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Death Penalty Essay, Research Paper
Author: Clarke, Kevin. Source: U.S. Catholic v. 65 no10 (Oct. 2000) p. 27 ISSN: 0041-
7548 Number: BRDG00052997 Copyright: The magazine publisher is the copyright
holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this
article in violation of the copyright is prohibite
A GROUP OF DISTINGUISHED ILLINOIS CITIZENS, including former
Senator Paul Simon and attorney-novelist Scott Turow, did something remarkable last
August. They sat in silence while some not-so-famous Illinois citizens talked about
capital punishment. The morning hearing offered the American public a rare opportunity
to speak its mind about this peculiar institution of ours since the reinstatement of the
death penalty in the United States in 1976.
One of those who spoke was Costella Cannon, whose son, Frank Bounds, died on
Illinois’ death row before his sentence could be carried out, denying his guilt until the
end. Bounds had been convicted of murder based on a confession that even the state now
acknowledges was extracted under torture. (At least nine others currently awaiting
execution in Illinois similarly “confessed” after hours of police torture.).
“Don’t allow another innocent person to die,” Cannon told the commission. “I
would rather see the guilty live than to believe that one innocent person died. Visit death
row; put that on the top of your agenda…. Visit death row, and you’ll understand.”
Cannon’s passionate testimony briefly turned the public conference hall in the basement
of Illinois’ Thompson Center in Chicago into a revival meeting as sporadic cries of
support rose from the audience.
But the 12 people sitting on the Governor’s Commission on Capital Punishment
betrayed no emotion, though some of them, it can only be imagined, shared this mother’s
passion. Responding to what he called “our state’s shameful record of convicting innocent
people and putting them on death row,” Illinois Governor George Ryan convened this
commission to find out why more innocent people have been released from Illinois’ death
row than executed since reinstatement. Last January Illinois became the first and, thus
far, only state to institute a moratorium on the death penalty.
Deacon George Brooks represented Kolbe House, the Chicago Catholic
Archdiocese’s ministry to the incarcerated in Cook County. “It is only with the death
penalty that a spirit of bitterness and vengeance continues in the criminal justice system,”
he told the commission.
“Why don’t we encourage this spirit in our family or civil courts? Why, in every
other aspect of our court system, do we encourage a spirit of reconciliation? Because we
know that that spirit of violence and revenge does not work. It does not bring ‘closure to
the families. Revenge revictimizes the victim. It prevents healing.”
Jean Bishop spoke on behalf of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation.
“The worst thing for a victim’s family is the murder,” she said, “but the second worst
thing would be to have an innocent person tried, convicted, and executed.” Bishop told
the panel that if Illinois wants to make criminal justice policy that is truly “pro-victim,” it
must “abolish a system that cannot help but execute innocent people.”
Other speakers exhorted this panel to move beyond the parameters of its mission,
arguing that the death penalty process in Illinois could not be reformed, could not be
fixed–it could only be abolished.
When the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in 1972, its primary
concern was the inconsistency of its application throughout the nation. Now, 23 years
after its reinstatement, there are no rich men on death row in America–more than 90
percent of death row inmates were too poor to hire an attorney. Just about half (307) of
all 657 executions have been conducted in just two states–Texas and Virginia.
Meanwhile, America’s northeastern states collectively have executed only three people in
more than two decades. Can anyone with eyes to see honestly believe that this system has
risen above the arbitrariness that so troubled the Supreme Court nearly 30 years ago?
Before this lone public hearing on capital punishment ended, many speakers
reminded the committee that it has a historic opportunity to lead the nation in an honest
assessment of capital punishment. One hearing in one state that may finally be ready to
admit that the death penalty is killing the U.S. justice system. One hearing in one state
that could be ready to aknowledge that such a perfectly permanent judgment is better left
out of the hands of an imperfect humanity and relinquished to that most pure and
merciful judge of us all.
Author: Stephen, Andrew. Source: New Statesman (London, England: 1996) v. 129 (June
19 2000) p. 20 ISSN: 1364-7431 Number: BSSI00021215 Copyright: The magazine
publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission.
Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited.
