The pros and cons of capital punishment
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punishment ethically acceptable?
Capital punishment is the lawful infliction of death as a punishment and has been in use in
As of July 2014, 32 states have the death penalty and have carried out at least one execution since 1976. The death penalty is also available for Federal and Military crimes. 18 states, plus the
Lethal injection is now almost universal in
capital punishment ethically acceptable?
No state has an absolute right to put its subjects to death although, of course, they do, even where they do not have the death penalty. All police are armed and people are killed in shoot outs.
A majority of a state's subjects may wish to confer the right to put certain classes of criminal to death through referendum or voting in state elections for candidates favoring capital punishment. Majority opinion is typically in favor of the death penalty, with recent surveys indicating around a 60 – 65% level of support. Other people believe that it is wrong for the state to kill, per se.
A factor that is conveniently overlooked by anti-death penalty campaigners is that we are all ultimately going to die and in many cases we will know of this in advance and suffer great pain and emotional anguish in the process. This is particularly true of those diagnosed as having terminal cancer. It is apparently socially acceptable to be "sentenced to death" by one's doctor without having committed any crime at all but totally unacceptable to be sentenced to death by a jury having been convicted of first degree murder after due process. Another of the anti-death penalty fallacies is the implication that the alternative to execution is the inmate walking away and resuming their normal everyday life. This is of course not true – they will typically spend the rest of it behind bars.
However, there are obvious merits to both the pro and anti arguments.
Execution permanently removes the worst criminals from society and is safer for prison guards, fellow inmates and the rest of us than long term or permanent incarceration. It is self evident that dead criminals cannot commit any further crimes either in prison or after escaping from it.
Money is not an inexhaustible commodity and
the state may very well better spend our tax dollars on the old, the young and
the sick rather than the long term imprisonment of murderers, rapists etc.
However in the
Execution is a very real punishment rather
than some form of "rehabilitative" treatment, the criminal is made to
suffer in proportion to the offence. Whether there is a place in a modern
society for the old fashioned principal of "an eye for an eye" is a
matter of personal opinion. Retribution is seen by many as the principal reason
for favoring the death penalty. It is also felt by many families of murder
victims to be a strong reason for witnessing the execution of their loved one's
murderer, in states that allow this, as it provides closure for them. Anti
capital punishment campaigners are fond of mis-quoting Mahatma Ghandi’s saying
that "an eye for an eye makes the world go blind". This is nonsense because it wrongly presumes
that we all commit murder, whereas only a tiny proportion of people do. What Ghandi was referring to here was the tat
for tat inter tribal killings that were taking place in
Does the death penalty deter homicide?
During the period 1967 to 1977, there no executions in the
In most states, executions are a very rare occurrence. Only a very tiny proportion of murderers are sentenced to death in the first place - about 1.5%. In 2013 just 79 death sentences were handed down in the whole country. Only a small proportion of those sentenced to death are eventually executed, while many have their sentence reduced on appeal. In all states, other than
Equally the murder rate for states with the death penalty is often higher than for those without.
It is dangerously simplistic to say that the rise in executions is the only factor in the reduction of homicides. There has been a general trend to a more punitive society (e.g. "Three strikes and your out") over this period and cities such as
The graphs below, with trend lines in blue, give an indication of execution rates versus homicide rates over the 30 year period from 1981 - 2010.
Case study 1 -
In 1980 alone, 2,392 people died by homicide giving it a murder rate of 16.88 for every 100,000 of the population. (The US average murder rate in 1980 was 10.22, falling to 5.51 per 100,000 by the year 2000.) Over the same period,
Case study 2 -
A total of 196 people (192 men and 4 women) were put to death in
Between 1950 and 1962,
The current death row population is the largest in
Are you deterred by the concept of capital punishment? Do you remember the last execution in your state? Do you believe that you would actually be executed if you were found guilty of murder in the first degree? These are a crucial questions for the deterrence argument. A recent survey of a number of death row prisoners in several states showed that few of them actually gave much thought to what would happen to them and most did not expect to get caught in the first place. Do you believe that even if you were caught, convicted and sentenced to death that you would ever actually be put to death? Do you hear/read about executions taking place in the country as a whole and in your state in particular? If so does this information have any effect on you? If you are not aware of executions in your state how can you be deterred by them?
