Death Penalty Essay

On March 29, 1971, a thirty-seven-year-old male was convicted of killing seven people and suspected in killing another thirty-five. His methods of killing included gunshots, stabbing with forks, knives, or swords, dissecting, and battering with clubs. He showed no remorse for what he had done, but instead created a media circus in which he had a starring role (Blundell 124-30). If anyone deserved to be executed for a murder sentence, it was Charles Manson. His rampage, Helter Skelter as Manson himself called it, was one of the most brutal serial murders in United States history.

The public was outraged and demanded a just and fair punishment. Yet Manson still sits in a California prison to this day. His jury handed him a death sentence, but it was revoked when the state of California removed the death penalty from its court system in 1972. California has since then reinstated the death penalty, but Manson will never be executed for the death sentence he received twenty-nine years ago (Blundell 124-30). As the case of Charles Manson proves, a death penalty case is never simple. There are many factors and legal technicalities to consider.

When a jury looks at a death penalty case, they must consider the burden of proof, the laws of the particular state, the presentations of the prosecution and defense, the testimony of the witnesses, and the motive of the accused. From the States side, the prosecutor mainly considers the atrocity of the crime and the mental state of the accused when deciding whether to seek the death penalty. The defense usually tries to get the jury to believe that the death penalty is inhumane and is not a deterrent to crime, as it was originally intended to be. Despite this, most Americans favor the death penalty.

In poll after poll, more than seventy percent say they support the death penalty, a figure that has remained consistent for at least the past decade (Brownlee; Foster). While the percentages have not changed much, the nature of the discussion has. Not long ago, it was framed in terms of practicality: Was the death penalty effective in deterring crime? Was permanently incapacitating an offender the best way to protect society? Was capital punishment fairly and evenly administered (Foster)? Increasingly, another argument for the death penalty is being voiced, one far more elemental.

It centers on the right of a victimise loved ones to gain peace of mind through the death[of the killer]. In other words, [this is] the right to a form of therapeutic vengeance (Landauer). Why do Americans hold these feelings of anger toward convicted murderers? Why do they feel that it is acceptable to serve the death sentence on inmates, even though it does not deter crime? And why do Americans, with a sense of vengeance, support the death penalty as a form of retribution instead of punishment? Perhaps the answer lies in simple demographics.

While death penalty foes are quick to point out that the United States is one of the few Western countries with capital punishment, it is also true that Americans are more likely to experience violent crime than citizens of other countries. Americans might not feel so vengeful if they trusted the judicial system to protect them from the worst predators. Indeed, support for the death penalty drops from seventy-seven percent to below fifty percent when people are given a choice between the death penalty and life imprisonment without parole plus restitution for victims families (Case Against Death Penalty).

Such stiff penalties are now common. The fear that a criminal will be prematurely released is reinforced every time someone like Charles Manson, convicted under earlier laws, gets a hearing for a possible parole (Landauer). There is no proof that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime, nor has it ever been; it is used mainly as punishment for criminals, retribution for the family of the victim, and because of lack of trust in the judicial system. In the United States, the death penalty has been around since the 1800s.

It was mostly used then for conviction of murder. The United States Supreme Court banned the death penalty in 1972, citing that the imposition and carrying out of the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Four years later, the same Supreme Court upheld three death sentences from Florida, Georgia, and Texas by ruling that capital punishment wasnot unconstitutionally severe (Zimring 193). The complete turnaround of the U. S. Supreme Court can be credited to state legislatures.

After the 1972 decision, many states created new capital punishment laws designed to satisfy the Supreme Courts requirements. These new laws limited a death penalty sentence to murder and crimes that result in a persons death, such as armed robbery, hijacking, and kidnapping. The laws of several states give the specifics as to when a judge or jury may impose the death penalty (Zimring 193). Although the states have regulations on when the death penalty can be imposed, there are no regulations as to why it should be imposed.

The death penalty is often used for retribution for the victims family or punishment for the criminal. When the death penalty was first instated, it was intended for use as a deterrent to crime (Foster). As previously stated, the death penalty is not, however, a deterrent to crime, nor has it ever been. In states without the death penalty, six in every one hundred thousand people die of murder. In death penalty states, eight in every one hundred thousand people die of murder (Landauer).

Of the sixty-seven current and former presidents of the American Society of Crime, the Law and Society Association, and the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, ninety percent felt that executions to deter violent crime were a waste of time and money (Death Penalty No Deterrent). Attorney General Janet Reno stated, I do know that I have inquired for most of my adult life (into) studies that might show the death penalty is a deterrent, and I have not seen any research that would substantiate that point” (Reno: Death Penalty). Why is the death penalty not a deterrent to crime?

