Death Penalty: Unconstitutional, Imperfect, Immoral, Ineffective & Fiscally Irresponsible
- Should the State put to death those citizens who have been convicted of a capital crime?
- No. I am against capital punishment. It is unconstitutional, imperfect, immoral, ineffective and fiscally irresponsible. To call such an action necessary is a crime against the intelligence of the people of our nation. Across the globe people have found alternatives that are proven more effective, and yet we, self-proclaimed leaders of the free world, remain so caught up in the barbaric ways of the past that we are slow to follow. We need to take the time, set our conceit aside, and examine this process that does nothing but deplete the moral value and respect for life in our society
- First, capital punishment is unconstitutional.
- Our Constitution is, of course, the very document that dictates justice in our society. It is the primary responsibility of the Supreme Court to interpret this document as it applies to our country and it's citizens. Through many years and a great many debates, this Court has tried to justify the sentence of death of an individual. The death penalty had been approved, then in 1972, deemed as unconstitutional, then, in 1976, approved again under different wording. The main issue lies in the 8th amendment, which states, among other items, that no person shall be subject to cruel and unusual punishment. The justices of the Supreme Court based the most recent justification of the death penalty on their interpretation of what is to be considered as cruel and unusual. Former Justice Harry A. Blackmun was one of the four justices who were in favor of the death penalty, and in dissent of the Court, in the Court's 1972 decision. However, prior to his retirement in 1994, after more than 20 additional years of judicial thought and experience, he had this to say about his efforts to rationalize the use of the death penalty in our judicial system:
"From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death. For more than twenty years I have endeavored - indeed, I have struggled, along with a majority of this Court - to develop procedural and substantive rules that would lend more than the mere appearance of fairness to the death penalty endeavor ... rather than continue to coddle the Court's delusion that the desired level of fairness has been achieved and the need for regulation eviscerated, I feel morally and intellectually obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed. It is virtually self-evident to me now that no combination of procedural rules or substantive regulations ever can save the death penalty from its inherent constitutional deficiencies." (Winters 69).
Further, capital punishment is used inconsistently and discriminatorily, and is therefore in violation of the Constitution. The inability of our justice system to hand down a sentence of death with consistency makes the punishment unconstitutional.
- Justice tends not to be blind where the death penalty is concerned. It is disproportionately imposed on the less advantaged of our society. The penalty is applied almost exclusively to the poor, blacks and other minorities who only have access to poorer legal representation. This injustice is evident when we examine the statistics. Cases of white defendants executed for the murder of black victims make up only 1.94% of the executions taken place since 1976. On the other had, cases of black defendants executed for the murder of white victims make up an amazing 23.14% of those executed (Information Plus 56). It was this same inequality of punishment that was noted and led to the abolishment of capital punishment by the Supreme Court in 1972. In that case, Furman v. Georgia, the sentence of execution for William Furman, and all death sentences pending at that time were ruled invalid. The system through which capital punishment was handed down was determined to be "pregnant with discrimination and discrimination is an ingredient not compatible with the idea of equal protection of the laws that is implicit in the ban on 'cruel and unusual' punishments." And with a 5-4 vote, the United States had no death penalty for the next four years (Mauro 57-61). This inequality of punishment still exists today. Thus, the death penalty is still unconstitutional.
- Secondly, capital punishment is imperfect, yet irreversible. This leads to the death of at least some of the innocent, and freedom of at least some of the guilty.
- Humans make mistakes. Judges are human and juries are human. We will, by our nature, make mistakes. However, an irreversible system deciding life and death issues does not and cannot allow for mistakes.
- A wrongly accused man can receive no retribution if his sentence of execution has already been carried out. In this century alone, as of 1997, there were 350 cases of suspected wrongful convictions of capital crimes in the United States. The sentences had been carried out in twenty-three of these cases (Gottfried 48). That means we, as a society, have unjustly murdered twenty-three people. If those sentences had been life imprisonment, then their freedoms could have been restored. This was not possible with capital punishment. What can our response be to the families of those twenty-three people? "Oops?"
- In the 1999 Harris Poll, Americans, on average, believed that one out of every nine people convicted of a capital crime are innocent (Information Plus 79). This number means two things. First, that if you are unjustly placed on death row, and the other eight persons standing with you are guilty, society believes that your death is a given and acceptable flaw within the system. Secondly, it infers that for every nine convictions in cases involving capital crimes, one criminal walks free. A capital crime has been committed, and if an innocent man is convicted, then a guilty man must be free. I find these numbers to be amazing! How long will it be before society realizes that they are killing for the sake of a false sense that we are ridding our streets of criminal activity?
