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Death Penalty 3 Essay, Research Paper
Today, in modern law, the death penalty is corporal punishment. It is irreversible. It ends the
lives of those punished, instead of temporarily imprisoning them. Although capital punishment is
not intended to inflict physical pain, execution is the only corporal punishment still applied to
adults. The usual alternative to the death penalty is life-long imprisonment. The media
commonly report that the American public overwhelmingly supports the death penalty. More
careful analysis of public attitudes, however, reveals that most Americans would oppose the
death penalty if convicted murderers were sentenced to life without parole and were required to
make some form of financial restitution. In California, for example, a Field Institute survey
showed that in 1990,82 percent approved in principle of the death penalty. But when asked to
choose between the death penalty and life imprisonment plus restitution, only a small
minority,26 percent, continued to favor executions.
The earliest historical records contain written evidence of capital punishment. Used from
ancient times in most societies, it has been used as punishment for crimes ranging from petty
theft to murder. The bible called for the penalty of death for more than thirty different crimes. In
England, during the reigns of King Canute and William the Conqueror, the death penalty was not
used, although the results of interrogation and torture were often fatal. In the years to follow, the
death penalty in the American colonies before the Revolution, was commonly authorized for a
wide variety of crimes. Blacks were threatened with death for many crimes that were punished
less severely when committed by whites.
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Bentham, England repealed all but a few of its capital statutes during the 19th century.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. In 1794, Pennsylvania adopted a law to distinguish the degrees
of murder and only used the death penalty for premeditated first-degree murder. Another reform
took place in 1846 in Louisiana. This state abolished the mandatory death penalty and authorized
the option of sentencing a capital offender to life imprisonment rather than to death. After the
1830s, public executions ceased to be demonstrated but did not completely stop until after 1936.
Thirty-seven states now have laws authorizing the death penalty, as does the military. A
dozen states in the Middle West and Northeast have abolished capital punishment, two in the last
century (Michigan in 1847,Minnesota in 1853). Alaska and Hawaii have never had the death
penalty. Most executions have taken place in the states of the Deep South. More than 2,000
people are on death row today. Most of all of the people are poor, a significant number are
mentally retarded or mentally disabled, more than 40 percent are African American, and a
disproportionate number are Native American, Latino and Asian.
The methods of execution have changed over the ages. The death penalty been inflicted
in many ways now regarded today as barbaric and forbidden by law almost everywhere. Some
ways it was inflicted in the past was crucifixion, boiling in oil, drawing and quartering,
impalement, beheading, burning alive, crushing, tearing, stoning, and drowning. 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. These methods of execution compared to those of the past are
not meant for torture, they are meant for punishment for heinous crime.
The traditional mode of execution, still available in a few states, is hanging. If the drop is
too short, there will be a slow and agonizing death by strangulation. If the drop is too long, the
head will be torn off. Two states, Idaho and Utah, still authorize the firing squad. The prisoner is
strapped into a chair, and hooded. A target is pinned to the chest. Five marksmen, one with
blanks, take aim and fire. Electrocution has been the most widely used form of execution in this
country in this century. The condemned prisoner is led–or dragged–into the death chamber,
strapped into the chair, and electrodes are fastened to head and legs. When the switch is thrown
the body strains, jolting as the voltage is raised and lowered. Often smoke rises from the head.
There is the awful odor of burning flesh. No one knows how long electrocuted individuals retain
consciousness. An attempt to improve on electrocution was the gas chamber. The prisoner is
strapped into a chair, a container of sulfuric acid underneath. The chamber is sealed, and cyanide
is dropped into the acid to form lethal gas. The latest mode of inflicting the death penalty,
enacted into law by nearly two dozen states, is lethal injection, first used in Texas in 1982. There
is no way of knowing that it is really painless. As the U.S. Court of Appeals observed, there is
“substantial and uncontroverted evidence … that execution by lethal injection poses a serious risk
of cruel, protracted death…. Even a slight error in dosage or administration can leave a prisoner
conscious but paralyzed while dying, a sentient witness of his or her own asphyxiation.”
However, the execution sometime never proceeds smoothly as planned. In 1985, “the authorities
repeatedly jabbed needles into … Stephen Morin, when they had trouble finding a usable vein
because he had been a drug abuser. In 1988, during the execution of Raymond Landry, “a tube
attached to a needle inside the inmate’s right arm began leaking, sending the lethal mixture
shooting across the death chamber toward witnesses.”
According to a study conducted, an execution costs North Carolina $2 million more than
the cost of a non-death penalty murder case with a sentence of life imprisonment. Each year the
death penalty costs California $90 million over and above the ordinary costs of the justice
system; $76 million of this amount is spent at trial. In Los Angeles County alone, the death
penalty costs over $635,000 more per defendant than life imprisonment without parole. In Texas,
a death penalty case costs about $2.3 million on an average to prosecute and execute each capital
case as compared with $400,000 for life imprisonment. Florida has found that it is almost six
times as expensive to try a capital defendant than to imprison the person for the rest of his or her
life. In Maryland, a comparison of capital trial costs with and without the death penalty for the
years 1979-1984 concluded that a death penalty case costs approximately 42 percent more than a
case resulting in a non-death sentence, according to the GAO.