Experts believe there are several answers to this question. The main reason that the death penalty does not deter crime is because on average, it takes ten years to execute an inmate after he or she has received a death sentence (Landauer). These ten years are filled with appeals and numerous attempts by the inmate and/or his lawyer to prevent the death sentence from ever being carried out. About half of the capital crime trials result in death sentences and only half of these sentences are carried out (Landauer). In other words, only one in four people tried in capital cases will be executed.

Another reason that the death penalty is not a deterrent to violent crime is because one in fifty convicted murderers get the death penalty (Capital Punishment Numbers). All of these statistics lead to a conclusion as to why the death penalty is not a deterrent: there is no consistency, and the few individuals who do receive a death sentence are not swiftly executed. The death penalty lacks a deterrent effect because it is not administered quickly enough. If execution was a reasonably predictable punishment, administered in a short period of time, it could have a deterrent effect.

But when we have thousands of murders, and maybe one person executed out of several thousand, and when it takes fifteen years between the crime and the punishment, it doesnt have a deterrent effect, said Colorado Attorney General Gale Norton (Foster). Each state has its own rules for who can or cannot be tried as a capital case, so no one knows if a person on trial will receive a sentence for life imprisonment or a death sentence. The federal government can give a death sentence to individuals who serve as spies, give out government secrets, or betray the United States government in these ways (Zimring).

Potential murderers are not deterred because the odds that he or she will be executed for the crime are in the murderers favor. If the murderer does receive a death sentence, he or she has numerous opportunities to prevent the execution with appeals and last-ditch efforts to attempt to prove the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment. Of the nearly six hundred people sentenced to death since the death penalty was reinstated in 1972, no one has ever been able to prove the cruel and unusual punishment argument (Murray).

This appeal, by far the most popular with death row inmates, consists of challenging the Supreme Courts ruling that capital punishment is not cruel and unusual punishment. If an inmate could get a judge to rule that the death penalty was cruel and unusual, then his or her lawyer could cite that the death penalty is unconstitutional according to the Fourth and Eighteenth Amendments. Even if the appeal is denied, the process takes up time and prevents the execution from happening. Unless these problems are solved, the death penalty will never be a deterrent to violent crimes in America.

Most advocates reason that if others see death as a punishment, they will be less likely to commit crimes. Even if deterrence did work, the punishment would have to occur promptly, consistently and openly. It would have to be promptly because no criminal worries what will happen ten years down the road. It would have to be consistently because, if everyone else’s lawyers can get him or her off, what do the inmates have to fear? And it would have to be openly, that’s the easiest of all: Changing a person’s behavior is dependent on exposure to the very source of deterrence (Eisenberg).

If the death penalty is not used for deterrence of violent crime, then why is it used? The three most logical explanations for this include punishment for the criminal, retribution for the victims family, and lack of trust in the American judicial system. Individuals who support the death penalty for criminal punishment often cite the eye for an eye theory found in the Bible. Leviticus 24:19-21 and Exodus 21:24 state, And if a man injures his neighbor, just as he has done, so it shall be done for him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so shall it be inflicted upon him.

If there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life. There shall be one standard for you: the one who kills a man shall be put to death. Basically, these supporters feel that the only just punishment for someone who commits murder is for that person to be executed. Joe Mahoney, spokesman for the New York Attorney Generals Office, said, Letting the punishment fit the crime is what it [capital punishment] is all about (Foster). The other main reason people support the death penalty is for retribution for the family of the victim.

From the moment that a family receives word that a loved one is missing, the familys lives are turned into a living hell. Family members are forced to go through a stressful chain of events including searching for the body, finding the killer, sitting through the trial, hearing intricate details of the crime, testifying at the sentencing trial, appearing on interviews, facing the media, living through the murderers appeals, and finally watching the killer die if they so desire.

Many emotions are felt during this duration of events and the grieving process is usually as follows: disbelief, anger, grief, vengeance, and finally, acceptance (Brownlee). Through all this, the one thing that the family keeps its focus on is retribution for the loss suffered. If the nightmare that the family is forced to face is not enough to persuade some of the need for retribution, then the prosecutors, media, and law enforcement will try to convince the family of it.

According to Richard Estell, whose daughter was raped and murdered in 1993, [The prosecutors, media, and sheriffs department] told me, We are going to catch this man. We are going to convict him, and when we have an execution, you will be healed (Brownlee). Other families see an execution as a way to put an end to the loss suffered. Darlene Welch, who lost her four-year-old niece in the Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh, said, The sooner [McVeigh] meets his maker, the sooner justice will be served (Brownlee).

