The pros and cons of the death penalty
Contents. (click on a link to go directly to a particular section)
Is the death penalty
The purpose of this article is to invite you the reader to think about your personal attitude to the death penalty, rather than tell you what to think, hence why it asks a lot of questions. Facts and statistics provided are from reliable sources such as the US Bureau of Justice. In a democratic society it is your views as a voter, or future voter, that count and help shape the world we live in.
Capital punishment is the lawful infliction
of death as a punishment and has been in use in
As of March 2013, 33 states have the death
penalty. The death penalty is also available for Federal and Military crimes.
17 states, plus the
There have been a total of 1320 executions from January 1977 to the end of 2012. Lethal injection is now almost universal in the
Is the death penalty
No state has an absolute right to put its worst criminals to death although a majority of a state's residents may wish to confer that right on it. Of course all states do kill people, even where they do not have the death penalty. Our police are armed (by the state) and people get killed in shoot outs with them.
Majority opinion is typically in favor of the death penalty, with recent surveys indicating around a 65 – 70% 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 just walking away and resuming their normal everyday life. This is of course not true – they will typically spend the rest of it behind bars.
So let us examine the 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. Click here for a list of inmates who have been released or escaped and then murdered again.
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 a 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 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. Given a population of around 306 million and a homicide rate of around 15,200 per annum less than 0.4% of the population actually commit a homicide in any given year. Or conversely 99.6% of us do not kill.
Does the death penalty deter? It is
difficult to be certain whether it does or doesn’t. It is certainly not used as a deterrent by
individual states, but rather, purely as a punishment.
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 2010 just 114 death sentences were handed down in the whole country. Only a small proportion of those sentenced to death are eventually executed, some may have their sentence reduced on appeal, some will die of natural causes awaiting execution. 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 in the 1990’s was 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 current (2009) economic problems do not seem to have impacted the homicide rate which continues to fall along with the rate of all violent crime.
Case study 1 -
In 1980 alone, 2,392 people died by homicide giving a 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,
A recent study of executions and homicides in
Case study 2 -
A total of 196 people (192 men and four women) were put to death in
Between 1950 and 1962,
The current death row population is the largest in
The concept of deterrence.
Are you deterred by the death penalty? 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? I live in
Arguments against the death penalty.
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 may well find claims of 139 "innocent" people having been released from death rows nationwide over the past 30 years or so but this number needs to be treated with great 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 genuine innocence is much rarer than the anti-death penalty lobby and television dramas would have us believe. The individual case details for those “exonerated” from death row can be read at http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/innocence-list-those-freed-death-row and a rebuttal of these claims at
Some states are still willing to prosecute on circumstantial evidence alone which is concerning. Another very genuine concern is that a 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 a lawful death 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 likely to be sentenced to death on conviction for first degree murder and are also less likely to have their sentences commuted than black defendants. At the end of 2009 the racial mix of condemned inmates was as follows : White = 1,453, Black = 1,351, Latino = 384, Asian = 41, American Indian = 38. Anti death penalty groups cite as racist the disparity between the proportion of black defendants on death row and the proportion of black people in the population. However African Americans are six times more likely to be the victim of homicide than white Americans and seven times more likely to be the perpetrators. There cannot be quotas for homicide convictions, the police have to deal with the situation that they find, irrespective of the ethnic background of the perpetrator. I am willing to believe that there was an element of racism in the application of the death penalty in former times where a black defendant would receive the death penalty, particularly for killing or raping a white victim, but a white person convicted of a similar crime might well not do so. The true definition of racism is where a person is treated differently/more severely based solely upon their ethnic background.
There is no such thing as a totally 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.
it take to the death penalty?
Getting the death penalty in any state is no foregone conclusion in any 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 because of the far greater cost of death penalty cases. 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 in the 1st degree. In 2002 the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Ring v
If the jury does decide to award the death penalty, the defendant has an automatic right of appeal at State and Federal levels. They are able to file a writ of habeas corpus in the
The alternatives to the death penalty.
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. Just look at how
people observe speed limits when they see a police car sitting on the side of
the freeway 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
As at October 2012 there were 3,146 inmates on death rows in 35 states including 60 sentenced to death for Federal offenses and 6 on Military death row. (When
Most inmates under sentence 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 they 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, e.g.,
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 inmates. 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 the death penalty put forward life in prison without the possibility of 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 (the average age at arrest for homicide is 29 years old) and who will often be quickly forgotten by their friends and relatives on the outside and become totally isolated. As at the end of 2009 there are over 46,000 people including some 2,300 juveniles are currently serving LWOP sentences nation-wide. Of these,
In other words it is a living death but one that spares jurors and prison staff from being involved in an execution. It has been argued that imposing this sentence is an easy way out for juries who then don’t have to have it on their individual consciences that they sent a person to death row and possible eventual execution. It is also clear that life without parole sentences are being passed on many prisoners who would not have got a death sentence in the first place. The Federal Government was the first to eliminate parole under the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984. State legislators followed suit until by 2005, 49 states and the
LWOP cannot prevent or deter offenders from
killing prison staff or other inmates (299 homicides occurred in state prisons
between 2001 and 2006) 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.
and the death penalty.
