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Dying on the Inside: The Death Penalty, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

Introduction

The death penalty, also known as capital punishment is reserved for crimes which are exceptionally cruel in nature. The purpose is to send a message to the society that heinous crimes will not be tolerated in a civilized country. Many developed countries have abolished the death penalty altogether but it continues to be a valid mode of punishment in the United States. The Congress or any state legislature in the United States is empowered to prescribe the capital punishment for murder as well as other capital crimes (cornell.edu). Although the Eighth amendment of the constitution has specified the disuse of cruel and unusual punishment, the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that the death penalty does not violate the amendment per se but lays down certain preconditions under which the jury must follow certain procedural details and the manner in which the execution is to be carried out. The US supreme Court lays down specific guidelines for proportionality of punishment according to the crime which if not followed may violate the provisions of the Eighth Amendment which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The gravity of the offense and the stringency of punishment, the general pattern of punishment by a particular jurisdiction and its comparison with other jurisdictions in awarding punishment for similar crimes are evaluated for proportionality analysis (cornell.edu).  Nevertheless, there are proponents as well as detractors of capital punishment in the modern American Society. The former believe that the death penalty serves as a deterrent for future occurrence of heinous crimes such as murder which is a socially and morally repugnant act. But the detractors believe that continuation with capital punishment has failed to achieve its purpose as a deterrent as similar crimes keep occurring in society with regular frequency. They believe that other modes of punishment such as life imprisonment and solitary confinement are worse than death itself and should be used as modes of punishment for hardened criminals. The battle between both groups is a never ending process and the controversy is still alive in the American society.

History of Capital Punishment in the United States

The first known case of a public execution within the confines of the North American continent which later came to be recognized as the United States of America is that of Captain John Kendall, who was shot dead by a firing squad after being found guilty of treason against the majority British presence within the continent in 1607 (justice.uaa.alaska.edu). Capital punishment for petty crimes such as theft was popular in history in the American colonial era, but the actual death penalty statistics for the United States started to be documented only after 1930. Publishing of the annual capital punishment bulletins was the responsibility of the Bureau of Justice statistics under the auspices of the US Department of Justice. Since 1930, a total of 4,459 executions were carried out in the United States until 1999 in which the ethnic constitution of the convicts was 2,125 whites, 2,279 blacks and 55 from other races (justice.uaa.alaska.edu). 32 of the executed convicts from 1930 to 1967 were women. The crimes which invoked capital punishment included murder, rape and one for desertion from the US Army. There was a lull in awarding of death penalty from the late 1960s to early 1980s due to a temporary moratorium on executions which occurred due to the protest and the forces exerted by the opponents of the death penalty.  This period and the later years were marked by a number of amendments of the constitution concerned with the enforcement of the death penalty and the mode in which should be administered. Death penalty, with the new amendments was reinstated in many states and is being regularly used since its resumption in 1977 till now.

Moral Issues and the Spiritual Angle

Edward I. Koch, who was the mayor of New York from 1978 to 1979, was an advocate of capital punishment. According to his opinion,” Capital punishment affirms life” (Bruck, 1985). Koch believed that the sanctity and significance of life were reaffirmed when Joseph Carl Shaw, a criminal responsible for the barbaric murder of young and innocent children was administered the death penalty in the state of South Carolina. Koch particularly criticized the killer’s public lecture on the wrongs of killing when faced with the death sentence, which he interpreted as a subtle mode of garnering public sympathy in order to escape death.  According to Koch’s own words “It is a curiosity of modern life that we find ourselves being lectured on morality by cold-blooded killers”. According to him not administering the death penalty to a proven guilty murderer was an example of grave injustice for the victim. He believed that justice in a civilized society should be appropriate and balanced enough to neutralize the intensity of the committed crime. Otherwise the very concept of justice would be meaningless. He felt that that any other form of punishment substituted for the death sentence in response to murder would be inadequate. Koch even argued that the Biblical plea made by certain sections of society who cited ‘Thou Shalt not Kill’, the sixth of the Ten Commandments as reason enough to abolish death sentence as an erroneous interpretation. According to him, the original Hebrew version actually translated as “Thou Shalt Not Commit Murder”. Koch has methodically answered and refuted the claims of protagonists of the death penalty in his writings.

