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The Death Penalty Essay, Research Paper

“The question with which we must deal is not whether a substantial proportion of American citizens, would today, if polled, opine that capital punishment is barbarously cruel, but whether they would find it to be so in light of all information presently available. -Justice Thurgood Marshall

Family members of the wrongfully convicted,

This letter is for everyone out there who has ever suffered. Anyone who has ever felt the infallibility of our criminal justice system. Anyone who believes that death is scary. And most of all? anyone who is humane. We are in the 21st century now. That means that we have had over 2000 years to realize that killing is inhumane and wrong. How is it that we can look back at the hangings that took place merely a few hundred years ago and see the merciless and appalling acts of beheading, and not learn from them? And in a predominately Christian country, we still cannot learn from the death of Christ. He was of our first victims of the death penalty.

After reviewing pertinent literature, I have written this essay in hope of letting those that have been hurt, know that there are people who care. And to show those who stand by indifferently, that ‘miscarriages’ of justice are acknowledged and cannot be ignored. In my opinion there are four factors (among the many) that are most significant in leading to the wrongful conviction of innocent people. These are, perjury by prosecution witnesses and mistaken eyewitness testimony, community bias and passion against vulnerable defendants, failures in police work, and a predisposition for making the defendant fit the crime.

I feel it is hard to differentiate between perjury and sincere (but false) testimony. Regardless, however, the significant role of false testimony is clear. The decision in the People v. Lindley (1945) is a vibrant example of such a case. In this case, a man came within a few hours of the gas chamber due to the second-hand words of a little girl. Not only could these words not be verified, but also the only evidence in the case was that of a young sheepherder who claimed to have witnessed the crime over an hour before it was actually committed. Fortunately, Lindley was not executed. He was, however, given life imprisonment, and eventually went insane due to the severe pressure placed upon him.

The most remarkable aspect of the Lindley case is the effect finances had. (Yes, in this day and age, money still can make or break the thin line between life and death in our criminal justice system). Lindley was sentenced to death until his attorney, Matthews, wrote to Erle Stanley Gardner, a wealthy and famous attorney. Gardner wrote to each member of the Supreme Court, the governor and the attorney general. Sure enough, a stay of execution was issued. Without the aid of a wealthy attorney, Lindley would have been put to death, because the police would rather close the book on a crime, than work to achieve the truth. The police took the eyewitness testimony given in Lindley’s trial as the truth, without further investigation. Clearly, in America, ‘home of the free’, you can and will be put to death if you cannot afford a good attorney. Because in America, ‘eyewitness’ testimony is considered synonymous with the truth.

Not only do victims make sincere mistakes concerning the identification of a suspect, but blatant lies, instigated either by the police or by a culprit to cover his own back, are an entirely different scenario. And yes, our country has witnessed scores of these fraudulent testimonies. In the People v. Zimmerman (1962) case, the key eyewitness, Hanover, gave false information under oath, so that the media would not correlate the name of his business with the murder. In another case, (defendants: Gladish, Greer, Keine, Smith), a woman named Judy Weyer was coached by the police on a testimony that she was supposed to give, so that the police could ‘be done’ with the case. Not only was she coached, but she was also threatened with perjury if she failed to repeat this false testimony in court. And in even another case, Tibbs v. Florida , “there is strong evidence that they (police) jumped at the opportunity to build a case even when they knew all they had was totally unreliable testimony. (Radelet, 57). These are just a few synopses of the harsh role mistaken eyewitnesses and perjury by prosecution witnesses’ play in ruining the lives of innocent people by subverting the criminal justice system.

Beyond false testimony, those in power in our country have tremendous control over who is indicted. “Cases of miscarriage of justice occur when community passion is aroused against vulnerable defendants” (Radelet, 18). Unfortunately these cases occur quite frequently. They occur mostly due to politics, and social status. One infinitely famous case is that of Hauptmann v. State. It is so famous because the kidnapped and murdered victim was the grandson of Charles Lindbergh (the aviator). A ransom was initially paid (in marked bills) for the child, however the child was never returned. Two years later though, a marked bill was used in a gas station and the German immigrant who used it, Richard Hauptmann was arrested. “From that day until his death in New Jersey’s electric chair on April 1936, Hauptmann protested his innocence”. (Radelet, 100). Throughout this case, the prosecutors committed many wrongdoings. Most significant was that at that time, murder in the course of kidnapping was not a capital crime, yet Hauptmann was still executed! The attorney general at the time, David Wilentz, was also the prosecutor, and thus pandered to the public by finding and convicting, an innocent murderer. Clearly, this German immigrant was wrongly convicted due to political manipulations against a defenseless minority.

