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Against Capital Punishment Essay, Research Paper

?At 8:00 p.m. it was nearing the end of John Evans? last day on death row. He had spent most of the day with his minister and family, praying and talking of what was to come. At 8:20 he was walked from his cell down to the long hall to the execution room and strapped in the electric chair. At 8:30 p.m. the first jolt of 1900 volts passed through Mr. Evans? body. It lasted 30 seconds. Sparks and flames erupted from the electrode tied to Mr. Evans? leg. His body slammed against the straps holding him in the chair and his fist clenched permanently. The electrode then burst from the strap holding it in place. A large puff of gray smoke and sparks pored out from under the hood that covered his face. An overpowering stench of burnt flesh and clothing began pervading the witness room. Two doctors then examined Mr. Evans and declared that he was not dead.

The electrode was then refastened and Mr. Evans was given another 30-second jolt. The stench was nauseating. Again the doctors examined him and found his heart still beating. At this time the prison commissioner, who was talking on the line with Governor George Wallace of Alabama, was asked to cancel the execution on the grounds that Mr. Evans was being subject to cruel and unusual punishment. The request was denied.

At 8:40 p.m. the third charge of electricity was passed through Mr. Evans body. At 8:44 p.m. he was pronounced dead. The execution took 14 minutes. Afterward officials were embarrassed by what one observer called the ?barbaric ritual.? The electric chair is supposed to be a very humane way of administering death, if there is one? (Zimring, & Hawkins, 1986, p.1).

Every Western Industrial nation has stopped executing criminals, except the United States. Most Western nations have executed criminals in this century, and many were executed after World War II. Then executions suddenly decreased (Clay, 1990, p.9). This is partly because the people in many European countries might have been tired of killing from the war. In most cases the countries and states that stopped capital punishment followed with its formal abolition shortly after (Clay, 1990, p.10). One reason that the United States did not end capital punishment at this time is partly due to the fact that the war was never fought on our soil and US citizens had not all lived through the death and destruction of WWII personally. Some think that the United States should have followed Europe?s lead and abolished capital punishment; some think it never should.

The truth of the matter is, the United States should cease the use of capital punishment in both federal and state prisons. Capital punishment is immoral and unethical; it degrades society, and lowers the value of a human life. It does not deter murder, it is not economically efficient, and its effects are irreversible. There is not one good reason to keep executing wrongdoers in the United States or anywhere else.

Capital punishment goes against the morals and standards that our country is based upon. A punishment that inflicts harm on a person can hardly be good or moral if it is purposeless. A punishment may be given to a wrongdoer for one or a combination of the following reasons: (1) to protect the community from the criminal returning to previous activity, (2) to rehabilitate the offender; and (3) to restore the moral order breached by the violation. Capital punishment is not required to accomplish any of these purposes. Other alternatives work better or at least as well (Robinson, 1999, October 7). Killing is not the answer (Bender& Leone, 1987 p. 63). Recently some states have been implementing life without parole as an alternative to death. This has proven just a successful as the death penalty for punishment. It prevents criminals from returning to society, and is less expensive than capital punishment (Vila & Morris, 1997, p.255). Another study shows that over 80% of those serving life sentences will never commit another crime, and well over 80% will never again commit a capital offense (Bedau, 1999, November 10). These statistics clearly show that other forms of punishment are successful in the deterrence of crime and capital punishment is not needed.

Some justify capital punishment with anger over wrongdoing. This human anger is often the cause of murder itself. If anger were not carried out into actions, there would be no need for punishment in the first place. Criminals shouldn?t be the objects of anger; they should be objects of pity. Society must look to its compassionate side in order to function properly. It does not have to right to value one life more than another no matter how badly an individual has hurt another. Being angry with an offender just makes a situation worse (Honeyman & Ogloff, 1999, September 29).