By far the best cartoonist this side of the Atlantic is a man called Jeff Danziger,
who draws for the Los Angeles Times. He has the gift of hitting instinctively on a truth
that others have missed, and earlier this month he touched on a seismic change in US
public opinion: very slowly, Americans are turning against the death penalty.
Danziger’s best recent cartoon followed the first 30-day reprieve ever given to a
convicted murderer by the country’s most gung-ho executioner, George Dubbya Bush (so
far in his five years as governor of Texas, he has had more than 130 prisoners put to
death). It showed the condemned man in his cell being told: “Good news, buddy! Female
voters, 21-30, in Ohio and Pennsylvania, think you should be given a DNA test.” An
anxious-looking Bush 2000 apparatchik is barking into a mobile: “Where’s the California
In one drawing, Danziger thus encapsulated both Dubbya’s hypocrisy in bowing to
what his team perceives as a swing in public opinion, and the shift in feeling and mood
that is, indeed, happening.
I first spotted this trend more than a year ago, when I went to see Professor David
Protess near Chicago. He grew up in Brooklyn as a friend of the two sons of Ethel and
Julius Rosenberg, orphaned when the couple were electrocuted in 1953 for alleged
espionage. Protess has devoted his life to opposing capital punishment, marshalling
journalism students to investigate and exonerate prisoners sentenced to death. So far, he
and his students have proven four condemned men to be innocent (not just that there
were doubts about their convictions: they were each irrefutably innocent); one of them,
Anthony Porter (who has an IQ of 51), was just hours away from the executioner’s
needle. Shopping in a supermarket near his home in Evanston, Protess told me very
confidently that public opinion was changing and that, although it will take time,
executions here will one day be a thing of the past.
I was sceptical, but he cited a subtle change in the small print of polls. A majority
of Americans always come out in favour of the death penalty — 66 percent currently do.
But Protess pointed out that when respondents are asked: “If a life sentence meaning life
was imposed instead of the death penalty, would you favour that?”, a majority now says
yes. Those seismic shifts are under way.
Perhaps more than any other individual, Protess has helped to bring this about. No
fewer than 13 men have been released from death row in Illinois since 1977 — and the
hitherto hardline Republican governor, 66-year-old George Ryan, says it is now unlikely
that “an execution will ever happen again” during his tenure.
Florida, which is governed by Dubbya’s kid brother Jeb, has the worst record on
dubious convictions: it has been forced to release 20 prisoners from death row.
Throughout the country, 86 men have so far been released. This year, 12 states have
introduced legislation to abolish the death penalty; in New Hampshire, both the Senate
and the House passed the measure last month (it was then vetoed by the Democratic
governor, Jeanne Shaheen). And Pat Robertson, the leader of the “Christian” right, has
also come out against the death penalty.
Why this shift in a country that remains (along with China, the Congo, Iran and
Saudi Arabia) one of the Big Five executing nations? Lower crime rates have certainly
lessened a zeal for retribution. But the biggest factor has been that, since the late 1980s,
people such as Protess have been able to harness new forensic methods (invariably DNA
– a British discovery, lest we forget) to establish innocence beyond doubt.
Protess, for one, has shown Americans that the system they happily supported has
been sentencing innocent men to death — and, well, they draw the line at executing
The advent of DNA has thus advanced public opinion to a situation that seemed
inconceivable ten years ago. Even Dubbya — who nonetheless delayed announcing his
reprieve until 15 minutes before his prisoner, Ricky McGinn, was due to die — was
forced to concede that DNA evidence should be used if it can “erase any doubts” about
convictions. In this case, McGinn was convicted of raping and murdering his
stepdaughter; a public hair was kept as evidence, but in 1993 (the year of the murder)
DNA could only be extracted from a public hair if it contained a root. This one didn’t.
But now, using a more sophisticated technique known as a mitochondrial test, forensic
investigators can determine to whom a rootless hair belongs if they have his DNA.
