The Controversies in the Death Penalty in the US Essay

‘Capital Punishment’ is the lawful infliction of death as a punishment of a crime. The term ‘Capital” is derived from the Latin word ‘Capitalis’ that means ‘head’. Also referred to as the ‘Death Penalty’, it is the judicially ordered execution of a prisoner as punishment for a serious crime called a ‘capital offence’ or a ‘capital crime. Persons who have been sentenced to death are usually kept segregated from other prisoners in a special part of the prison called ‘Death Row’ pending their execution (, 2006).

From 1990 to 2003 Amnesty International reported a global average of 2,242 executions per year. In 2003 Amnesty reported 1,146 executions in 28 countries, 88% of them in just 5 countries: The People’s Republic of China 726, Iran 108, the U.S. 65, Vietnam 64 and Saudi Arabia 52 (, 2006). The U.S. went on to carry out 59 executions in 2004, 60 in 2005, 53 in 2006 and 11 until March 2007 (Death Penalty Information Center, 2007). Today, the death penalty has been abolished in the vast majority of democracies in Europe and Latin America, while it is still retained in most democracies in Asia and Africa, the U.S., Guatemala and the countries of the Caribbean (, 2006).

As on April 2, 2007, there were 38 states in the U.S. with the death penalty and 12 without. Between 1976 and 2007 there were 1,069 death penalty executions in the country. The most were in Texas {390} followed by Virginia {98}, Oklahoma {84}, Missouri {66} and Florida {64}. Whites comprised the largest group of those executed {57%}, followed by African-Americans {34%}, Hispanics {7%} and others {2%}. Since 1976, 11 women inmates have been executed. At the end of 2006, women on death row numbered 50, representing 1.4% of the complete death row population. Lethal injection was the most common method of execution {900}, followed by electrocution {153}, gas chamber {11}, hanging {3} and firing squad {2} (Death Penalty Information Center, 2007).

The death penalty has been an increasingly controversial issue in the U.S., with many arguments put forward for and against it.

Arguments against Capital Punishment

1. Capital Punishment is inhumane

This factor has been highlighted as early as the 1750s in Europe when persons like Cesare Beccaria (Italian jurist), Voltaire (French philosopher), Jeremy Betham and Samuel Romilly (English law reformers) declared that Capital Punishment was inhumane and should be replaced by life imprisonment (Clark). Stating that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” (Morley, 1998), the Anti-Capital Punishment lobby declares that Capital Punishment also violates the “cruel and unusual” clause in the Bill of Rights (Messerli, 2007); it is the bluntest of ‘blunt’ instruments wherein the criminal undergoes extreme mental torture in the time leading to the execution (Clark). It is a remarkably unforgiving punishment; once exacted, it can never be taken back. The arguments go on: Do we rape rapists? Do we burn down arsonists’ homes? Do we beat wife batterers? Why does homicide fall into a different category of crime and punishment? (MVFHR)

2. Life Imprisonment is a better alternative

Those against Capital Punishment strongly propose life imprisonment (average 15 years). It will make criminals reform themselves. When they are eventually released, they will have learned their lesson and will turn into beneficial members of society. Even in extreme cases, life in prison without parole (LWOP) is a better alternative to execution (Clark). A USA Today/Gallup Poll conducted between May 5-7, 2006 of 492 adults nationwide {margin of error +/- 3} found that opinion was almost equally divided on this subject: 48% thought life imprisonment without parole was better for murder, 47% thought the death penalty was better, while 5% were unsure (Polling Report Inc., 2007).

3. High possibility of miscarriage of justice.

Are there really innocent people on Death Row? Herein lies the inherent danger of Capital Punishment: while we execute someone, the real killer is out in the streets ready

to victimize someone else. Judging by their track record, the police, courts and the system generally cannot be expected to get it right on every occasion (Clark); mistakes by over-zealous prosecution take place frequently. There have been cases of a few inmates released from Death Row, exonerated from crimes they did not commit; however in nearly every such case, third party groups were responsible for re-investigation and eventual acquittal, and not the appeals process (MVFHR). A Gallup Poll conducted between May 8 and 11, 2006 of 510 adults across the U.S. {margin of error +/- 3}, found that 63% thought that persons executed under the death penalty who were in fact innocent, while 27% though they were not innocent, and 10% were unsure (Polling Report Inc., 2007).

4. Capital Punishment has no moral basis

Barring a few passages from the Bible’s Old Testament, nearly every major religion including the Bible’s New Testament denounces the Death Penalty as an ineffective and socially destructive punishment (MVFHR). Every person’s right to life is given by God and only He can take life. The State has got no right to interfere in God’s divine rules.