Perhaps the reason that the death penalty is still used is the fact that society wants retribution from offenders. Many times retribution is desired so strongly that society is willing to close its eyes to all the moral violations that take place when retribution is received. When the death penalty is carried out, a reckless attitude toward human life is expressed. Common sense does demand retribution for crime, but justice doesn?t demand killing those whom are already imprisoned (Death Penalty, 1987, p. 63). Perhaps Andrei Sakhorov had the right view of capital punishment from a moral standpoint when he said:

? I regard the death penalty as a savage and immoral institution?A state, in the person of its functionaries?that takes upon itself the right to the most terrible and irreversible act?the deprivation of life, such a state cannot expect an improvement in the moral atmosphere of its country.?(Clay, 1990, p.9.)

What he is saying in this quote is that a state cannot better society when it is taking part in such a savage and irreversible act as capital punishment.

The death penalty becomes a degrading act when used. State sanctioned executions expose more of the violence and injustice that are in everyone. It is dehumanizing and brings more injury to society than to the victim (Bender& Leone, 1986, p. 74). These true accounts tell how capital punishment degrades all of society.

On May 25, 1979 several hundred people stood in front of the Starke penitentiary in Florida. With them was a coffin perched atop a Winnebago. The people around it chanting ?Go Sparky go!? Some were wearing T-shirts with the saying, ?1down 131 to go?. This shows the violence and dehumanizing actions that are brought out of society with the use of capital punishment (Bedau, 1999, November 10).

In addition, on October 12, 1984, across the street from the Virginia prison in Richmond, a rowdy crowd gathered to cheer on the execution of Lindwood Briley. They held signs that portrayed lynch mob mentality. One read, ?Fry, nigger, fry, and another read Burn Briley Burn? (Bedau, 1999, November 10). When the final word came from within the prison the mob set off firecrackers and cheered. If capital punishment were abolished these, degrading acts would never have happened or happen again (Bedau, 1999, November 10).

One argument the supporters of the death penalty use is that it is a good deterrent of murder. In fact in a USA today poll, 68% of respondents agreed that the death penalty deters crime (Honeyman & Ogloff, 1999, September 29). However, current research suggests that rather than deterring homicide, state executions may actually increase the murder rate. This phenomenon has been named the ? brutalization hypothesis.? It suggests that through suggestion, modeling, or by legitimizing killing, homicide numbers increase. In a study taken from 1957 to 1982 by Isaac Ehrlich, the number of executions in 1957 was 65 and the number of murders was 8,060. From 1958 to1960 the execution rate stayed roughly the same, but the murder rate increased (Bender& Leone, 1986, p. 99-100) (Vila & Morris, 1997, p.223). Throughout the remainder of the study the execution rate dropped and the murder rate continued to increase. In 1981 the murder rate was at 22,520 and the number of executions was at one (Bender& Leone, 1986, p.100). This study clearly shows that the murder rate increased uniformly with the number of years, and not with the number of executions. Note that the population greatly increased throughout this time period.

Also, states with no death penalty had a lower average murder rate than those with a death penalty being 4.75 per 100,000 as compared to 6.8 per 100,000 (US Department of Justice, 1999, September 29). However, such a simple comparison can be misleading, because the states within each group have a broad range of murder rates, and there is also a good deal of overlap between rates in the two groups. These studies also imply that no factors other than the death penalty affect a state?s murder rate. That is why most studies comparing homicide rates to executions rates are not accurate (Vila & Morris, 1997, p.278).

The death penalty cannot be successful in deterring murder because in most cases it is only used for premeditated murder. Those who have planed out a murder generally think it is impossible for them to be caught. This makes any form of deterrence ineffective (Bedau, 1999, November 10). For these reasons there is no valid evidence that the death penalty is effective in the deterrence of crime. Gary Wills, writing in a column about the execution of his friend, pointedly questioned the basis of the deterrence theory when he said:

?We kill one person to deter some unknown person, somewhere, from killing? There is no way to counter death but with life?we can mourn those who are lost by saving those who are left, by treasuring life, by literally discrediting the currency of death. Otherwise, the cycle is unbreakable?the displaced people displacing others, the hated hating, the victims victimizing, the friends of the killed killing, and death collecting its debt? (Clay, 1990, p.90).

