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Death Penalty

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The Death penalty, just mentioning it strikes controversy immediately. Death penalty supporters argue that justice demands a death sentence in certain cases, and that the concept of an “eye for an eye” is based on the nation’s shared religious values. They further argue that the death penalty can prevent capital crimes and possibly save lives in the process. In addition to any deterrent effects, supporters argue that there is an additional incapacitation effect — executed offenders will never commit another capital offense. Opponents counter that there is no valid statistical evidence supporting the assertion that crimes are prevented by the death penalty, and that capital offenders can just as easily be prevented from committing further crimes by a life sentence with no possibility of parole.

Use of death penalty in the United States dates back to colonial times, with the first recorded execution taking place in Jamestown in 1608. Although its use has always varied from state to state, it was practiced regularly throughout most of our history until 1967, when a temporary ban was instituted while the Supreme Court reviewed its constitutionality.

In 1972, in a 5-4 decision (Furman v. Georgia), the Court ruled that the death penalty as practiced in Georgia was a violation of the Eighth Amendment, (et) which bans cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling focused on unguided jury discretion and the resulting arbitrary and capricious sentencing that took place because of it. However, the court left open the possibility that the death penalty could be reinstated if it were redesigned to avoid these problems. In response, several states set about redrafting their sentencing laws and in 1976 the Court reinstated the death penalty after a ten-year moratorium. The first execution took place on January 17, 1977 when Gary Gilmore was executed by a firing squad in Utah. Federal death penalty statutes were revised in 1988, 1994 and 1996. Since 1977 over 650 people have been executed. Since the death penalty has been reinstated the controversy has escaladed. There have also been numerous court cases that involved the death penalty that struck arguments and different opinions about the death penalty. There has been court cases in which the trail was unfair or not properly handled and also cases in which the accused could not defend him/her self due to lack of good representation because a shortage of money. For example Frederico Martinez-Macias was convicted and sentenced to death for murdering man during a burglary. The attorney appointed to represent Martinez-Macias was paid only $11.84 per hour. His lawyer failed to present an available alibi witness, relied upon an incorrect assumption about the law, and didn’t do the research that would have corrected his mistake. He failed to interview and present witnesses who could have testified in rebuttal of the prosecutor’s case. Martinez-Macias received competent representation for the first time when a Washington, D.C. firm took on his case pro-bono. A federal district court ordered a new hearing, finding that “the errors that occurred in this case are inherent in a system which pays attorneys such a meager amount.” A grand jury refused to re-indict him and Martinez-Macias was released from prison. A study headed by Professor James Liebman of Columbia University found a startlingly high error rate of 68% in death penalty cases over a twenty-three year time period. Another example of a faulty case was the Wanda Jean Allen case were she was convicted of the murder of her lover and in January of 2001 was executed by the state of Oklahoma. Her lawyer had never tried a capital case and did not know how to conduct a proper investigation. He did not discover the existence of a report detailing Allen’s mental disabilities. Realizing his incompetence, Allen’s attorney sought to be removed from the case, or to at least have assistance from the public defender’s office or an experienced investigator. An Oklahoma court turned all of these requests down. Had a jury been told of Allen’s disabilities, they might have been convinced to spare her life, Allen’s counsel was paid only $800.

The Supreme Court addressed the concerns about fairness of the death penalty in Furman v. Georgia in 1972; it sealed a de facto moratorium on executions. Executions resumed in 1976 under revised death penalty law that were supposed to end uncertainty and discrimination. It appears today that those laws have yet to hit their mark.

Regardless of your views on the morality and legitimacy of the death penalty, we can all agree that the punishment should not be used unfairly. We need a moratorium on executions at the state and federal level, to provide an adequate opportunity to study the system. We must determine what changes are necessary to assure that subjective factors such as geography, race, national origin or poverty do not control who is sentenced to death.

There are many diverse opinions about how subjective factors control the death penalty.