- Due to the more and recent cases of wrongly convicted persons who were on death row, many states have considered calling a moratorium on the death penalty, a temporary hold on all executions, while their process is reviewed. On the last day of January 2000, Illinois became the first state to declare such a moratorium under Governor George H. Ryan. Although he was widely known to support the death penalty, he had this to say about the process:
"I now favor a moratorium, because I have grave concerns about our state's shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row. And, I believe, many Illinois residents now feel that same deep reservation. I cannot support a system, which, in its administration, has proven to be so fraught with error and has come so close to the ultimate nightmare, the state's taking of innocent life. Thirteen people have been found to have been wrongfully convicted..." (Information Plus 69).
I believe that if other states were to scrutinize their own capital punishment processes, they would also find reasons for concern as to whether justice is currently being served by their imperfect, irreversible system.
- Thirdly, capital punishment is immoral.
- The state did not give life to anyone. It is not theirs to take away. Our laws recognize tampering with your own life is wrong. Suicide is wrong. Assisted suicide is wrong. Euthanasia is wrong. Cloning is wrong. We are inconsistent to feel that the death penalty is morally correct. Slavery and child labor were both legal for awhile but in this country, we now agree that these ways were always immoral.
- In April of 1999, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights voted 30-11 in favor of a worldwide moratorium on executions. The United States voted against it (Information Plus 83). We, as a country, are very concerned about other countries that deny their own people the most basic human rights. We recognize those countries' immoral, though often legal, actions. And so it is with the death penalty. Our Supreme Court defines and enforces our laws. The death penalty may be legal but is not now nor will it ever be moral!
- Fourthly, the death penalty is ineffective at stopping or even reducing crime.
- Today, with the highest crime rate in the industrialized world, the United States is the one of the very few that continues to execute criminals for non-war related crimes. In the United States today, ten of the twelve remaining states without a death penalty have claim to homicide rates below the national average (New York Times). In 1979, Florida had its first execution in fifteen years. During the three years prior to that execution, the state had the lowest murder rate in its recent history. However, in the three years following that execution, Florida recorded its highest murder rates up to that time (Gottfried 46). It would seem that, although we agree capital crimes should not be committed, capital punishment is not the solution, or even a preventative measure. It is ineffective at taking even the smallest bite out of crime and might be shown to be responsible for inciting the performance of capital crimes.
- Fifthly, the death penalty is fiscally irresponsible.
- Some have argued that they disagree with having to pay to house a criminal for life. They argue that they would rather see them executed promptly to save that money. The fact is that the cost of implementing the death penalty far outweighs the costs holding, feeding, and guarding the criminal for the remainder of his life.
- To begin with, the cost of running a prison is a fixed cost. The amount spent is not varied due to the absence or appearance of one or two prisoners. No less food will be prepared; no fewer guards stand at the gates because one man was put to death instead of serving a life sentence. Added to the cost of running a prison is the centers for the study of the death penalty itself. The Death Penalty Resource Center is federally financed at roughly $20 million each year to help death row prisoners properly file their appeals. These appeals are a necessary part of being convicted of a capital crime, and must be completed before a prisoner can be executed. This is $20 million dollars that could be spent elsewhere if capital punishment was abolished across the United States.
- In Florida, in 1988, the average cost to jail a man for life was $515,964. The cost of execution was estimated at $3,178,623 per execution (Gray 43). This, of course, includes the court costs of the appeals process, mandatory in all states for cases of capital punishment. That comes out to be nearly six times as much, or about a $2.66 million additional cost per case because of the implementation of the death penalty.
- In Texas, in 1992, a death penalty case cost an average of $2.3 million. This is nearly three times the cost of imprisoning someone in a single cell at the highest security level for 40 years (Winters 136).
- As of 1998 the sentenced inmate averages ten years and ten months from conviction to execution. This number has been growing since the reinstitution of the death penalty and will continue to grow as courts become more and more backed up with the paperwork involved in such cases. In the state of Florida there aren't enough lawyers to handle the capital crime cases so the wait is even longer. This time spent waiting is also billed to Uncle Sam. More that one-fourth of death row inmates who leave prison in a body bag leave because the have died while waiting the carrying out of their sentence (Information Plus 60). This number shows that for one in four cases where the death of the convicted is achieved, the additional costs of a capital crime case are completely wasted. Put the money on the electric chair and set it on fire because those few million dollars did nothing.
- There are several common arguments against my position. These would be the arguments of the majority. Although I believe the majority to be largely uninformed and politically mislead into the belief of the social value of capital punishment, their support seems to be able to perpetuate our culture's machine of death.