On June 12, 1997, Kenneth B. Harris was executed by lethal injection in the Huntsville State Penitentiary by the state of Texas. Eleven years earlier, he had raped, choked, and drowned Lisa Haack. Lisas sister, Vicki, sat in the viewing room and watched as her sisters killer was put to death. After the execution, Haack said that her family had forgiven Harris. We have no hate or bitterness in our hearts, she said. But that doesnt mean he does not pay for his crime (Brownlee). Just before his execution, Harris turned to Haack and said, I hope you can go on with your lives and we can put an end to this.

Harris statement seemed to capture what so many family members hope to get out of an execution: putting an end to it (Brownlee). After all that the victims family has been through, do they not deserve to see justice served? Who can argue with this emotional pattern of reasoning given to families of the victim by the media, law enforcement, and society as a whole? The final reason that the death penalty is used in the United States is because of public lack of trust in the judicial system as a whole.

People who support the death penalty fear offenders will be released from prison after a short sentence if they are not put to death (Death Penalty No Deterrent). Due to rising crime rates, repeat offenders released on parole, and the rumors and releases of innocent people exonerated from death row, the American public has no faith in its judicial system. The fact that the system sometimes works for those who are lucky enough to somehow obtain the legal and investigative resources or media attention necessary to vindicate their claims of innocence does not mean that most innocent people on death row are equally fortunate.

Moreover, many death row inmates who have been exonerated would have been executed if the legal system had moved more quickly, as would occur if, as those now in power in Congress have proposed, Federal habeas corpus were eviscerated (Freeman). Earlier this year, Illinois governor George Ryan, a death penalty supporter, ordered a moratorium on the death penalty. A moratorium is a legally authorized period of delay in the performance of a legal obligation or the payment of a debt. In other words, Governor Ryan put a stop to the death penalty in his state until further investigation could be done.

This investigation was into the claims of innocent people who were either on Illinois Death Row or had been released from it. Since 1977, Illinois has executed twelve men and freed or reduced the sentence of another thirteen who were being held. Included among these is Anthony Porter, who spent sixteen years on death row before being released because another man confessed to the crime Porter allegedly committed. Students at Northwestern University have helped in freeing several of the inmates from Illinois, including Porter. (Case Against Death Penalty).

In Illinois, for every execution, one death row inmate had his or her sentence reduced or overturned. These changes to sentences were because the state had relied on insufficient evidence or had received new evidence or confessions by the truly guilty (Case Against Death Penalty). Exonerations of this type mean that a large shadow of doubt underscores many executions. In 1999, the United States executed ninety-eight people and released eight from deathrows around the country. The state of Florida has freed a total of eighteen people.

At least eighty-five people have been freed from death row since 1973 from errors at trial or discovery of exonerating evidence. Eight of these eighty-five hinge on DNA evidence proving that the individual did not commit the crime of which he or she was accused (Murray ). In Oklahoma, Ronald Williamson was freed due to prosecutorial misconduct after serving eight years. Clarence Dexter of Missouri was freed due to DNA evidence that proved he could not commit the crime for which he served eight years on death row (Case Against Death Penalty).

According to a 1987 study conducted by Adam Bedau, a vocal anti-capital punishment scholar, twenty-three innocent people were executed in the last century alone. Another study conducted by the Stanford Law Review in 1987 places the figure at twenty-five (Eisenberg). Whatever the actual number, there is proof that innocent people have fallen victim to capital punishment in the United States (Eisenberg). When forming an opinion on a controversial topic, one must keep an open mind. It is important to gather as much reliable information as possible and look at every aspect of the subject.

When making a view on the death penalty, one must consider the pros and cons to both sides of the issue. On the pro-capital punishment side, the death penalty does serve its purpose of punishing criminals for acts committed. If the penalty for a crime is not stiff enough, then justice is not served. Also, the family of the victim must be taken into consideration. The family has suffered greatly and deserves to see justice served. On the anti-capital punishment side, there will always be the argument of deterrence.

After all, the death penalty was first intended to deter crime in the United States and there is no proof that it serves that purpose. What about the chance that an innocent person will be murdered for a crime he or she did not commit? What about the countless years wasted on death row by those wrongly accused? In conclusion, the death penalty in the United States is an acceptable form of punishment. It is not a form of cruel and unusual punishment; it is simply justice being served. As long precautions are taken to ensure that the inmates executed are truly guilty, the death penalty is an accurate punishment.

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