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Capital Punishment 10 Essay, Research Paper

Debating Capital Punishment

Murder? The helmeted man sits immobile, strapped and bolted into the enforced chair. The switch is closed. One thousand volts of electricity surge into his delicate flesh, searing his nervous system. The man, despite his shackles, jerks. His head bobs and shakes. Gurgling rises from his throat. After a minute the current is switched off, ten seconds later a surge of deadly volts slam his ruined body back into the chair. Smoke begins to rise from the helmet. A foul, gruesome smell of frying meat and voided bowels fill the room. This time the current stays on for what seems like days. When it is turned off, the question is asked. Is capital punishment the answer for the criminals of today’s society?

Capital punishment is defined as the legal infliction of the death penalty. Today, in modern law, the death penalty is corporal punishment in its most severe form. The word “capital” in “capital punishment” refers to a person’s head (Flanders 2). In the past, people were often executed by chopping off their head. Capital punishment has been part of criminal justice systems since the earliest of times. The Babylonian Hammurabi Code, created in 1700 B.C., decreeded the death penalty for crimes as minor as the illegal sale of beer. The following millenium, Egyptians were put to death for disclosing the location of burial sites (Flanders, 11). In recent times, the death penalty is used mainly for the crime of murder. Is capital punishment a correct way of dealing with the criminals of today s society? There is no right or wrong answer to this question. People all over the world have many different views about capital punishment, some opposing and some encouraging it. Many people are undecided when it comes to this issue, especially since the topic is extremely intense.

Not until the end of the 18th century, were efforts made to abolish the death penalty. Quakers led this movement in England and America. Encouraged by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, England repealed all but a few of its capital statutes during the 19th century. Many states in the United States, led by Michigan in 1847, abolished the death penalty entirely. However, since complete abolition could never be achieved, reformers concentrated on limiting the scope of capital punishment (Sherwin 63). After the 1830s, public executions ceased to become demonstrated but did not completely stop until after 1936 (Cavanaugh 11-13). The methods of execution have changed over the ages. The death penalty he been inflicted in many ways now regarded today as barbaric and forbidden by law almost everywhere. Some of the ways which it was inflicted in the past were crucifixion, boiling in oil, drawing and quartering, impalement, beheading, burning alive, crushing, tearing, stoning, and drowning. (Kronenwetter 44). These types of punishment today are considered cruel and unusual punishment. In the United States, the death penalty is currently authorized in one of five ways: hanging, electrocution, the gas chamber, firing squad, or lethal injection (Bright and Keenan, 13-15).

Some questions that arise in the controversial issue of capital punishment are, if it is a deterrent for crime or is it more effective than life imprisonment. Defenders of the death penalty insist that since taking an offender’s life is a more severe punishment than any prison term, it must be a better deterrent. Public opinion in America supports the death penalty by a more than two to one margin and this view rest largely on the deterrence of crime from this severe punishment. (Long 22). An example of these statistics comes from the state of Florida from 1992. When asked simply whether they favor the death penalty, 80 percent of Floridians said they did (Cavanaugh 37).

Those who argue against the death penalty as a deterrent to crime say that deterrence is an argument often cited to justify the death penalty. The threat of execution at a future date does not enter the minds of killers. Many of these criminals are acting under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, in the grip of fear or rage, panicking while committing another crime, or simply lacking an understanding of the gravity of their crime. No credible study yet has produced any solid scientific evidence that the death penalty deters violent crime (Cavanaugh 80-84). According to FBI statistics, the murder rate in some states, which use the death penalty, is twice that of some states, which do not use the death penalty (Flanders 13). Between 1976 and 1985, almost twice as many law enforcement officers were killed in death penalty states as were killed in states that do not execute (15). A Department of Public Law study conducted in Nigeria concluded that ” no efficacy can be shown for the operation of the death penalty” in cases of either murder of armed robbery (21). Also, the 1988 Report to the United Nations Committee on Crime Prevention and Control, a detailed international study, found that all its documented research “has failed to provide scientific proof that executions have a greater deterrent effect than life imprisonment( 25). The current prevailing view among criminologists is that no conclusive evidence exists to show that death, as punishment is a more effective deterrent to violent criminal activity than life-long imprisonment (Long 53).

