“‘Violence breeds violence. Acts of violence committed in “justice” or in affirmation of “rights” or in defense of “peace” do not end violence. They prepare and justify its continuation’” (Bushman). This quote was famously given by American novelist Wendell Berry on why he opposed the death penalty. Capital punishment is the greatest moral dilemma of our era. It pits the government against the people in a matter of life and death, where the justice system wields absolute power and minimal responsibility for its actions. The current debate on the death penalty is primarily centered around the “humanity” of the process and whether or not it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Although fifty-six percent of Americans still support the death penalty because they believe it deters crime, saves money, and keeps murderers off the streets, capital punishment represents the eye-for-an-eye policy of an uncivilized era and shows that America’s justice system is deeply flawed and plagued by the fallibility and bias of human judgement. When a society is naive enough to make the government judge, jury, and executioner, Lincoln’s idea of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people can no longer apply.
As much of a human rights fiasco as it has become, the majority of Americans actually still support the death penalty because they believe it deters crime and reduces the number of homicides. Harvard graduate and frequent writer on the death penalty Kenneth Jost mentioned a very controversial study published in 2003, in which Emory University economists Hashem Dezhbakhsh and Paul H. Rubin and Emory law professor Joanna Shepherd tried to use data from before and after recent death penalty moratoriums to conclude that each execution prevented on average 18 murders (Jost). In response, Cornell’s John Blume, director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project, denied that there is any credible evidence to claim that the death penalty is a deterrent (Jost). If there was ever an occasion to use the AP Psychology phrase “correlation is not causation”, it would be in reference to studies on the deterrence of crime. It is impossible to find a direct, cause-and-effect relationship between the two variables solely based off data. While it may be possible that people think twice about committing a crime because of death as a possible consequence, the vast majority of murders are not premeditated and do not take this into consideration. When a man comes home to find his wife with someone else; when a mother sees someone threatening her child; when a student snaps and takes revenge on his school bullies, they are not thinking about what happens to them next. Dezhbakhsh and Rubin did not produce a credible number when they said that each execution prevented an average of 18 murders. There is no way to tell if they prevent any murders at all.
Another argument in favor claims that the death penalty is necessary to protect society’s innocent people from its most dangerous criminals. As unearthed in a debate about ethics and justice, this is based off the idea that people forfeit all of their rights, including the right to life, when they commit murder (“Preface to…”). In fact, capital punishment is not necessary at all because life in prison without the possibility of parole accomplishes the same thing. The killer is forced to spend the rest of his life weighing the consequences of his actions while never seeing beyond the walls of a prison ever again. Also, committing murder does not mean that one forfeits their right to live. All people have the right to live, as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“Preface to…”). Lastly, while the death penalty does boast a 100% recidivism rate, it comes with the pessimistic outlook that it’s not possible for a killer to be reformed through the correctional system. Prison is not supposed to be a punishment; it is supposed to rehabilitate and reform troubled people. If there is no hope that criminals can be changed, is it fair to call it the correctional system?
On another note, Gary Gershman, a published author on the death penalty, presents the argument that “by taking the murderer’s life, the state is trying to show society that murder is an unacceptable crime, and whoever commits it will pay the ultimate price” (Gershman 9). In fact, this just shows society that murder is only acceptable when committed by the state. In a country that values its democracy so much, it seems like the power to play God rests in the hands of the government. No man should have the right to determine who lives and who dies. Things get complicated when men judge each other, and some who deserve to die end up living, while some who deserve to live end up dying.
Surprisingly, the majority of death penalty supporters are conservatives, even though it does not limit government, is not pro-life, and is not proven to deter crime. According to Robert Kiener, a reputable freelance journalist, there is even an organization called Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty to fight this position (Kiener). It is bizarre that conservatives still support capital punishment because it contradicts so many of their values. It greatly increases the power of government by giving them the ability to commit murder, it is certainly not pro-life, and there is no way to prove that it prevents crime.
