To Die or Not to Die: Morality, Ethics, and the Death PenaltyIntroductionSince the beginning of written law, there has been both the establishment of the rules to be followed, as well as a penalty for breaking those rules. Among those rules has always been the ultimate penalty-death of the convicted criminal, for the ultimate crime-the unlawful taking of the life of another human being. While sources such as the Holy Bible and other sacred texts simply categorize the death penalty as an accelerated version of an eye for an eye, the modern issue of the death penalty is more complicated and controversial than that.
In this research, the morality, legality and ethics of the death penalty will be discussed at length; ultimately, upon conclusion, many facets of this complex topic will have been explored. Facts about the Death PenaltyOne of the most overriding reasons that the death penalty is still as hotly debated as it is in the 21st century is due to a great deal of conflicting information about the death penalty itself, whether due to simple misunderstandings, conflicting opinions, or an outright effort on the part of both sides of the issue to have their respective viewpoints embraced as the final word on the controversy. It is with these aspects in mind that an attempt is made in this research to present objective facts about the death penalty in order to set the stage for the rest of the paper. To begin, some statistics about the state of the death penalty in the 21st century help to put the issue into focus.
While the common misconception would be that the death penalty would be in high demand and even higher frequency, given the violent nature of the world in which we live, statistics compiled by Amnesty International, one of the foremost authorities on human rights issues across the globe, indicate otherwise. Simply put, as of June, 2009, Amnesty International reports that 139 countries have banned the use of the death penalty as a punishment, representing a massive increase over the 16 countries which had such a ban in place in 1977. For all of this progress, however, it is to the dismay of death penalty opponents that such a ban does not yet exist in the United States as a whole, although 2008 was year in which the US reflected at least in part the international trend, carrying out fewer executions than it had in the previous 30 years (Robinson, 2000). Additionally and very importantly, a little known fact about the death penalty was revealed in the research; this is the documented fact that since 1977, in the United States, there have been 111 voluntary executions of prisoners facing possible death sentences from the court.
What is meant by voluntary is that the defendant refused to accept or participate in appeals to their death sentences, or in some cases, adamantly fought for the right to be executed during their original criminal trials. While the automatic response of the average person would be that only someone who was suffering from mental illness would take an active role to fight for their death at the hands of an executioner, mental illness is only one of the reasons found for such demands. Additional reasons why defendants demand to face the ultimate penalty include remorse, religious beliefs, a fear of incarceration that outweighs the fear of death, pessimism about appeal prospects, a quest for public notice, and an overriding need to feel some degree of control in a satiation over which they have lost control (Langan, 1993). In those cases when an individual volunteers for the death penalty, legal precedence has upheld virtually every request for the execution of the defendant.
Overall, what this has done is to accelerate the efforts of death penalty opponents to fight against the use of capital punishment even more vehemently, for the voluntary use of the death penalty, in the mind of many, is further proof of the ways that the death penalty can erode the common sense and basic intelligence of even the brightest individuals (Bedau & Cassell, 2004). Also, the question of whether or not the death penalty is a deterrent to crime remains a question to be answered. DeterrenceA quick point that both supporters and opponents of the death penalty cite is the permanence of the punishment, of course for different reasons. For those who are in favor of the death penalty, the argument is that individuals who are a danger to other human beings either on the street or behind prison walls can immediately and permanently be neutralized by ending their lives through state-sanctioned executions.
Conversely, those against the death penalty make the argument that once executed, a falsely accused defendant can never be made whole again (Hood, 1996). Therefore, there is an issue as to the effectiveness of execution as a crime deterrent. Earlier stated facts about the death penalty would seem to provide one of the major reasons why the death penalty is ineffective as a deterrent to major crimes such as murder, large scale drug trafficking, and the like. This is the fact, according to Amnesty International, that the death penalty in the 21st century is simultaneously being banned by the vast majority of the countries of the world, while being used very little in those countries that still employ it.
With such a diminishing level of executions, one can see how the fear of being executed would be quite low in the criminal mind. Lastly, there is also another environment whereby deterrence is not even an issue, as for some, the fear of the death penalty does not even exist, whether or not the penalty is used in a given nation. Under what has become known as the brutalization hypothesis, the argument holds that in some cases, the death penalty is in fact a catalyst to those types of crimes that legally mandate capital punishment, as the criminal views the court or the criminal justice apparatus as an enemy that is an enemy that, once identified by the criminal, becomes somewhat less threatening than the unknown future of perhaps life in prison or endless appeals which would sap the strength, will, and mental health of the individual. Another part of this paranoid type of thinking is in some ways a suicidal mindset, whereby the criminal, not caring whether they live or die, will commit whatever crimes they choose, consequences not being seen as very important (Hood, 1996).
