The Death Penalty Debate
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In the past twenty years, thirty-eight of the fifty states have meted out at least one death sentence and twenty-four of those states followed through with at least one execution (Bedau, 2007, p. 3). The varying methods used in execution have changed from the firing squad to the electric chair and now the more popular use of Lethal Injection. Thirty-five of the fifty states use the lethal injection as the primary source used when putting someone to death compared to the other types of execution (Bureau of Justice Statistics, Capital Punishment 2006).
The first death sentence historically recorded occurred in 16th Century BC Egypt where the wrongdoer, a member of nobility, was accused of magic, and ordered to take his own life. During this period, non-nobility was usually killed with an ax, while the first real reform against it started between 1833-1853 due it being considered cruel (Reggie, n.d, para. 1).
Walter Berns expressed himself by saying,” If human life is to be held in awe, as it should be, the law forbidding the taking of it must be held in awe, and the only way the law can be made awe inspiring is to entitle it to inflict the penalty of death”(Berns,1980). The value of a human life varies depending on which side of the issue one’s beliefs lay.
Understanding more on why the thought of taking a life instead of a life sentence in a prison is complex yet simple at the same time due to the nature of the crimes that were committed with the mentality of the punishment fits the crime. The majority of the executions of people come from the countries Vietnam, China, Iran, and the United States which is the only westernized country.
The cost difference between putting someone to death versus a life sentence can be major due to the legal appeals that are granted to death row cases. The cost of putting someone to death varies depending on state and what cost they pay for security, police time, and investigation. If the death penalty was replaced with life without, the possibility of parole protects the public as well as saves the cost of many appeals. Putting to death innocent people happen all the time yet if they were sentenced to jail for the rest of their life than many of those would have been saved.
The most comprehensive study in the country found that the death penalty costs North Carolina $2.16 million per execution over the costs of sentencing murderers to life imprisonment. The majority of those costs occur at the trial level (Duke University, May 1993). In the short term it seems like the it’s easier to just kill someone than let them sit in jail for the rest of their life yet either way gives no peaceful end to the victim or all the families involved.
The hard line of deciding why one’s life is more important than another is something that strains emotionally on the people are involved. Taking someone’s life because of a choice they made to take another does not make it right either. Deciding the right to take someone’s life takes its toll on a jury and judge and even the other parties involved.
On Jul 1, 2011 Illinois banned the death penalty by Governor Ryan, who had been a supporter of the death penalty. However, after it was learned in 2000 that some death row inmates were put to death, even though they were innocent. His stance on this issue put him in the center of a very heated debate on capital punishment(Leon, 2011).
In 1972, the Supreme Court declared that under the existing laws "the imposition and carrying out of the death penalty constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments."(Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S.238). The ACLU made their opinion on this topic very well known by stating. "Death penalty inherently violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment and the guarantee of the due process of law and the equal protection of the laws. The imposition of the death penalty is inconsistent with fundamental values of our democratic system. The state should not arrogate unto itself the right to kill human beings, especially when it kills with premeditation and ceremony, under color of law, in our names, and when it does so in an arbitrary and discriminatory fashion”("ACLU," n.d., para. 1).
The debate on the death penalty fueled by many innocent executions of people which states have not been able to prevent before it is too late. Nearly 80% of the executions in the 1970’s where black that were convicted of crimes involving whites. The facts remain that only 16 out of the 50 states are without the death penalty (“ACLU”, n.d). The increase in innocent people being found guilty has become more visible use to the use of DNA testing.
From the racial differences to the environmental differences can play a role in how one thinks about the death penalty. Different cultures look at killing someone due to a crime they commit is something that comes second nature and is part of their culture. Culture differences influence the belief in capital punishment or against it. Living in communist country or even third world countries the dictators take the life of many that commit crimes which are cheered, by the by, standards.
The death penalty is used primarily to punish those who kill Euro-Americans. White people make up roughly half of murder victims nationally, but over 80% of death row inmates are there for the murder of a white victim. A defendant accused of murdering a white victim is more than 3 times as likely to face the death penalty as a defendant accused of the murder of a person of color (Dow, 2010).
