A Brief Position and Analysis Against Further Implementation of the Death Penalty Essay
The issue of whether or not a person supports or opposes the death penalty is currently one of great contention within the United States. The following analysis will not attempt to make a moral determination of which viewpoint is superior; rather, the following analysis intends to show a few of the strongest and most logical arguments for ending the death penalty. Morality within the context of the rule of law is a topic that could be debated until the end of time. However, for the purpose of this brief analysis – by presenting salient arguments and verifiable reason as to why the death penalty should be abolished, this analysis will work to appeal to individuals on the cost-benefit and risk-reward matrix of decision making rather than imploring a human rights response.
From an economic standpoint, the cost to execute someone as compared to the cost of life imprisonment is staggeringly high. As compared with life imprisonment, the total average cost, inclusive of legal fees, state appointed attorneys, appeals process etc is in excess of 4 million dollars per prisoner executed. Assuming a standard cost of imprisonment of 35,000 dollars per year per prisoner, it would take over 100 years for life imprisonment to no longer be economically viable as compared to capital punishment (Iglesias, Semeshenko, 2012) Given the current environment coupled with the fact that many states are already struggling with large budget deficits and ballooning future budgeting needs, it only stands to reason that life imprisonment should be considered for the future as well as those prisoners already on their death row.
Secondly, there are known cases in the history of the death penalty in the United States in which innocent people have been put to death for crimes they did not commit. Additionally, there are numerous cases in which DNA evidence helps to exonerate an individual who is currently on death row awaiting execution (Debrevnik, 2004). Although this is a moral dilemma, the mere existence of these statistics should give pause to any who would push for the continuation of the death penalty with no thoughts as to its consequences. In the opinion of this author, it is not the “good intent” of the system that proves it to be a success; instead, even one wrongful death equates to the entire principle being rendered ineffective.
The death penalty has been proven that it is not a deterrent against violent crime. Crime rates, if anything, remain unaffected by the presence or lack of presence of the death penalty in a given state or jurisdiction. An overwhelming number of studies into this have irrefutably proven that the existence of the death penalty has little if any retardation of the violent crime rate; if anything, those states that employ the death penalty have the highest rates of violent crime in the country as compared with those states that do not employ the death penalty (Radalet 2009).
Additionally, there is the arbitrary nature of the death penalty. Because of a host of factors, juror bias, race, socio-economic background, whether or not the offender had a previous record, or the quality of legal counsel provided, the death penalty can and has been wrongfully ascribed to individuals in cases as the ones listed (Proffitt, 2011). Due to this fact and the fact that once convicted, the possibility of being allowed a retrial or having the evidence reviewed again is extremely small, this is a risk that is better not gambled with; especially if it is a risk that involves the life of a human being.
Are there crimes so heinous and so inhuman that the death penalty is the only answer? There are crimes that deserve the death penalty, yes. However, with the risk and inability that jurors share when convicting someone and sentencing that individual to the ultimate punishment, it is a risk not worth taking at the current juncture. Though our humanity would like to extract an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, the truth of the matter is that our criminal justice system is too flawed at the current juncture to consider this antiquated logic.
Lastly, it can be argued that the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment as the many mishaps with electrocutions, lethal injections, and gas chamber uses has left the condemned to languish for long periods of time in agony before they are finally executed. This alone may not be enough to convince someone who is very pro capital punishment; however, this fact coupled with the previous fact that many individuals in our nation’s history have been put to death wrongfully should give a death penalty proponent pause (BBC 2012). As a nation, one of our most formative documents, the Constitution provides us with its 8th amendment: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted”. It is unimaginable to consider that in the nearly 250 years since this was penned, the methods of execution have neither become any more speedy or any more humane.
There existed during the time of the founding fathers many instances where the weight of the human body was not sufficient to break the neck upon the drop from the gallows and the condemned would be left to slowly suffocate from the pressure of the rope against his/her trachea (Bessler, 2012). Other times, shoddy executioners did not make correct calculations and the weight of the condemned was so great that the drop from the gallows severed the head entirely from the body; leaving those that came to witness the grotesque scene in abject horror of what had just occurred. As gruesome as this sounds, our own 20th and 21st century methods of execution have not greatly improved. The first victim of the electric chair at New York State prison was William Kemmler. Kemmler’s “execution was by any account more of a science experiment gone horribly wrong than it was an execution. The first series of electric jolts were insufficient to kill Mr. Kimmler so the attending physician, after examining him, called a second round of electrocution to be administered. However, the capacitors needed time to charge again so the victim was left hanging between life and death for a period of more than eight minutes as the system recharged. Upon full recharge, the second wave of shocks were issued; however, during this phase the victims blood vessels burst, the skin singed and the skin began to singe and then melt. This gruesome spectacle led the attending physician to blurt out, “They could have done a better job with an axe” (New York Times, 1890). Additionally, Kemmler was not the first nor the last; many prisoners have had to be electrocuted multiple times until they were pronounced dead (some to the point that their skin was on fire by the end of the process). Currently, lethal injection is the most popular form of execution in the United States; however, lethal injection has more than its fair share of horror stories attributed to it as well. Everything from improper mixture of the drug cocktails involved, to improper order in which they are administered has, in this author’s estimation, led to many a cruel and unusual punishment (Garland, 2010). Execution, if it must exist, must necessarily be swift and terminal. However, this is too often not the case; causing many to languish for long periods of time before the final coup de grace is administered.