Conditions on Death RowAt its very core, the death penalty, on the part of its detractors, is a human rights issue; obviously, for the innocent, the death penalty would seem to represent the ultimate injustice, without recourse once it has been instituted. However, even for those who seemingly fit the legal criteria for the death penalty, the conditions under which the sentence is carried out are often, according to some accounts, of a nature which would make the process leading up to the penalty as bad as the penalty itself.While information about death row conditions in many nations is not available, review of the conditions in the United States, supposedly one of the most civilized nations on earth shows possibly the best of the worst case scenarios for those condemned to die. One popular account of the process leading up to a 2000 execution in the state of Texas tells of the condemned being held in a room where the windows were blacked out to prevent any sights of blue skies or twinkling stars; moreover, visits by loved ones are all but eliminated in the days leading up to an execution, as well as no communication between prison officials and the condemned, leading to the utmost in isolation.
Additional information indicates that the delaying of an execution date represents its own hellish roots, as one waiting for execution dies the equivalent of a thousand deaths in the time leading up to the execution itself (Robinson, 2000).Jurors in Capital CasesUp to this point, the research has focused on the ethics of a state imposing a penalty of death on human beings; it is precisely that human element that leads to the complexity of the issue of the members of juries in courts of law that are forced to impose death penalties in those places where it is still imposed. Many times, those jurors are unable to reach a definitive verdict because of a moral conflict between their performance of civic duty as jurors and their own religious or ethical values (Banaszak, 2002). While an easy answer to this dilemma would be to simply say that those who object to the death penalty be exempted from sitting on juries where capital punishment is an option, there seems to be something more complex to consider- the fact that in this context, human beings are being once again placed in the role of having the power to take away the lives of others, and no matter what one believes, this would appear, in the vast majority of situations, to go against the traditions of human beings to, at the very least, do no harm to others.
If this is the case, the legitimacy of the death penalty in any situation comes into serious question, and also leads to the consideration of alternatives to the death penalty itself.Alternatives to Death PenaltyWith an active debate still brewing in regard to the value of the death penalty or lack thereof, the next logical question is what could possibly take the place of the death penalty in the modern legal system. It is that very question which will be the focus of this portion of the research.Ever since the death penalty was introduced, and indeed it has existed in one form or another as long as the written law has existed, opponents of the practice have pointed out the flaws of it.
However, it has only been in the past several decades that serous thought has been given to alternatives to the death penalty, rather than simply condemning it and not providing any suggestions to better ways to deal with serious crime, which is of course the dilemma that leads to the necessity of the death penalty in the first place. In no particular order, according to Langan, are alternatives that the religious community has offered to the use of execution as a punishment for criminals:A Comprehensive Attack on Poverty- An earlier point established that an effective way to avoid the complex issue of the death penalty in the first place is to undermine the criminal activity which brings the death penalty into play in the first place. Taking a step backward, few would debate the fact that poverty is a key cause of crime, as deprivation is something which frequently leads an individual to harm others as a means of gaining money for any number of things, often spiraling out of control to the point where capital offenses are committed. Therefore, if steps can be taken to oppose poverty- increased social programs, more education/job skill training, the death penalty could in fact become a non-issue.
Dealing with Such Causes of Crime as Gangs, Drugs, and Gambling- Law enforcement could theoretically stop capital crime before it begins if the small crimes which are the starting point for future, more serious offenses can be prevented through effective law enforcement. If the crimes cannot be prevented, getting to offenders before they become large-scale criminals is also a possible means.A Lessening of the Atmosphere of Violence- In this point, the earlier recommendation of increased education also applies. The modern world is increasingly violent, given sociopolitical issues, a culture which is exposed to violent media on a constant basis, and minds distorted by drugs and stress.
Therefore, if people can somehow be taught that violence is not the way to live, capital crimes can be reduced or altogether ended.ConclusionIn the final analysis, the death penalty can fairly be seen as something which is diminishing with time, but still exists to the point where it affects many lives and generates a great deal of controversy due to issues of morality and ethics. While it would also seem that there is not clear cut answer which would satisfy both supporters and opponents of the practice. However, there is a ray of hope in that, as the research has shown, there is an ever-increasing dialogue on the issue, with both sides gaining something in the exchange.
Perhaps this is the best that can be hoped for- small progress leading to incremental change, for it is the small steps which ultimately make up long journeys.Works CitedBanaszak, R. (Ed.).
(2002). Fair Trial Rights of the Accused: A Documentary History. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.Bedau, H.
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Hood, R. (1996). The Death Penalty A World-Wide Perspective (2nd ed.).
Oxford: Clarendon Press.Langan, J. (1993). Capital Punishment.
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