The Death Penalty: Morally Defensible?

 


The death penalty has faced much opposition as of late. Can the death penalty possibly be a morally acceptable punishment? A popular bumper sticker says, "We kill people to show people that killing people is wrong." The slogan is short, simple, and to the point. But is there really such irony in capital punishment as the slogan implies?

WORD GAMES

First of all, the slogan misses an important point. The death penalty does not punish people for killing, but for murder. Killing is justified when it is done in self-defense. Killing means to cause death. Murder, on the other hand, is defined as, "the unlawful and malicious or premeditated killing of one human being by another" (for the less observant, this definition cannot be applied to the death penalty, because the death penalty is lawful, non-malicious, and is not carried out by an individual but by the government). "Kill," "murder," and "execute" are not interchangeable terms. Death penalty opponents would like us to believe otherwise. Just because two actions result in the same end does not make them morally equivalent. If it were so, legal incarceration would be equated with kidnapping, lovemaking with rape, self-defense with battery, etc.1 Therefore, the slogan is better stated, "We execute people to show people that murder is wrong." Not quite as catchy, is it?

MORALITY

Morality is defined as "the principles of right and wrong." As moral creatures, humans deserve praise for good deeds, and punishment for bad ones. Punishment may range from a slap on the wrist to death, but the punishment must fit the crime. This is known as lex talionis, or in common jargon, "an eye for an eye." Abolitionists often insist that if we argue for lex talion justice we must be prepared to rape rapists, beat sadists, and burn down the houses of arsonists. Certainly, this is the case if we take the lex talion literally, and the criminals do deserve those punishments, but we needn't take it literally. The ancient Jews did not.2 They allowed for monetary compensation for physical or property damage.

Why then, if it is not morally okay to rape rapists, is it acceptable to execute murderers? The answer is simple. There is no redeeming value to carrying out the former punishment. Raping the rapist will only cause someone else to degrade themselves by doing it. It will not prevent the rapist from raping again. Executing murderers, however, prevents them from committing their crime again, and thus protects innocent victims. The good, therefore, outweighs the bad, and the executioner is morally justified in taking the murderer's life. On the other hand, if the abolitionist argues that killing is always wrong, then he must also concede that killing in self-defense is unacceptable and should be punished. Few, if any, however, are willing to do so. The abolitionist may choose to argue that the state should never kill. But consider also the scenario of protecting someone else's life. Are police officers (the state) justified in killing attempted murderers to save a victim's life? If the answer to this question is yes, then the question is no longer if the state is justified in taking the life of criminals but when.

Morally, it is wrong to simply incarcerate someone for murder. A sentence of life in an air-conditioned, cable-equipped prison where a person gets free meals three times a day, personal recreation time, and regular visits with friends and family3 is a slap in the face of morality. People will say here that not all prisons are like the one cited. This betrays an ignorance, however, of current trends. Eventually, criminal rights activists will see to it that all prisons are nice places to go. But regardless of the conditions of a particular prison, someone who murders another human being can only be made to pay for his actions by forfeiting his own life. This is so, simply because a loss of freedom does not and cannot compare to a loss of life. If the punishment for theft is imprisonment, then the punishment for murder must be exponentially more severe, because human life is infinitely more valuable than any material item.

Take, for example, a murderer who took the life of a teenager. The parents of the victim will be among the taxpayers that pay for his meals and his cable television. Should he choose to take advantage of college courses the prison may offer, the parents of the victim will be indirectly financing those expenses as well. Nothing could be further from justice. It is of this type of situation that the abolitionist approves. Somewhere along the line, their priorities have been turned upside down.

BUT IS IT REVENGE?



Abolitionists claim that the death penalty is a means of revenge. It is not. One way for the victim's family to get revenge would be to go out and murder a member of the murderer's family in order to get him to experience the same type of suffering he put them through. If the purpose of the state in executing murderers was retribution or revenge, then criminals would be executed in the same way they that murdered their victims. The point of the death penalty, however, is not to see how much pain can be unleashed on the murderer but to bring him to justice.

