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Capital Punishment: Justice for All?

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Capital punishment, also called the death penalty, is “death by execution” as stated in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. The death penalty is a sentence given to criminals charged with first degree murder, although most often than not, the majority of inmates on death row live years in a state penitentiary before their execution takes place. There are many historical changes, religious beliefs, and opposing view points held with the subject of capital punishment.

The first established death penalty laws date as far back as the reign of King Hammaurabi in the eighteenth century B.C. There were as many as twenty-five different crimes all punishable by execution. Death sentences were performed by drowning, burning alive, stoning, crucifixion, impalement, and being beaten to death. Approximately 900 A.D., hanging lawbreakers became a much more popular method of the death sentence. The death penalty in America was introduced when European settlers came to the New World in the early 1600’s. Specific crimes would sometimes guarantee a death sentence: suspected witchcraft, atheism, heresy, and homosexuality. However, present day governments worldwide have developed laws requiring quick and fair trials preceding the execution, dissimilar from the past when such orders were dealt with on- the-spot. The methods used currently differ greatly from earlier periods of history. The most common method of execution favored by most countries is lethal injection; other legal options available also include the electric chair, gas chambers, hanging, or a firing squad. Execution by asphyxiation, crucifixion, crushing, decapitation (by sword, axe, or guillotine), disembowelment, drowning, exsanguination, flaying, impalement, pressing, and strangulation are all methods prohibited from being performed on any inmate at this time.

Depending on what faith (if any) a person believes in, the opinion of the general public in light of capital punishment varies. Jesus Christ underwent the death penalty by crucifixion. His trial was affected by popular opinion, is frequently depicted in religious art and the cross, and is the primary symbol of Christianity. For many Christians, this is enough to condemn capital punishment. Those in favor of capital punishment most often build their views with a few verses in the New Testament. For example, in Romans 13:3-5, the apostle Paul appears to advocate the death penalty as an appropriate method to punish criminals:

“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrong-doer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience” (Bible).

Nonetheless, Christians are divided about the issue. For example, while the Byzantine Empire replaced most death sentences with mutilation (such as cutting off the tip of the criminal’s nose), the Holy Roman Empire wholeheartedly supported the death penalty and used it quite frequently (although neither empire had a prison system at the time); the same notion holds true today depending on how strictly a Christian follows the Church and the Bible.

On the other hand, the Jewish view of all laws is based on the reading of the Bible as seen through Judaism’s corpus of “oral law.” These oral laws were first transcribed around 200 C.E. in the Mishnah (a Jewish archive) and later around 550 CE in the Talmud (the Jewish legislation record). These laws clearly state that the death penalty was only to be used in extremely rare cases. Rabbinic law developed a detailed system of “checks and balances” to make sure that the penalty could only be carried out if: there were two or more witnesses to the crime, the witnesses were verbally warned that they were liable for the death penalty, and that the criminal then had to acknowledge that they were warned, but went ahead and committed the crime regardless. Furthermore, an individual was not allowed to testify against themselves. As a result, the death penalty was effectively legislated out of existence in the Jewish law.

Conversely, some Islamic people still pursue beliefs that were set in ancient times, whereas Jews and Christians tend to deviate from the strict code of their beliefs. A Muslim may be sentenced to death under the Shariah, the Islamic law. Various crimes include: the murder of a Muslim, adultery (only if there are four witnesses), apostasy (deserting Islam), a third conviction for drinking alcohol, or a fifth conviction for theft. A dhimmi (non-Muslim living in an Islamic state) can be executed for having sex with a Muslim woman, or “persecution” of Islam. For example, persecution would be classified as blasphemy against Allah (their God) or Prophet Muhammad (a messenger of Allah), or attempting to convert a Muslim from his religion. “Shariah is not in force in many Muslim countries, especially those which still have laws on their statute books which date from their colonial pasts, but one of the aims of the Islamic fundamentalists is to re-introduce Shariah as a mandate to maintain religious traditions” (Husain, Religion). Islam still authorizes the use of stoning, although it is more geared towards torture than death; the criminal is blindfolded and buried up to their waist where villagers will shower stones continuously (not large enough to kill) until they lose interest or become satisfied or bored.

But is the death penalty justice for all? Some would answer this question by saying it depends on the crime. There has always been a controversy over whether or not the death penalty is murder or justice. Capital punishment should be abolished, but not because it is against the teachings of Jesus or because we would be no better than the criminal. Those who commit crimes that merit capital punishment should experience the same grief they have caused others. Criminals should not receive the death penalty just to bring closure to the friends and family of the victim. Families should have an equal amount of closure knowing the murderer is serving a true life sentence.

The death penalty alone imposes an irrevocable sentence. Once an inmate is executed, nothing can be done to make amends if a mistake has been made. There is considerable evidence that many mistakes have been made in sentencing people to death. “Since 1973, at least 88 people have been released from death row after evidence of their innocence emerged. During the same period of time, over 650 people have been executed” (DPIC). Thus, for every seven people executed, we have found one person on death row who never should have been convicted. These statistics represent an intolerable risk of executing the innocent. If an automobile manufacturer operated with similar failure rates, it would be run out of business.

Our capital punishment system is unreliable. A recent study by Columbia University Law School found that “two thirds of all capital trials contained serious errors” (UCLS). When the cases were retried, over 80% of the defendants were not sentenced to death and 7% were completely acquitted.