Firstly let us be quite clear, despite what some of the anti-capital punishment lobby imply
The Supreme Court judgment given in Roper v Simmons in March 2005 effectively ended the juvenile death penalty in the
The Numbers Game "death versus deterrence".
If we are, however, really serious in our desire to reduce crime through harsher punishments alone, we must be prepared to execute every criminal who commits a capital crime, irrespective of their sex, age (above the minimum) alleged mental state or background. Defenses to capital charges must be limited by statute to those which are reasonable. Appeals must be similarly limited and there can be no stays. We must carry out executions without delay and with sufficient publicity to get the message across to other criminally minded people.
For the death penalty to really reduce the incidence of the most serious crimes, everyone of us must realize that we personally will, without doubt, be executed if we commit particular crimes and that there can be absolutely no hope of commutation.
"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 hardly seem reasonable to punish people who are genuinely insane 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. Those with a criminology masters degree delve deep into analyzing what environmental factors, as opposed to genetic predisposition, which contribute to criminal behavior.
The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 on June 20, 2002
in the case of Atkins v
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 could, therefore, be argued that killing these people would be a very good thing.
The death penalty and the media.
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 Washington or Delaware, or shot by a Utah firing squad made international news. (Westley Allan Dodd, Billy Bailey, John Taylor and Ronnie Lee Gardner). Electrocutions make more news nowadays because of the rarity of them.
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.
Lethal injection is the least interesting (dramatic/sexy?) way of putting a person to death - something that suits the state 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.
It would seem that we have “trial by media”
in this country. At present there is
constant discussion on national TV of the Jodi Arias who is possibly facing the
death penalty for murder in
Is the death penalty a “cruel
and unusual” punishment?
The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the imposition of "cruel and unusual punishments" and the "infliction of unnecessary pain in the execution of the death sentence". The Constitution and the 8th Amendment to it were never intended to provide criminals with a pain free death. The original constitution specified death by hanging which in 1787 was always painful and usually meant death by strangulation. The concept of a drop sufficient to break the prisoner’s neck and render them instantly unconscious had not been invented and would not be for almost a century. Hanging, carried out in public, was seen as the best available form of execution and the most practical way of executing criminals at the time.
8th Amendment of 1791 did do was to prohibit cruel and unusual punishments such
as burning at the stake, hanging drawing and quartering, pressing to death and
breaking on the wheel. Burning and
pressing had been used under British rule. Breaking on the wheel had occurred
The gas chamber was first used in
Hanging is still a legal form of execution in
concept of evolving standards of decency permitted advances in the execution
process to be incorporated into state protocols.
When the death penalty was allowed by the Supreme Court to resume in 1976,
case of Rees v Baze in 2007, Ralph Baze challenged the three drug lethal injection protocol in
the state of
end of 2010 there were at least four lawful methods of execution in the
Can executions ever be
I have never personally believed that any form of execution can cause either an 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 deliberately causing a slow or agonizing death.
Obviously one cannot be inside the brain of a person as they are being out to death to know what, if any, pain they are feeling. All we can do is to observe their reaction to the process and carry out an autopsy afterwards. In lethal injection, if the person appears to lapse into unconsciousness within seconds and there is no obvious struggling or movement we conclude that they died a pain free death. It is equally clear that when any form of execution is bungled the inmate often exhibits signs of great suffering. Click the links below for a detailed history and explanation of the way each method actually causes death.
Lethal injection may appear to be the most humane but is a very slow process. If the
needle is inserted correctly into a vein it allows the short acting barbiturate
to function properly, causing unconsciousness in less than 30 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 is usually from 20 to 45 minutes depending on
the ease of finding a vein to inject into. Throughout this period the person
knows that they are being put to death.
All states plus the Federal Government and the US Military mandate lethal injection but some states allow their previous method if the inmate chooses it.
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, over 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 potentially dangerous to the staff and witnesses.
Shooting by firing squad (as in Utah) can cause a quick death (2 – 4 minutes) but there appears to be some initial pain felt by the inmate before they lapse into unconsciousness.
Hanging when done properly causes virtually instant deep unconsciousness and also benefits from requiring simple and thus quick preparation of the inmate. 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!