There are conflicting opinions about the race factor in death penalty cases. In September the Justice Department released a survey of federal death penalty prosecutions nationwide. This survey revealed the disturbing fact that the federal death penalty has been used overwhelmingly against African American and Latino or Hispanic defendants.

Eighty-five percent or 17 out of 20 of those on federal death row are people of color. In eighty percent or 548 out of 684 of the cases submitted to the Attorney General as a possible federal death penalty case, the defendant was not white. (abt)

In addition to concerns about race and ethnic bias, the survey revealed geographic disparities in the federal capital prosecutions sought. For example, most death penalty prosecutions were pursued by only a handful of federal prosecutors 42% or 287 out of 682 of the federal cases submitted to the Attorney General for review came from just 5 of the 94 federal districts. (abt)

Racial and geographic disparities persist despite the Justice Department’s efforts to design procedures to select capital cases for prosecution. The survey results prompted the Justice Department to undertake a more in-depth study of the federal death penalty system. With all the percentages and strong facts that race is an unfair factor for the use of the death penalty, defendants of the capital punishment argue otherwise. They feel that the race factor cannot be an argument against the death penalty. If it were, then it would be an argument against all punishments. To argue that the death penalty is to be abolished because it is not fairly imposed is to admit that if it were imposed fairly it would be okay. They believe that this is not an argument against the death penalty but an argument to improve the justice system.

Supporters of the death penalty often state that the possibility of an innocent person being executed is extremely small. They believe that it is true that death row prisoners have been released, but it is not true that they were innocent. This belief that the percentage of innocent people being executed is small was proved wrong by a study headed by Professor James Liebman of Columbia University found a startlingly high error rate of 68% in death penalty cases over a twenty-three year time period. According to Liebman, we are getting a life and death decision wrong more than 2 out of every 3 times. (cify)

Supports of the death penalty suggest that it is not a cruel and unusual punishment. They believe that the framers of the Constitution supported the death penalty, so it is ridiculous to claim that cruel and unusual punishment refers to the death penalty. Furthermore, they argue it is logically impossible to be cruel while punishing a guilty murderer for murdering an innocent victim. Death penalty supporters feel morally, it is wrong to incarcerate someone for murder. They feel a sentence of life in an air-conditioned, cable-equipped prison where a person gets free meals three times a day, personal recreation time, and regular visits with friends and family is a slap in the face of morality. Death penalty supporters feel that prison is too nice of a place to go for committing a capital crime, and regardless of the conditions of a particular prison, someone who murders another human being can only be made to pay for his actions by forfeiting his own life. This is so, simply because a loss of freedom does not and cannot compare to a loss of life. The main point criminal right activists argue is that the death penalty is a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which bans cruel and unusual punishment. (et) Also they argue that if a person faces the electric chair, he can stay alive and aware for three minutes before dieing.

The main arguments the death penalty supporters and criminal right activists bring to the table and on different subjects of the death penalty. Death penalty supporters argue that the death penalty as a deterrent to crime. Capital punishment is a punishment for crime. As a punishment, it is 100% effective; every time it is used, the prisoner dies. Additionally, the death penalty is actually 100% effective as prevention to crime: the murderer will never commit another crime once he has been executed. Criminal rights activists argue that high rates of error in the criminal justice system make it quite possible to execute someone who is innocent, making the state itself guilty of murder. (pdp) Since 1973 at least 88 people on death row were released after evidence emerged indicating their innocence. Supporters counter that there is no evidence that any innocent individual has ever been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977(cify), and that releases of innocent individuals on death row since then were either due to legal technicalities or demonstrated that the system’s checks and balances work.

Overall the Death penalty can be argued well on both sides. The best overall solution would be to fix the system. Capital punishment should only be put in place if absolutely necessary and deserving. Killing is only be justified when either in self defense or to commend people for committing the crime of murder. Killing can justified, murder cannot, murder is defined as, “the unlawful and malicious or premeditated killing of one human being by another” (aclu) A capital punishment rule can only be acceptable if it is morally defensible and all right have been given to the criminal and with his crimes he trades in his rights.