Arguments against the death
There are a number of incontrovertible arguments against the death penalty.
The most important one is the virtual certainty that genuinely innocent people will be executed and that there is no possible way of compensating them for this miscarriage of justice. You can find claims of 146 "innocent" people having been “exonerated from death rows nationwide over the past 30 years or so but this number needs to be treated with caution. Some of them were freed on legal technicalities and others succeeded at re-trials due to such factors as key witnesses having died. So the incidence of total miscarriages is much rarer than the anti-death penalty lobby and television dramas would have us believe. Some states are still willing to prosecute on circumstantial evidence alone which is concerning.
However, there is another very genuine concern here. The person convicted of the murder may have actually killed the victim and may admit having done so but does not agree that the killing was first degree murder. Often the only people who know what really happened are the accused and the deceased. It then comes down to the skill of the prosecution and defense attorneys as to whether there will be a conviction for murder in the first or the second degree. It is thus highly probable that people have been convicted of first degree murder when they should really have only been convicted of second degree murder or manslaughter.
A second reason is the abysmal
administration of the death penalty in most states. Appeals take for ever to be heard dimming
witness memories of events. Attorneys on both sides are “drowning” in a sea of
unresolved cases. Unelected groups who
have no mandate will try to interfere with the lawful sentence by going before
a sympathetic judge and arguing for a stay.
State Governors can take arbitrary decisions, as did the governor of
Although racism is claimed in the administration of the death penalty, statistics show that white prisoners are more liable to be sentenced to death on conviction for first degree murder and are also less likely to have their sentences commuted than black defendants. As of July 2014 the racial mix of condemned inmates was as follows : White = 1,315, Black = 1,271 Latino = 385, Other races = 78. Anti death penalty groups cite the disparity between the proportion of black defendants on death row and the proportion of black people in the population. There cannot be quotas for homicide convictions and the police have to deal with situation that they find, irrespective of the ethnic background of the perpetrator.
There is no such thing as a humane method of putting a person to death, irrespective of what the state may claim (see later). Every form of execution causes the prisoner suffering, some methods perhaps cause less than others. One tends to think of these methods in terms of physical pain while overlooking the mental anguish that the person suffers in the time leading up to the execution. How would you feel knowing that you were going to die tomorrow at a specified minute of a specified hour?
It is claimed that the murder rate has gone
up in some states in the months following an execution and it is claimed that
there is a brutalizing effect upon society by carrying out executions, although
this is hard to prove one way or the other.
The death penalty is the most final of all punishments It removes the individual's humanity and with it any chance of rehabilitation and their giving something back to society. In the case of the worst criminals, this may be acceptable but is more questionable in the case of less awful crimes.
So how do we feel about the death
Should we only execute people just for the most awful multiple murders as a form of compulsory euthanasia rather than as a punishment, or should we execute all persons convicted of first degree murder?
What about crimes such as violent rape, terrorism and drug trafficking - are these as bad as murder? How should we punish such crimes? (In certain cases, terrorism and drug trafficking can be punished by death under Federal law.)
Should executions be carried out in such a way as to punish the criminal and have maximum deterrent effect on the rest of us (e.g. televised or public executions). Would this be a deterrent or merely become a morbid show for the voyeuristic?
Or should they be little more than a form of euthanasia carried out in such a way as to remove from the criminal all physical and as much emotional suffering as possible?
Does it make any sense to imprison someone for the rest of their life or is it really more cruel than executing them? This is becoming an increasing problem, especially with the rising numbers of teenagers and young people being sentenced to life without parole.
If we do not keep murderers in prison for the rest of their life, will they come out only to commit other dreadful crimes? A significant number do.
What is the cost to society of keeping people in prison? $500 - 600 per week at present for an ordinary prisoner which is around $800,000 - £900,000 for a typical sentence of 30 years served in an ordinary prison. The cost is much higher for maximum security prisoners.
These questions need to be thought about carefully and a balanced opinion arrived at.
Getting the death penalty.