This is a huge amount of tax payers money but the public looks at it as an investment in
safety since these murders will never kill again. The publication Millions Misspent states that the
costs of capital punishment are actually making America less safe because badly needed
financial and legal resources are being diverted from effective crime fighting strategies. The
1994 Epilogue to Millions Misspent states that if a program is highly cost intensive, it should be
replaced by better alternatives. With a record high of 3,269 inmates on death row, these costs
will only continue to escalate. The hundreds of millions of dollars that would be saved could be
devoted to crime prevention measures which really do reduce crime and violence, and thus are
the true alternatives to the death penalty as well as assisting financially families of victims.
Those who argue against the death penalty as a deterrent to crime say the following
statements. Adjacent states, in which one has a death penalty and the other does not, show no
long term differences in the number of murders that occur in that state. States that use the death
penalty seem to have a larger number of homicides than states that do not use it. Also, states that
have abolished the death penalty and then reinstituted it show no significant change in the
murder rate. And finally, there has been no record of change in the rate of homicides in a given
city or state seems to occur following a local execution. The intent of scaring a possible
murderer not to kill or kill again because of the penalty of death according to critics has little
effect. 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
The government is and should be interested in decreasing the crime rate. So proponents
of the death penalty say that it has a deterrent effect on criminals and therefore it should prevent
other crimes. And the charge of life-imprisonment would open the opportunity of escape to the
charged. But instead the death penalty is not more deterrent than life-imprisonment. The
murderers (the biggest part of the charged) kill mostly for money or love (with all of their areas).
They wouldn’t be deterred whether they come into prison for the entire rest of their lives or they
get killed, because either they don’t think normally about comparison between disadvantage and
advantage when they plan to or are even killing a person or they think they will make it without
any damage to themselves. And a life in prison is more deterrent than the “procedure of death”.
Furthermore the chance of escape is very low in current high tech prisons.
Another controversial aspect of the death penalty is that innocent people are killed even
though they did not commit any crime. The danger that innocent people will be executed
because of errors in the criminal justice system is getting worse. A total of 69 people have been
released from death row since 1973 after evidence of their innocence emerged. Twenty-one
condemned inmates have been released since 1993, including seven from the state of Illinois
alone. Many of these cases were discovered not because of the normal appeals process, but
rather as a result of new scientific techniques, investigations by journalists, and the dedicated
work of expert attorneys, not available to the typical death row inmate.
In 1975, only a year before the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of capital
punishment, 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 of an alleged
eyewitness, and incompetent defense counsel. 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 their execution not been stayed while the constitutional status of the death penalty was
argued in the courts, these two innocent men probably would not be alive today.
Just months after Pitts and Lee were released, authorities in New Mexico were forced to
admit they had sentenced to death four white men — motorcyclists from Los Angeles — who were
innocent. The accused offered a documented alibi at their trial, but the prosecution dismissed it
as an elaborate ruse. The jury’s verdict was based mainly on what was later revealed to be
perjured testimony (encouraged by the police) from an alleged eyewitness. Thanks to persistent
investigation by newspaper reporters and the confession of the real killer, the error was exposed
and the defendants were released after eighteen months on death row.
Racial discrimination was one of the grounds on which the Supreme Court relied in
Furman in ruling the death penalty unconstitutional. Half a century ago, Gunnar Myrdal reported
that “the South makes the widest application of the death penalty, and Negro criminals come in
for much more than their share of the executions.” Statistics confirm this discrimination, only it
is not confined to the South. Between 1930 and 1990, 4,016 persons were executed in the United
States. Of these, 2,129 (or 53 percent) were black. For the crime of murder, 3,343 were
executed; 1,693 (or 51 percent) were black. During these years African-Americans were about
12 per cent of the nation’s population.
The nation’s death rows have always had a disproportionately large population of
African-Americans, relative to their fraction of the total population. Over the past century, black
offenders, as compared with white, were often executed for crimes less often receiving the death
penalty, such as rape and burglary. (Between 1930 and 1976, 455 men were executed for rape, of
whom 405 (or 90 percent) were black.) A higher percentage of the blacks who were executed
were juveniles; and blacks were more often executed than were whites without having their
conviction reviewed by any higher court.
The death penalty, outlawed in most of Europe, Canada, Australia, and most other
countries in the world, is still practiced in almost forty states, and a high proportion of people in
the United States currently support it. This was not always the case. In the 60’s and 70’s, a bare
majority of Americans favored capital punishment. But rising fear of crime, and the alienated
deception of the death penalty issue by many politicians for their own political gain, increases.
Death penalty opponents, including many religious groups and individuals, and a growing
number of prison wardens, maintain that capital punishment constitutes cruel and unusual
punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Killing, whether carried out by an individual
or the state, is immoral and ought not to be condoned. Furthermore, the death penalty as
practiced in the U.S. is subject to judgment and racial biased. It has no proven deterrent value.
And many misapplications of justice have been recorded over the years in which people have
been put to death for crimes they did not commit.
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