Race has played a role in how justice is served can go back to slavery where whites could have blacks killed for just simply looking the wrong way at them or even trying to enjoy a bit of freedom from which the laws prohibit. Times may have changed where slavery is outlawed, yet when someone of color commits a crime they are looked down upon and presumed guilty before the truth is even out. Progress is being made on racial profiling however we still have a long ways to go until we stand on equal footing in regards to the way we judge regarding crimes.
Religion plays a role in how people view their opinion on capital punishment for example a case in Utah jurors used their religious beliefs being Mormon as a reason not to serve on a capital murder case due to their religion does not believe in putting people to death. Different religions proclaim their stand on the issue in which most members of those religions follow what is taught of them (Rogers, 2011).
Capital punishment is a criminal, philosophical, social, and often cultural issue. But, for many on both the pro- and anti-death penalty sides, it can be a predominantly religious issue. The link seems natural as capital punishment deals with great existential questions: life and death, morality and sin -- all issues which religion tries to comprehend and explain. Genesis 9:6 reads, "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man. "In Matthew 5:38-39, Jesus says, in the Sermon on the Mount, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Megivern, 1997, p. 641). These bible phrases are used a lot of time when defending the use of the death penalty.
The value on a human life is not measured by emotions of anger and hatred toward another human being. In the United Sates constitution we are giving the inalienable right and by taking another one’s life takes away that right that our fore fathers gave everyone when this country became free. Drawing the line on where one wrong makes a right by taking a life of another. The role in which the government plays in capital punishment is no longer black or white. The length people go to make sure war criminals are given their due right actually gives them more freedom than we give our own people.
By thinking of how the punishment should fit the crime comes in the debate that only murders receive the death penalty for taking one’s life. So on that same argument than why doesn’t rapist be punished by some sexual act or beaten to death for a crime of assault. Seeing this issue as black and white gives leaves gaps that are unexplainable as why do we only punish one kind of criminal with the same act that they are guilty of.
Whether you are for or against capital punishment, the feelings of justice differ and emotions ride high, which turns into heated debates. Taking a step back and thinking outside of the box would enable this issue to resolve itself without dividing people more than it should. Having the opinion for or against capital punishment should not be taken lightly as it is almost compared to abortion. These issue run parallel in the divide of how we value human life and what role does our environmental upbringing play.
Capital punishment has gone for centuries where people would kill just for a small crime like looking at another man’s wife to know putting people to death for murder. The risk of putting innocent people should be a reason to stop the death penalty and use the option of life in prison without the possibility of parole. One life is no more important than another is even if the punishment should fit the crime,
The United States being the last westernized country to still legally using the death penalty comes as a surprise considering the role in which we play in other countries telling them what is ethically right or wrong. The value of life no matter what someone may of committed is worth more than the cost in which used to put someone to death.
The use of capital punishment has changed from hangings, firing squads, electric chair and now lethal injection. Eliminating the death penalty needs to be the next step forward toward preserving what the fore fathers gave us as a right of a life which is valued and that the judgment on someone does not lie upon a human race but only God alone.
Bedau, H. A. (2007). Background and Development. In The Death Penalty in America; Current Controversies (p. 3). Oxford Univeristy Press.
Dow, D. R. (2010). The Autobiography of an Execution (1 ed.). New York, NY: Twelve.
Leon, E. D. (2011). Illinois Governor signs bill ending death penalty, marking the fewest states with capital punishment since 1978. Retrieved from http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/editorials-chicago-tribune-urges-governor-sign-death-penalty-repeal-bill
Megivern, J. J. (1997). The death penalty: an historical and theological survery. New York: Paulist Press.
Reggie, M. H. (n.d). History of the Death Penalty. Retrieved July 23, 2011, from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/execution/readings/history.html
The Case Against The Death Penalty. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.aclu.org/capital-punishment/case-against-death-penalty