Many of the releases of innocent defendants from death row came about as a result of factors outside of the justice system. Recently, journalism students were assigned to investigate the case of a man who was scheduled to be executed, after the system of appeals had rejected his legal claims. The students discovered that one witness had lied at the original trial, and they were able to find the true killer, who confessed to the crime on videotape. The innocent man who was released was very fortunate, but he was spared because of the informal efforts of concerned citizens, not because of the justice system.

In other cases, DNA testing has exonerated death row inmates. Here, too, the justice system had concluded that these defendants were guilty and deserving of the death penalty. DNA testing became available only in the early 1990s, due to advancements in science. If this testing had not been discovered until ten years later, many of these inmates would have been executed. And if DNA testing had been applied to earlier cases where inmates were executed in the 1970s and 80s, the odds are high that it would have proven that some of them were innocent as well.

Those who believe that deterrence justifies the execution of certain offenders bear the burden of proving that the death penalty is a deterrent. The overwhelming conclusion from years of deterrence studies is that the death penalty is, at best, no more of a deterrent than a sentence of life in prison. The Ehrlich studies have been widely discredited. In fact, some criminologists, such as William Bowers of Northeastern University, maintain that the death penalty has the opposite effect: that is, society is brutalized by the use of the death penalty, and this increases the likelihood of more murder. Even most supporters of the death penalty now place little or no weight on deterrence as a serious justification for its continued use.

States in the United States that do not employ the death penalty generally have lower murder rates than states that do. The same is true when the U.S. is compared to countries similar to it. The U.S., with the death penalty, has a higher murder rate than the countries of Europe or Canada, which do not use the death penalty.

The death penalty is not a deterrent because most people who commit murders either do not expect to be caught or do not carefully weigh the differences between a possible execution and life in prison before they act. Frequently, murders are committed in moments of passion or anger, or by criminals who are substance abusers and acted impulsively. As someone who presided over many of Texas’s executions, former Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox has remarked, “It is my own experience that those executed in Texas were not deterred by the existence of the death penalty law. I think in most cases you’ll find that the murder was committed under severe drug and alcohol abuse.”

There is no conclusive proof that the death penalty acts as a better deterrent than the threat of life imprisonment. Once in prison, those serving life sentences often settle into a routine and are less of a threat to commit violence than other prisoners. Moreover, most states now have a sentence of life without parole. Prisoners who are given this sentence will never be released. Thus, the safety of society can be assured without using the death penalty.

Discretion has always been an essential part of our system of justice. No one expects the prosecutor to pursue every possible offense or punishment, nor do we expect the same sentence to be imposed just because two crimes appear similar. Each crime is unique, both because the circumstances of each victim are different and because each defendant is different. The U.S. Supreme Court has held “that a mandatory death penalty which applied to everyone convicted of first degree murder would be unconstitutional” (DCIP). Hence, we must give prosecutors and juries some discretion.

In fact, more white people are executed in this country than black people. And even if blacks are disproportionately represented on death row, proportionately blacks commit more murders than whites. Furthermore, the Supreme Court has rejected the use of statistical studies which claim racial bias as the sole reason for overturning a death sentence.

Retribution is another word for revenge. Although our first instinct may be to inflict immediate pain on someone who wrongs us, the standards of a mature society demand a more measured response.

The emotional impulse for revenge is not a sufficient justification for invoking a system of capital punishment, with all its accompanying problems and risks. Our laws and criminal justice system should lead us to higher principles that demonstrate a complete respect for life, even the life of a murderer. Encouraging our basest motives of revenge, which ends in another killing, extends the chain of violence. Allowing executions sanctions killing as a form of ‘pay-back.’

Many victims’ families denounce the use of the death penalty. Using an execution to try to right the wrong of their loss is an affront to them and only causes more pain. For example, Bud Welch’s daughter, Julie Marie, was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Although his first reaction was to wish that those who committed this terrible crime be killed, he ultimately realized that such killing “is simply vengeance; and it was vengeance that killed Julie…. Vengeance is a strong and natural emotion. But it has no place in our justice system” (Welch).

The notion of an eye for an eye, or a life for a life, is a simplistic one which our society has never endorsed. We do not allow torturing the torturer, or raping the rapist. Taking the life of a murderer is a similarly disproportionate punishment, especially in light of the fact that the U.S. executes only a small percentage of those convicted of murder, and these defendants are typically not the worst offenders but merely the ones with the fewest resources to defend themselves.

Society takes many risks in which innocent lives can be lost. We build bridges, knowing that statistically some workers will be killed during construction; we take great precautions to reduce the number of unintended fatalities. But wrongful executions are a preventable risk. By substituting a sentence of life without parole, we meet society’s needs of punishment and protection without running the risk of an erroneous and irrevocable punishment.

The only condition is that the justice system needs to enforce life sentences – with no parole. The criminal should not get a second chance at life and freedom; their victim doesn’t. Prison is a much more effective punishment than death. The guilt which a murderer must endure while in prison is far more difficult to handle than a painless death. Execution is not the solution to murder. Why then should the death penalty be acceptable? It too takes away a human life. By employing the death penalty as punishment for murder, society is further allowing itself to be corrupted by the violence and murder which threaten the well-being of our nation. The death penalty sends a message which says that murder is suitable under certain circumstances. Those who advocate capital punishment are attempting to justify the very thing they are struggling to punish: murder.

Just as a murderer is wrong and immoral for taking someone’s life, to kill the offender would only be returning the immorality. No one has the right to take away life, which includes the US government. “An eye for an eye” is not the philosophy this country was built upon. If we want to go about making improvements in this country, instituting the death penalty is not the way. To take another’s life is wrong under any circumstance and we must change for the better by acting positively for the good of all society.