Death Penalty Ethics Essay
The death penalty has a long history in the society. During older times, the death penalty was used in giving justice to grave crimes which gave the idea that grave crimes definitely cost people their lives. The discourse on death penalty involves different concepts in the society especially ethics and morality. In the context of ethics and morality, capital punishment is never seen as the righteous way to achieve justice. This follows the idea that taking one’s life is equated to devaluing it.
Of course, death penalty also exists in a religious context. Throughout history, the Church has been prominent in voicing out its strong opinion against capital punishment. Despite this, history also says the Church has somewhat given the state civil liberties in how justice is practiced. In these juxtaposing concepts, it is seen that the issue of capital punishment is an issue that gathers strong opposing opinions which identifies it as an important moral and ethical problem.
The Ethics of Capital Punishment
The ethical constraint that lies within capital punishment is the idea of life being taken willfully from an individual. For many, this follows a barbaric form of the justice system just like the “eye for an eye” concept. Furthermore, in the case of religion, taking a life of another human being is already sin in itself which widens the moral grounding against capital punishment. In short, this form of penalty is not reasonable enough to be considered “right.” This thinking has developed over present times which produced progressive movements against capital punishment. Many consider that the uproar against capital punishment is mostly ruled by emotions but it is important to know that this is completely fine. The discourse on death will never be technical and emotions can be associated to the functionality of morality in the society.
Morality speaks of what is right or wrong, based on our inherent perceptions of the society. Just like with other ethical issues, capital punishment is perceived as unjust because it does not truly bring justice to those who need it. On the other hand, it is only a premature form of vengeance that does not truly satisfy anyone. In light of this, it is important to explore the different underpinnings of capital punishment in the society and how different nations have legalized it despite the continuous retort of several advocacy groups.
Capital Punishment in the Society
In the United States, some states allow capital punishment as the highest level of crime punishment. This is dedicated to grave crimes such as murder and the likes. For some people, this form of punishment can be considered as a “grave” or excessive showcase of authoritarian power. It does not give space or reform for change in the society; rather it instills a sense of fear among people that is usually misguided. Aside from this, the idea itself of capital punishment tends to paint a picture of justice which is cut short. Of course, death is not the solution in achieving justice.
In nations that approve of capital punishment, their reasoning lies in the idea that through death penalty, people would avoid making crimes that would lead to their death. State ruling also reasons out that through capital punishment, people would fear being involved in great crimes. For experts on crime and psychology, capital punishment may have an effect that is opposed to this belief. Criminals who get involved in grave crimes do not have time thinking of this sort of logic; criminals would be more focused on committing their crimes rather than the repercussions of their actions. Instead, capital punishment in itself can trigger more grave crimes for criminals would see the crimes they commit as their last. Of course, this is only one side of the story and this also proves the multi-faceted orientation of the discourse of capital punishment depending on what context it is situated in. Despite all this, when the discourse is focused on morality, the automatic understanding is that the death penalty is unreasonable. Cutting short the life of a criminal may be reasonable to the victims but this is a blinded perception of the justice system. Ultimately, the issue of death penalty continues to raise debates because of how life is connected to what is ethical and death penalty is just one of the many wherein ethics is erased.
Capital punishment is one of the most popularly debated topics in the nation today. Since colonial times, more than 13,000 people have been legally executed and a large percentage of these executions occurred during the early 1900's. In the 1930's, approximately 150 people were being legally executed each year. However, the number of executions started to decrease, as public outrage became apparent. Currently, over 3,500 people are on death row. The death penalty violates the Eight Amendment because the act is cruel and unusual, and because the punishment discriminates against the poor and the minorities, the punishment also violates the Fourteenth Amendment. Surprisingly, many victims on death row are mentally retarded or disabled. Unfortunately, the death penalty has many supporters, and their main claim to why the death penalty should be constitutional is that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime, but research has proved their claim to be false. The most disturbing factor of all is that a significant number of the inmates are innocent. For many reasons, capital punishment should be illegal throughout the nation.
