Critical Evaluation of the Death Penalty

For many years, the debate on the usefulness of death penalty has existed. Proponents of death penalty have stood their ground that it is the best punishment for capital offenders while the abolitionists have argued that it is morally flawed by basing their arguments on the studies which have demonstrated its failure to discourage criminals from engaging in criminal activities. If the subject of death penalty was not that depressing, the debate would have subsided by now.

In most instances, the debate has failed to tackle the issues facing death penalty. Proponents have always imagined the ideal system of capital punishment which does not exist. They have assumed a perfect system where the penalty is passed on the most dangerous criminals like serial killers and performed to deter criminals and ensure justice to victims of criminal activities like murder. However, this is not the case with the American system of capital punishment. The main aims of criminal justice system should include deterring crime, punishing offenders, acquitting the innocent, preventing unnecessary cruelty, ensuring justice, and forbidding oppression by the state. In a nutshell, America lacks the ideal system of capital punishment supported by proponents of this type of punishment.

Since its inception in 1967, it has been applied in very few cases, and in most cases against the least dangerous offenders, while majority of the dangerous criminals have managed to avoid execution. In addition, it has been passed almost purely in states in which the majority of the populations are descendants of former slaves. In such states, it has been used on blacks who have murdered whites and not vice versa.  This is the clear picture of American system of capital punishment. This is the true picture of the system of capital punishment which should be debated upon but not the imagined perfect system.

Failures of the American system of capital punishment
The system of capital punishment in America is characterized by occasional, haphazard, and erratic executions. The system has failed in applying this punishment on the most dangerous criminals or the defendants of the worst character. The system cannot be justified just by positing a famous criminal like Charles Manson. According to the rule of law, there is need to have a just criminal system. The actual American system of capital punishment fails when measured based on the common justifications for the applications of punishment. Punishment should result in deterrence and justice to both the offender and the victim.

According to the studies carried out by Thorsten Sellin on the deterrent effect of capital punishment in America, it showed that capital punishment has not yielded deterrent effect on the criminal levels in areas where it is widely applied. It also demonstrated that even during the period when it was applied quite often, there was no substantial evidence to prove its effectiveness in terms of lowering the levels of crime. If these evidences are compared to the current situation where death penalty is rarely used, geographically localized, and applied selectively in relation to the race and economic status of the victim and the offender, the conclusion of the Thorsten study cannot be ignored.

Reasons against death penalty
(a). Possibility of condemning innocent people
Many people have been released from death rows because they have been proved innocent. The application of appeal bargains and leniency as alternative for snitch testimony most of the times result in innocent people being convicted of wrongs they did not commit. Police and prosecutors normally fail to carry out proper investigations which can prove the defendants to be innocent. From the incident of 2003, all the states death row prisoners were released based on the fact that the justice system was flawed to an extent that it was difficult to know the guilty and the innocent. This case point at a possibility that many innocent people have been executed wrongly (Ballard, para. 6).

In the most recent survey carried out by Hugo Adam Bedau and Michael Radelet, they discovered that 7000 people were executed in the United States between the years 1900 and 1985 and among them, 35 individuals were convicted innocently. Even though the proponents of the system may question their data, there is no doubt that over the years innocent individuals have been executed wrongly (Bedau and Cassell, p. 254).

(b). Death penalty is applied unfairly
Death penalty is applied discriminately against the minority groups. The race of the defendants and that of the victims has influence on the kind of punishment they get. Defendants from the minority groups most of the time get death penalty as compared to the whites. Although African Americans constitute 12  of the entire US population, 42 of the death row prisoners are blacks. In other states like Pennsylvania, 60 of death row prisoners are blacks.  The statistics also reveal that very few number of whites have been executed for killing black people.  Reports by amnesty international further states that 20 of black defendants who received death penalty since 1976 were convicted by white juries. These are enough evidence to show that the lives of minority groups are not valued as those of their fellow whites therefore death penalty is not applied fairly.

(c). Death penalty is meant for the poor
The wealthy people who can afford the best legal representation cannot end up in death row. Majority of defendants convicted of capital offences cannot afford the services of experienced attorneys to represent them. They are forced to use inexperienced and overworked lawyers who do not serve them well. In addition, the time frame upon which capital trials are done is very short and do not give proper time to get a good defense.  The trial results are also quite obvious since the economic status of the defendant determines the results.

(d). Death penalty does not serve as a deterrent to crime
Over the years, research has been done to try to prove that capital punishment reduces the level of crime.  The research carried out has been criticized to have serious mistakes and omissions. There is no proper evidence to support the current system of capital punishment that it deters crime. Potential killers, who take their time and weigh the possibility of them being killed when caught, must conclude that the danger of being executed has reduced in most states, more so if the victim of the attack is black. Most murderers are like suicide bombers who do not care about the consequences of their actions therefore death penalty cannot serve as a deterrent against murder.