Perhaps the most popular reason that many people are in favor of the death penalty is because they think it means less money is spent on the criminals than if they were to be fed, clothed, and housed in prison for the rest of their lives. This dogma presented by the leaders of the pro-death penalty movement is just wrong. “A Kansas study cited by the California commission found that a capital trial cost $1.2 million compared to $700,000 for a non-capital murder case. In Tennessee, adding a capital charge was found to raise the cost of a trial by about 50 percent. And an Indiana study found that the total trial and post-trial cost of a capital case was five times the cost for a non-capital murder” (Jost). There is a wealth of credible statistics to show that the death penalty is more expensive than life in prison. As the state is forced to hear the suspect’s numerous appeals and pleas, the costs of the numerous trials really accumulate. Supporters of the death penalty will be quick to point out that mainstream prisoners make appeals to the court as well, but these are far less costly and frequent. According to the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, “costs could be reduced from upwards of $100 million a year to a mere $11.5 million a year by substituting life without parole as the maximum punishment for capital offenses” (Jost). This simply confirms that life in prison is beneficial for the government and could even be a remedy for the state budget crisis of California. It is significantly less money to pursue a life sentence as the penalty for murder.
Now, from the preceding paragraphs, it would seem that the death penalty debate is being dominated by supporters. However, on the other end of the spectrum, there is a rising tide of conscientious individuals who can no longer stand government-condoned violence. More people than ever are speaking out, and it seems like the day may come when the majority of Americans oppose the death penalty. But that day is far away and countless people still need convincing. At its most fundamental level, capital punishment is uncivilized and inhumane. The death penalty is a remnant of the brutally harsh justice systems of the past, where retribution was the main priority. Out of the 58 countries that retain capital punishment, there are only three other major democracies: India, Indonesia and Japan. With 60 executions in 2009, the United States ranked fifth in the world behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, four countries with awful human rights records (Jost). For a country that is supposed to be a shining symbol of freedom, it does not make sense that the United States kills its own citizens at a higher clip than countries who are known for their oppressive governments. That is no way to set an example as the world’s leading democracy. While the rest of the developed world has modernized and moved past capital punishment, the United States has been left in the dark ages. According to Hugo Bedau, a respected contributor to the American Civil Liberties Union pamphlet, the death penalty is one of the last existing relics of the earliest days of penology, when slavery, branding and other corporal punishments happened regularly and policies like Hammurabi’s Code were the law of the land (Bedau). If a man commits murder, he is murdered as well. That is the most primitive form of justice there is. As the Dalai Lama once said, “‘The death penalty is pure violence, a barbaric and useless violence. Dangerous even, because it can only lead to other acts of violence–as all violence does. The supreme punishment ought to be a life sentence, and one without brutality’” (Gershman 3). If it is not dealt with promptly, the death penalty will continue to be a stain on America’s legacy.
During the Cold War, literature like George Orwell’s 1984 and the public’s perception of the Soviet Union helped to create the fear of totalitarian governments that still endures in America today. Gershman wrote that “critics have argued that the death penalty is not an instrument of a democratic government but the product of a totalitarian regime because it is part of a system that helps enforce order through institutionalized terror” (Gershman 54). The death penalty stands for everything the United States most strongly opposes and sends a very negative message to its democratic allies. This is a technique used to maintain order by instilling fear in the people. When referred to from this perspective, it sounds like something Stalin or Big Brother would have used. According to Amnesty International, “‘The death penalty is the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights. It is the premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the state. It violates the right to life as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the right to be free from cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment’” (“Preface to…”). This makes America sound like Nazi Germany, but it is true. When the state carries out the death penalty, it is committing premeditated, systematic murder. Let that sink in.
Furthermore, the death penalty indubitably constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.Capital punishment can be considered cruel because it stems from a primitive form of justice. It can be considered unusual because, out of all the western industrialized nations, only the United States engages in this punishment.It is also unusual because only a random sampling of convicted murderers in the United States receive a sentence of death (Bedau). It is applied very inconsistently. By no means are those executed the worst of the worst; they are simply the poorest and least fortunate (a discussion for later in the essay). The death penalty can only be defined as retribution for the criminal’s own crimes, and it is rarely found in countries from the developed world. It has to be considered a violation of the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.