A few die hard protagonists of the death penalty harbor a different view when crimes of the gravity deserving a death sentence were committed by juveniles. The general public consensus is that juveniles should be spared the death sentence as they were too young to realize the gravity of their actions, deliberate or otherwise. But according to Johnson (2002), two youngsters when consulted for their views about the justification of death penalty by the New York Times magazine in 2001 opined that youngsters were as guilty as adults if they indulged in heinous acts such as murder. According to one, “I don’t believe that killers can be rehabilitated, even if they are young”. When the youngsters were allowed to interact with death row inmates during a class on criminal justice system, they were utterly disappointed by the lies the death row inmates used for saving their own skin.  The youngsters were of the opinion that a sixteen year old is wise enough to know the pros and cons of his or her actions and the wrongdoings which were harmful for the society in which they lived. They were unanimous in their opinion that capital punishment was appropriate for those who indulged in wanton killings and rape. They argued that young age may be accepted as criteria for ignorance if the killers were as young as 4 to 5 years old, because that was the real stage of innocence and immaturity. According to them, “If a killer has the intellectual ability to understand that what he or she did was wrong, then that killer must pay with his or her life”.

Those in favor of abolition of the death penalty are of the view that it is high time that man realized that it is not within the scope of a human being to judge the misdeeds of another human, however qualified one might be. The stark differences in standards of justice according to regional, socio economic and cultural influences are well documented. The type of government, religious affiliations and interpretation of justice is different in different locations of the world. What may be considered a crime may actually be considered normal in some societies. This implies that man, even in the modern age in which much of the social reforms have been based on past experiences, is still not equipped enough to take such a decision as taking another person’s life, however justifiable it might be according to the laws of the land.

Emma Welch (2002) is another person who harbors strong resentment for the use of death penalty in juveniles. According to her, if minors were not provided legal privileges such as voting rights and driving licenses, they should be measured with the same legal yardstick while handing out punishment for criminal offences.  According to one of her statements, “If 16 year olds cannot open bank accounts in their own names, why can they pay for crimes with their lives?” She believes that when a youngster commits a crime, he or she is not aware of the consequences as one lacks the ability to visualize the effects of one’s actions at a tender age. International treaties and opinions accordingly justify this viewpoint and juveniles the world over are usually administered lighter punishment for similar offenses as compared to adults.

Sister Helen Prejean, a religious personality, who had a wide experience of counseling prisoners on the death row in the state of Louisiana was highly critical of the death penalty and questioned its validity and use by a government which was not even capable of controlling its own bureaucrats, exercising equitable tax collections from all and incapable of even filling the potholes in a city, according to one of her statements. She went so far as saying that even if she was killed, she would not wish her death to be avenged by the government with all its judicial rules. She frequently cites Biblical instances of justice in her speeches, which she believed that were not complied with due to lack of comprehension. According to her, the present day judicial system was based upon the convenience of those in power which she considers morally wrong.

Crimes Punishable by Death Sentence

In the United States, the death sentence is primarily and exclusively used for murder. Since the reinstallation of the death penalty in 1976 no one has been executed for crimes other than murder. Local state governments do have a list of capital offences and one of the crimes shortlisted is the rape of a child but the Supreme Court has struck down a decision for awarding death sentence to a man convicted for raping his step daughter in the state of Louisiana as recently as 2007. Rape of an adult is not considered punishable by death by the current US laws with the Supreme Court labeling it as a ‘grossly disproportionate punishment’. The offense of murder is therefore exclusively considered as punishable by death sentence.

Methods of Execution

For most states in the United States, lethal injection is considered as the primary method for delivering the sentence as it is regarded as the most humane method. However, electrocution is still approved in nine states, the gas chamber in five states, death by hanging in three states and the firing squad in two states.