Evidence shows that death penalty does not act as a deterrent to crime. To prove this, a study was carried to estimate the level of crime in relation to the rate of execution in some specific states.  The study proved that between the years 1989 and 2002, in the state of California, one execution was carried out, Texas had 239, and New York did not carry out any. When the patterns of murder rates were considered, they were found to be similar in each year, however Texas had the highest average.  The study proved that as more executions are done, the rate of murder increase.

Reasons in support of death penalty

(a). Morally accepted
Use of death penalty as a punishment for the most serious crimes is morally accepted. Although the decision might not go well with honest people and philosophers, there are reasons for taking this stand. According to Hugo Bebau, death in electric chair is cruel and unusual which means that it is immoral. This is not true because the criminal being executed has just committed a terrible crime with the full knowledge that what he is doing is prohibited by the law. The use of electric chair on such criminals is morally justified. Other methods of executions like lethal injections which are widely practiced in many states appears to be so soft on a criminal who has caused an innocent victim shed hisher blood. Acts of murder deserve the cruelest punishment like firing squad, hanging, and electric chair.

(b). Ensures justice to the victim and the family
A crime cannot be considered serious if the punishment offered does not match its severity. The value of human life is only asserted by offering the cruelest punishment for any person found guilty of taking someones life away. Capital punishment was put in place to indicate how precious the life is. Murder is a terrible crime and any punishment less than death penalty will be viewed as an insult to justice. Punishing the murder will ensure justice to the victim and his family.

(c). An indicator that society does not tolerate crime
Through punishment, the society sends a message that it abhors crime, and in an effort to respect the law, it is important that the punishment offered for serious crimes should sufficiently echo the disgust by the majority of the society. It is not in order to measure the effects of punishment as a deterrent, reformative, or preventive. There are crimes which are so serious and outrageous and the society has to decide on the most effective punishment because the criminal deserves it regardless of whether it has deterrent effect or not.

(d). Deters crime
Death penalty is justified since it deters crime level. The abolitionist have tried to show several statistics to prove that the level of crime have not subsided since the inception of death penalty.  Death penalty was made legal in 1976 and by then the crime level was at 8.8. Since then up to 1995, the level of crime hovered around 7 to 10. This showed some reduction in the level of crimes. In the year when the number of executions was reported to have reduced, the crime level shot back to the original level. The murder rate have some how maintained which is a clear indication that death penalty has deterrent effects. With the changes which have occurred in the world, was it not for death penalty, the murder levels would have increased so much. Repealing of the death penalty would be morally wrong since many lives will be put at stake by a mere act of pleasing few individuals (American Civil Liberties Union, para. 9).

(e). Costs incurred in keeping criminals
The costs involved in maintaining the criminals in the prison have in the recent past increased tremendously.  The criminals are housed and fed using tax payers money. These people are living because of their work while criminals some of which have committed the worst crimes are being fed and housed freely. This is ethically wrong since the criminals will not care whether they will be caught or not because if found guilty they will be cared for. Abolition of death penalty would mean that criminals would commit crimes without caring for the consequences.

Death penalty has been criticized because it can cause the execution of innocent individuals. This should not be considered as a valid reason to abolish death penalty. Despite precautionary measures which are normally taken, almost all human activities like construction, lighting, and trucking usually have errors and can cause death of innocent onlookers. Such activities are not abandoned because their merits, moral surpasses the unintended losses of life.

Emerging issues in capital punishment
There are several issues which are associated with death penalty. Among the issues is the cost of appealing capital punishment. Some people have claimed that the cost is excessive. The cost of life imprisonment as compared to that of execution has also elicited debate. There have been claims that life imprisonment does not generate any extra cost, but this is debatable since these people have to be maintained by the state.

Others assert that a person sentenced to death endures more suffering as compared to what their victims went through. The suffering cannot be quantified, but the fact is that the victim did not deserve the suffering he was exposed to. Conversely, punishment is not meant to revenge against the offender, or to compensate for the suffering of the victim, or to be measured by it, but is to assert the law and the social order which was broken by the offender.

The subject of death penalty is surrounded by a lot of controversies in America. Proponents of death penalty are supporting the system without considering how it is applied while the opponents are against it because of the flaws within the justice system. Some of the reasons against death penalty are it does not deter crime, biased application based on race, possibility of executing innocent defendants, applied against the poor among other reasons. Although some of the reasons against death penalty are valid, some point out that the punishment is okay but the problem is the system which is implementing it. The issue of biased application based on race is a valid one. It states that the blacks are more likely to be sentenced to death when convicted of murder as compared to whites. This reason justifies the fair application of the punishment. The reasons in support of death penalty show that it is the most effective punishment for dangerous criminals. Once a criminal has been executed chances of ever engaging in criminal activities are eliminated. There have been cases of murder criminals jailed for life who have killed their fellow inmates or prison officers.  The system ensures justice to the victim and his family members. The execution of the murderer brings some relief to the relatives of the murder victim. There is a serious need to overhaul the American justice system to ensure equal justice to all its citizens. The problems surrounding death penalty like racial biasness, unfair application, execution of innocent individuals among other issues can only be resolve if the justice system is changed. Chances of executing innocent individuals can also be lowered by police carrying out proper investigations which will ensure that all the needed evidences are provided.


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