Building off the idea of cruelty, the United States has botched numerous executions in the past and left the criminals to die agonizing deaths. The only reason many people are able to stomach the death penalty is the belief that it is quick and painless, but that is not always the case. “A witness to the 43-minute-long April 2014 lethal injection execution of Oklahoma death row inmate Clayton Lockett likened it to ‘a horror movie.’ Meanwhile, Dennis McGuire, who was sentenced to death in Ohio, told observers during his January 2014 execution with midazolam and hydromorphone that he could ‘feel his whole body burning’” (Kiener). As recently as 2014, executions have been seriously botched, which contests the claim that all of the problems with lethal injection have been ironed out. Even if the problems have finally been solved, that doesn’t change the fact that the government of the United States has put criminals in situations equivalent to torture before killing them. Clayton Lockett and Dennis McGuire were violent, sadistic men, but they were still human and did not deserve to suffer and die at the hands of the state.
If the inhumane and uncivilized nature of the death penalty is not enough to sway public opinion, perhaps the faults it has unveiled within the justice system will be. The death penalty reveals that the whole justice system is deeply flawed and relies far too much on subjective human judgement. In a startling number of cases, innocent people have been sent to death row for crimes they didn’t commit. In fact, 153 death row inmates across the country have been exonerated over the last 43 years, often due to newly examined DNA evidence. Also, a 2014 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated that about one in 25 people (4.1 percent) sentenced to death are innocent (Kiener). It is impossible for these numbers to not jump out at you. In a process that is literally life and death, how can the government and the judicial system accept such high rates of error? This means that, in order to put down murderers, the United States is willing to let innocent citizens get caught in the crossfire. The death penalty is far too risky because there is always the chance that the police got the wrong guy. In this case, a simple law enforcement error at identifying the suspect means that an innocent person loses everything and is put to death for no reason. If there is even the smallest inkling of doubt that that the death penalty always punishes the right person, it should be abolished. Republican Governor Mark Earley wrote that he had “come to the conclusion that the death penalty is based on a false utopian premise. That false premise is that we have had, do have, and will have 100 percent accuracy in death penalty convictions and executions” (Kiener). Earley hits the nail on the head. The price of a mistake will always outweigh whatever good the death penalty supposedly does.
In addition, the due process is littered with misconduct. One of the most striking examples of official misconduct is the case of Gary Nelson. Nelson was convicted and sentenced to death for the horrific rape and murder of a six year old, the type of crime that falls under the public spotlight and makes the police work quickly to find a suspect. After over eleven years on death row, Nelson’s unpaid attorneys were finally able to get him released. As worded by former executive of the Death Penalty Information Center Michael Kroll, it turned out that “the government’s capital case against their client rested on a foundation of official lies, the knowing use of false testimony, and the willful suppression of evidence in the state’s possession which not only tended to support Mr. Nelson’s claim of innocence, but which pointed to the guilt of another” (Kroll). This unnerving story shows that the police have been known to pin crimes on innocent people in order to expedite the judicial process. There is a tremendous amount of pressure to find the suspect as soon as possible, so police and prosecutors often find someone who fits the criteria and devise a way to make him guilty. After learning that FBI forensic specialists had lied about evidence in death penalty cases, Democratic Governor Jack Markell reversed his opinion on the matter and called capital punishment “an instrument of imperfect justice” (Kiener). Kroll also presents the similar case of Clarence Brandley, a black janitor who was convicted of raping and murdering a white school girl. “The misconduct in that case involved every level of government, from the police who threatened witnesses to prevent them from testifying for Brandley, to the trial judge and the prosecutor who held secret meetings to rehearse objections and rulings, to the state attorney general who lied about the results of a lie detector test” (Kroll). It is disturbingly common for the judicial system to resort to framing people in capital murder cases.
Police also have a history of threatening and bullying witnesses to produce false testimony. In the 1975 prosecution of Leonard Peltier for the murder of two FBI agents, the case was almost solely based on the statement of a mentally ill woman. She later took back her testimony and claimed that the FBI coerced her into testifying by threatening her daughter, but the judge ruled her incompetent (Kroll). This case puts on display the corrupt capabilities of the government. They used intimidation as a tactic to take advantage of a helpless woman, and the result of this bullying was that an innocent man was sentenced to die. A second example is the case of Barry Fairchild. The evidence is that the sheriff and his deputies “engaged in overt brutality, both verbal and physical, against a succession of suspects until one of them, who was mentally retarded, gave in to the intimidation and signed a confession.” (Kroll). Not only can the justice system use brutality to obtain the death penalty: it can also take advantage of people who are mentally impaired.
