Evan enjoys researching and writing about law, society, history, and the issues that affect us all.
Capital punishment, or the death penalty, is a widely debated matter in the United States and around the world. Opponents of capital punishment argue that innocent people have been wrongly imprisoned and executed and that the main motive is revenge for the family—not true justice. Those who support the death penalty argue that it is more cost-efficient than life sentences in prison and that the punishment offers retribution for victims’ families. The debate continues with the numbers of supporters rising above the opposition. But should capital punishment, beneficial or not, be our final solution?
Supreme Court Decisions About the Death Penalty
There is not a more substantial price to pay than death, as life is the most precious thing in the world. To some, however, it is acceptable to use this heinous punishment as a means to an end when dealing with criminals instead of creating alternatives. In 1972, the Supreme Court declared that under then-existing laws, "Imposition and carrying out of death penalty in these cases held to constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments." (Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238).
Four years later, the court countered this decision in Gregg v. Georgia, allowing the death penalty once again. The majority of states currently allow some method of capital punishment, (lethal injection, the gas chamber, electrocution, hanging, firing squad, etc.), though they are still looking for more “humane” methods of execution. But no matter how humane, any person knowing the exact day that they are going to die bears an immense weight.
The Reality of Death Row
The death penalty can be arbitrary, unfair, and racially biased. Additionally, a large portion of death-row inmates couldn’t afford their own attorney at trial. Many people who are sent to jail, and more specifically death row, do need to be sent there. Others, however, can and should be rehabilitated, to once again enter as a functioning member of society instead of being sent away to their awaited fates.
The Possibility of Wrongful Executions
Being on death row is a long and slow process, and the judicial system always makes some mistakes. In a study of the U.S. death penalty, USA Today reporters Richard Wolf and Kevin Johnson wrote the following. "[Anthony] Hinton was nearing his 30th year on Alabama's death row when the Supreme Court, in a little-noticed decision last year, granted him a hearing because of a defense lawyer's mistakes during his murder trial in 1985. That led to a new review of ballistics evidence used to convict Hinton of two murders half a lifetime ago, when he was 29. Although prosecution witnesses had testified the bullets came from a gun found in Hinton's mother’s home, defense experts hired this year found no such connection. The case fell apart, and in April, Hinton was freed. 'Being on death row has taken so much from me as a human being,' he says. 'I spent 30 years on death row for something I didn’t do.'"
The wrongful incarceration of this man—along with many others—is undeniable proof that there are faults in the judicial system. As soon as someone is suspected, especially when involved in a heinous crime, retribution is sought out—sometimes falsely. Innocence on death row is a leading dispute, with many cases having strong evidence. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, “There is no way to tell how many of the more than 1,400 people executed since 1976 may also have been innocent. Courts do not generally entertain claims of innocence when the defendant is dead. Defense attorneys move on to other cases where clients' lives can still be saved.”
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An Argument Against Capital Punishment
People tend to overlook something once they reach a conjecture. It’s hard to break away from the false conclusions of a few people debating the fate of a person. When so much evidence, right or wrong, is stacked against them, there are only so many conclusions to come to, and it becomes harder for a person to prove their innocence. With a defective system, it should be transparently obvious that this system of death should be left as part of the past.
An Argument for Capital Punishment
However, the death penalty can also be seen as a more appropriate way to deal with criminals. It not only punishes those who break the law, but it can also deter possible felons from committing those crimes in the first place. David B. Muhlhausen, a leading expert on criminal justice programs, reported that "One particularly good study, based on data from all 50 states from 1978 to 1997 by Federal Communications Commission economist Paul Zimmerman, demonstrated that each state execution deters an average of 14 murders annually.
Is It Worth It?
The cost of death penalty cases is certainly not trivial. But the deterrent effect yields a most valuable benefit. The death penalty saves lives. Retribution and closure for the families is also a salient part of the death penalty. Though in recent cases, the death penalty has been shown to no longer scare people who want to commit crimes. It takes such a long time to actually go through the process of appeals that some inmates with a life sentence actually prefer to be put on death row. It can take up to thirty years or more in some cases, and many of the prisoners on death row don’t worry much about actually dying because there are setbacks and postponements all the time.
It is said that state execution deters 14 murders annually, but is that truly stopping people when in the first five days of 2016, 128 people had already been murdered? The scare of the death penalty is no longer a deterrent for those who would commit crimes. A better option—instead of ending someone’s life—would be life without parole and something productive to do with it.
All in all, the death penalty truly needs to be ended—or at the very least reformed. It’s almost unimaginable to believe that someone's life can be ended so easily by a small group of people, and even more so that the investigations that coincide with these decisions aren’t always done accurately.
Place yourself in the position of a man who has been convicted for twenty years and is waiting to pay—to die—for something he didn't do. Those placed in this system need a quick resolution that is reached as accurately and professionally as possible. The American people need to realize that executing criminals is not the way to stop them. It is a hypocritical and truly inefficient process.
- Executed But Possibly Innocent, Death Penalty Information Center, Robert Dunham
- Muhlhausen, David B. "Studies Confirm: Death Penalties Deter Many Murders at Far Less Cost." McClatchy - Tribune News Service. 16 Oct. 2014: n.p. SIRS Issues Researcher. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.
- Wolf, Richard, and Kevin Johnson. "Decades of Life Stolen from Men Facing Death." USA TODAY. 16 Sep. 2015: A.8. SIRS Issues Researcher. Web. 09 Dec. 2015.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2017 Evan Lippold