What he is saying is that after the death penalty those who are put to death will not be coming back. He wants society to treasure life, not throw it away. Mr. Willis says that if actions and thoughts aren?t changed the cycle of hatred will be unbreakable.

Some of those who support the death penalty defend it as a cost-effective alternative to life imprisonment. They argue that it is cheaper to get rid of the problem than to keep it locked up for years and years. However, it is far more costly to execute an inmate than to have that person serve a life sentence. A 1982 study in New York concluded that the average capital murder trial and first stage of appeals costs U.S. taxpayers 1.8 million dollars (Bedau, 1999, November 10)(Robinson, 1999, October 7). This is more than the current cost of 60 years of incarceration. However, the principle factor in this cost of capital punishment is the appeals process, which lasts an average of 10 years and is deemed necessary to reduce the likelihood of the execution of innocent persons. This process can cost up to two million dollars more than regular murder trials (BCCLA, 1999, October 7).

In Maryland, a comparison of capital trial costs for the years 1979-1984 concluded that a death penalty case costs around 42 percent more than a case resulting in a non-death sentence. In 1988 and 1989 the Kansas legislature voted against reinstating the death penalty after it was informed that reintroduction would involve a first year cost of more than $11 million. Also, Florida, which has one of the nation?s largest death rows, has estimated that each execution costs around 3.2 million. This is approximately six times the cost of a life sentence. For these reasons capital punishment is not an affordable from of punishment (Bedau, 1999, November 10).

Some think that the methods used to convict a murderer with the death penalty are far more costly than they should be, and that the death penalty would be effective if a different approach were taken. This is not true. The long process of conviction is very important due to the fact that the wrongly accused need a chance to plead their cases. If a less expensive approach were taken, more innocent men and women would wrongly die. Time must be taken to find the truth. People cannot be brought back from death. It is easy to unlock a door and free the wrongly accused.

Perhaps one of the worst characteristics of capital punishment is that it is irreversible. Since 1900, in this country alone, there have been, on the average, more than four cases a year in which an entirely innocent person has been convicted of a murder. Many of these people were sentenced to death, and in many of the cases a reprieve arrived just hours later than the scheduled death appointment. Innocent people have and do get put to death under the death penalty (Bedau, 1999, November 10) (Robinson, 1999, October 7)

In 1975 two African American men in Florida, Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee, were released from prison after twelve years awaiting execution for the murder of two white men. Their convictions were the result of coerced confessions, erroneous testimony, and an alleged eyewitness. Though a white man eventually admitted his guilt, a nine-year legal battle was required before the governor would grant Pitts and Lee a pardon. Had there execution not been postponed for the legal battle, they would have been innocently put to death (Bedau, 1999, November 10).

Just a few months later, after Pitts and Lee were released, authorities in New Mexico were forced to admit they had sentenced to death four motorcyclists from Los Angeles who were innocent. The jury?s verdict in this case was based on alleged eyewitnesses and a perjured testimony. If it hadn?t been for the investigation of newspaper journalists, and the confession of the real killer, they too would have died innocent men (Bedau, 1999, November 10).

Though these two stories have reassuring endings, but the chances of good outcomes happening are small. People are too commonly wrongly accused of crimes. There will always be overzealous prosecution, perjured testimony, faulty police work, coerced confessions, the defendant?s previous criminal record, and inept defense councils. People will be wrongly put to death leaving their families behind wondering who was telling the truth.

As long as society chooses to ignore its moral values, and as long as it brings down the value of a human life, capital punishment will remain in use. People must do the research and see for themselves the costs to society, both in dollars and in lives, are far too high. People will always make mistakes, and with the death penalty in use innocent people will die. For these reasons the United States should follow the lead and abolish capital punishment.

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