5. High Cost of Execution

The Anti-Capital Punishment lobby argues that the Death Penalty is not now, nor has it ever been, a more economical alternative to life imprisonment because the cost of a capital trial alone is more than the cost of life imprisonment. This is particularly in case of the U.S. where the legal system allows endless appeals and delays in carrying out the execution; the average time spent on Death Row is 11 years (Clark). The Kansas Performance Audit Report in December 2003 stated that costs of death row cases were 70% more costly than non-capital punishment cases. The L.A Times reported on March 6, 2005 that California’s death penalty process cost taxpayers $ 114 million annually (Death Penalty Information Center, 2007).

6. Mental torture of the executed person’s family

Capital Punishment involves a lot of innocent victims – principally the families of those executed. It is often very difficult for people to accept the fact that their loved one could be guilty of a serious crime (Clark). Not only are family members of the executed made orphans, widows and childless, but they are re-victimized over and over by mandatory appeals and overwhelming media attention (MVFHR). The family and friends undergo a period of suffering, mental torture, desperation and social exclusion during the time leading up to and during the execution; it will often cause them serious trauma even for many years later (Clark).

7. No real deterrent effect

The theory behind deterrence is flawed itself. Murderers do not examine risk/reward charts. No criminal commits a crime if they believe they will be caught. It is unlikely that a few executions each year will have any significant deterrent effect on these criminals, who will resort to pleas of insanity or intimidate witnesses to escape (Clark). Those against Capital Punishment point out to Canada, the closest geographical and social equivalent of the U.S. which has not had the Death Penalty for many years and suffers no adverse social effects as a result (MVFHR).

This feeling is echoed within the U.S. at present – the Gallup Poll {May 8 – 11, 2006} found that 64% thought the death penalty did not act as an deterrent to murder, 34% thought it did, and 2% were unsure (Polling Report Inc., 2007). Similar findings were recorded in two earlier surveys. A 1996 survey conducted by Radelet & Akers involving former and current presidents of top U.S. criminological societies found 84% of them did not consider the death penalty as a deterrent to murder, 12% thought it did, while 4% were unsure. A poll of U.S police chiefs conducted by Hart Research in 1995 found a majority of them thought the death penalty was not an effective deterrent tool (Death Penalty Information Center, 2007).

8. Lethal Injection: improper way of execution

Anesthesiology research reports claim that inmates may have been conscious while lethal injections were administered. These claims have caused many executions to be put on hold during 2006 in the states of Arkansas, Delaware, Maryland, California, South Dakota, Ohio, New Jersey and Missouri. The Supreme Court also joined in, staying the execution of Clarence Hill in a 2006 Florida case while ruling that all challenges to the lethal injection mode of execution should be raised in federal courts on the basis of civil rights laws (Death Penalty Information Center, 2006).

In addition, the participation of doctors in executions carried out by lethal injections is perceived as going against the basic ethics of the medical professions. Doctors take an oath to heal people and not take their lives.

Arguments for Capital Punishment

1. Incapacitation of the criminal

Capital Punishment permanently removes the worst criminals from society on the strong basis that there is no other socially acceptable option to deal with such people; death clearly permanently incapacitates them and prevents them from committing any offences either within prison or after escaping or being released from prison. Life imprisonment (which anyway makes no sense) is too derisory for such evil, sick and barbaric psychopaths. If they are not executed, they will use every possible escape route to get off (e.g. plea bargaining, citing grounds of alleged psychiatric disorders, intimidating key witnesses). Even life without parole (LWOP) sentences (which is nothing but a joke) will only incite prisoners to kill staff or other inmates or take hostages in a bid to escape – they have endless time to plan an escape and everything to gain from it, while they have nothing further to lose by doing so. Moreover, there is no guarantee that future governments will not release such offenders. Capital Punishment, at a stroke, puts an end to the futility and waste of present penal methods which do not distinguish between really dreadful and less dreadful crimes (Clark).

2. Retribution

News stories constantly bemoan and hype the countdown to execution. But where are the stories regarding the ripple effects of the heinous crimes that these criminals were executed of committing? Who is counting the victims? The attention given to the execution of criminals is repugnant especially when the loudest voices think the deaths of convicted criminals are tragedies. Yet the death and sufferings of countless victims is only an easily-ignored statistic (Hall, 2007). Society still views murder as a particularly heinous crime that should justify the most severe punishment. Capital Punishment is a just punishment based on the vengeance principle of “lex talens” (an eye for an eye) – one that is also advocated under Leviticus in the Bible. A criminal has taken the life or lives of other human beings, and it is only just and proper that his life be taken away from him in retribution (Clark). Aristotle also echoes this view advocating “giving each his due”, interpreted as “that the worst crime be punished with society’s worst penalty” (Morley, 1998).

