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Death Penalty Essay, Research Paper

Whenever the word “death penalty” comes up, extremists from both sides start yelling out their arguments. One side says

deterrence, the other side says there’s a potential of executing an innocent man; one says justice, retribution, and punishment;

the other side says execution is murder. However, all the arguments aside, the best way and the only way to truly make a

rational. Decision about capital punishment is to examine the purpose of our criminal justice system. Once the purpose of the

criminal justice system is established, one must find out the purpose of capital punishment. This paper will show that the

purpose of capital punishment is consistent with and embodies the purpose of the criminal justice system. Then, this paper will

determine whether or not the present form of the death penalty is fulfilling its purpose, and what could be changed to make the

death penalty more efficient and effective.

The first question that must be faced is, “What is the purpose of the criminal justice system and does the death penalty help to

fulfill that purpose?” In The Law, Federic Bastiat says that humans have inalienable rights that existed outside of and before

government. These rights are life, liberty, and property. He contends that the only legitimate purpose of government is to

protect these rights. When one person inflicts on another’s rights or takes advantage of another person, he is plundering. Bastiat


“When, then, does plunder stop? It stops when it becomes more painful and more dangerous than labor. It is evident, then that

the proper purpose of law is to use the power of its collective force to stop this fatal tendency to plunder instead of work. All

the measures of the law should protect property and punish plunder.”(1)

People will plunder, take advantage of others, and commit crimes as long as it is in their best interest to do so. The purpose our entire criminal

justice system is to protect the rights of life, liberty, and property for all its citizens. To do this, the criminal justice system needs to make

“plunder more painful and more dangerous than labor.” In other words, the punishment for crime must be harsh enough to deter potential

criminals. Under this mindset, the death penalty makes perfect sense. Here is a punishment that truly makes the criminal pay for his crime, stops

the criminal from committing future crimes, and deters other criminals from committing the same crime. The purpose of the death penalty is to

protect the right of Americans to live.

If the purpose of the death penalty is to protect the lives of Americans, then the people that it is supposed to protect should be the focal point.

In considering the death penalty and its merits and faults one cannot lose sight of the victims. These corpses are the people who have been, are

being, and will be killed because our justice system is not working perfectly. In considering the death penalty these innocent individuals must

never be forgotten. Millions of innocent men and women have already been slain, and thousands are killed every year. According to Time, in

the United States more than 2,000,000 people are beaten, knifed, shot or otherwise assaulted each year, 23,000 fatally.(2) In any discussion of the

death penalty, one must remember that there are two sets of lives to be considered. Far too much emphasis is usually placed on the convicted

murderer who is being executed, and the victim who has been killed is all but forgotten. Joseph Stalin once stated, “One death is a tragedy, but

a million deaths are statistics.”(3)

Once a murderer is caught and convicted, justice seems to demand that he at least be prevented from murdering someone else. After all, if the

law is set up to protect our right to live, it seems as though it should be able to keep convicted murderers from murdering again. Amazingly, our

criminal justice system is not even achieving this goal. The average prison sentence for murder is less than six years.(4) Six percent of the young

adults paroled since 1978 who were convicted of murder were arrested for murder again within six years of their release.(5) This means that six

percent of all murderers were caught, convicted, sent to prison, released, and they murdered again. At least six percent of all murders could

have been prevented had the murderer been executed the first time around. In North Carolina in 1995, 750 people were murdered.(6) By stopping

repeat murderers at least forty-five lives could have been saved in 1995 in North Carolina alone. Every year, approximately the same number of

people would not die if an effective form of the death penalty were in place. One example of the benefit of the death penalty is what happened in

India in the 1800s. When Great Britain was beginning to colonize India, there was a religion known as the Thuggee religion. These Thuggees

were probably the most violent, dangerous, and brutal gang of thieves ever. They killed literally thousands of people (mostly foreigners) and

stole their money. In fact, one of the requirements of this cult was that each member had to murder at least one person every year. The British

jumped to action to curb the problem by speedy arrests and executions. Thousands of Thuggees were executed. After a few years, the leader of

the Thugees was captured and executed. During his trial, it was found that he had murdered 931 people. In 1883, the British had completely

solved the problem by executing the last known Thuggee.(7) Often opponents will argue that some criminals are so deranged, so fearless, so

assured that they will not be caught that they will murder no matter what the penalty is. If this was true of anyone, it was true of the Thuggees.

