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The Case for the Death Penalty

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    On July 23, 2007, in Cheshire, Connecticut, two men invaded the home of Dr. William Petit. They beat Dr. Petit with a baseball bat, raped Dr. Petit’s wife and two daughters, chained them to a bed, poured gasoline on them and set the house on fire. Dr. Petit was the only survivor. The two men were convicted and sentenced to death, but in 2015, Connecticut abolished the death penalty thus allowing the two men to live in prison for the rest of their lives. This result is not uncommon. The death penalty, while constitutional, has become a major topic of debate in the United States.



    The death penalty has been a part of United States history since its inception. However, during the nineteenth century, “an abolitionist movement gained momentum” in the United States intent on doing away with the death penalty altogether (“Introduction to the Death Penalty”, 2011). It had particular strength in the northeastern states. In 1834, Pennsylvania became the first state to stop making executions public (2011). Executions were typically done either by hangings or by firing squad, though hangings were the preferred choice. Not until after the Civil War did this execution style change. In 1890, the electric chair was revealed to the public when William Kemmler was put to death. The electric chair, although not perfected during Kemmler’s execution, as it took 8 minutes to kill him, replaced hangings as the preferred method of execution in states (2011). Towards the beginning of the twentieth century, another execution method was experimented with in Nevada. The state began looking into using cyanide gas as a way to execute criminals. This method, however, was quickly ruled too inefficient in killing. In 1976, an important decision was made about the death penalty by the Supreme Court. The court heard a case, Gregg v. Georgia, that pertained to Florida, Georgia and Texas and the legality of the death penalty in those states (2011). While the Supreme Court ultimately decided that those states’ statutes were constitutional, the court also ruled that the death penalty was constitutional throughout the United States and gave each state the choice to use the death penalty as a form of punishment ( 2011). A year after the decision by the Supreme Court in Gregg v Georgia, Dr. Jay Chapman, a medical examiner in Oklahoma, developed a procedure in which three lethal chemicals would be injected into a criminal that would lead to death (Greenmeier, 2010).

    Current Status

    Today, Dr. Chapman’s method of lethal injection is the preferred and most carried out form of execution in the United States. Lethal injection was approved by the Supreme Court as an acceptable method for execution in the 2008 case Baze v. Rees (“States and Capital Punishment”, n.d.). Due to the ruling of Gregg v. Georgia, there are currently 31 states that allow capital punishment, 30 of which use lethal injection (Greenmeier, 2010), and of those 31 states, 16 of them allow executions to be carried out by a secondary method, such as hanging, firing squad and lethal gas (“States and Capital Punishment”, n.d.).


    In recent years, the Supreme Court has also provided strict guidelines for cases pursuing the death penalty. One such ruling is the case Atkins v. Virginia in which the court ruled that criminals with mental disabilities cannot be given the death penalty (“States and Capital Punishment”, n.d.). These recent rulings and standards are very complex because they involve questions of constitutionality, which requires the examination of the case by the Supreme Court. A case involving a criminal accused of murder starts in a state’s trial courts where the criminal will be found either guilty or innocent. If found guilty, the defendant then has the right to appeal the decision to an appellate court, where the original case will be reviewed to make sure all constitutional procedures were followed (Vila, 1997). The complexity comes at this stage of the process. The fourteenth amendment of the United States Constitution was added to allow freed slaves to become citizens of the United States. However, the fourteenth amendment includes a line that reads “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” This so called “Due Process Clause” has raised issues for capital punishment (Melusky and Pesto, 2017). Since the life of an individual is being argued, the “Due Process Clause” must be applied. Because “due process of law” was never defined by the Supreme Court, it has left room for the argument that the clause could change with time or place (2017). This lack of clarity has opened the door for many challenges to the death penalty.


    Morally Justified

    Retribution, as defined by the criminal Law professor Paul Cassell in his 2004 book Debating the Death Penalty, “is the theory that [a] criminal deserves to be punished and deserves to be punished in proportion to the gravity of his or her crime, whether or not the victim or anyone else desires it.” To morally justify capital punishment based upon the theory of retribution, the host of the 2017 video Is the death Penalty Ever Moral, Dennis Prager, suggests that if “society teaches how bad an action is by the punishment it metes out”, the most heinous crime should be punishable by death. For example, when one speeds on a highway and gets pulled over by an officer, the speeder is fined. If someone robs a store and gets caught, the robber goes to jail. Jail is worse than a fine; therefore, robbing a store is worse than speeding. Thus, as the crimes increase in severity, the level of punishment does as well, with death being the ultimate punishment for murder. Prager (2017) understands this theory of punishment and has claims that by not thoroughly enforcing the punishment of death in cases of murder, it will ultimately “cheapen human life.’

