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The Death Penalty

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The death penalty has always been, and continues to be, a very controversial issue. While opponents of capital punishment are quick to point out that the United States remains to be one of the few Western countries that continue to support the death penalty, American citizens are most likely to encounter crime than the citizens of other countries (Brownlee 31). The majority of the U.S. population is for the death penalty, although there are several groups trying to abolish capital punishment. Some people are for the death penalty only under the right circumstances. There are several reasons given to support each group in their decisions: why they are for the death penalty, against the death penalty, or for the death penalty only under certain circumstances.

The main reason given to explain why the death penalty should be abolished is because it is the ultimate denial of human rights. “It is the premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the state in the name of justice” (Amnesty 1). It violates the right to life as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Another reason the death penalty should be abolished is the simple fact that the “system” often fails to apply the death penalty fairly. “The death penalty is discriminatory and is often used disproportionately against the poor, minorities, and members of racial, ethic, and religious communities” (1). Not to mention, the death penalty is an irreversible act of violence by the state and always risk executing the innocent (1).

Another very important reason given to explain why the death penalty should be abolished is that it can be used as a tool of political repression. “The death penalty is an effective way to forever silence political opponents or to eliminate politically troublesome individuals” (Amnesty 2). In most such cases the victims are sentenced to death after unfair trials. It is the “irrevocable” nature of the death penalty that makes it so tempting as a tool of repression. The death penalty is not an act of self-defense “against an immediate threat to life.” It is the premeditated killing of a prisoner who could be dealt with equally well by less harsh means (2).

Also, the death penalty does not fight crime or protect the public. Too many governments believe they can solve urgent social or political problems by executing a few or even hundreds of their prisoners. There are other means of social control such as rehabilitation, compensation, or reconciliation (Amnesty 2). There is no conclusive evidence to show that the death penalty is a “deterrent” to murder or other crimes. The most recent survey of research findings on the relationship between the death penalty and homicide rates, conducted for the United States in 1988 and updated in 1996, concluded “…research has failed to provide scientific proof that executions have a greater deterrent effect than [imprisonment] for life. Such proof is unlikely to be forthcoming; the evidence as a whole still gives no positive support to the deterrent hypothesis” (Amnesty 2). Too many citizens in too many countries are still unaware that the death penalty offers society, not further protection, but further brutalization (2).

There are also several arguments for the death penalty. Many citizens believe that it brings forth the greatest possible justice for society and victims of crimes. “Punishment must be held in proportion to the crime for justice to be served. And justice- not humanity- must be the cornerstone by which ruthless violent criminals shall be judged” (Anderson 1). They think the death penalty shows the greatest respect for the ordinary man’s inviolable value. Society acknowledges and “exalts” the value of the lives of victims of crime on the most visible way by punishing violent criminals and murderers with death (1). It defends the man’s dignity in the strongest way. Man’s dignity is also determined by the punishment that is imposed against violent criminals and murderers; to treat violent criminals and murderers mildly deprives victims of their dignity (2).

Some people believe that the death penalty is necessary and the only punishment suitable for those convicted of capital offenses. Seventy-five percent of Americans support the death penalty, according to Turner, because it provides a deterrent to some would-be murderers, and it also provides for moral and legal justice (83). The deterrent effect of any punishment depends on how quickly the punishment is applied (Worsnop 16). The Constitution of the United States also supports the death penalty. Norton quote James Madison, author of the Bill of Rights: The Fifth Amendment states ‘no person shall be held to answer for a capital or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury…nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without the due process of the law’. The Eight Amendment states that ‘cruel and unusual punishment shall not be inflicted’ (A-14).

“Since both of these amendments were enacted on the same date in 1791, it can be safely assumed that executing someone for a capital offense does not qualify as cruel and unusual punishment as long as the individual has not been deprived of life without due process of law” (Worsnop 24.)

In some cases, people are unsure as to where they stand on their views of the death penalty. For example, on June 20, 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3, in Atkins vs. Virginia, that executing the mentally retarded was a violation of the 6th Amendment ruling such a “cruel and unusual punishment” (ACLU 1). “The Supreme Court considered this question before in the case of Johnny Paul Penry in 1989. At that time, only two states explicitly outlawed the death penalty for people with mental retardation” (1). In a 5-4 decision, the court came to the conclusion that too few states had acted to prohibit the death penalty from being applied to people with mental retardation. They concluded that “a national consensus” against the practice existed. The court reasoned that a consensus was necessary before the Court would rule that executing people with mental retardation violated the eight amendment “prohibition” against cruel and unusual punishment (1). Today, 18 death penalty states and the federal government forbid people with mental retardation from being sentenced to death. The Supreme Court has ruled that the most severe punishment imaginable be reserved for the worst criminals.

After much research, I feel as though the death penalty is unethical. Putting someone to death for a crime they committed is not going to change the fact that whoever that person “offended” is gone. Life without parole is a more just punishment because that person must live with his or her actions everyday for the rest of his or her life. I disagree with the death penalty because it does not deter crime. Also, everyone has the right to life. The death penalty should not be a tool for those who think certain people “deserve to die”. Lastly, all criminal justice systems are vulnerable to discrimination and error.

The battle to abolish the death penalty is being won. “At the turn of the last century only three countries had permanently abolished the death penalty for all crimes. Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, over half the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty in law or practice” (Amnesty 5). The world has a long way to go before the issue of capital punishment is resolved. There are effective alternative punishments to the death penalty which do not involve the killing of a person by the state in the name of justice. But the fact still remains, people have different opinions as to how they would respond had that have been their loved one who was raped or murdered. Put yourself in that family’s shoes; how would you respond to the death penalty? We never know how we would “truly” react until we are put in the same situation.