3. Deterrence

John Adams {Department of Political Science, Marquette University} claimed: “If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call” (Hall, 2007). Perhaps the biggest reason to retain Capital Punishment is because it serves as an active deterrent to others. Crime would run rampant as never before if there wasn’t some way to deter people from committing crimes. Life imprisonment is a soft deterrent; for most hardened criminals, more is needed. For those criminals already in prison, the threat of their sentence being upgraded to Death Row will deter them from committing murder while in prison, or if they manage to escape and go on a crime/murder spree (Messerli, 2007).

Empirical evidence points to this indisputable fact. Britain, which abolished the Death Penalty in 1964, has witnessed a steadily rising murder rate; the rate was 300 before 1964, rose to 675 in 1979 and 833 in 2004. More significantly, between 1965 and 1998, 71 murders were committed by people released from prison after serving life sentences. On the other hand, in the U.S., the murder rate dropped from 24,562 in 1993 to 18,209 in 1997 and 15,600 in 2003. In Singapore, which also adopts the Death Penalty, the number of people executed dropped from 7 in 1995 to 4 in 1996, 3 in 1997 and just 1 in 1998 (Clark).

4. The victim’s family feels vindicated

Many people who are against Capital Punishment are only thinking of the criminals.

Shouldn’t they spare a thought and feel sympathy towards the criminals’ innocent victims, and think how cruel it has been for them having lost their lives so needlessly and so cruelly; how cruel it is for their families to be ruthlessly broken apart due to the barbaric acts of these criminals? The Death Penalty gives closure to the victims’ families who have suffered so much; those family members who have been made orphans, widows and childless all due to the barbaric action of a psychopath. Some family members of crime victims may take years or decades to recover from the shock and loss of a loved one; some may never recover. The Death Penalty brings finality to a horrible chapter in the lives of these family members (Messerli, 2007).

5. No possibility of mistake

One of the most vociferous allegations of the anti-death penalty lobby is that innocent people on death row are executed frequently. Pro-death penalty advocators refute this allegation saying that the trails and appeals process is so thorough, that it is next to impossible to convict an innocent person. Secondly, a jury of 12 members is required to unanimously declare the defendant guilty. Thirdly, and most important, DNA testing (which is over 99 percent effective) can now effectively eliminate uncertainty as to a person’s guilt or innocence (Messerli, 2007). In Kansas v. Marsh {2006}, the Supreme Court stated that a distinctive new period had been heralded by DNA testing, and called for greater in depth examination of death penalty cases because of “repeated exonerations…in numbers never imagined before” (Death Penalty Information Center, 2006).

Even after sentencing, there have been many cases of exoneration and release. Given the long period an inmate spends on death row, there is ample time for post-conviction investigation to re-explore all avenues that may prove the convicts are actually innocent of the crimes of which they were accused and convicted (MVFHR). Between 1973 and 2007, 120 inmates were released from death row after they successfully proved their innocence (Death Penalty Information Center, 2007).

6. Justice is better served

Our present justice system shows more sympathy for criminals than it does for victims. By adopting the death penalty, the fundamental principle of justice, viz. ‘the punishment should fit the crime,’ is upheld (Messerli, 2007). Jurors, who represent the people, hear about horrific crimes and make tough but appropriate decisions (Hall, 2007). People who support the death penalty are not sadists but just quietly desperate that they and their families are being overwhelmed by the rising tide of crime (Clark).

People want to live in peace, feeling that society and their country is a safe haven for themselves and their children. Capital Punishment is the only way where justice is better served, and society can not only return to its normal safe norms but also society’s belief in law and justice is tremendously elevated (Messerli, 2007).

7. Juveniles and Mentally Retarded persons exempted from the death penalty

The death penalty is not arbitrarily applied to everyone. The exemption granted to juveniles began in 2005 when the U.S. Supreme Court set a precedent in Roper v. Simmons by turning down the death penalty for a juvenile inmate, thereby putting an end to executions of juveniles {22 were executed between 1976 and 2005}. The exemption granted to mentally retarded persons began in 2002 when the Supreme Court set a precedent in Atkins v. Virginia by ruling out executions of mentally retarded inmates (Death Penalty Information Center, 2007), thereby endorsing resolutions passed by eminent organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and the American Bar Association. Recommendations have been made to absolve mentally ill inmates as well from the death penalty – in State v. Ketterer {2006}, Justice Evelyn L. Stratton of Ohio Supreme Court ruled in favor of the death penalty for a mentally ill man, but recommended that legislation be issued to set a criteria for judging when a mentally ill person may be absolved from the death penalty (Death Penalty Information Center, 20060.