Yet, the fact is often ignored that the death penalty can have a tremendous effect simply by eliminating those hideous murderers who will

murder no matter what the penalty is. No one can count the number of lives that were saved after all the Thuggees were executed. Opponents of

the death penalty sometimes contend that repeat murderers are rare. Yet, if six percent of all murders can be stopped, and forty-five lives can be

saved every year just in North Carolina alone, who wants to be responsible for the forty-five unnecessary deaths that occur each year because

our government does not take care of the murderers the first time around.

The death penalty can save lives by stopping repeat murderers, but does it deter murder? Opponents of the death penalty argue that there is no

deterrent effect. However, there are a number of studies that indicate that the contrary is true. A study by W. Bailey of the period from 1967-68

showed a deterrent effect in twenty-seven states.(8) A later study by him showed a deterrent effect in twenty-five states.(9) During the

moratorium on Capital punishment in the United States, murder increased by one hundred percent.(10) A review of the fourteen nations who

abolished the death penalty showed that the murder rate increased by seven percent from the five year pre-abolition period to the five year

post-abolition period.(11) Since 1990, Harris County, a single county in Texas has had more executions than any other state in the United States.

During the period between 1990 and 1995, Harris County has had a forty-eight percent drop in crime, the greatest decrease in the United States.

In Harris County, the highest homicide rate was in 1981, one year before the death penalty was reinstated in Texas.(12) All of these studies

indicate that implementation of the death penalty correlates with a drop in the homicide rate. A study by Stephen K. Layton at University of

North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed that each execution deters an average of eighteen murders.(13) By increasing the use of the death penalty,

thousands of lives could be saved. In Utah, there have been five executions since 1977. During the year following each execution, there was a

significant drop-off in the homicide rate.(14) Criminologist Steven Stack recently found that after a widely publicized execution, there was a drop

in the homicide rate. He found this drop to be more significant with whites than with blacks.(15) “Hyam Barshay, a poet, said, “The death

penalty is a warning, just like a lighthouse throwing beams out to sea. We hear about shipwrecks, but we do not hear about the ships the

lighthouse guides safely on their way. We do not have proof of the number of ships it saves, but we do not tear the lighthouse down.”(16)

Although the death penalty is a deterrent, it is not nearly as strong a deterrent as it would be were it implemented more often. The deterrence

theory states that in order for a crime to be deterred, justice must be swift, severe, and certain. With numerous appeals, the death penalty is not

swift. In fact, the average amount of time spent on death row before being executed is ten years.(17) In addition, between 1977 and the present,

the execution rate per murder is .055 percent.(18) In other words for every 1800 murders, only one person is executed. Thus, the death penalty is

not certain either. In fact, most murderers can rest assured that more than likely they will not be put to death. The death penalty is severe. If it

were altered so that it became swift and certain, there would be a significant drop-off in the homicide rate. People have a natural fear of death. It

is a common trait of man that we think about the consequences before we act. If not consciously, we still think about them subconsciously.

Imagine for a minute what the world would be like if every time a murderer killed someone, he died instantaneously. More than likely, there

would be an extremely low homicide rate. Of course, it is impossible to make that a reality, but our government can make justice much more

swift, severe, and certain than it already is if we simply increase the use of capital punishment and change the laws so that it is faster and has a

shorter appeals process. The death penalty is important because the lives of thousands of potential victims who are at stake.

Given the benefits of capital punishment, it is hard to imagine why anyone would be against it, but there are several arguments against the

death sentence that need to be addressed. Opponents of the death penalty point out that there is a possibility of wrongly executing an

innocent man. Of course, there is a possibility of wrongly sending an innocent man to prison, or wrongly fining an innocent man, but they

contend that because of the finality and severity of the death penalty, the consequences of wrongly executing an innocent person are much

more wrong. There has never been any proof of an innocent man being executed, although there are some studies that show in a few cases,

there is a possibility that someone was wrongly executed.(19) One of the most often quoted studies of innocent men being executed is the

Bedau-Radlet Study. It is the most comprehensive study ever done in this area and has found twenty-two cases where the defendant may have

been wrongly executed. This study is very controversial and many studies such as Markman and Cassal, found the study’s methodology so

flawed that in at least twelve of those cases there was substantial evidence of guilt and no evidence of innocence. In the other eleven cases, the