The wretched McGinn, granted an extra month of life on death row in Texas, now
awaits that test; Dubbya will claim victory either if he’s found innocent (he has shown the
system works) or if guilt is confirmed (he was right about these bastards all along). But
the scandal is that using DNA evidence in this way is an automatic right for defendants in
only two states: New York and Illinois. Elsewhere, prosecutors can simply look the other
way. Three years ago in Virginia, authorities deliberately destroyed the forensic evidence
on which a man was executed; they did not want DNA tests posthumously to prove him
innocent. But even hick ol’ Virginia has now been forced to rethink. This month, the
governor ordered DNA tests to be carried out on Earl Washington (IQ of 69), who was
convicted of rape and murder 17 years ago. Semen found in the victim almost certainly
did not come from Washington, and DNA tests are now likely to prove this. But that still
won’t stop prosecutors from arguing that, well, he may not have raped the woman, but he
still killed her, OK? Yes, there’ll always be an America.
Author: Kelly, James R.; Kudlac, Christopher. Source: America v. 182 no11 (Apr. 1
2000) p. 6-8 ISSN: 0002-7049 Number: BRDG00018619 Copyright: The magazine
publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission.
Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited.
CARDINAL JOSEPH BERNARDIN articulated a consistent ethic of life, which
included opposition to both abortion and the death penalty, in 1985. Ten years later, in
his encyclical The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II taught that opposing capital
punishment should be part of a pro-life witness for a culture of life that promotes human
dignity and solidarity. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as individual
bishops across the country have repeated the teaching.
Have Catholics in general and pro-lifers in particular been listening to this
message from their church’s hierarchy? Are abortion opponents becoming less likely to
support capital punishment? And what about pro-choice supporters? Where do they stand
on the death penalty? Until recently, opposition to capital punishment was widely
assumed to be part of any politics characterized as “progressive.” Are pro-choice
advocates consistently progressive? To answer these questions, we will review the data
from the General Social Survey (G.S.S.) of the University of Michigan for the early
1980’s and more recently.
ABORTION AND THE DEATH PENALTY, 1982When the 1960’s began, most
Americans opposed both legalized abortion and the death penalty. Just two decades later
most Americans supported both. In 1972, the year before Roe v. Wade, only a slight
majority (53 percent) of Americans favored the death penalty, and just one year after Roe
almost two-thirds of Americans (63 percent) did. A decade after Roe, as more Americans
accepted abortion, about three-quarters of Americans said they also favored capital
punishment for murderers.
Are these attitudes interconnected? While causality is difficult to prove, a society
that makes killing fetal life less problematic probably makes the state killing of
murderers less problematic as well. And vice versa. While we can argue about causality,
it seems naive to assume that widespread changes in how people feel about abortion
would not eventually affect other judgments about life and death. Surveys show, for
example, that supporters of elective legal abortion are especially likely to support
In an earlier essay in America (9/26/87) I reported that in 1982 Americans
overwhelmingly supported capital punishment, with 73 percent in favor and 27 percent
opposed. Then, as now, the data on abortion was more complicated and more difficult to
summarize: Most Americans favored neither a legal prohibition of all abortions nor
“abortion on demand.” Of those who opposed all legal abortions in 1982, 45 percent also
opposed the death penalty. In other words, Americans who opposed all legal abortion
were twice as likely as other Americans to oppose the death penalty. On the other hand,
those supporting legal abortion for any reason a woman might give–the pro-choice
absolutists–were the least likely (only 21 percent) to oppose capital punishment. “In
other words,” I concluded in my article, “someone looking for allies in opposing capital
punishment is far more likely to find them at a pro-life rally than at a pro-choice rally.
About twice as likely. Yet, pro-choice is defined as a ‘liberal position and pro-life as a
‘conservative one. Once again we learn that life is more complicated than labels.”.
ABORTION AND THE DEATH PENALTY IN THE 1990′SDuring the early
1990’s support for capital punishment continued to increase, with 77 percent supporting it
in 1995. But as the decade continued, support began to falter. In 1998, 73 percent of the
respondents said they favored the death penalty, a decline of almost four percent to about
the levels found in the early 1980’s. Opposition to capital punishment among Catholics
(27 percent) in 1998 was greater than it was among Protestants (24.2 percent). Catholics
who attend church frequently (nearly every week or more often) are even more likely to
oppose the death penalty (40 percent). The bishops’ message appears to be reaching
Catholics in the pews.
