

slight error of dosage or administration can leave a prisoner conscious but

paralyzed while dying?a sentient witness to his or her own asphyxiation.”

Many individuals in defense of the death penalty give the argument that a

life sentence as compared to execution is a waste of taxpayer money.

However, numerous studies have shown that the cost of execution far exceeds

the cost of life imprisonment.

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In The Geography of Execution?The Capital Punishment Quagmire in America it

is reported that Florida estimates the total cost of an average life in

prison of 40 years to cost $680,000, far less than the #3.18 million average

cost of a single execution. These figure correlate with those of Texas, the

nation’s leader in executions, according to Department of Justice figures.

In Punishment and the Death Penalty the Texas criminal justice system

estimated the cost of appeal capital murder at 2.3 million dollars. The cost

of life in prison totals only $750,000. Clearly, state executions are not

cost effective.

When given concrete figures the public’s support of capital punishment

diminishes. A 1994 Gallup poll asked that if given a choice, which would be

a better choice-, the death penalty or life in prison without parole?

Support for the death penalty (80%) dripped to 50% according to the 1995

Bureau of Justice Statistics Report.

In conclusion, all of the above arguments support a death penalty moratorium

in Illinois. The most common argument in favor of the death penalty is that

it deters crime. This simply is not true. Law enforcement officials, the

very individuals that deal with crime on a daily basis, doubt the deterrent

effect of capital punishment. Considerable evidence indicates that racial

disparities exist in the allocation of death sentences with blacks receiving

a disproportionate amount of death sentences as compared to their white

counterparts. Organizations such as the American Bar Association and

individuals such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas have spoken out in

opposition to the death penalty. The UN has adopted a worldwide resolution

calling for an eventual end to state executions. From Anthony Porter to

dozens more released from Death Row since it’s

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reinstatement, there exists significant possibilities that there are

individuals innocent of their accused crimes sitting on Death Row.

Journalistic investigations have proven this possibility and DNA evidence

has furthered cleared those previously convicted. An overwhelming number of

factors including, overzealous prosecutors, inadequate defense

counsel, the unreliability of evidence, the cost ineffectiveness of

executions, the sheer brutality of executions and the decline of public

support for state execution when presented with other options, all warrant

at least a temporary halt to executions to allow time for these issue to be


As members of a collective American society, we are all affected by a

judicial system that though designed to protect the weak and innocent, sends

these very same individuals to their deaths. It must become our quest to see

that true justice is at least addressed. Yesterday, Anthony Porter was

almost sent to his death. Today, it may be someone you barely know. However,

tomorrow it may be you or I. This call for a moratorium in Illinois is a

call for justice. Thomas Jefferson once wrote “Truth is [the] handmaid [of

justice], freedom is its child, peace is its companion, safety walks in its

steps, victory follows in its train; it is the brightest emanation from the

gospel; it is the attribute of God.” These words written over a century ago

still ring true today. Let’s take the time to take a look at justice.

Whitehead 12


Get Your Private, Free Email at

United States. U.S. Government Accounting Office. Capital Punishment.


GPO, 1994

Cheatwood, Derral and Keith Harries. The Geography of Execution: The


Punishment Quagmire in America. Rowman, 1996

NAACP Legal Defense Fund . Death Row. New York: Hein, 1996

“Ex-Death Row Inmate Cleared of Charges.” USA Today 11 Mar. 1999: 2A

“Fatal Flaws: Innocence and the Death Penalty.” Amnesty International. 10

Oct. 1999

23 Oct. 1999

Gest, Ted. “House Without a Blue Print.” US News and World Report 8 Jul.

1996: 41

Stevens, Michelle. “Unfairness in Life and Death.” Chicago Sun-Times 7 Feb.



American Bar Association. The Task Ahead: Reconciling Justice with Politics.


United States. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Uniform Crime Report.


GPO, 1994

Wickham, DeWayne. “Call for a Death Penalty Moratorium.” USA Today 8 Feb.