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The Threat Of Death Essay, Research Paper

The Threat of Death

As the war on crime continues, two truths hold steady: eliminating all

crime is impossible, and controlling it is a must. The main weapon used to

control crime in this war is deterrence. The government’s deterrent for

committing murder is the death penalty. The fear of death will not deter every

person who contemplates murder from doing it. Whether it is for religious

reasons and the hope of salvation or something else, stopping some people is not

possible (Cohen 48). The intent is not to stop those people, but instead every

other would-be killer. Capital Punishment has been in the national spotlight

for many years and the center of the debate still remains whether it actually

deters would be offenders. Does this age-old penalty for the ultimate sin

achieve its goal? There are many lofty and rational arguments on both sides of

this issue.

Advocates of the death penalty claim that the primary reason for this

harsh punishment is that the fear of death discourages people from committing

murder. The main ways in which they support this theory are: the severity of

the punishment, various polls of citizens and prisoners, and two in particular


The most obvious deterring justification is the severity of punishment

(Calebresi 19). This means, put simply, to punish for a crime in a way that the

punishment outweighs the crime. If the punishment for robbing a bank is to

spend one day in jail, then bank robbing would become a daily occurance. On the

same note, if there is a reward for a lost item of jewelry and the reward is

less than the selling price for that jewelry, the finder has no reason to bring

it back. On the other hand, if the reward exceeds the value of the jewelry, the

new owner will bring it back very promptly. In the case of capital punishment,

if a person wants someone dead badly enough, and the punishment for murder is a

short stay in prison, what will possibly keep that person from doing the

unthinkable (Van Den Haag 68). If a person is afraid for their life, then the

stakes for their actions are much higher, probably even too high for most people.

Many psychologists believe that these “stakes” do not even have to be in

conscious thought for them to work. The theory is that a person’s conscience

weighs out many factors in all instances. While a would-be offender might be

contemplating the deed, the death penalty imbeds itself into that person’s

subconscience as a possible consequence of their actions, and thus the

conscience of that person begins to tilt to one side (Guernsey 70).

Another argument for the side that says capital punishment deters is the

majority opinion. New York, until recently, had been one of the few states left

that had yet to employ a death penalty for murder. In a recent opinion-poll,

fifty-seven percent of the respondents say that they believe that the death

penalty deters other criminals from killing (Kuntz 3). As it turns out, the

citizens of society are not the only ones that think the death penalty deters.

The death-roll inmates also feel this way. Through voicing their opinions on

how they feel and their actions (i.e., appeals, more appeals, etc.), they make

it clear that losing their life scares them badly.

There are two main studies that the proponents of the death penalty

refer to as proof of capital punishment’s deterring qualities. The first such

study is by New York University professor Isaac Ehrlich. Through Professor

Ehrlich’s research and studies of statistics that span sixty-six years, he

concludes that each execution prevents around seven or eight people from

committing murder (Worsnop 402). In 1985, an economist from the University of

North Carolina by the name of Stephen K. Layson publishes a report that shows

that every execution of a murderer deters eighteen would be murderers (Guernsey

68). While the numbers from these

studies might seem minute compared to the large number of murders committed

every day in the United States, the numbers become quite large when discussed

in the terms of the nearly four thousand executions that occurred in this

country over the last sixty-five years (Guernsey 65).

While advocates of the death penalty are putting forth extremely strong

arguments that support the proposition that capital punishment prevents murders,

opponents of the death penalty are putting forth arguments that are just as

weighty saying that the death penalty does nothing of the kind. Atypical

instances of murder, such as ones dealing with juvenile or mentally deficient

offenders, statistics make up the bulk of the opponents’ arguments against the

deterring effects of capital punishment.

Most Americans believe that juveniles are exempt from capital punishment.

This is not true. As of recently, over thirty people are on death row for

crimes they committed before they turned eightteen (Guernsey 25). The opponents

to the death penalty argue that juveniles do not have the moral responsibility

to bring a deterrent effect to them (Bazan 17). As Richard L. Worsnop writes in

his article entitled Death Penalty Debate Centers on Retribution:

Peer pressure and family environment subject adolescents to

enormous psychological and emotional stress. Adolescents

respond to stressful situations by acting impulsively and

without the mature judgement expected of adults. These

characteristics are shared by all adolescents….Thus, the

possibility of capital punishment is meaningless to

juveniles and has no deterrent effect.

Mentally deficient offenders are in the same situation that juveniles are in.

“As many as 30 percent of the 2,300 prisoners on death row may be retarded or

mentally impaired (Guernsey 30).” For a person that does not know what is right

or wrong, or even more, does not understand that he or she could face death for

what he is doing, capital punishment is not very likely going to have a

deterring effect.

Another situation that the opponents build their platform upon is in the

case of offenders impaired by drugs or alcohol or in an emotional rage. If a

person is not thinking straight, then chances are very good that they are not

going to be dwelling on what the consequences of their actions might be (Van Den

Haag 63). One simple instance could be a man goes down to the local bar, drinks

a few beers, and gets in a fight and someone ends up dying. This situation

classifies two different ways. First, the man has alcohol in his system and is

not in full control of his decision making processes. Second, because of the

fight or flight response in his body, the emotional rush from adrenaline will

overcome his rational thought. Capital punishment obviously does not deter this

man in the least by the thought of ending up in an electric chair or taking a

lethal injection. Another example of emotional rage might be when someone “sees

red.” For instance, a man (or woman) comes home to find his spouse sleeping

with another person. The man loses control, pulls a gun, and shoots his spouse

and her lover dead. The man is overcome with emotion and is very doubtfully

contemplating the thought that he himself could face the same fate (Guernsey 68).

Statistics are on the side of the opponents to capital punishment. In

the early 1960’s, a study by Thorsten Sellin compares statistics of side-by-side

states, one with the death penalty and one without. Sellin picks apart just

about every detail he can find and concludes that there is no evidence to

support the deterrent effect of the death penalty (Worsnop 398). Hans Zeisel, a

law and sociology professor, theorizes that “if executions deter murderers,

those states that stopped executions in the late 1960’s would have experienced

a greater increase in the murder rate than those states that stopped executions

decades ago.” Zeisel finds no sudden increase in the murder rate and concludes

that the death penalty has no deterring value (Worsnop 2).

Murders will continue, it seems, no matter what is done about it. The

proponents of capital punishment say that this is true, but the deterring

effects of the death penalty control it somewhat. Opponents to this say that

the death penalty holds no deterring effect of any kind. They believe that

capital punishment is just useless killing with no inherent value. This debate

is likely to continue for years to come.

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