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C. M. V. (RELS 1502)
March 29, 2001
Capital Punishment: Fair or Unfair
The most severe form of punishment of all legal sentences is that of death. This is
referred to as the death penalty, or “capital punishment”; this is the most severe form of
corporal punishment, requiring law enforcement officers to actually kill the offender. It
has been banned in numerous countries, in the United States, however an earlier move to
eliminate capital punishment has now been reversed and more and more states are
resorting to capital punishment for such serious offenses namely murder. “Lex talionis”,
mentioned by the Bible encourages “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” mentality,
and people have been using it regularly for centuries. We use it in reference to burglary,
adultery, and various other situations, although, some people enforce it on a different
level, some people use it in reference to death. An individual may steal from those who
have stolen from him/her, or an individual wrongs those who have wronged him/her, but
should an individual have the right to kill to seek retaliation? Four issues are on the hot
topic in the United States, stirring up America’s feelings towards this issue.
There is controversy debating capital punishment today and whether or not it
works, or if it is morally right. We have a certain privilege in our own lives, but should
the lives of others belong to us as well. Do we have the right to decide on the lives of
others, of people we may not even know? If we find someone guilty of murder, we
sentence him to death. This makes us murders ourselves, but is there possibility in
justifying these acts?
Those who assist in the death penalty are they not partners in crime? Is the death
penalty a cruel and unusual punishment or is it now just a necessary tool in the war of
crime? With today’s increase in crime and violence in our society, the death penalty
effects every American, whether interested or not, and has existed for quite some time
The use of the death penalty has actually declined throughout the industrial
Western World since the 19th century. In 1972, a movement in America to have the death
penalty declared unconstitutional arose, during the landmark case of Furman vs. Georgia,
declaring the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment, nonetheless, a Supreme
Court decision in 1975, Gregg vs. Georgia, stated capital punishment did not violate the
eighth Amendment rights, and the executions began again under state supervision. These
inconsistencies and indecisions have obviously sparked a debate. (Horwitz, 124-127)
Four major issues in capital punishment are debated, most aspects of which were
touched upon by Seton Hall’s panel discussion on the death penalty. The first issue stands
as deterrence. A major purpose of criminal punishment is to conclude future criminal
conduct. The deterrence theory suggests that a rational person will avoid criminal
behavior if the severity of the punishment outweighs the benefits of the illegal conduct. It
is believed that fear of death “deters” people from committing a crime. Most criminals
would think twice before committing murder if they knew their own lives were at stake.
When attached to certain crimes, the penalty of death exerts a positive moral influence,
placing a stigma on certain crimes like manslaughter, which results in attitudes of horror
to such acts.
Studies of the deterrent effect of the death penalty have been conducted for
several years, with varying results. Most studies have failed to produce evidence that the
death penalty deterred murders more effectively then the threat of imprisonment. The
reason for this is that few people are executed and so the death penalty is not a
satisfactory deterrent. If capital punishment were carried out more often it would prove to
be the crime deterrent it was intended to be. During highly publicized death penalty
cases, the homicide rate is found to go down but it rises back up when the case concludes.
When comparisons are made between states with the death penalty and states
without, the majority of death penalty states show murder rates higher than non-death
penalty states. The average murder rate per 100,000 population in 1996 among death
penalty states was 7.1, the average murder rate among non-death penalty states was only
3.6. A look at neighboring death penalty and non-death penalty states show similar
trends as death penalty states usually have a higher murder rate than their neighboring
non-death penalty states. (Horwitz, 87)
The second issue in the capital punishment debate is retribution, or the need for
society to express sufficient condemnation for violent murders. Supporters of the death
penalty contend that the only proper response to the most vile murders is the most sever
punishment possible. Therefore, society should literally interpret the earlier mentioned,
An eye for an eye principle. When an individual takes a life, the moral balance in
society will remain upset until the killer's life is also taken.
Although the death penalty opponents disagree, society should be able to express
its outrage with a vile crime by inflicting capital punishment. They suggest that they are
showing outrage for taking a life by talking the life of another. (Jacoby, 39)
Use of the death penalty as intended by law could actually reduce the number of
violent murders by eliminating some of the repeat offenders thus being used as a system
of justice, not just a method of deterrence. Modern supporters of capital punishment no
longer view the death penalty as a deterrent, but just as a punishment for the crime as one
source stated, ...in recent years the appeal of deterrence has been supplanted by a frank
desire for what large majorities see as just vengeance. (Bailey, 1994, 55)
The third major issue is arbitrariness, determined by or arising from impulse
rather than judgment. From the days of slavery in which black people were considered
property, through the years of lynching and Jim Crow laws, capital punishment has
always been deeply affected by race. Unfortunately, the days of racial bias in the death
penalty are not a remnant of the past, says Robert C. Watters of the NAACP Legal
Defense and Education Fund.
