To Kill or not to Kill The Death Penalty Question

The United States remains one of the few nations still to practice capital punishment. However, the question of whether or not the states right to prematurely extinguish another human beings life should be abolished remains open for discussion. In fact, the debate regarding the abolition of the death penalty has raged on for a number of years now. Michael Welch and Ernest van de Haag argue in favor and against this proposition, respectively. This paper discusses the arguments presented by both authors and justifies why the view for the abolition of the death penalty is the more logical position.
Arguments in favor of Abolition

Belief in the death penalty is hinged on its capacity to deter crime. The states right to take a life of a convict is not a natural right but a legislated right. The rationale behind this legislation is deterrence. However, experience and empirical evidence suggests that the law of capital punishment has not lived up to its proposed merits. The deterrent effect of capital punishment is considered mythical because it is not based on empirical evidence, rather it resembles a religious conviction more than an intellectual position because it rests on faith rather than on facts (Welch 264). Instead of deterring crime, it has even enhanced crime, according to Welch. Welch discusses the brutalization effect which purports that capital punishment promotes rather than deters crime because it reinforces the belief that lethal vengeance is justified (Welch 264). The application of death penalty violates standards of decency. There is a widening application of the death penalty to juveniles aged less than 16 years old. The death penalty is also applied to people who have severe mental handicaps who do not fully comprehend the sentence meted upon them. An example is paranoid schizophrenic Varnall Weeks who was sentenced to death despite clear indications that he was delusional and incapable of comprehension. Moreover, Welchs argument on nonenforcement asserts that the law on capital punishment is applied unevenly and unequally. He argues that the death penalty is being enforced with a significant degree of arbitrariness to the detriment of minority groups and indigents. Statistics suggest that black defendants are disproportionately sentenced to death than are white defendants (Welch 266). Furthermore, research has established that those who kill white people faced a higher probability of facing capital punishment than those who kill black people (Welch 268). Evidently, the criminal justice system remains tainted with racial bias so that death is being conveniently meted out more to blacks than to whites. Welch argues that as a means of social control, the death penalty law is selective on who to execute based on the color of ones skin. The third argument advanced by Welch is the principle of covert facilitation, defined as the hidden or deceptive enforcement action in which authorities intentionally encourage rule breaking (Marx, qtd. in Welch 269). As a result, the state even promotes rule breaking on the part of law enforcement and prosecutors not to actually ensure that justice is done, but to see that justice appears to be done. In this regard, the law on capital punishment actually perpetrates social injustice because it renders the poor and the disadvantaged vulnerable to the miscarriage of justice. A longitudinal study by Bedau and Radelet entitled In Spite of Innocence Erroneous Convictions in Capital Cases details 416 cases of wrongfully accused capital defendants within a 91-year period. The failings of the criminal justice system imprison innocent people who have decades of their lives wasted because of wrongful imprisonment. The justice system is inherently biased toward the financially privileged since There are other folks in prison who dont have the money or the resources or the good fortune to have folks come in and help them (Applebome qtd. in Welch 270). Welch argues that with a flawed and corrupt justice system in place, the possibility of wrongfully executing an innocent person is too real to ignore. Welch argues that capital defendants not only face a flawed criminal justice process but also risk being falsely convicted by unethical prosecutors willing to frame suspects to advance their political aspirations (271).

Arguments against Abolition
On the other hand, van de Haag makes an apologist appeal to justify capital punishment in the United States. He argues, based on moral grounds that contrary to what abolitionists say capital punishment upholds the humanity of both victim and defendant (van de Haag 284). Van de Haag concedes that indeed, sociologists have been able to prove that the law has been applied discriminatorily in the past but acknowledges that the same arguments no longer hold true in the present conditions (278). Responding to the allegation that the implementation of the death penalty discriminates against black defendants who allegedly murdered white victim who are more likely to be executed compared if their victims had been black, van de Haag turns the tables around and says that the other perspective must be viewed. Van de Haag says that it is not just the black defendants who are being discriminated in the process, but also the black victims because they do not receive justice proportionate to the crime (279). He proceeds to conclude that given these facts, any element of discrimination is necessarily offset because discrimination goes both ways. Van de Haag also contends that the debate for or against death penalty rests on our appreciation for the values of justice and equality (279). He also believes that flaws and errors in penalization cannot be avoided and if there are miscarriages in justice, they are only rare and not enough to call for the abolition of the law. Van de Haag says that granting that the death penalty may be discriminatory (which he insists it is not), it still would not be logical to abolish the entire law just because it may be erroneous to a certain extent. Van de Haag uses the analogy of the traffic violation where officers issue tickets to violators of traffic laws except those that drove luxury cars. According to van de Haag, this is clearly a case of unequal justice (280). However, it would be illogical to totally abolish the tickets policy just because of an unfair distribution of justice. Van de Haag equates this analogy to the death penalty law. Just because there are rare cases of miscarriages of justice in the death penalty law does not provide a sufficient rationale for its abolition.  He declares that unequal justice is much better than equal injustice (van de Haag 279).  He establishes that in the hierarchy of priorities in a moral society, To do justice is primarily to punish as deserved, and only secondarily to punish equally (van de Haag 280). Van de Haag believes that abolishing the death penalty is tantamount to giving up justice for the sake of equality hence reversing the order of priorities (281).

The arguments for the abolition of the death penalty are stronger than those that are against it. No matter how one looks at it, the principle promoted by the death penalty is a tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye, which is reminiscent of our barbaric past where the law of retaliation or vengeance prevails. The only acceptable justification for the application of capital punishment in the modern world is its capacity to deter crime. Its proponents assert that institutionalizing murder would send a powerful message to potential criminals because they would identify themselves with the fate of those who are sentenced to death. However, the statistics do not speak in favor of capital punishment as a tool for crime deterrence. On the contrary, crimes have even escalated after the implementation of the death penalty. Van de Haags arguments effects of the death penalty and his use of the traffic violation analogy to advance his case are too simplistic. When you deal with life, equal justice becomes a requirement, not merely an option, or what he considers a secondary priority. Hence, the call for the abolition of the death penalty must be supported.


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