Getting the death penalty in any state is no foregone conclusion in a homicide case. Firstly the District Attorney has to charge the defendant with first degree murder and seek the death penalty, not something they do lightly, if only on the grounds of the much higher costs of capital murder trials. Secondly the defendant may offer a plea bargain where they will plead guilty in return for the DA not going for the death penalty. If they don’t offer a plea bargain and the case goes to trial, the jury has to find that person guilty of murder in the 1st degree. Having done so they then have to decide their punishment at a second, penalty hearing. To recommend the death penalty jurors have to be sure that sufficient aggravating factors have been proved, not merely that the defendant committed the crime. In most states the jury has to be unanimous in its recommendation of death, if just one juror is against then the defendant cannot be sentenced to death. Juries can and often do decide to go for life without parole instead, if they don’t feel that the aggravating factors are sufficient or if they are outweighed by mitigating factors. If they do decide to award the death penalty, the defendant has an automatic right of appeal. In 2013 just 79 death sentences were handed down nationwide, a very tiny number as compared to the number of homicides.
alternatives to capital punishment.
What are the realistic alternatives to the death penalty?
Any punishment must be fair, just, adequate and most of all, enforceable. Society still views murder as a particularly heinous crime which should justify the most severe punishment. Life imprisonment without parole is increasingly being used as an alternative to the death penalty. Imprisonment, while expensive and largely pointless, except as means of removing criminals from society for a given period, is at least enforceable upon anyone who commits a crime.
Improving detection rates is a very good
deterrent to crime, of an sort. Just
look at how people observe speed limits when they see a police car sitting on
the side of the expressway and yet break the speed limit as soon as the risk is
passed. Cold case units have been set up
by many police departments which help reinforce the view that murder does
matter and will not just be forgotten about.
It is estimated that
At the end of June 2014 there were 3,0490 prisoners on death row nationally in 36 states, plus the US Military. Most prisoners who are sentenced to death are housed in the Segregation Wing of a maximum security prison - i.e. Death Row. Their world consists of a single occupancy 6’ x 9’ cell where many are confined for 23 hours a day, 7 days a week. Some of these cells do not have air conditioning which can make life extremely miserable, especially in southern states where the temperature can exceed 100 degrees for weeks at a time in summer.
Some states, like
Typically prisoners are strip searched and handcuffed before going to and from their one daily hour of solitary exercise in a concrete run surrounded by a chain link fence topped with razor wire. They are searched and handcuffed when escorted to the shower room three times a week and at any other time when they are out of their cell. Non-contact visitation is, almost without exception, all that is allowed Death Row prisoners. It is usually possible for them to communicate with other condemned inmates.
It is clear that in many states (e.g.
"Life without parole" versus
the death penalty.
Many opponents of capital punishment put forward life in prison without parole (LWOP) as a viable alternative to execution for the worst offenders and surveys have shown that LWOP enjoys considerable support amongst those who would otherwise favor the death penalty. If the sentence is enforced in full it is a sentence of no hope inflicted on mainly younger people who have a great many years to live in prison and who will often be quickly forgotten by their friends and relatives on the outside and become totally isolated. In other words a living hell but one that spares jurors and prison staff from being involved in an execution.
LWOP cannot prevent or deter offenders from killing prison staff or other inmates or taking hostages to further an escape bid, because they have nothing to lose by so doing.
However good the security of a prison, someone will always try to escape and occasionally will be successful. If you have endless time to plan an escape and everything to gain from doing so, there is a very strong incentive.
We have no guarantee that future state administrations will not release offenders who were imprisoned years previously, on the recommendations of various professionals who are against any form of punishment in the first place. Twenty or 30 years later, it is very difficult to remember the awfulness of an individual's crime and easy to claim that they have reformed.
"Mad or Bad".
Are criminals, particularly murderers as we are discussing the death penalty, evil or sick? This is another very important issue as it would seem hardly reasonable to punish people who are genuinely ill but more reasonable to use effective punishment against those who are intentionally evil. As usual, as a society, we have very confused views on this issue. There are those who seem to believe that there is no such thing as evil, while the majority of us do not accept that every convicted murderer should be let off, i.e. excused any responsibility for their actions due to some alleged mental or emotional condition. Will advances in mapping the human genome over the next couple of decades allow us to predict those people who are prone to committing violent and murderous crimes and so prevent them before they happen?