Fairness requires that people who break the same law under similar circumstances
must meet with the same punishment, however the justice system is in no way consistent.
Statistics show that a black man who kills a white person is eleven times more likely to
receive the death penalty than a white man who kills a black person! Blacks who kill
blacks have even less to worry about.
The fourth debate is the danger of mistake. In the past, many people have been
wrongfully executed for crimes that they did not commit, all by the name of justice. It has
happened that after the execution of the alleged guilty party, the real murderer had
confessed to free his guilty conscience. No matter how careful courts are, the possibility
of perjured testimony, mistaken honest testimony, and human error remain all too real.
We have no way of judging how many innocent persons have been executed, but we can
be certain there were some”, Watters says.
The unique thing about the death penalty is that it is final and irreversible. Since
1970, almost eighty people have been released from death row with evidence of their
innocence. Researchers Michael L. Radelet andHugo Adam Bedau found twenty three cases
since 1900 where innocent people were executed, and the numbers are still growing.
Stories like that of Rolando Cruz, released after ten years on Illinois's death row, despite
the fact that another man had confessed to the crime shortly after his conviction, and that
of Ricardo Aldape Guerra, who returned to Mexico after fifteen years on Texas's death
row because of a prosecution that a federal judge called outrageous and designed to
simply “achieve another notch on the prosecutor's guns.” (Jacoby, 38)
Now, there are actually some safeguards guaranteeing protection of those facing
the death penalty. The safeguards for convicts are: The defendant can not be insane, and
the man's real or criminal intent must be present. Also, minors rarely receive the death
penalty because they are not fully mature, not knowing the consequences of their
actions. Lastly, the mentally retarded are very seldom executed. The reason for not
executing in this case is that they often have difficulty defending themselves in court,
such as problems remembering details, locating witnesses, and testifying credibly on their
own behalf. These safeguards are to try to insure that justice will be served without
having it suffer.
In the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament, the death penalty was required for
a numerous range of offenses, both civil and religious. The following is a passage from
the King James’ version of the Bible as Jehovah required the state to execute a person for
murder: Genesis 9:6 states: “Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be
shed: for in the image of God made he man.”, serving as sufficient proof that if a person
had committed a crime, the state imposed the death penalty on the guilty person. They
were either stoned to death, impaled or burned alive. Witnesses who testified at the trial
would often participate in the killing. Though, to their credit, the courts of ancient Israel
required very high levels of proof of criminality before they would order the death
penalty. (Horwitz, 36)
I believe that there must be a punishment that serves the purpose of teaching a
lesson. Personally, I have always believed the death penalty was just, and that it taught
the criminal a lesson. But after examining a lot of information, and attending the Panel
Discussion, I have come to realize that capital punishment serves very few purposes. It is
bias towards Caucasian, it relieves the criminal from a lifetime of misery in prison, and it
is not even rendered to the true guilty party in some cases, reinforcing the fact that
negatives to the death penalty greatly outweigh the positives.
An eye for an eye. Many people believe that capital punishment does not
belong in a civilized society. I believe a form of it is needed because we do not live in a
civilized society, whereas mass murders and those who create such devious and heinous
crimes will surface at different times, and there needs to be a way of ending their
madness. We live in a day and age where killing happens everyday though, and first
time offenders, for example, should receive a life sentence, teaching the individual, and
those around the individual that if “You do the crime, you pay the time.” Stricter bans on
parole for those who receive life, more equality in sentencing and, a lot fewer death
sentencings to capital punishment would vastly improve the United States’ legal system,
and put an end to this exhausting argument.
Bibliography: Sources Cited
#1.) Jacoby, Jeff. “The Accuracy of Capital Punishment.” Boston Globe Feb. 2000: 37+.
#2.) Horwitz, Joshua L. Frontline: The Execution. New York: Knopf, 1998.
#3.) Bonevac, Daniel. Today’s Moral Issues; Classic and Contemporary Perspectives. California, Mayfield, 1999.
#4.) Bailey, William. Social Science & Capital Punishment. Boston: Beacon, 1996.
#5.) Discussion: Topic on Capital Punishment, Joseph Chapel, Tony Fusco, Raymond Brown, Deborah Jacobs. Seton Hall University, 2001.
Word Count: 1829
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