This was just one example of political motivations infecting the criminal justice system. The Mooney-Billings case (People v. Billings) is another example. In this instance, two men were murdered during a payroll robbery, and two Italian immigrants were arrested and eventually executed. They were anarchists, but U.S. citizens. Off the bench, the judge of their case, Judge Thayer remarked, “Did you see what I did with those anarchist bastards the other day? I guess that will hold them for a while” (Radelet, 98). The lives of these two Italian immigrants were unjustly taken due to a biased judge. And that is supposed to be justice?

Though there is unfortunately a vast array of cases that portray the unfair influence of politics, I do feel it is necessary to touch on one more aspect of community passion and the vulnerability of defendants. The state-sanctioned murders that occurred due to racial tension between the whites and African Americans are numerous and horrendous. What is the most disturbing of these cases are those in which whites are released for crimes while African American’s are routinely executed for similar crimes. The imposition of the death penalty and the harsh punishment is particularly likely when the latter commits a crime against the former.

In the Rosewood Massacre of 1923, over 150 African Americans were murdered, and not one of the white rioters was arrested. In the Shepard, Irvin and Charles v. State in 1949, Charlie Greenlee was arrested outside of a gas station for carrying a gun. However after being taken into the station, the police then notified him that he was wanted for assault, kidnap and rape of a white couple. The only link that Greenlee had to the murder was that he grew up in the town of the murder, and that he was an African American. Greenlee’s friend, Ernest Thomas, who was also African American, was seen sleeping in the woods, and was murdered by white rioters who thought that he was one of the culprits. Both of these men were innocent. None of these rioters were even given as much as a slap on the hand. Beyond this, the police assumed that Thomas was one of the culprits and never pursued ‘the fourth culprit’ any further. Greenlee was sentenced to life in prison for a crime he did not commit, and Thomas was murdered.

The reason the police felt so pressured to pinpoint assaultants were to appease the public. The Tuesday following the assault, Orlando’s Morning Sentinel printed a drawing that showed four electric chairs, and the caption for the picture read, “No Compromise!” (Radelet 104). Clearly the public mob had spoken and hence, Shepard and Irvin (the two other culprits) were sentenced to death, Greenlee was sentenced to life in prison, and Thomas was murdered. Community passion rang loud against these ill-fated and helpless men.

In yet more cases involving minorities, racial hoaxes occur. Susan Smith v. South Carolina in 1994 involved such a hoax. Smith claimed that she was hijacked and that her kids who were in the car at the time were kidnapped. She blamed this crime on an African American who was between 20 and 30 years old. The entire black community of the town was immediately placed under suspicion. This is a prime example of a racial hoax, because in reality, Smith murdered her own children. (Simpson, 52). She fabricated a crime and blamed an African American because of his race. She immediately believed that by blaming a minority, the blame would be deferred from her. This is not a lone case. It occurs often. A few examples of this are in the cases of, Foster v. State 1956, Hall v. State 1978, and People v. Lindley 1943.

Sadly, these anecdotal examples do not even come close to capturing the vast number of injustices committed in our country in administering the death penalty. Although many people are ignorant of how corrupt and unjust the American system truly is, they cannot ignore these disturbing examples of injustice. The examples discussed above reflect the role eyewitnesses; politics and the community have in perverting outcome and fate of individual’s lives. But, there are still other cases of injustice as well. First of all, failures in police work, whether intentional or unintentional affect the outcomes of many judicial cases. The case of People v. Miller clearly exhibits faulty police work. The case started when Janice May, an 8-year-old white girl was found beaten and sexually assaulted. On this same evening, Lloyd Miller, who was dealing with his own familial problems, left town. As soon as the police realized this coincidence, not only did they focus on finding evidence to reinforce their belief that Miller committed the crime, but they also stopped searching for other possible suspects. After multiple polygraph tests, fingerprints, blood samples, non-conforming evidence and pubic hair samples, that all proved Miller’s innocence; the police still believed that he was the culprit. Finally, the police persuaded him to confess to the crime by threatening him with the death penalty. “For the exercise of his constitutional right to a determination of his innocence or guilt by a jury” -that is, for refusing to deny his innocence- “he had to stake his life” (Radelet, 152). Beyond this even, there was a lot of evidence that was neglected and tested improperly. Lassers, who wrote Miller’s story in his book, stated, “The Miller case showed clearly the ineptness, crudity, and unfairness of the American system of criminal justice.” To me the most striking part is not the police ignorance, but fear of the death penalty induced. Many advocates of the death penalty believe that the fright of the consequences of the death penalty serve a great cause. They believe that individuals will hesitate before killing because they are deterred by the harsh consequence.