Lastly, although promised that this analysis would not analyze the moral weight of the death penalty, it is worth exposing the inherent inaccuracy of the belief that the execution of the guilty brings closure. Victims families rarely experience the true catharsis that they so desperately seek when an individual breathes his/her last breath. Instead, the realization that somehow the guilties death would make things right morally, that somehow this moment would provide a clean break with the past and a new chapter would begin is a false hope. Victim’s families of the Oklahoma City Bombing of 1993, when asked, overwhelmingly expressed the letdown and depression that the post execution process brought. Where they believed that Timothy McVeigh’s execution would bring a sense of closure to the traumatic eight years that had ensued since their loved ones had died in the bombing; however, it did not. The old expression aptly states, “It won’t bring them back” – and it does not.
This analysis has briefly mentioned but a handful of reasons why the death penalty should be reviewed and reconsidered. Whether it is for the fact that it is economically unviable, whether the criminal justice system is flawed to the point that it cannot be trusted to make decisions of life and death, whether it has been proven that the death penalty in and of itself does not deter violent crime in the least, or whether it is the arbitrary and flawed nature in which juries often hand out their verdicts, it would behoove all involved to thoughtfully examine, with as little bias as humanly possible, their own thoughts with regards to this form of punishment.
Bessler, J. (2012). Cruel & unusual : the American death penalty and the founders' Eighth Amendment. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
This work analyzes and challenges the conventional wisdom that all of the founding fathers were in support of the death penalty. Through a careful analysis of the letters and private correspondence of the founding fathers as well as the author’s interpretation of the 8th amendment to the constitution, the reader is left to understand that the previously held notions that the founding fathers all viewed crime and punishment in a draconian sense is flawed and must be re-interpreted.
Debrevnik, S. (2004). Debating the Death Penalty : Should America Have Capital Punishment? : The Experts on Both Sides Make Their Best Case. New York: Oxford University Press.
This work performs a comparative analysis of the multiple facets, both in support and against, capital punishment. The question of whether justice is served equally through life imprisonment, whether the death penalty provides deterrence against crime and the fear that the death penalty could be incorrectly administered are all discussed.
Garland, D. (2010). Peculiar institution : America's death penalty in an age of abolition. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
This book analyzes the peculiarity of the United States criminal justice system as it is one of the few systems in the world that still employs the use of the death penalty. Causal factors, both historical and societal are employed as a means of explaining this. Additionally, the uneven application of the death penalty among the states and the curious way in which death row inmates oftentimes live every day not knowing if it is their last is also discussed. Garland concludes that because of the historical factors that gave rise to the United States it has evolved to become more violent in its application of justice than its other Western counterparts.
Iglesias, J. R., Semeshenko, V. V., Schneider, E. M., & Gordon, M. B. (2012). Crime and punishment: Does it pay to punish?. Physica A, 391(15), 3942-3950. doi:10.1016/j.physa.2012.03.001
The work analyzes the economic cost associated with crime and capital punishment. Specifically, this article shows the huge disparity between the average cost of imprisonment as compared to the average cost associated with execution. A further economic analysis of the impact that crime has on a society as well as the costs associated with high levels of crime is also made in this article.
Proffitt, Emily. “Whitworth University News: Innocent man released after 17 years on death row to speak at Whitworth Sept. 25.” Whitworth University News. N.p., 19 Sept. 2011. Web. 19 July 2012. http://news.whitworth.edu/2011/09/innocent-man-released-after-17-years-on.html
This article details the case of a man that spend seventeen years behind death row in a Florida State Prison before new evidence exonerated him of the crime.
Radalet, M. (2009). Do executions lower crime rates: The views of leading criminologists. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 99(2), 20. Retrieved from http://www.deathpenalty.org/downloads/RadeletDeterrenceStudy2009.pdf
This journal article examines the correlation and lack of correlation that the death penalty has on crime statistics throughout the United States. Challenging the popular notion that the ultimate penalty will cause a criminal to think twice before committing a particular deed is examined at length in this piece.
“BBC News – Texas 'executed an innocent man', report claims.” BBC – Homepage. N.p., 16 May 2012. Web. 19 July 2012. .
This article details the case of a man in Texas who was wrongfully executed for his crimes.
“Far Worse than Hanging”. New York Times. 7 August 1890. Web. 19 July 2012. http://law.jrank.org/pages/12374/Kemmler-William.html
This article tells in gruesome detail the case of the first execution by electric chair and the mishaps involved.