There are many critics of capital punishment who claim it is “inhuman and cruel punishment.” Of course, the crimes that got the convicted prisoner on Death Row the Death Sentence was capital murder, sometimes more than one murder. But, the sad fact is capital punishment has not slowed down the crime rate nor has it kept people from committing murder. “The death penalty does not deter crime. According to an anti-death penalty editorial in USA Today (March 8, 1995), the death penalty may actually increase crime and violence: The average 1993 murder rate in the states with the death penalty was 56% higher than in states without,” said the editorial. Furthermore, it seems fairly accurate that the rich, who can afford to hire expensive lawyers (yes, O.J., for one) can get away with murder and escape Death, and perhaps even long prison terms, if any prison sentences at all. Doing away with the death penalty solves nothing, except gladden some liberal hearts. Keeping the death penalty does not reduce crime but at least gives closure to the families and friends of victims. It is fair to say, however, both points of view have some merit (if not equal merit, at least some!).
First, let’s examine some anti-death penalty arguments. “Late-20th-century arguments against the death penalty , such as those put forth by Supreme Court justice Harry Blackmun, take another tack, arguing its fundamental unconstitutionality regarding due process, rather than its failure as a mode of punishment” (Sarat 361). The Argument frequently is whether the death penalty is moral penance or legal homicide.
It is the moral theory that propels some anti-death penalty activists: “Supporters of capital punishment are inconsistent because their arguments can be used to demand the liquidation of any individuals they deem socially useless. Human life is never justifiably the object of manipulation. There is no rational argument for the death penalty, only badly rationalized emotions. Man’s freedom is only within imprecisely defined limits, so that when he kills, society always shares in his guilt” (Svitak 556).
Death Penalty opponents sum up their arguments in many ways- but they all end up with one thing: The Death penalty is wrong. “To many people this trend toward more executions is a step backward. Death penalty opponents passionately argue that the death penalty is wrong for a number of reasons. The death penalty is morally wrong. Many death penalty opponents believe that by legalizing executions, society puts itself on the same low level as those it executes, and may even increase violence in society by making it more acceptable” (Anon 1).
The current argument in California regards a former gang member who killed a number of people, was sentenced to death, and “reformed” in prison writing a number of books against gangs. “Tookie” Williams is slated to die in several weeks. The Los Angeles TIMES editorial protested the death penalty in general: “The reason to oppose capital punishment has to do with who we are, not who death row inmates are. The death penalty is inappropriate in all situations because it is unbefitting of a civilized society” (Editorial B-12)
It is interesting to note the occasional conflict among Christians about the death penalty. Here is a “positive” view – that is, one in which the death penalty seems to be justifiably condoned: “Christ’s teaching forgives the sinner even while it condemns the sin, and human justice and mercy may perhaps find a unity in individuals if they turn the other cheek as they are taught. But at the level of any actual government, justice and mercy are necessarily in conflict, if judges show mercy, in any meaningful sense of the word, they do so at the explicit cost of justice; they are being unjust by failing to exact the penalty that justice requires” (Bottum 17).
If there is one reason to look twice ad the Death Penalty, it is the fact that juveniles are now sentenced to death in the U.S. “With a rash of murders committed by juveniles, some states permit the juries to decide that, if found guilty, youngsters can be put to death. “In the United States, twenty-five states allow the execution of juveniles, twenty-one states set the minimum age of execution at 16, and four states at 17.” (G.Potter 1) “…12 have no statutory minimum age, although the Supreme Court has set the minimum age for executions at 16.” (K. Potter 1999 1).
Supporters of the death penalty just don’t buy these arguments. To them the death penalty is neither immoral nor cruel nor unusual. “The death penalty is morally right, not wrong. Death penalty supporters say that society has the moral right – and duty – to take the lives of those who kill others. Many point to the Bible, which calls for punishment in the form of life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand . . The death penalty is not unconstitutional. Death penalty supporters also strongly dispute the claim that the death penalty is unconstitutional. They point out that the framers of the Constitution specifically refused to prohibit capital punishment in the Constitution and even referred to the death penalty in writing the Fifth Amendment.” (Anon 5).
For justice to prevail, perhaps the old Biblical “eye for an eye” threat is not improper, even in the 21st century. “A lost human life can only be fully compensated through the death penalty. As long as this does not happen there will, in a symbolic way, be the call of blood from the ground with the message that the crime has not been atoned. Most of us understand and feel that there is a debt that has to be paid in a just way.” (Anderson 7).
The United States, via the Supreme Court, has now “legalized” the death penalty. The federal government and most states (38) have the death penalty. The only jurisdictions that don’t have the death penalty are: Alaska, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Some states have the death penalty, but don’t ordinarily have very many inmates on “death row.” Other states, however, are known as big users of the death penalty, and include states like California, Texas, and Florida.
Still, because something is “egual:” doesn’t necessarily make it morally right. Look at the Abortion arguments on that same subject. What is obvious is that, death penalty or no, crime will continue, not because murderers are unafraid of the death penalty, but because most people committing a crime believe they can get away with it.
From a purely legal standpoints here are some considerations: “At constitutional law, the ‘death is different’ rule automatically triggers consideration of the cruel and unusual clause in the Eighth Amendment, and the Supreme Court has long held that a sentence of death is not cruel and unusual as long as the judge or jury have considered both mitigating and aggravating factors. Looking at seriousness of the offense and prior record (which are the two main factors in most sentencing) is not enough when the death penalty is at stake. Mitigating and aggravating factors are also used in the sentencing of other crimes not carrying the death penalty, but they are central to the sentence of death. Mitigating factors are background factors that work in the defendant’s favor at sentencing, while aggravating factors are “real offense” characteristics that work against the defendant.” (Banner 3) What we have, therefore, is a battle between justice and morality, with both sides armed with good arguments, and neither side willing to give up the fight. It is true that Death solves nothing, except some satisfaction for those close to the victim. Of course, there are those who hold the states’ or nation’s purse strings who say that keeping a prisoner for life behind bars is far more costly in the long ruin than putting him (or her, for that matter) to death. It is also obvious that those who oppose the death penalty do it purely on moral grounds, while its proponents do it more or less on personal grounds. There is an old saying that a Conservative is a liberal who was mugged the day before.
Anderson, Daviod: “17 Arguments for the Death Penalty”
Banner, Stuart. (2002). The Death Penalty: An American History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press (excerpted from:) faculty.ncwc.edu/toconnor/410/410lect15.htm
Bottum, Joseph: “Christians and the Death Penalty” New York: First Things, Aug/Sept. 2005
Potter, Gary: (1999) “The Juvenile Death Penalty” The Advocate Vol. 21 (6) University of Kentucky Justice and Police Studies
Potter, Karen (1999) “Juvenile Death Penalty Speech” United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child Nov. 18, 1999
Sarat, Austin: “PRESENTIST PREOCCUPATIONS: REFLECTIONS ON STATE KILLING IN THE CONTEMPORARY UNITED STATES” Historical Reflections 2003
Svitak, Ivan: “Reflections on Capital Punishment” Dissent, 1971
No author listed: “The death penalty” Current Events, a Weekly Reader publication, April 3, 1995 v94 n23
No author listed: “Death Penalty No Deterrent to Crime” USA Today, March 8, 1995
Editorial in the LA TIMES: “Shut Down Death Row” Oct. 27, 2005