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The Earliest Historical Records

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“The earliest historical records contain evidence of capital punishment. It was mentioned in the Code of Hammurabi (1750 BC), and the Draconian Code of ancient Greece imposed capital punishment for every offense. By 1800 in England at least 1000 people were sentenced to death each year” (Encarta).

Many countries have now abolished it, even England (1965), except for acts of treason. However, the United States has not joined in this transition. Edward I. Koch, Democratic mayor of New York (1978 to 1989), claims that the United States should continue upholding the death penalty to affirm life.

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“Life is indeed precious, and I (Koch) believe the death penalty helps to affirm this fact” (476).

Koch analyzes seven of the most common arguments against the death penalty that he received from his constituents.

Koch points out that before lethal injection, capital punishment was sometimes condemned because of excess pain due to malfunctions in the devices used in the executions. Afterwards, opponents of the death penalty argued that the death sentence could not be made humane through science.

Then it became clear to Koch that it was not the methods in execution that bothered his opponents, but the death itself they considered barbaric. Koch takes this outlook further and correlates it to cancer.

He says that no one likes the methods in treating cancer, radical surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, but we endure them in attempt to improve our conditions. One does not have to like the death penalty in order to support it, but simply realize that it is the only adequate form we have against heinous crimes. Koch inductively concludes that one day a pill might cure cancer, and another day, a method will be discovered that will replace the death penalty.

Of all the countries of the world, inclusive beyond those democratic, the United States is one of very few that legalizes the death penalty. However, the United States is also plagued with absurdly high murder rate. Koch quotes a M.I.T. study, based on 1970 homicide rates, to show the conditions in which we have lived. It was concluded that it more dangerous living in a large American city than being killed in combat in World War II as an American soldier. However, of the 61 million killed, less than 300,000 of them were Americans (<0.5%). Not all of the Americans in the war died in combat, some died from diseases from infected wounds and terrible living conditions, thus lowering the actual number who died in combat. Therefore, this seemingly staggering fact is not very substantial: in other words, this is the fallacy of death by a thousand qualifications.

The scariest side effect of the death penalty is the possibility that someone, possibly you, could be executed by mistake. Koch admits that the judicial system has its flaws but according to Hugo Adam Bedau, a relentless foe of capital punishment, this has not occurred. Bedau studied seven thousand death penalty cases from 1892 to 1971 and deduced in absolutely none of the cases had been mistakes. David Bruck, a death penalty defense lawyer, says that it is impossible to acquire all the necessary facts to draw such conclusions since most of the cases were quite old and the defendant is obviously dead (482). Also, a recent movie, The Hurricane, which is based on a true story, challenges this. The main character, a black boxer, was accused of killing three white men, and was sentenced to death. After twenty years of jail, and countless hours of protest, the government realized they had the wrong man.

The death penalty increases the value of life, not decreases, according to Koch. If the penalties for such crimes were lowered, it would signal a lesser regard for the sufferings of those affected by such actions. Jimmy Breslin, a critic of capital punishment, says that a life sentence is harsher than the death penalty. Koch challenges this with the fact that far more death row inmates appeal their sentence than await their early death. Conversely, no one has lived through both a life sentence and an early death to accurately determine which method produces the greater punishment.

Discrimination in the application of the death penalty is no longer a problem according to Koch. Koch, however, fails to provide ample grounds to his statement and commits the fallacy of oversimplification. Again, using the same recent movie, The Hurricane, the defendant was accused of committing the crime because he was black not because substantial evidence pointed him out as the prime suspect. In Vivian Berger’s, “Rolling the Dice to Decide Who Dies,” displays two cases with contrasting results. In one, a man shoots a gas station attendant over a stolen credit card and received the death sentence. In the other, a drunken man breaks into a house and bludgeoned a mother and young daughter to death because he liked to see blood was given a life sentence (508). Does this seem discriminatory?

“Thou shall not kill,” is one of many very well known quotes in a predominant Christian culture. The Ten Commandments, and the Bible as well, “is our greatest source of moral inspiration” (Koch 478). Koch states that many great thinkers of the 19th century believed that natural law authorizes the government to take life in vindication of justice. However, up until the late 19th century after many of their ideas dissipated, many countries made the death penalty illegal. Just because a group of “great thinkers” believe this is the way it is does not make it right, thus, Koch commits the fallacy of appeal to authority. Socrates and many other great thinkers believed the earth was flat and the center of the earth. We no longer believe them because a better idea was presented.

Koch concludes with a strong argument against the accusation of the death penalty as being state-sanctioned murder. The state has rights that the individual does not. For example, when the state places a criminal in jail or taxes its citizens it is legal, but if an individual does the same, it is called kidnapping and extortion.

What are the other options?

Many people have tried to compromise the death penalty. The most popular concession is to leave the death penalty for only a select few, such as members of the mafia, serial killers, and depraved torturers. Reserving it for certain people also goes against what the Supreme Court ruled: the death penalty is unconstitutional if it is made mandatory for certain crimes. What other effective means of punishment are there?

A recent movie invented a unique (and possible) idea (unfortunately, I do not remember its name). In the movie, convicts are sent to a remote island that is under constant surveillance by the government and are given weekly supplements of food for survival. The rest of their lives is up to them to live out. They must build their own shelter, find their own water, and co-exist with the other co-inhabitants. This is the life they must lead without basic commodities, instead of being locked up in a cell or sent to the chair.

The United States could sanction off three of the smaller Aleutian Islands (in Alaska) for this purpose: one island for women, another for men, and the last for a military base. This way we could have a close constant watch one the convicts and a substantial force to ward off escape attempts. I choose the Aleutians because they are sparsely inhabited, isolated, and are surrounded by frostily cold waters, much like Alcatraz. With a military base nearby, this cuts down on the cost for extra personnel, reduces risk of employee and felon contact, and allows for more sophisticated methods of supervision (infrared, motion, etc). The water surrounding it is too cold to swim in, and a boat would be easily detected by the military.

It has already been argued that this place will become a place of murderous inhumanity (Mr. Sherwood). There are two options to this valid dispute. One is that this island does not entirely replace the death penalty but acts as a punishment between life in prison and death. Those who are most likely to kill again will be executed; the rest are sent to the island. The second is to allow 10 years of imprisonment before being sent to this island so that the convicted has time to try to prove their innocence. As Koch also said, this method may not be the one that ends the dispute on punishment for heinous crimes, but simply a stepping-stone to the answer.

Death is something that no one should be allowed to do to another, even for the government. We should not be the ones who judge others in the matter of life and death. Keeping them exiled from the country and the world is an ethical means of punishment for breaking the laws of the United States of America.

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