    Closure for the victim’s families and friends is another point often argued in support of the morality of the death penalty. Mark Costanzo is a professor of psychology at Claremont McKenna College in California. In his 1997 book, Just Revenge: Costs and Consequences of the Death Penalty, Costanzo provides a first hand account of closure. He provides a statement from a family member of the victim’s after watching the killer be put to death: “‘It was spiritual. When he [the condemned man] leaned over for the last time, everything I went there for just lifted off my shoulders. I felt peace … I have finality”. Another example of closure comes from a video Prager (2017) did on the death penalty. In the video, Prager talks about the murder of Dr. Petit’s wife and two daughters. Prager relays that when asked about the two men’s punishment, Dr. Petit said that death ‘is really the only true just punishment.” The moral justification that closure supports is that even though the victim can not be brought back, the criminal will face justice and bring peace to the victim’s friends and family.

    The last point for moral justification, as stated by Don Feder in the book Capital Punishment by Mary E. Williams, is that capital punishment is a “civilized response to a horrible crime”. The current method for carrying out an execution is through lethal injection, which contains three chemicals that are injected into the criminal. Williams would consider this “civilized” because, as Larry Greenemeier describes in his 2010 article Cruel and Usual?: Is Capital Punishment by Lethal Injection Quick and Painless?, the chemicals used are: sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride. In the 2018 article States and Capital Punishment, it explains that sodium thiopental is an anesthetic, pancuronium bromide causes paralysis of the muscles and potassium chloride stops the heart. When combined, these three chemicals result in a relatively painless death. This, in the view of those in favor of capital punishment, is morally acceptable because when “the suffering of victims and survivors” is taken into account, the means of death that the guilty face is much better (Williams, 2000, p. 31).

    Moral Opposition

    Those who oppose the death penalty on the grounds of morality argue that capital punishment is too cruel and inhumane a form of punishment. Costanzo (1997) shines light on this matter and writes that “waiting for death [amounts] to a form of slow torture.” The psychological damage is done not only through waiting but also by the interactions, or lack thereof, between the condemned and guards. Robert Johnson, a professor of Justice, Law and Society at American University, wrote that both the condemned and execution officers “remain emotionally aloof” through the time that the prisoner is on death row (Williams, 2000, p. 47 ).

    Those opposed to the death penalty often equate executing a man because he commited a capital offence as simple revenge rather than retribution. They believe, according to Costanzo (1997), that the death penalty gives in to the understandable anger of the friends and family of the victim but say that anger “should not be the basis of social policy.” Costanzo believes that this desire to “lash back” at the most terrible criminals is rooted in our “evolutionary past”. Individuals who support the death penalty argue that although “we all feel the primitive urge to exact revenge against those who harm us, collectively we must strive to be more rational, fair, moral, and human that the criminals” (1997). The Permanent Deacons of Paterson is a group who “preside over the Roman Catholic diocese of Paterson” and they, along with others who oppose the death penalty, believe that “fighting violence with violence does not achieve a useful purpose in society” (Williams, 2000, p. 53).

    The last moral argument against capital punishment deals with its lack of respect for human life. The ideological backing for this argument, as written by Williams (2002), is that “because life is both sacred and social, society must protect and foster it” (p. 50). According to the authors of the 2013 book The Death Penalty, Jenny Cromie and Lynn Zott, those who are morally opposed to capital punishment believe that the “dignity of human life” is threatened by capital punishment (p. 43). They also believe that even though a criminal commits a terrible crime, the value of his/her life does not diminish; therefore he/she should not be executed. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops believe this ideology and have written that “the death penalty may make us think we have eliminated a problem — but a person, even a criminal, is never a problem to be destroyed” (Cromie and Zott, 2013, p. 41).


    Applied Fairly

    Although not perfect, the judicial system in and of itself creates a fair process. In each case when capital punishment is being sought, jurors are picked carefully when capital punishment is being pursued. The Death Penalty, a book published in 2017 by Joseph Melusky and Keith Pesto, reveals that in the 1968 case Witherspoon v. Illinois, the Supreme Court ruled that juries could not be made up of jurors with strong opposition to the death penalty and vice versa. This ruling helps to assume that the jury is “representative of the community” (2017). Those in favor of capital punishment also argue that the process for carrying out the death penalty is so long that it provides ample opportunities for the convicted to challenge their conviction. In the 2002 book, The Death Penalty: Debating Capital Punishment by Tom Streissguth, Streissguth reveals that before being able to sentence the guilty to death, the jury is required to “weigh many different factors ” and must “consider the crime, the character of the accused, and the background of the accused.” Even with all that is required in selecting the jury and the complex process jurors must go through to sentence someone to death, the accused can also appeal to the next higher court in hopes of overturning or reducing their sentence. Ultimately, those in favor of the death penalty, as stated in Melusky and Pesto’s book, believe that there “exist enough procedural safeguards to ensure a fair and just application of the punishment” (2017).