- First, that capital punishment is a deterrent to capital crimes of would-be offenders.
- The argument is that the finality of the death penalty will instill fear into the heart of every potential murderer. The fear of this punishment will protect society. If this is the case, then why is the death penalty carried out in with such almost embarrassed seclusion? The process of individual execution seems to be a shameful practice done in secret back rooms with very few witnesses. If the purpose of capital punishment is to deter by a display of extremely harsh punishment to those who might commit such crimes, why then are states more secretive in this matter than the President's sexual endeavors? Executions would be publicized and televised! It appears that our actions do match up to our words about the value of death as deterrent.
- And, indeed, our experience does not bear any reason to hope that killing one man deters another from killing. From 1976, when the Supreme Court once again made the death penalty available to the States, to 1982 there were a total of six executions. That's an average of one execution each year in the entire United States. In 1999 alone, after 23 years of this supposed deterrent, the number of homicides has increased, and the number of executions per year has grown to 98 (Information Plus 55). The number of people on death row has risen by about 136 people each year since it's reinstatement and is now close to four thousand people. And with the total number of citizens executed as of today nearing 670, we see nearly four times that many sentences of capital punishment being overturned.
- In 1950 in Delaware, capital punishment was abolished. A few years later, after a few gruesome murders, people were starting to request that the death penalty be reinstated. One person to speak his piece was a police officer and detective named Mulrine. The death penalty was eventually restored and within a couple of weeks the first capital crime occurred, and the first person to be convicted of a capital crime was detective Mulrine. The same man, who had argued that capital punishment was necessary for the protection of society and deterrence of crime, took his gun, shot and killed his wife (Gray 258). As a police officer, he certainly knew the penalty for his actions was death. And yet, Mr. Mulrine was undeterred.
- There is no evidence that supports the supposition that capital punishment has been even slightly effective as a deterrent. Of the persons currently on death row, nearly two-thirds of them had prior felony convictions. Estimates show that over 90% of capital crimes leading people to death row were unplanned. Those crimes were committed on impulse, in a moment of passion. And with no consideration of future consequences, there can be no effective deterrent.
- The greatest number of killings leading to capital crime convictions occur during attempted burglaries and robberies. On average the penalty for burglary is about five years imprisonment. The robber knows this as well as that the penalty for murder is death or life imprisonment. Why then, do these killings occur at all? When faced with detection and possible arrest, why does the burglar shoot to kill? He deliberately takes the chance of death to save himself from a five-year term in prison. It is therefore obvious that fear of death has no effect in diminishing homicides of this kind. If the death penalty were a deterrent, burglars would carry unloaded guns. That way, although the threat of a killer would still be his, there would be no chance that he could be justly charged with murder.
- Secondly, is the need for a worst punishment due to those who commit worst crimes against society.
- Supporters of the death penalty claim that in imposing the death sentence for certain offenses, the law is sending a clear message about types of behavior that will not be tolerated, that if varying lengths of imprisonment are used to punish all crimes, society risks losing sight of the distinction between murder and other, less heinous crimes. They point out that more severe crimes warrant more severe consequences. This has simply not been shown to be the case. First of all how can you call the death penalty warranted, merely for the reason of it being a greater punishment than life imprisonment? To break it down into vulgarly simple terms. Texas governor George W. Bush will soon execute three men for a racially motivated murder of a man in his state. That's three deaths to pay the one-death debt to society. However, in 1995, 167 people died in the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Timothy McVey was sentenced to death by lethal injection in 1997. That's one death to pay the 167-death debt to society. Death is just death, and it can only happen once. To say that this makes available a greater equality when comparing severity of a crime to its consequences is ludicrous. In these two cases alone there is 561 times lesser penalty for what I would consider the more brutal crime! So is the solution then to offer more brutal deaths to those convicted of more brutal murders? Should we bring back torture, crucifixion and lions in the Coliseum in addition to the 'more humane' lethal injection? I expect all but the most callous would agree that those are, without a doubt, unconstitutional acts.
- To go along with the forfeiture of life, how does a dead man profit society? A sentence of life imprisonment should infer that if a criminal commits a crime he should be deprived of liberty, condemned, as a beast of burden, to repair, by his labor, the injury he has done to society. Then I believe that we would have successfully gained retribution against the convicted in a way that has punished him while simultaneously benefiting society. This solution also presents the availability of retraction of a possible misplaced conviction on an innocent person.
- Thirdly, it is popular.