Capital punishment is not acceptable because it is unconstitutional. Capital punishment has been proven to violate the Eighth Amendment, which is the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. It is also a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal protection of the laws and due process. The death penalty, which was legal with no objections through the 1900's, became a controversial issue in 1972. In 1972, the Furman vs. Georgia trial caused the Supreme Court to cancel hundreds of scheduled executions and to declare the death penalty unconstitutional. However, in 1976 in Gregg vs. Georgia, the Court reinstated the death penalty. After this decision, several states reenacted the capital punishment laws. However, capital punishment indeed violates the Eighth Amendment, which became a part of the United States Constitution in 1789. Capital punishment is both a cruel and an unusual punishment. No punishment can be crueler than death, especially if it is applied to an innocent person. In Wendy Kaminer‘s book, It's All the Rage, Kaminer describes the death penalty as, “barbarously cruel . . . . shocking, unjust, and unacceptable” (106). The Fourteenth Amendment is also violated in cases of the death penalty. Once again, the Fourteenth Amendment in the United States Constitution promises equal protection of the laws and due process to everyone, but Vilbig says, “Death penalty critics say defendants, many of whom are poor, frequently get a poor legal defense, often by court-appointed lawyers“ (4). This fact indicates that the unfortunate are not being given equal protection under the law. However, the death penalty was found to be discriminatory based on the color of one's skin (Bedau 6). Therefore, the death penalty clearly violates the Fourteenth Amendment.
The application of the death penalty sentence shows racial discrimination, sex discrimination, and socio-economic class discrimination all over the nation. Over the years, the statistics of the executions have been studied. According to these statistics, from 1930 to 1990 the Government Accounting Office (GAO) reports an interesting conclusion about racial discrimination. The GAO confirmed that, “. . . a consistent pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in charging, sentencing and the imposition of the death penalty after the Furman decision . . . . race of victim influence was found at all stages of the criminal justice system process . . . ” (Bedau 5). Along with this finding, they also asserted that “. . . those who murdered whites were more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks” (Bedau 6). This information revealed that the convict's race, as well as the race of the victim, influenced the criminal justice process. In 1987, a study taken in New Jersey showed that of all the executions made that year, fifty percent of the cases involved a black defendant with a white victim, while only twenty-eight percent of the cases involved a white defendant with a black victim. In California, studies indicated that while six percent of those convicted of killing whites got the death penalty, only three percent of those convicted of killing blacks got the death penalty; “Since 1976 only four executions involved a white defendant who killed a black victim” (Bedau 6). In 1986, studies in Georgia demonstrated that those convicted of killing whites were four times more likely to be sentenced to death than convicted killers of non-whites were. African Americans are only about twelve percent of the United States' population. Of the 3,859 persons executed for a crime since 1930, fifty percent have been black. Also, the application of the death penalty was disproportionate to other minority populations (Bedau 6). It could be argued that minorities do not commit more crime than whites, but rather they are more often punished with the death penalty. In all, only thirty-one of the eighteen thousand executions in this country’s history involved a white person being punished for killing a black person. Sex discrimination is another factor that enters into determining the death sentence. During the ten years from the 1980's to the 1990's, only about one percent of those on the death row were women while a disproportionate number, fifteen- percent, of the criminal homicides were committed by women. Furthermore, research indicates that only thirty-three (twelve of them black) women were executed in the United States since 1930 compared to 3,826 men. Finally, socio-economic class discrimination influences judgments made about the death sentence. Statistics showed that ninety percent of those on the death row are too poor to hire a lawyer. A man named Clinton Duffy, former warden at California’s San Quentin Prison once said, “. . . the term capital punishment is ironic because only those without capital get the punishment” (Bedau 6). This statement seems to be true today. Without capital, one cannot be tried equally, since he or she cannot afford private investigators, psychiatrists, and expert criminal lawyers to help with the trial. Therefore, the poor suffer the harshest punishment. Racial, sex, and socio-economic discrimination plays an important role in deciding the punishment placed on the crime, which is clearly not equal protection from the law.