The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 on June 20, 2002 that the execution of mentally retarded criminals is a "cruel and unusual punishment," violating the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. In most states a person with an IQ of less than 70 cannot be sentenced to death, as they are considered legally retarded. The child killer, Westley Alan Dodd, was clearly very abnormal indeed but not legally insane, in as much as he knew what he was doing and knew that it was wrong. There are many other cases to choose from where the defendant's deeds are not those of a normal person.
Will we ever find an answer to the "mad or bad" question and then be able to find effective treatment for those who turn out to be "mad"? Should we worry about the alleged mental state of our worst criminals? These are the people who are least likely to benefit from imprisonment or care in institutions and are most likely to re-offend. It can, therefore, be argued that killing these people would be a very good thing.
Capital punishment and the
The media's attitude to executions varies widely depending on the age and sex of the criminal, the type of crime and frequency/rarity of execution. A reasonably attractive woman, Karla Faye Tucker, convicted of a brutal double murder, receiving a lethal injection got tremendous media attention worldwide. A man being hanged in
Men being executed in
Executions used to attract pro and anti-capital punishment protesters in large numbers but these seem to have dwindled down to just a few in most cases.
I tend to think that if executions were televised, they would soon reach the same level of disinterest amongst the general public unless a particular one was viewed as special, i.e. a first by this or that method or a particularly interesting criminal, e.g. Timothy McVeigh.
Lethal injection is the least interesting (dramatic/sexy?) way of putting a person to death - a state of affairs that suits the states that use it very well. The less the public interest, the easier the process becomes. Probably the majority of people don't much care either way and would rather watch a ballgame. They may vaguely support capital punishment but do not wish to be or feel involved in an execution.
Can capital punishment
ever be "humane"?
I have never personally believed that any form of execution can give either instant or totally pain free death, so which method should a modern "civilized" society use?
Should our worst criminals be given a completely pain free death even if the technology exists to provide one or should a degree of physical suffering be part of the punishment?
Whatever method is selected should have some deterrent value while not causing a slow or agonizing death.
Lethal injection may appear to be the most humane but is a very slow process. If the needle is correctly positioned in a vein it allows the short acting barbiturate to function properly, causing unconsciousness in less than 10 seconds and death in under 10 minutes. The biggest single objection to lethal injection is the length of time required to prepare the prisoner and carry out their sentence which can be from 20 to 45 minutes depending on the ease of finding a vein to inject into. Throughout this period the person is and knows that they are being executed. With the present difficulties states are experiencing in obtaining suitable drugs, there have been several recent problematic executions.
Electrocution can cause a quick death when all goes well, but seems to have a greater number of technical problems than any other method. This may in part be due to the age of the equipment - in some cases, 70-90 years old!
The gas chamber seems to possess no obvious advantage to the state as the equipment is expensive to buy and maintain, the preparations are lengthy, adding to the prisoner's agonies and it causes a slow and cruel death even when everything goes to plan. It is also dangerous to the staff involved. Whether it will actually be used again is unlikely.
by firing squad (as in
Hanging when done properly causes virtually instant deep unconsciousness and also benefits from requiring simple and thus quick preparation of the prisoner. However, too many hangings have been botched in the last 200 years and many people perceive it to be the cruelest method.
The time taken in the actual preparations prior to the execution (e.g. the shaving of the head and legs for electrocution or finding a suitable vein to inject into) must also cause great emotional suffering which again may far outweigh the physical pain which at least has an end.
At the end of the debate we would seem to be left with three options.
1) Maintain the status quo by retaining the
death penalty for just a few of the "worst" murderers as a form of
retribution for the terrible crimes they have committed and to permanently
2) Not to have the death penalty and accept a potential rise in the murder rate, while looking for other ways of controlling serious crime.
3) Enforce the death penalty in a really strict format and see a corresponding drop in serious crime while accepting that there will be a lot of human misery caused to the innocent families of criminals and that there will be the occasional, if inevitable, mistakes.
Ultimately the choice is yours!