- In 1999, the Harris Poll and the Gallup Organization found that 71% of Americans supported the death penalty (Information Plus 75). Most opponents to capital punishment point out that this high percentage reflects society's fear of the increase of brutal crime. People have been told that the death penalty is the only form of harsh punishment when our politicians are taking a 'tough stance on crime.' My opinion is that people have been brainwashed into believing that capital punishment lowers crime, and so when polled they react to a desire to lower crime and support the death penalty. I think that if more people were informed about the lack of effectiveness alone, there would be a greater number supporting the abolishment of capital punishment. Over 47% of Americans believe that capital punishment deters people from committing murders (Information Plus 80). If, when informed of the truth they changed sides on the issue of capital punishment, we are left with less than a quarter of the population supporting the death penalty.
- As a nation, the United States is the last remaining major Western democracy to retain the death penalty. Our society must look barbaric to other nations. In England, the year the death penalty was banned, execution had about 75% support from the people. Today, only 15% are in favor of this type of punishment. France halted its use of the guillotine in 1977, and abolished the death penalty four years later (Flanders 35).
- The argument for retaining the death penalty due to its support by the masses is ridiculous. Slavery was popular among the voters until the 15th amendment was passed in 1870. This does not mean it was morally right to own slaves prior to that point. It was legal, but not moral. The same goes for capital punishment. It may be popular at this time, but it must be abolished. That is what our system is set up to do. The Supreme Court is to judge based on morality and the interpretation of our Constitution, not based on public opinion.
- Lastly, advocates of capital punishment claim that it is for society's protection that we must put these criminals to death.
- A criminal's removal from society is necessary for the sake of society. In states with the death penalty, there generally exists no term of life imprisonment without parole. The death penalty is the only permanent removal of a criminal from society. I do agree with the fact that a convicted capital criminal should be removed from society. What I disagree with is the method of removal. Would not a term of life imprisonment without parole effectively permanently remove the criminal from society?
- There is the possibility they might kill within prison. There is the possibility they may escape. While true, these are extremely rare occurrences. I believe that without the death penalty we can safely hold the convicted felons away from society possibly more efficiently than with the death penalty due to the leniency given by the courts who are reluctant to issue the sentence of death.
- Killers will kill again, however the death penalty stops them from doing so. This is a fact. No dead person has ever killed anyone. In fact, nearly 40% of the persons on death row in 1998 were on probation, parole, or pretrial release at the time they murdered (Information Plus 64). First of all I believe that this says something about the deterrent value of the death penalty. People already under the eye of the judicial system are committing capital crimes. It would seem to me that these people weren't very deterred by the threat of capital punishment. Secondly I believe these are people who were already guilty of a crime, but our judicial system saw it fit that they should be, at least temporarily, released back into society. My case is that these people were given a lenient sentence due to the lack of an available proper punishment. If the jury's choices of punishment were death or 25-years imprisonment, perhaps the jury decided that to put a person to death was too harsh a penalty. Then, after 25 years, the man is out on parole, and commits a murder, an unnecessary murder, warranting a spot for him on death row. I say unnecessary because if the penalty of life imprisonment had been available to the jury, perhaps the murder could have been entirely avoided. It is fair to say that this is an instance where the death penalty killed, albeit indirectly, an innocent person.
- In summary, I believe that the death penalty is unconstitutional, imperfect, immoral, ineffective and fiscally irresponsible. It should be abolished. Life imprisonment is a perfectly adequate method of dealing with the criminals guilty of even the most heinous of crimes. How long must we wait before we begin apologizing to humanity for our actions done in our pursuit of justice? This systematic killing will only lead to a further downfall of morality and desensitized attitudes toward the atrocity of the taking of life nationwide. That path only leads to the frightening justification of infanticide and euthanasia. And as we justify playing God, why not clone a superior race? We are doomed to continue to wield a power that is not of our own making. Although we can take it, split it down the middle, and put it back together, or even end it altogether, we cannot create life. Life is a gift, and should be treated with as much respect as the Giver has intended.
"Michael Smith, a Christian, asked to be allowed to take his worn, beloved Bible with him to the electric chair; his request was denied because 'the Bible might catch fire, and that would be inappropriate.'" (Gray 147).
Flanders, Stephen A. Capital Punishment. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1991
Gottfried, Ted. Capital Punishment: The Death Penalty Debate. Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1997
Gray, Ian, and Moira Stanley. A Punishment in Search of a Crime. New York: Avon Books, 1989
Information Plus. Capital Punishment: Cruel and Unusual?. Farmington hills: Gale Group, 2000
Mauro, Tony. Illustrated Great Decisions of the Supreme Court. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2000
"States with no Death Penalty Share Lower Homicide Rates" New York Times Chicago 22 Sept. 2000: A1
Winters, Paul A., ed. The Death Penalty: Opposing Viewpoints. Rev. ed. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1997