Clearly, however, if someone is sick enough to kill, they are not worried about repercussions, as a deterrent effect has never been proved. Second of all, as exhibited in the Miller case, the death penalty scares innocent people into confessing to the crimes of others. The fear that is being cast into our society preys upon the innocent, not the guilty. In Radelet’s book, many other instances in which the death penalty resulted in false confessions are identified. In Commonwealth v. Ellison, two of the defendants, acting as eyewitnesses to convict another, “?felt compelled to plea bargain and testify against the defendant out of fear of the death penalty”. Likewise, in Hampton v. Allgood, Mary Kay Hampton “was frightened into pleading guilty to a crime she did not commit because someone told her she would ‘fry in the electric chair’ unless she did so.” And in Carmen v. State, a mentally retarded boy was arrested for kidnapping, rape and murder, and pleads guilty to the murder charge. “Fear of the death penalty, according to later information had played a role in his client’s decision.” So, does capital punishment act as a deterrent? Upon comparing murder rates during abolitionist and retentionist years, the answer becomes clear. In California, “researchers concluded that, ‘the average annual increase in homicides was twice as high during years in which the death penalty was being carried out than in years during which no one was executed” (Kappeler, 277). The answer is blatantly ‘no’. There is no way that such a system even comes close to acting as a deterrent. If anything it simply allows the innocent, as well as the guilty to be murdered by those who are supposed to be protecting them. We are placing too much power in the hands of the state.

False physical evidence, perjured testimony, and coercive threats of imposing the death penalty are just a few of the causes that lead to the conviction of the innocent. Beyond these factors, police have, in many instances, found individuals to ‘fit the crime’. In other words, police rush to close a case regardless of whether justice is done. This occurs most frequently to the poor and defenseless. Police misinterpret evidence, and presume guilt based on prior records. They make quick decisions. These snap decisions do not involve simple choices like, whether to use paper or plastic. They involve the ultimate and irrevocable choice between life and death.

Not only do I believe that the death penalty should be abolished particularly due to its effect on the innocent. But we do not live in a country where justice is based on the primitive precept of ‘eye for an eye’. Those who rape, are not raped as punishment. Those who steal, are not stolen from. Yet, those who kill, are murdered. If this country is so ‘fair’ and ‘just’ in its policy, then shouldn’t the family of those innocently executed receive ‘fair’ compensation? But no remedy is available for the wrongful taking of a human life. If our system works in this fashion, then those who execute unjustly, should be executed themselves. Sounds a little far-fetched? Well so is executing the innocent!



1. Gray, Mike. Drug Crazy, New York: Routledge. 1998.

2. Kappeler, V.E., Blumberg, M., Potter, G.W. The Mythology of Crime and Criminal

Justice. 3rd ed. Waveland Press, 2000.

3. Parenti, Christian. Lockdown America. Verso, 2000.

4. Rydell, C.P. and Everingham, S.S. Controlling Cocaine, Prepared for the Office of

National Drug Control Policy and the United States Army (Santa Monica, CA:

Drug Policy Research Center, RAND Corporation, 1994), p.xvi.

5. Simpson, Sally. Of Crime and Criminality. Pine Forge Press, 2000.

6. Uniform Crime Reports, Federal Bureau of Investigation.

7. Winslow, George. Capital Crimes. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999.

“No drug, not even alcohol, causes the fundamental ills of society. If we’re looking for the sources of our troubles, we shouldn’t test people for drugs, we should test them for stupidity, ignorance, greed and love of power.”

–P. J. O’Rourke (in “Studying For Our Drug Test” from Give War A Chance)

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