Many moral concerns are brought up by the death penalty used as punishment. The bible says, “Whosoever sheds man’s blood, by man may his blood be shed” (Genesis 9:6). This classic argument in favor of the death penalty has usually been interpreted as a proper and moral reason for putting a murderer to death. Supporters of capital punishment say that society has the right to kill in defense of its members, just as an individual has the right to kill in self defense for his or her own personal safety. Many supporters of the death penalty wonder where Christianity would be today, if Jesus got eight to fifteen years with time off for good behavior, instead of being crucified. These people, believe that God s words re to be taken and acted upon, when he said; “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first” (John 8:7).

Those who oppose the death penalty, also have valid arguments taken from the Bible. Many early Christian writers who discussed capital punishment were absolutely opposed to it. Christians were instructed not to execute a criminal, to not attend public executions and even to not lay a charge against a person if it might eventually result in their execution ( Flanders 74). One example is Lactantius, (260 to 330 CE) an early Christian writer, who was primarily known for his books “Introduction to True Religion” and “The Divine Institutes.” He wrote in The Divine Institutes, Book 6, Chapter 20 that:

“When God forbids us to kill, he not only prohibits the violence that is

condemned by public laws, but he also forbids the violence that is deemed

lawful by men. Thus, it is not lawful for a just man to engage in warfare,

since his warfare is justice itself. Nor is it [ lawful ] to accuse anyone of a

capital offense. It makes no difference whether you put a man to death by

word, or by the sword. It is the act of putting to death itself , which is

prohibited. Therefore, regarding this precept of God there should be no

exception at all. Rather it is always unlawful to put to death a man, whom God

willed to be a sacred creature.” (Lactantius 16)

Lactantius, along with many other early Christian writer, believed that God would punish those who did not follow his laws. According to Lactantius, all forms of capital punishment, even the discussion of it, were prohibited (Sherwin, 104).

Some people feel that Christians are no longer bound by the legal codes of the Hebrew Scriptures, and that the death penalty is no longer required. The bible also has many other quotes that oppose the death penalty. Jesus wants us to love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute and calumniate you (Matthew 5:44). The book of Exodus is much more precise when stating one of the Ten Commandments; Thou shall not kill. To those who argue against capital punishment, the Bible offers many relevant quotes and stories, which indicate the God does not want us to kill, no matter what the situation may be.

Another controversial aspect of the death penalty is that innocent people are killed although they did not commit any crime. The executing of the innocent is very rare, but it has happened. From 1900 to 1985, a survey found that 7000 people were executed by the means of the death penalty and 35 were innocent of capital crimes (Flanders 14). Proponents of the death penalty say that despite precautions, nearly all human activities, such as trucking, lighting, or construction, cost the lives of some innocent bystanders (Long 33). These activities, however, are not simply abandoned, because the advantages moral or material, outweigh the unintended losses. Critics have also argued that an alternative can be found to substitute for the death penalty. They feel that the severity of the crime can match the severity of the punishment and does not require the primitive rule of “a life for a life” (Long 43).

The death penalty is a uniquely irrevocable punishment, it demands infallibility of the human beings that are part of the legal system which imposes death. Human beings are fallible, therefore, innocent people have been executed in the past and will continue to be executed in the future. A recent study used by groups, which oppose the death penalty, revealed over 400 cases of wrongful conviction for capital offenses in the United States between 1900 and 1991. Most of the convictions were upheld on appeal, with evidence produced years after sentencing to prove the prisoner’s innocence. However, for 23 of the prisoners, that evidence appeared too late. They had already been executed (Flanders 17-19). Even the most extensive safeguards against miscarriages of justice cannot produce an infallible legal system. False testimony, mistaken identification, misinterpretation of evidence, and community prejudices and pressures may affect both verdict and sentencing. An attorney’s error of judgment, a prosecutor’s misconduct, delayed access to or withholding of evidence may also result in the execution of an innocent person (Long, 62)