    Williams (2000) suggests that advocates of capital punishment further argue that even if capital punishment is sometimes applied unfairly, the laws themselves are just. Louis P. Pojman, a teacher at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, has given a very clear example of this idea in William’s book. He writes:

    A friend of mine once got two speeding tickets during a 100-mile trip. He complained to the police officer who gave him his second ticket that many drivers were driving faster than he was at the time. They had escaped detection, [the friend] argued, so it wasn’t fair for him to get two tickets… The officer acknowledged the imperfections of the system but… had no qualms about giving him the second ticket.

    There may be mistakes in who gets sentenced for crimes, which advocates do recognize, but they claim the argument that these mistakes should result in the abolishment of the death penalty is not logical. Advocates give the example that thousands of Americans die by mistakes from pharmacists. In Cassell (2004) book, he asks the question, should America get rid of pharmacists?

    With advancements in technology, those in favor of the death penalty also argue that DNA testing allows for appropriate application of capital sentences and rids the system of any biases that may exist. With the introduction of DNA testing into the legal process, Prager (2017) argues, “it is virtually impossible to execute an innocent person.” During the appeals process, given by Melusky and Pesto (2017), DNA testing has exonerated many people wrongfully sentenced to death and has identified the actual perpetrators of the crime. An example of this and the importance of DNA testing is in the case of Kirk Bloodsworth. Bloodsworth was found guilty of sexual assault, rape and first-degree premeditated murder and sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit (Melusky and Pesto, 2017). Though the initial legal process was not able to find the correct culprit, DNA testing was. After collecting DNA from the victim’s underwear and uploading that DNA to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index (CODIS), Bloodsworth was found innocent on appeal, as the DNA did not match, and the correct perpetrator was found (2017). Advocates of capital punishment conclude that DNA testing has added to the numerous legal safeguards that protect the innocent and has increased the fairness of application.

    Applied Unfairly

    The first argument that is made by those who oppose the death penalty on the grounds that it is not fairly applied is that the wealthy will always be able to afford a better defense than the poor. With this assumption in mind, Costanzo (1997) compares O. J. Simpson’s defense team to that of Ernest Dwayne Jones. Jones was accused of rape and murder and was found guilty and sentenced to death. One difference that Costanzo shows is that unlike Simpson, Jones did not have enough money to pay a “defense attorney with special expertise in DNA evidence to grill the prosecution expert.” Costanzo also includes that the foreman of Jones’ jury said “‘if [Jones] had gotten Johnnie Cochran and his resources, he wouldn’t be sentenced to death’.” Thus showing that money plays a role in the verdict. If the accused is not able to afford lawyers, the state is required to provide them. However, as Streissguth (2002) notes, these state provided lawyers “might have little expertise in death penalty appeals.” Streissguth includes an example of two real estate attorneys, Dorothy and Ben Atkins, who were tasked with defending accused murder, Jack House. Ben Atkins was absent from court twice and Dorothy was, in her words, “too busy” to take the time to defend this man properly. Because of his lack of money, Jack House was unable to afford good counsel, so he was sentenced to death.

    Those opposed to capital punishment also believe that the death penalty is plagued with racial biases. According to David Baldus’ report to the American Bar Association, “over 75 percent of the executions that have occured since … 1976 involved a crime with a white victim, even though whites are victims of murder in less than 50 percent of the murders committed” (Melusky and Pesto, 2017). This evidence supports the claim that the “disparity is equivalent to putting a higher value on white lives than on black lives” (2017). In his book, Streissguth also refers to “the fact that African Americans, and other minorities, face the death penalty more often than whites” (2002). Author Matthew Stephens (2002) found that “approximately 50 percent of all death row inmates are people of color” (2002). A last point that is often made by those arguing the unfair application of the death penalty is that “murdering a white person is punished more harshly than murdering an African – American person” (2002). Hugo Adam Bedau wrote an article, “The Case Against the Death Penalty”, that supported this claim. Bedau found that “of the 313 persons executed between 1977 and the end of 1995, 36 had been convicted of killing a black person while 249 (80%) had killed a white person” (2002).

    In addition to racial bias, those opposed to the death penalty believe that application of the death penalty is also gender biased. An example of this bias, expressed in Melusky and Pesto (2017) book, is the fact that from 1976 to 2017 more than 1,400 men were executed while only 15 women were executed. The discrepancy that is shown through these statistics strongly supports the idea that gender bias exists. Research has also shown that women only make up two percent of death row inmates even though they commit one in eight murders in the United States (2017). Elizabeth Rapaport is a researcher that studies the role of gender in the death penalty. Her research has suggested that, taking into account the violence and brutality with which women kill, the percent of women that should be on death row is about four percent (Williams, 2000). Those against capital punishment believe that the only reason why the actual number of women on death row is lower than expected is because the sentencing process in capital cases is riddled with gender biases.

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