The Death Penalty

By Ross Uehara-Tilton

The death penalty, or capital punishment, has been used by almost every historical society ever studied. Criminals have been sentenced to die for a vast array of crimes ranging from cowardice to insubordination to sexual crimes to murder. Capital punishment has been carried out by a variety of methods including lethal injection, crucifixion, ling chi–execution by slow slicing–and death by guillotine.  Although the idea of a penalty of death for wrongdoing has been around for some time, the civilized nation of the United States should not continue to allow this sentence to be handed down as punishment to any criminal.  While it is important that criminals be punished for their wrongdoings in a manner that is according to the law, the death penalty should not be permitted as a punitive act.
Capital punishment is currently a trending topic of conversation, especially given recent developments in the Florida supreme court and the effects of the decision on the Casey Anthony trial. There are several issues that proponents and opponents of the death penalty cannot agree on. The most obvious concern is whether or not the death penalty is moral.  A related concern is whether or not physicians should participate in administering the death penalty–actually carrying out executions, or merely giving advice about how executions should be carried out, or even endorsing a certification of death that cites execution as the cause of death.  The death penalty has not been clearly deemed constitutional, nor has it been clearly deemed unconstitutional. The effectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent to potential criminals is debatable.  Finally, a sentence of death causes the state much more money than an equal sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

There is little disagreement on whether or not those who commit capital crimes should be eliminated from society.  Some prisoners on death row have apparently reformed.  For example, Jarvis Jay Masters, an inmate in the San Quentin State Prison in California, wrote a memoir entitled That Bird Has My Wings, in which he attempts to extrapolate his motives for the crimes he committed.  The book also serves as a cautionary tale for potential criminals, and seeks understanding and forgiveness from society for Masters’ actions.  The mental pain and guilt that some of these prisoners experience as a result of their actions is far more punitive then being sentenced to death.  That being said, the disagreement is not based on the applicability of the old adage, “an eye for an eye,” but rather whether or not the State has the right to take the life of a human being.  If it is immoral and illegal for an individual to take another life for any reason, it should immoral for the State to take a person’s life, regardless of  their reasons for doing so.

There is also disagreement about the morality of doctors who participate in executions.  The Hippocratic Oath, the professional oath that doctors take, is a sworn statement that binds doctors from giving a lethal drug to anyone even if asked, or advising of such plan.  In general, the oath prevents doctors from doing harm to a patient.  A doctor’s participation in any form of capital punishment, including endorsing a death certificate of an individual who was executed, is clearly a violation of this oath.

Two of the Amendments to the United States Constitution are relevant to the death penalty.  These are the 5th Amendment and the 8th Amendment. The 5th Amendment states: “No person shall be…deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law” (U.S. Const. amend. V).  According to the Honorable Jed S. Rakoff in the 2002 case US v. Quinones, the death penalty is unconstitutional because it deprives defendants of their constitutional right to due process.  Judge Rakoff, in  notes that there is a large delay between capital convictions and the time that some defendants are exonerated after errors are detected in evidence and testimony.  Since these delays are common, and the defendant has no opportunity to attempt to exonerate himself after he is executed, the death penalty deprives one of their right to due process.  A study entitled Posthumous pardons granted in America History  by Stephen Greenspan, Ph.D., supports Judge Rakoff’s position.  The study found that at least 106 individuals have been granted a posthumous pardon, and at least 12 of these pardons were granted after the accused had already been executed.

The 8th Amendment states: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted” (U.S. Const. amend. VIII).  The Honorable William J. Brennan stated in Gregg v. Georgia that “Death is not only an unusually severe punishment, unusual in its pain, in its finality, and in its enormity.”  Judge Brennan’s opinion lead to the Supreme Court declaring the death penalty unconstitutional in 1976.  More importantly, Judge Brennan noted that the death penalty serves no further punitive purpose that a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The death penalty should not be permitted because it is not an effective deterrent for capital crimes.  It has been alleged that the crime rates for states that impose the death penalty are less than those that do impose the death penalty.  The website Death Penalty Information Center, a MERLOT 5-star rated educational website, has published statistics for 1990-2009 on murder rates.  In 1990, the average murder rate (the number of murders that occurred in a state divided by the state’s population) for the states that allowed the death penalty was 9.5, and the average murder rate for the states that did not allow the death penalty was 9.16.  In 2009, the average murder rate for the states that allowed the death penalty dropped to 5.26, and the average murder rate for the states that did not allow the death penalty dropped to 3.90.  While this data does not necessarily prove the contra positive that the states that do not allow the death penalty have lower crime rates, it clearly does not support the position that the fear of the death penalty will result in lower murder rates.

A final point is that a sentence of death costs much more money than a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.  Inmates on death row are housed in individual cells, which means that there will be less space for other inmates to be housed.  But this is just the beginning of the added expense of a case with the possibility of a death sentence.  In capital punishment cases, there are two separate trials.  The first trial is to determine guilt, and the second trial is to determine the punishment.  The extra time it takes to prosecute cases involving the death penalty results in more legal expenses for the prosecution and the defense.  Even if the defendant is represented by a public defender, costs will still be very high due to the complexity of capital punishment cases.  In addition, after the initial trials, there are likely to be several rounds of appeals to higher courts.  Where the death penalty is not involved, inmates can be housed with cellmates, there are no mandatory appeals, and the overall process is much less complex, which results in lower legal fees.

A recent bill was introduced into the California Senate by democratic Senator Loni Hancock seeking a vote on whether or not to abolish capital punishment. The Senator alleged that majority of the inmates on death row in California, which has the largest number of prisoners awaiting execution, pass away as a result of natural causes or suicide before they even have a chance to be executed. This results in death row serving as more of a retirement home than a prison. Senator Hancock takes the position that capital punishment should be removed from the list of lawful sentences for certain crimes because imposing the death penalty creates unnecessary financial burden for the state.

An execution is an immoral act, especially if it is state sanctioned.  Since a prosecutor is supposed to represent the will of the people, if a prosecutor asks for the immoral punishment of the death penalty, it is actually society who is asking for the immoral punishment of the death penalty.  Capital punishment is unconstitutional.  All a sentence of death constitutes is cruel an unusual punishment.  The writer Albert Camus sums up the death penalty particularly well.  Camus wrote, in Resistance, Rebellion and Death, “For centuries the death penalty, often accompanied by barbarous refinements, has been trying to hold crime in check; yet crime persists.”  The fear of a penalty of death is simply not enough to deter criminals.  Finally, the death penalty is a waste of judicial resources and time.


One Comment to “The Death Penalty”

  1. I’ve never believed in the death penalty because I feel that those who are in jail with life sentences with no parole are the ones who are truly punished for their crimes. When they are left alone without the freedom to roam around for the rest of their lives, it gives them time to think and reflect on their actions. Maybe they won’t come to regret what they did. But I think that a lifetime of no freedom is more of a punishment than dying.

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