8. Lethal Injection: Proper method of execution

Many states have found the anesthesiology research reports claim that inmates may have been conscious when lethal injections were administered is too vague and not founded on solid evidence, deciding to proceed with lethal injection mode of execution as usual. In fact, Florida executed Clarence Hill in 2006 {on the grounds that he had filed his complaint too late which precluded any delay or further hearing} even after the Supreme Court ruled that he could approach the federal court to challenge the lethal injection mode of execution. Texas is another example: it executed more death row inmates in 2006 {24} as compared to the year earlier {19} (Death Penalty Information Center, 2006).

Physicians are not compelled to assist in executions – nor are they banned from doing so. Those who choose assist, do so responding to an inner urge to do their fellow citizens, society and nation a favor by coming forward to get rid of a pestilence once and for all. As Doctors Robert Truog and Troyen Brenen wrote in an editorial in the ‘New England

Journal for Medicine’, that to doctors who assist in executions, “the death-row inmate

may be seen as a terminally ill ‘patient’” (Morley, 1998). Moreover this form of execution is the most painless one.

9. Good effect on society

Capital Punishment makes people realize that it is not easy to get away with crime, especially high profile crime including murder. The long arm of the law is definitely around to catch them, the justice system is there to convict them and the death penalty is waiting to execute those that deserve that punishment. The tremendous amount of media coverage for such executions, plus the tendency of people turning up in large numbers to witness executions is, viewed in the above context, a beneficial one for society in general (Clark).

10. Documents of authority implicitly or explicitly allow for the death penalty

Many documents guaranteeing the right to life, either implicitly or explicitly make allowances for the death penalty. An example of the subtle allowance for the death penalty can be found in the American Convention for Human Rights, which states: “Every person has the right to have his life respected….No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of life (emphasis added)”, meaning the instrument does not prohibit all taking of human life by the government, merely that which is arbitrary. Even the International

Covenant on Civil and Political Rights declares: “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of

his life. In countries that have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may

be imposed only for the most serious crimes” (Morley, 1998).

Conclusion: The present U.S. public perception

At the end of 2006, while the number of death sentences fell to an all-time low in the

U.S., still the number of states in favor of the death penalty stayed high, the number of death row inmates remained high, and there are many executions due to be held in 2007 (Death Penalty Information, 2006).

While the controversy about the death penalty continues, the present public sentiment is to favor the death penalty. An ABC News/ Washington Post Poll conducted about the death penalty on June 22, 2006 of 1,000 adults nationwide {margin of error +/- 3} found those in favor 65%, those against 32%, and those unsure 3%. Nearly the same result came from the USA Today/Gallup Poll {May 5-7, 2006}, which found those in favor 65%, those against 28% and those unsure 7%. A PEW Research Center for the People and the Press survey conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International between March 8 and 12, 2006 of 1,406 adults nationwide {margin of error +/- 3} also turned up an almost similar result: those in favor {65% split into 2 – those strongly in favor 27%, those in favor 38%}, those against {27% split into 2 – those strongly against 8%, those against 19%}.

Another indicator of the general public’s approval of the death penalty came from the Gallup Poll {May 8 to 11, 2006} findings about public perception on the way the death penalty was applied. Those who thought it was fairly applied {60%} outnumbered those who thought it was unfairly applied {35%} and those who were unsure {5%}. When the same poll also questioned whether the death penalty was administered too often, 51% replied it was not administered often enough, while 25% thought it was about the right amount, 21% thought it was administered too often, and 3% were unsure (Polling Report Inc., 2007).

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Anon. (2007). Crime/Law Enforcement. Retrieved April 11, 2007, from Polling Report Inc. Web site:

Anon. (2006). Death Penalty in 2006: Year End Report. Retrieved April 11, 2007, from Death Penalty Information Center Web site:

Anon. (N.d.). Death Penalty Information. Retrieved April 11, 2007, from MVFHR Web site:

Anon. (2007). Facts about the Death Penalty. Retrieved April 11, 2007, from Death Penalty Information Center Web site:

Clark, Richard. (N.d.). Thoughts on the Death Penalty. Retrieved April 11, 2007, from Web site:

Hall, Charlene. (2007). Who Speaks for the Victims of those we Execute? Retrieved April 11, 2007, from Web site:

Messerli, Joe. (2007). Should the Death Penalty be banned as a form of Punishment? Retrieved April 11, 2007, from Web site:

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