THE DEATH PENALTY IN THE UNITED STATES

In reality, the murderer actually gets off easy when he is sentenced to death in the United States. There are five methods of execution used in the United States: lethal injection, electrocution, lethal gas, hanging, and firing squad.4 The most commonly used methods today are lethal injection and the electric chair. If a person is lethally injected, he is first put to sleep with thiopental sodium, and then he is administered potassium chloride that will stop his heart.5 The criminal dies from anesthetic overdose and respiratory and cardiac arrest while he or she is unconscious. As for the electric chair, there is an initial jolt of 2,300 volts (9.5 amps) which lasts for eight seconds, followed by a low-voltage jolt of 1,000 volts (4 amps) for 22 seconds and finally a jolt of 2,300 volts (9.5 amps) for eight seconds.6 The murderer is rendered unconscious immediately, or within the first eight seconds at most, as the initial high-voltage jolt kills the brain.7 The subsequent jolts stop the heart in case it is still beating.8 Compare this to the heinous crimes of the murderer, where often the victim will go through excruciating pain for minutes, hours, or sometimes days. The minute amount of pain experienced by the murderer on death row does not even begin to compensate for the pain of the victims.

FIVE REASONS YOU SHOULD SUPPORT THE DEATH PENALTY

The Campaign to End the Death Penalty gives five reasons on their website why the death penalty should be abolished. Those reasons are quite commonly given, so I will address their objections here.

1. The death penalty is racist.
2. The death penalty punishes the poor.
These are basically the same argument. What it boils down to is "the death penalty is not applied fairly." This cannot be an argument against the death penalty. If it were, then it would be an argument against all punishments. To argue that the death penalty is to be abolished because it is not fairly imposed is to admit that if it were imposed fairly it would be okay. This is not an argument against the death penalty but an argument to improve the justice system. Is the system unfair? Fix it. What is unfair is not that the black and poor prisoners get what they deserve. What is unfair is that the rich and white prisoners do not.

June 6, 2001- Justice Department finds that there is no bias in application of death penalty.

3. The death penalty condemns the innocent to die.
There is absolutely no proof for this statement. Before any person is executed in this country, twelve members of a carefully selected jury have to decide -- beyond a reasonable doubt -- that a defendant is guilty. The possibility of an innocent person being executed is extremely small, and continues to decrease with the improvement of forensic science. It is true that death row prisoners have been released, but it is not always true that they were innocent.

Consider the following fact: A judgment of acquittal is final.9 Even if overwhelming evidence is later uncovered, the prosecution can never appeal. A retrial would constitute "double jeopardy" which is not permitted under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.10 Likewise, if a conviction is reversed on appeal because the evidence of guilt was legally insufficient to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, then the defendant cannot be retried. Furthermore, if a court decides that the evidence brought against the defendant was legally insufficient, it is not saying that the defendant was actually innocent. By making this decision, the court is merely saying that the prosecution did not prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.11

Dudley Sharp notes, "It is important to preserve the distinction between acquittal and innocence, which is regularly obfuscated in news media headlines."12 The media often overlooks this distinction, and thrives on causing widespread panic that an innocent person was falsely convicted. Being acquitted, however, does not mean that the defendant did not actually commit the crime. A jury must acquit "someone who is probably guilty but whose guilt is not established beyond a reasonable doubt." Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 225 (1976).

Please see Innocence and the Death Penalty.

4. The death penalty is not a deterrent against violent crime.
The death penalty as a deterrent to crime is not the issue. Capital punishment is, pardon the redundancy, a punishment for crime. As a punishment, the death penalty is 100% effective--every time it is used, the prisoner dies.