Furthermore, prosecutors commonly exploit sources like jailhouse informants while attempting to make a conviction. Using jailhouse testimony as a prosecutor is not considered valid evidence in court. Kroll discovered that “after canvassing post-conviction cases in California, however, attorneys for the California Appellate Project estimate that ‘close to a third of those individuals suffering death judgments have had jailhouse informants involved in some capacity in their cases’” (Kroll). Jailhouse testimony is completely unreliable because criminals often lie to gain a bargaining chip to reduce their sentences. In the case of Warren McCleskey, a man was shipped off to death row solely based on jailhouse testimony, which was not revealed to the court by the prosecution team. He may have been murdered because a fellow inmate lied about him. The prosecutors in criminal cases are usually politicians, who sacrifice justice for courtroom victories in order to make themselves look better (Kroll). In cases where lives are on the line, this dishonesty and lack of thoroughness is unacceptable.
For those who still support the death penalty, the most important question to consider is whether one can trust a justice system so thoroughly dominated by bias to always produce a fair ruling. The most fundamental flaw with the courts is that no human can be totally objective. Everyone is influenced by their own personal tendencies and opinions, and this most often appears with racism. Especially in the South, justice is not evenly distributed among blacks and whites. Many people are not interested in providing a fair trial for black defendants, and juries often just assume that they did it. District Attorney of the Ocmulgee Judicial Court Joe Briley was known to ensure that black defendants in capital cases were tried by all-white juries and even instructed a clerk on how to under-represent blacks and not get caught (Kroll). “Blacks make up 12% of the U.S. population, but they make up 48% of those on death row (55% of those on death row are people of color). The odds of receiving the death penalty increase by 38% when the accused is Black” (Bushman). This proof of bias shows that the death penalty is unusual punishment because it is unevenly distributed among the different demographics. To make it worse, black men who kill whites are executed at a higher rate than either blacks or whites who kill blacks (Gershman 11). This alarming statistic exemplifies the racial biases of the “justice” system. Capital punishment impacts the black community far more so than the white community. The judicial system is not some omniscient being that always knows the truth; rather, it is composed of flawed men who exercise their own prejudices in the courtroom.
Finally, it is crucial to have a top-notch lawyer when facing a capital murder case, and poor people are forced to settle for court-appointed defenders who they aren’t even paying. Death penalty opponents say many capital defendants receive inadequate representation at trial and that many or even most death row inmates have little if any legal help in challenging their convictions or sentences afterward (Jost). Poor people are basically doomed when they face a capital murder charge because their lawyers are not particularly motivated to help them. “Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg also criticized the ‘meager’ amount of money spent to defend poor people. OJ Simpson’s lawyer—who received $5 million for defending him—said, ‘In the U.S., you’re better off, if you’re in the system, being guilty and rich than being innocent and poor’” (Bushman). As the OJ Simpson case exemplifies, rich people hardly ever get convicted of murder because they have such a strong team of lawyers working for them. Capital punishment targets the poor and minorities rather than the worst offenders. Of all the people convicted on a charge of criminal homicide, only 1 in 33 (about 3%) are eventually sentenced to death.This tiny fraction of convicted murderers do not represent the ‘worst of the worst’ (Bedau). As it stands now, the death penalty is not taking care of society’s most monstrous criminals; it is simply taking care of the least fortunate ones.
Some recurring themes that come to mind are impracticality, immorality, and injustice. Capital punishment is wrong, and all it takes is an open mind to see that. The death penalty has not been proven to do anything except cling on to a dark and violent past and reveal the failings of the justice system and modern ethics. Besides, it is highly expensive, it cannot be proven to deter crime, it can easily be substituted for life in prison, it is cruel and unusual punishment, it is government-sanctioned violence, and it is fundamentally wrong because murder always is. More and more people are taking action, and the tides are starting to turn in favor of the opposition.Why do people stand up and argue that the death penalty is wrong? Maybe it is logical. Maybe it is an innate feeling. Maybe it is the idea that men can live together in peace without the need to kill each other. Maybe it is the hope for a better society that transcends violence and destruction.
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