In the United States, the main objection to capital punishment has been that it was always used unfairly, in at least three major ways. First, females are rarely sentenced to death and executed, although women (Flanders 41) committed 20 percent of all murders that have occurred in recent years. Second, a disproportionate number of nonwhites are sentenced to death and executed. A black man who kills a white person is 11 times more likely to receive the death penalty than a white man who kills a black person. In Texas in 1991, blacks made up 12 percent of the population, but 48 percent of the prison population and 55.5 percent of those on death row are black. Before the 1970s, when the death penalty for rape was still used in many states, no white men were guilty of raping nonwhite women, whereas most black offenders found guilty of raping a white woman were executed (Flanders 40-45). This data shows how the death penalty can discriminate and be used on certain races rather than equally as punishment for severe crimes. Thirdly, poor and friendless defendants, those who are inexperienced or have court-appointed counsel, are most likely to be sentenced to death and executed (Long 18). Defenders of the death penalty, however, argue that, because nothing found in the laws of capital punishment causes sexist, racist, or class bias in its use, these kinds of discrimination are not a sufficient reason for abolishing the death penalty on the idea that it discriminates or violates the 8th Amendment of the United States Constitution (Sherwin 31). Opponents of capital punishment have replied to this by saying that the death penalty is subject to miscarriage of justice and that it would be impossible to administer fairly ( 36).

In 1989, the Supreme Court decided that the death penalty could be used on those who were mentally retarded or underage (but 16 years and over) at the time of the killing (Bright and Keenan 38). This brings up an extremely questionable matter on human rights. While some people think that killers and other criminals should not be given any rights, others think differently. Groups, which argue the death penalty, suggest proof that it is the ultimate denial of human rights. It violates the right to life as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the ultimate cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment (Humana 12-15). In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration, adopted without dissent, is a pledge among nations to promote fundamental rights as the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world. The Declaration proclaims each person’s right to protection from deprivation of life, and it categorically states that no one shall be subjected to cruel or degrading punishment. The death penalty — the pre-meditated and cold-blooded killing of prisoners in state custody — violates both of these rights (Humana 21-24)

No matter what reason a government gives for killing prisoners in its custody and no matter the method of execution used, the death penalty cannot be separated from the issue of human rights. Human rights are not given or granted by governments, and they cannot be taken away by governments. Human rights belong to everyone.

Cost is another convincing argument against the death penalty. Why should taxpayers pay to keep a person in prison for life; why not execute the person and save money? According to Stephan Flanders, the author of Capital Punishment Facts, the average time between sentencing and execution of a prisoner on death row in 1992 was 114 months or 9 1/2 years (50). Flanders continued, to explain that criminal justice process expenses, trial court costs, appellate/post conviction costs and prison costs (not including the cost per year(s) served awaiting execution) exceeds two million dollars per execution (51). In comparison to the average costs for a twenty-year prison term for first degree murder (approximately $330,000 U.S.), the cost of putting a criminal away for life is a great amount less. Is it really worth the hassle and money to kill a criminal, when we can put them in prison for life for less money and a great deal more ease (Flanders 54).

In earlier times, where the death penalty was common, the value of life was less, and societies were more barbaric – capital punishment was quite accepted. Times have changed dramatically and people have many views and opinions about this world issue. However, despite the opposing views, it is safe to state that all people believe that repeat offenders and people who kill do not deserve to walk our streets. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and no one has the right to take that away. For some, capital punishment is seen as revenge and is necessary to maintain a stable society. For others who oppose capital punishment, it is seen as murder. The issue of capital punishment is questioned by many. In a so-called civil and moral world, the death penalty is a mockery of the exact thing we all hold dear life itself. Ask yourself this simple question. Why would you kill a killer, to prove that killing is wrong?

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