Important Supreme Court Decisions on Death Penalty

The Supreme Court has taken vital decisions regarding death penalty as and when a peculiar case or instance has cropped up which needed its intervention (alaska.edu). Some of the vital decisions taken after 1976 are enumerated below:

  1. Mandatory death penalty laws declared unconstitutional (1976)
  2. Death penalty for rape of an adult woman declared unconstitutional (1977)
  3. Discretion to consider every possible mitigating factor by the sentencing authorities (1978)
  4. Ban on exclusion of prospective jurors on the basis of their being ‘affected’ due to participation in the trial (1980)
  5. Unconstitutional to execute an insane person (1986)
  6. Youths younger than 16 years of age at the time of offense cannot be constitutionally executed (1988)

Discrimination on the Basis of Color and Sex

Although there has been widespread belief that blacks and other races were more prone to be readily sentenced to death, it is not the case as the statistical figures suggest that when white to black ratio of executions is calculated, it is almost 50:50. A factor used by opponents of death penalty is the discrimination they express against certain races while awarding the death sentence. This means that there is gross injustice as the judges are prejudiced against certain ethnic minorities in the society, particularly colored people who are awarded the death sentence more readily as compared to their white counterparts in the US. For example in Georgia in the 1980s, prosecutors sought the death penalty for 70% of black defendants with white victims, but the figure was only 15% for black defendants with black victims. 82% of the people executed have been black who killed white persons and the figure is negligible the other way round. Another major unfavorable factor for death sentence is the conviction of innocent people in some cases where eyewitness error, government misconduct, mishandling and wrong interpretation of evidence or deliberate conviction by certain vested interests might falsely implicate an innocent person. America however has the dubious distinction of having the highest figures for the use of death sentence for women in the modern era (O’Shea, 1999). In the year 1998, 47 women were on the death row in the United States. However, death sentence is chosen only when the nature of crime, particularly murder is heinous enough and proven beyond doubt.

Conclusion

The debate about the appropriateness of death penalty is a continuous phenomenon which has plagued the American society for long. The burgeoning human population, diminishing resources and the tremendous pace of the modern world needs some standards of justice which are uniformly accepted and applied. The mayhem created by criminals and terrorists needs to be neutralized by administration of a corresponding mode of punishment, with the death penalty reserved for the gravest of offences such as murder.

Works Cited

Authorized Methods, Death Penalty Information Center, online information accessed march 21, 2010 at: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/methods-execution

Bruck, D., The Death Penalty, Online article accessed March 21, 2010 at: http://www.faulkner.edu/admin/websites/cwarmack/bruck.pdf, 1985

Death penalty: An Overview, online article accessed March 22, 2010 at: http://topics.law.cornell.edu/wex/death_penalty

History of the Death Penalty & Recent Developments, online article accessed March 21, 2010 at: http://justice.uaa.alaska.edu/death/history.html#supremecourt

Johnson, C.; Welch Emma, Should the death penalty apply to juveniles? Online case report accessed March 22, 2010 at: http://www.sandi.net/depts/literacy/unitsofstudy/grade8/unit2/texts/death_penalty.pdf, New York Times Upfront, 2002.

Koch, I. E., Death and Justice: How Capital Punishment Affirms Life, Online article accessed March 22, 2010 at: http://faculty.mdc.edu/dmcguirk/ENC2106/kochdeathpenalty.htm, The New Republic, 1985.

O’Shea, K.A., Women and the Death Penalty in the United States, online book accessed March 23, 2010 at: http://books.google.com/books?id=YvdKyEJo0osC&dq=death+penalty+us+supreme+court&printsec=frontcover&source=in&hl=en&ei=AwGgS53jM4e8rAfBzviNDg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=11&ved=0CCkQ6AEwCg#v=onepage&q=death%20penalty%20us%20supreme%20court&f=false, 1999.

Prejean H., The Death of Innocents, online book accessed March 23, 2010 at: http://books.google.co.in/books?hl=en&id=6lE3cepvefUC&dq=Sister+Helen+Prejean&printsec=frontcover&source=web&ots=BiKbUKc6nk&sig=UNCoATe9P0GUGfd9k_GISig-jI0&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=3&ct=result#PPP1,M1

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