The question as to whether the state has the right to execute a person found guilty of murder has been debated at length for decades. As with the subject of abortion, it is one of the most controversial topics of discussion in our country today. According to the website religious tolerance.org. about 60 to 80% of American adults say they want to retain capital punishment ( 2). In fact, there are only 12 states that have chosen not to enact the death penalty since the ruling of the Supreme Court in 1976 that said it was constitutionally permissible to have capital punishment (Bonner 1). This strikes me as being rather odd since a large number of those same people claim to be Christians and the main thrust of Christianity is love and forgiveness, not vengeance. At the same time, a number of Christians are opposed to abortion, but are in favor of the death penalty. This belief does not make sense to me; if the life of the unborn is considered precious, then all life should be considered precious, including those who have allegedly committed terrible crimes. Opponents of the death penalty believe that the death penalty is a form of cruel and unusual punishment, is racially biased, can often times be meted out to an innocent person, and is not a deterrent against future murders.
Let us begin by first dealing with the issue of the death penalty as being a form of cruel and unusual punishment. Are there terrible murders being committed in this country today? Absolutely. And should these murderers be brought to justice? Here again, I would say without hesitation, of course. However, I do not know how you can execute a person for committing murder, thereby committing the same act that he is condemned for. In other words, murder is murder, whether it be by an individual or by the state. Murder is often a crime of passion and not a preplanned act. Can you say the same thing about executing someone either by the electric chair or injection? The end result is the same, a person is dead, and it is very much a premeditated act carried out in a very mechanical, systematic way. In some respects, capital punishment is no better than the actions of a serial killer; it is killing for the sake of killing. I feel that if a person is deemed to be a threat to society then he should be removed from society and not be permitted to live in society. When you make a man or a woman sit for years on death row, not knowing from one day to the next if they will live or die, then I feel that this is cruel and unusual punishment. According to human rights activist Stephen Bright, “Life is the most fundamental human right there is, the death penalty is like torture – it’s beyond the pale. Most people say it’s not right to cut a thief’s fingers off but it’s ok to cut off their head?” (Beaudoin 3).
The next argument that proponents of the death penalty will espouse is that the death penalty is a deterrent to future murders. Interestingly enough there are many district attorneys who do not believe that the death penalty is a deterrent to murder, and who are opposed to the death penalty. These are people who deal with murderers and other criminals every day. In the New York Times Special Report, this article indicates that 10 of the 12 states without capital punishment have homicide rates below the national average, while Federal Bureau of Investigation data shows, that half the states with the death penalty have homicide rates above the national average (Bonner 1).
As I stated before, the majority of murders are not preplanned, so how can they be prevented? This opinion is substantiated by Mr. John O’Hair, the district attorney from Detroit who states, “I do not think that the death penalty is a deterrent of any consequence in preventing murders.” Most homicides, he said are “impulsive actions, crimes of passion, “ in which the killers do not consider the consequences of what they are doing.” Even though Detroit has a very high murder rate, he does not feel that capital punishment is the answer (Bonner 4). Why then, do most people feel that capital punishment is the answer to the rising crime rate in the United States? I believe that fear is an underlying reason. The public sees a steady barrage of stories on television and in the newspapers daily about heinous murders, and the media seems to like to tell all the gory details. People just want to be rid of these killers so they can feel safe again. However, the problem is that a story told on the television or in the newspapers does not always tell both sides of the story – sometimes they don’t know both sides – and often times a person is tried and convicted by the press before he even goes to trial. I have been on a jury and I know that the public is not aware of all circumstances and evidence that a jury is privy to in a trial.
This brings me to my next argument in opposition to the death penalty, the possibility that an innocent person may be condemned to death and be executed for a crime that he has not committed. Some people would argue that with our system of appeals this could not happen, but it has happened and continues to happen. Fortunately, with the discovery of DNA testing, innocent men have been proven innocent after spending years in prison for a crime they haven’t committed. An example of this was illustrated in an article from the Washington Post regarding a recent book written by Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld, and Jim Dwyer in which they tell of a man by the name of Robert Miller from Oklahoma who spent nine years on death row for the rape and murder of a 92 year old woman. Even when testing of his DNA proved without a doubt that he could not possibly have been the man who raped and murdered this old woman, prosecutors refused to release him from jail. It wasn’t until a determined defense attorney pursued the matter and was able to establish his innocence and another man was indicted that he was finally released (Will 1). Is this a fluke or an unusual case? Not according to the Denver Post who also reported on the same book as illustrated above. Over the past decade, 67 innocent people have been released from prison since DNA evidence has been used. There was even one man, Ron Williamson, who was just five days away from execution, when he was granted a stay from the state, and he was eventually released (Rosenberg). Talk about cruel and unusual punishment. The facts speak for themselves. Innocent people have been convicted of crimes that they haven’t committed and common sense would have to have you believe that there have been people executed for crimes they haven’t committed.
How can something like this happen? For one thing, unfortunately, our justice system is not always fair. If you have the resources to hire a high priced attorney, then the chances of your either being acquitted or being handed a lesser sentence, or in some cases, probation are probably much higher. The O.J. Simpson trial proved that point. Even with the overwhelming amount of evidence that the prosecution had available, they were not able to convict O.J. Simpson. The prosecution was not able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that O.J. Simpson had indeed killed his wife and Ron Goldman. The defense had so much capital at its disposal that they were able to call in expert witnesses to shed doubt on the credibility of the prosecution’s witnesses and the evidence. Had O.J. Simpson been a black man of average or below average means in the United States, he would never have been acquitted. In the article “The Death Penalty in Black & White: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Decides” the author tells of studies conducted in the city of Philadelphia concerning the increased risks for blacks facing the death penalty. The evidence revealed that more than half of the death sentences meted out in Pennsylvania were from cases in Philadelphia, and that 83% of those on death row from Philadelphia are African-American. The article goes on to show that blacks in Philadelphia were more likely to get the death penalty than other defendants who committed similar murders (Dieter 4,5).
I ask you, how can we possibly continue to have capital punishment, when there are so many problems, not only with the system itself, but also in the way justice is meted out. I think it would be better to sentence a man to life in prison without chance of parole than to take the chance of even one innocent man being executed. At least that way, if he is innocent, he would have the opportunity to prove his innocence. Upon researching this subject, I was extremely disturbed to find that the United States is one of the few countries that still has the death penalty. We really need to take another look at our justice system and try to bring about changes. The answer to society’s problems is not to just get rid of those people we believe are a threat to our security, but try to get to the root of the problem. If we don’t, there are always going to be others who will take the place of those we have executed.
Bonner, Raymond and Fessenden, Ford. “Absence of Executions” New York Times – 22 Sept., 2000.
Capital Punishment; The Death Penalty – All Sides to the Topic
Dieter, Esq., Richard C. The Death Penalty in Black & White: Who Lives, Who Dies,
Rosenberg, Paul. “Making a Case to Stop Convicting the Innocent” Denver Post,
Will, George F. “Innocent on Death Row” The Washington Post 6 April ,2000
Bonner, Raymond and Fessenden, Ford. “Absence of Executions” New York Times – 22 Sept., 2000.