Additionally, the death penalty is actually 100% effective as a deterrent to crime: the murderer will never commit another crime once he has been executed. While there is no proof that any innocents have been executed in this century, there is an abundance of evidence that prisoners who either escaped or were released early murdered innocent victims again.13 Professor Paul Cassell points out that

 

Out of a sample of 164 paroled Georgia murderers, eight committed subsequent murders within seven years of release. A study of twenty Oregon murderers released on parole in 1979 found that one (i.e., five percent) had committed a subsequent homicide within five years of release. Another study found that of 11,404 persons originally convicted of "willful homicide" and released during 1965 and 1974, 34 were returned to prison for commission of a subsequent criminal homicide during the first year alone.14
Even those who are not released but still serve life terms murder again. Cassell further notes that, "At least five federal prison officers have been killed since December 1982, and the inmates in at least three of the incidents were already serving life sentences for murder."15 Had these prisoners been executed, innocent lives would have been saved. The death penalty is, without question, a deterrent to murder.

(Seven recent studies make it clear that executions deter murders and murder rates increase substantially during moratoriums.)

5. The death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment.
The death penalty is not cruel and unusual punishment. The framers of the Constitution supported the death penalty, and in fact constructed laws in order to carry it out, so it is ridiculous to claim that cruel and unusual punishment refers to the death penalty. Justice Antonin Scalia observed,
The Fifth Amendment provides that '[n]o persons shall be held to answer for a capital...crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury...nor be deprived of life...without the due process of law.' This clearly permits the death penalty to be imposed, and establishes beyond doubt that the death penalty is not one of the 'cruel and unusual punishments' prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.16
The American draftsmen were primarily concerned with proscribing "tortures" and other "barbarous" methods of punishment.17 The U.S. Supreme Court noted in Gregg v. Georgia that
In the earliest cases raising Eighth Amendment claims, the Court focused on particular methods of execution to determine whether they were too cruel to pass constitutional muster. The constitutionality of the sentence of death itself was not at issue... (emphasis mine).18
The Senate Judiciary Committee once noted,
[m]urder does not simply differ in magnitude from extortion or burglary or property destruction offenses; it differs in kind. Its punishment ought to also differ in kind. It must acknowledge the inviolability and dignity of innocent human life. It must, in short, be proportionate.19
The very notion that one could be cruel while punishing a guilty murderer for murdering an innocent victim is laughable.

DEATH PENALTY YES, MURDER NO

I have tried to argue here that the death penalty is moral and just. We must never forget that no one has to be executed; if no one murders, no one is executed. Murderers are not innocent people fighting for their lives; that statement describes their victims. Let us work in America to get back the mentality that victim rights are more important than criminal rights.


How to cite this article


"The Death Penalty: Morally Defensible?". Casey Carmical. Undated. (Date of your visit here).
Note that this is an argumentative essay and is thus not suitable as a primary source for research papers or other school projects on the topic of the death penalty. In all likelihood I do not have any more credentials than you do. Please see the works cited below for primary sources.
Notes


1. Sharp, Dudley. Death Penalty and Sentencing Information.
2. Rodriguez, Angel Manuel. Eye for an Eye.
3. Worth, Robert. A Model Prison.
4. Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Death Row Facts.
5. North Carolina Department of Correction. Execution Methods.
6. Clark County Prosecuting Attorney. Methods of Execution.
7. Popular Mechanics. Machines of Death.
8. Ibid.
9. Free Advice.com. Can Criminal Cases Be Appealed?
10. Ibid.
11. Sharp, Dudley. DPIC "Innocence" List.
12. Ibid.
13. Cassell, Paul G. Statement of Paul G. Cassell Before the Committee on the Judiciary United States House of Representativs Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights Concerning Claims of Innocence in Capital Cases, on July 23, 1993.
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid.
16. Callins v. Collins, 510 US 1141 (1994).
17. Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 225 (1976).
18. Ibid.
19. Cassell, Paul G. Statement of Paul G. Cassell Before the Committee on the Judiciary United States House of Representativs Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights Concerning Claims of Innocence in Capital Cases, on July 23, 1993.