Support for the absolutist pro-choice position also declined at the end of the
1990’s. In 1998 about 41 percent, four percent less than in 1996, said they approved of
abortion for any reason a woman might give. Again, Catholics who attend church
frequently are more likely to oppose abortion. Catholics who say they are strongly
attached to their church are far more likely than strongly attached Protestants to disfavor
both abortion and capital punishment.
The relationships found in the 1982 data–that prochoice Americans were the
most likely to support the death penalty and pro-lifers the least likely–deepended during
the 1990’s. The tendency for consistency among Catholics has increased even more
dramatically. In 1996, 62 percent of Catholics who opposed abortion for any reason
(including rape and fetal defect) favored capital punishment; in 1998, 52.5 percent
favored it. That is a noticeable dip. Pro-lifers, especially those who attend church
frequently, are continuing to turn away from capital punishment. The same direction
toward consistency, but weaker, is found among those Catholics opposed to abortion for
“soft” (lack of money, unmarried) reasons. Clearly, pro-life Catholics are getting the
The data for the general population more weakly show the same tendencies
between supporting abortion and supporting the death penalty. In 1998, while 76 percent
of those accepting any reason a woman might give for an abortion also favored the death
penalty, 72.5 percent of those who opposed some abortions also supported the death
penalty. This is not a large difference–not quite 4 percent–but it shows once again the
general tendency for those hesitant about abortion also to be more hesitant than others
about the death penalty. This tendency has been statistically clearest among Catholics but
is now discernible overall as well.
On the positive side, when compared with the rest of the population, Catholics are
clearly hearing and responding to the pope’s and bishops’ consistent ethic of life. During
the 1990’s, more Catholics became consistently both against abortion and capital
punishment. On the other hand, the Catholic community as a whole has a long way to go
before it is consistently pro-life. The survey facts remain daunting for those seeking to
contribute a consistent ethic of life to American culture and politics. But, for perspective,
the survey data are even more daunting for those still serious about what used to be called
a progressive liberalism. Whereas opposition to abortion increasingly leads away from
pro-death penalty sentiment, there is an increasing tendency of the most pro-choice to be
the most favorable toward the death penalty.
Attachment to religious traditions leads to very clear anti-abortion sentiment, but
it does not issue yet, except for Catholics and then only weakly, in a consistent ethic that
connects opposing abortion and opposing the death penalty. Still, the survey data allow
us to characterize a consistent ethic of life as a potentially important emergent trend. The
adjectives “emergent” and “potentially” are necessary, for there is no nationally
recognizable successor to Governor Robert Casey of Pennsylvania as the political
standard-bearer for a consistent ethic approach to the life issues. The politics of the
moment greatly impede it. Tax-cutting Republicans can tactically absorb anti-abortion
sentiment and have been able so far to appease many who are sympathetic to what is
called the religious right, but they cannot claim a consistent ethic that includes a federal
role in reducing economic pressures toward abortion and expanding health care. And
since President Reagan, a pure and undebated pro-choice position has been a litmus test
for anyone seeking national prominence in the Democratic Party. Finally, both parties
rush to demonstrate enthusiastic support for the death penalty.
Nevertheless, there are at least some empirical grounds to think that were a
consistent ethic of life to receive more attention in the churches and elsewhere, the
connection between opposing abortion and the death penalty would contribute to the
sense of human solidarity that all authentically progressive movements require for their
incremental growth. In his characterization of a consistent ethic, Cardinal Bernardin
spoke of “the strength of a sustained moral vision.” The only final failure for social
movements is a loss of their idealism. While this seems to be the case for our national
politics, it seems not at all the case for the grass-roots right to life movement. That these
are thoughts for the long run should merely be obvious but, at the beginning of a
millennium, they are hardly discouraging.
Source: America v. 182 no9 (Mar. 18 2000) p. 3 ISSN: 0002-7049 Number:
BRDG00016587 Copyright: The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article
and it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of
the copyright is prohibited.
IN WHAT MAY SIGNAL A CRACK in the wall of support for the death penalty,
a number of states have begun to question whether it can ever be fairly applied. Illinois
provides the most dramatic example. Since 1977, 13 men have been released from its
death row. One, Anthony Porter, came within two days of execution. Acknowledging the
gravity of the situation, Gov. George Ryan–a death penalty proponent–called for a
moratorium on Jan. 31. “I cannot support a system which, in its administration, has
proven so fraught with error,” he said in his statement, “and which has come so close to
the ultimate nightmare, the state’s taking an innocent life.”.