Capital punishment has many supporters. One of the major arguments that these supporters express is that the death penalty serves as a deterrent to crime. The supporters argue that if the death penalty is legalized and practiced, it will discourage others from committing a crime. However, by comparing the data of the states with the death penalty and the states without the death penalty, one can easily see that the death penalty has no effect in deterring crime. According to the National Research Council in 1976, “the available studies provide no useful evidence on the deterrent effect of capital punishment” (Bedau 141-42). The states that use the death penalty laws do not have lower crime rates than the states without such laws because according to an FBI report, which states that “. . . states which have abolished the death penalty averaged lower murder rates than states which have not” (Bedau 142). Furthermore, the states that establish death penalty laws do not reap any significant benefits in reducing crime or murder rates. Research shows that a large percentage of the murderers do what they do because of passion, malevolence, and/or because they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs (Bedau 170). This statistic demonstrates the fact that the murderer gives little thought to the consequences he or she might have to face later on for the crime. According to Bedau, murderers are not influenced by the death penalty as a punishment, since they carefully plan their murders thinking that they will not get caught (171). Therefore, the criminals do not think about the consequences they will face if they are captured.
Although many arguments can be made in favor of capital punishment, the arguments against capital punishment are more convincing. First, the justice system is not infallible. Too many innocent people lose their lives for a crime they never committed; “At a time when capital punishment has become widely accepted for the worst crimes, critics say a strange brew of prosecutorial misconduct, racial bias and inadequate legal defense is sending innocent people to death row” (Vilbig 2). The risk of executing the innocent is too high. Unlike the other criminal punishments, the death penalty is final. If new evidence is brought up proving the innocence of a convicted criminal, he or she would lose this chance at freedom since the death penalty was already applied. Once the court rules that one is guilty and the state executes that person, it is impossible to reverse the execution. Since 1973, 1,861 cases, thirty-five percent, of all death row cases were called back for process reasons. From those 1,861 cases, as many as 52 of those cases were invalidated based on some evidence of innocence. Even with those destructions, further studies demonstrated that at least twenty-three innocent persons were executed since 1900. Additionally, another 350 cases, out of the 7,200 cases, were considered wrongly convicted. That is almost four cases per year in which an innocent person was convicted for a murder. These statistics show the fallibility of human judgment and how erroneous a decision of death penalty can be. As Marquis de Lafayette from the French Chamber of Deputies once said, "I shall ask for the abolition of the punishment of death until I have the infallibility of human judgment demonstrated to me" (Bedau 8).
In all, there are many different difficulties exist with the use of the death penalty as an attempt to decrease and prevent crime. Since the issue of capital punishment started in the early 1900's, it has been a burning issue throughout the nation. The country is divided between people who support capital punishment and people who are against capital punishment. After evaluating the arguments on both sides, it is very clear that the death penalty is unreasonable and should be illegal. Capital punishment is not deterrence to crime. Although it does eliminate the chance of a criminal to commit another crime because the person is dead, it could also end the life of an innocent person. Statistics gathered from comparisons between the states with and without capital punishment reveal that the death penalty does not deter criminals from committing crimes. There are many arguments against capital punishment including its unconstitutionality because capital punishment violates two amendments, the Eighth Amendment, since the death penalty is a cruel and unusual punishment, and secondly, the Fourteenth Amendment, since it displays unequal protection of the laws and due process. Racial discrimination, sex discrimination, and socio-economic class discrimination are factors that unfairly decide the death penalty. The last two reasons that support the claim that the death penalty should be illegal are the risks of executing an innocent person and the obvious fact that the death penalty does not deter crime. For these reasons, capital punishment should be illegal throughout the nation.
Bedau, Peter. Death is Different. Massachusetts: Northeastern University Press, 1987.
Kaminer, Wendy. It’s All the Rage: Crime and Culture. New York: Addison-Wesley
Publishing Company, 1995.
Vilbig, Peter. “Innocent on Death Row.” New York Times Upfront 18 Sept 2000: 1-11.
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