Bedau-Radlet study placed almost no weight on the jury’s verdict, and the evidence available only proved that the case was questionable, not

that the defendant was actually innocent.(20) Another point to be made is that our judicial system takes many precautions to ensure that the

rights of the innocent are protected. In order to understand this, one must look at the complex process required to convict someone of first

degree murder and get him sentenced to death. First a person is arrested and given an attorney. Evidence must be presented proving beyond a

reasonable doubt that the defendant committed first degree murder. The defendant must have been in a clear state of mind. After a five to six

week trial, the defendant goes on to a second trial to decide whether or not he deserves the death penalty. Again, a full trial is held. Defense

presents evidence on why this murderer does not deserve to die. After this occurs and the murderer is sentenced to die, his case is

automatically appealed to the state Supreme Court. After that, he may file a number of different appeals. Finally, about ten years later, after

every legal attempt and delay tactic has been exhausted, the murderer is executed. As should be evident from this complex process, every

reasonable precaution is taken to ensure that no innocent man is executed.

Although it is very unlikely that an innocent person would be executed, the question arises about whether the execution of an innocent man is

a strong enough argument to abolish the death penalty. Before deciding, one must remember the lives that the death penalty saves. Repeat

murderers are eliminated, and potential murderers are deterred. As mentioned earlier, one must consider the victims as well as the defendant. Is

it worth it to lose forty-five innocent lives so that no innocent person is executed. Wesley Lowe states the matter well when he says, “As for

the penal system accidentally executing an innocent person, I must point out that in this imperfect world, citizens are required to take certain

risks in exchange for relative safety.”(21) We risk dying in automobile accidents for the convenience of using a car. This practice is considered

acceptable. Risking the possibility that someone might be wrongly executed is worth it to save the lives of thousands of innocent people who

might be the next victims of murder.

A second argument against the death penalty is discrimination. Eighty-two percent of all murder victims are white and thirteen percent are

black. This is about a 6:1 ratio. Opponents of the death penalty, such as the NAACP, argue that the system values white lives more than black

lives. If this is true, one has to wonder why whites represent fifty-five percent of those executed and blacks thirty-nine percent,(22) when blacks

have committed forty-nine percent of all murders, and whites thirty-nine percent from 1976-1994.(23) Successful prosecutions depend on the

nature of the crime and not the race of the victim. The reason that whites are overwhelmingly the victims in death row cases is that whites are

overwhelmingly the victims in capital crimes. In McClesky v. Zant, the court ruled that the death penalty was not racist in its application. The

death penalty is not racist and does not violate the cruel and unusual punishment clause.

However, even if the death penalty were racist, the solution is to fix the discrimination not to end the punishment. “Ernest van den Haag wrote,

‘If and when discrimination occurs it should be corrected. Not, however, by letting the guilty blacks escape the death penalty because guilty

whites do, but by making sure that the guilty white offenders suffer it as the guilty blacks do. Discrimination must be abolished by abolishing

discrimination–not by abolishing penalties. However, even if this cannot be done, I do not see any good reason to let any guilty murderer

escape his penalty. It does happen in the administration of criminal justice that one person gets away with murder and another is executed. Yet

the fact that one gets away with it is no reason to let another one escape.’”(24)

One of the problems with the death penalty right now is that it is rarely used that it often seems arbitrary. The proposal set forth later in this

paper makes the death penalty the standard punishment for murder and removes the loopholes. This proposal would make a racist application

of the death penalty nearly impossible. If the death penalty were to be the standard punishment for murder, and the rules deciding who received

the death penalty were tightened, the death penalty would apply equally to the people of all races.

On more moral grounds, opponents of the death penalty will contend that execution is the same as murder. They will argue that using the death

penalty to stop murder is like fighting fire with fire, and that executing the criminal makes the state no better than the murderer himself. A

number of analogies can be drawn to discredit this argument. If execution is murder, then certainly killing someone in a war is murder. Thus, our

country should not fight in any more wars. At once, the reader realizes that this proposition is ridiculous. Although wars are not good and

killing people is a tragedy, sometimes they are necessary to protect the rights of a group of people. The death penalty is necessary to protect a

person’s right to live. Is arresting someone for a crime the same as kidnapping someone? Is confiscation of property to pay a debt the same as

theft?(25) In the same way, executing someone is not murder; it is punishment inflicted by society on a deserving criminal.

In order to understand what form capital punishment is in now, we will consider the history and constitutionality of the death penalty. Since the

founding of our country, the death penalty has had its place in American society. In its original form, death was the mandatory punishment for

a number of crimes, including murder. As time passed, a small minority of people began to disagree with the death penalty. Although most

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