Other states have also begun to express reservations about the use of capital
punishment. Although Gov. Mike Johanns vetoed the bill, Nebraska’s legislature called
for a moratorium last year. Earlier this month, Maryland’s Gov. Parris Glendening, while
stopping short of following the lead of Governor Ryan, ordered a study of capital
procedures in his state. A bill under consideration in New Jersey would bar executions
until 2003. New Hampshire is going a step further in considering an abolition bill. All
told, some dozen states are considering either moratorium or abolition legislation this
year because of issues of fairness in its application, particularly in view of perceived
racial bias and the often low quality of legal counsel for poor defendants. Cities, too,
have begun to press their state representatives to consider moratoriums. Soon after
Governor Ryan’s announcement, Philadelphia’s city council urged the Pennsylvania
legislature to take the same step. For its own part, the American Bar Association passed a
moratorium resolution three years ago.
Increased findings of innocence around the country stem in part from the use of
DNA testing. Richard C. Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center told America
that DNA evidence has been largely responsible for the reversal of eight capital
convictions. Of the exonerated Illinois death row inmates, five, he said, were freed on
these grounds. But reversals have also come about through more intensive legal
investigation by attorneys uncovering evidence overlooked by the original trial lawyers.
One of the most striking aspects of three of the Illinois cases is the fact that the findings
of innocence were not the work of attorneys at all, but of journalism students at
Northwestern University–a biting commentary on the inadequacy of death penalty
representation in Illinois. An investigative study by The Chicago Tribune found that
attorneys representing 33 Illinois men condemned to death were later either disbarred or
suspended. But inadequate representation is common in other states too. Defendants in
capital cases are often unable to pay for expert counsel and must therefore rely on already
overburdened public defenders or inexperienced and poorly paid court-appointed
Even as the move toward moratoriums gains ground in some parts of the country,
however, the pace of executions has quickened in other areas–especially in the so-called
death belt states of the South. Florida recently passed legislation that would shorten the
time for appeals, thereby sending condemned prisoners to their deaths more speedily.
Florida’s legislation is modeled on that of Texas, which now leads the nation in the
frequency of its executions. In the District of Columbia, whose citizens in 1992 rejected a
referendum imposed by Congress calling for the reinstatement of capital punishment
there, Attorney General Janet Reno has nevertheless called for the death penalty in the
case of a Washington, D.C., man accused of the murder of three restaurant employees.
THE WIDER ISSUE, however, goes beyond the question of whether or not the
death penalty can ever be fairly administered, to whether it should exist here at all. The
Death Penalty Information Center’s recent report, International Perspectives on the Death
Penalty, points out that Western Europe has abolished capital punishment, and that the
number of countries that have done away with it has reached an all-time high of 105
nations. In continuing to make use of it, we stand with countries like China, Iraq, Iran and
Yemen–hardly nations with good records on human rights. In terms of world opinion, we
are consequently becoming increasingly isolated. The center has also pointed out that a
January poll by ABC News found that support for the death penalty drops from 64
percent to 48 percent when an alternative sentence of life without parole is offered. Pope
John Paul II made it clear during his visit to St. Louis in January of 1999 that there is no
longer any place for a punishment that is both “cruel and unnecessary.” In this jubilee
year, symbolized at its beginning by the opening of the great doors of St. Peter’s in Rome,
the closing of the doors of our execution chambers would be a fitting and positive step at
the beginning of a new millennium.
Moral and Ethical Issues of US Capital Punishment
1.Clarke,Kevin. October, 2000. no title. U.S. Catholic V.65, p.27.
2.Stephen,Andrew. June 19, 2000. Even Bush won’t Kill the Innocent. New
3.Soskis,Benjamin. April 17-24 2000. Alive and Kicking. The New Republic.
4.Kelly,James R. April 1, 2000. Prolife, Anti-death Penalty? America. p.6-8.
5. Kelly,James R. March 18, 2000. Death Penalty Moratoriums. America. p.3,
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