Research reveals that those who kill white victims are much more likely to receive the death penalty than those who kill black victims. One study found that for similar crimes committed by similar defendants, blacks received the death penalty at a 38% higher rate than all others (Dieter, 1998).
It is significant to note that the death penalty is more likely to be imposed on men than woman. Death sentences and actual executions for female offenders are rare in comparison to such events for male offenders. Woman account for 10% of the murder arrests, 2% of the death sentences imposed at the trial level, 1.7% of the persons presently on death row, and 1% of the persons actually executed since 1973 (Streib, 2010).
States vary enormously in the quality of representation they provide to indigent defendants. The quality of legal representation is related to the arbitrary application of the death penalty in that inadequate representation contributes to mistakes in capital sentencing. Though Washington State's overall disbarment rate for attorneys is less than 1%, one-fifth of the 84 people who have faced execution in the past 20 years were represented by lawyers who had been, or were later, disbarred, suspended or arrested. At least 16 death row inmates in North Carolina, including 3 who were executed, were represented by lawyers who have been disbarred or disciplined for unethical or criminal conduct. In Texas, about one in four death row inmates has been defended by lawyers who have been reprimanded, placed on probation, suspended or banned from practicing law by the state bar ("Arbitrariness," 2010).
Equality or Justice
In an Egalitarian Theory of Justice American philosopher John Rawls (1971) discusses the elements necessary for a society to be just for all. He begins with the supposition that in a just society the liberties of equal citizenship are not based on social circumstances, financial position or authority.
Rawls defines society as an association of individuals who recognize certain rules of conduct and behave accordingly in order to advance the good of the participants. Rawls claims that this phenomenon requires that a set of social principles be established to ensure justice so that the advantaged do not unfairly gain by their position. He goes on to say that these principles must be chosen "behind a veil of ignorance" so that "no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social circumstances" (Rawls, 1971). In other words for justice to be just it must be blind, if it is not equal than it is not just.
Many studies on deterrence and the death penalty do not support the idea that the prospect of receiving the death penalty discourages the act of murder; in fact the murder rate in states that do not have the death penalty is consistently lower than in states with the death penalty. According to Michael Radelet and Traci Lacock (2009) eighty-eight percent of the country's top criminologists do not believe the death penalty acts as a deterrent to homicide. Furthermore, 87% of those surveyed believe that abolition of the death penalty would not have any significant effect on murder rates. Police chiefs rank the death penalty last as a way of reducing violent crime, placing it behind curbing drug abuse, more police officers on the streets, lowering the technical barriers to prosecution, longer sentences, and a better economy with more jobs.
Continuum of Moral Justification for Taking a Human Life
There are many circumstances to be considered when examining the moral and ethical issues surrounding the taking of human life (Thiroux & Krasemann, 2008). The moral justification of killing is not a binary affair, that is justified or not, but rather a continuum. The taking of a human life is more justified under some circumstances than others. The moral cost of killing must be balanced against the moral cost of not killing.
This calculation is contingent on a value system and is dependent on circumstances. If one values all human life equally the circumstances in which killing is permissible is very narrow. If one places a greater value on some particular human life more than others this broadens the circumstances. In other words if one values the life of a compatriot twice as much as one values the life of a foreigner it is then permissible to kill two innocent foreigners to save one innocent compatriot. On the other hand, if one values all life equally an innocent foreigner may not be killed to save and innocent compatriot.
Starting with the most justified and continuing through to the least justified, this list is of the various motivations for the taking of human life. 1) Killing in defense of your or another's life when no non-lethal alternatives are available, or the non-lethal alternatives carry a much greater risk of death or injury to yourself, or others or you are unable to resort to non-lethal alternatives due to fear, anger, or some other transient emotion. 2) Killing to prevent serious and permanent harm to yourself or another. 3) Killing in retribution for a previously committed wrong. 4) Killing in war: in a morally justifiable cause for clear strategic goal when no less but equally effective means are available -- in a morally justifiable cause for clear strategic goal even in the presence of other equally effective means -- in a morally justifiable cause without a strategic goal -- in a morally unjustifiable cause. 5) Killing out of social pressure - abortion / suicide etc. 6) Killing out of anger, frustration, jealousy, or some other internal emotional reason. 7) Killing for gain. 8) Killing for pleasure (Thiroux & Krasemann, 2008).
I was once advised to consider three factors when making a decision, is it logical, is it fair and will it work. If a choice satisfies these three criteria then it is probably a good decision. This being said is the death penalty logical? I would have to say that it is if you believe you reap what you sow then it is logical. Is it fair? This is debatable. In the manor that it is applied today I would have to say no. Finally, does it work? If its purpose is to remove from society someone who would cause more harm, someone who is incapable of rehabilitation, to punish the criminal, and/or to take retribution on behalf of the victim, then yes. If the purpose of the death penalty is to deter murder, then no, it does not work. Given all of this I personally do not support the death penalty.
"Arbitrariness." (2010). Arbitariness. Death penalty information center. Retrieved March 19, 2012 from http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/arbitrariness
Bae, S. (2008, April). The death penalty and the peculiarity of American political intstitutions. Human rights review. Vol. 9, Issue 2, 233-240. March 19, 2012 from http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=3&hid=14&sid=2084aad1-6139-48ee-b3b3-c8fb24b54fca%40sessionmgr12
Baumgartner, F.R. & Richardson, R.J. (2010, October 10). The geography of the death penalty. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Retrieved March 20, 2012 from http://www.unc.edu/~fbaum/Innocence/NC/Baumgartner-geography-of-capital-punishment-oct-17-2010.pdf
Dieter, R.C. (1998). The death penalty in black and white. Death penalty information center. Retrieved March 19, 2012 from http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/death-penalty-black-and-white-who-lives-who-dies-who-decides
"History of the death penalty & recent developments." (2000, March 3). UAA justice center. University of Alaska, Anchorage. Retrieved March 20, 2012 from http://justice.uaa.alaska.edu/death/history.html#unitedstates
Radelet, M.L. & Lacock, T.L. (2009). Do executions lower homicide rates?: The views of leading criminologists. Journal of criminal law & criminology. Vol. 99, No. 2. Northwestern University School of Law. Retrieved March 20, 2012 from http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/files/DeterrenceStudy2009.pdf
Rawls, J. (1971). An egalitarian theory of justice. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.