Currently, 38 states have legalized capital punishment statutes. In most states, the reinstatements of the death penalty were a response to public outcry over the perceived increase of violent crimes. There are now more than 3,000 people on death row, and more are being convicted each year.
Despite this legalized status, a vocal group of opponents have raised questions regarding the constitutionality, fairness and effectiveness of capital punishment. This paper argues that opponents of the death penalty are misguided, and that the death penalty is a sad but necessary tool for American society.
The first part of the paper is an overview regarding capital punishment in the United States. It looks at which states have legalized the death penalty and how this punishment is imposed. It focuses especially on Texas, the leading state in the number of executions.
The next part of the paper gives an overview of the concerns of death penalty opponents. This includes the arguments that the death penalty is unfairly administered to the poor and to ethnic minorities. These arguments also include the unconstitutionality of the death penalty, arguments for humane treatment and forgiveness and the danger of false convictions.
In the third part of this paper, the author refutes these arguments and discusses the pros of capital punishment. It focuses on proving that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to violent crime. It also argues that advances in DNA technology will make false convictions a thing of the past. If administered fairly and judiciously, this paper maintains that capital punishment is a powerful tool for ensuring the rule of law in a civilized society.
Death penalty in the United States
The death penalty has a long history in the United States. It was first instituted when the early British settlers brought the practice into the colonies. The first execution in recorded American history occurred in 1608, when George Kendall was executed in Virginia for treason. By 1612, the death penalty was imposed for all kinds of minor offenses, including petty theft of grapes
By 1630, the Massachusetts colony held its first execution, with the New York colony following suit in 1665. Under New York law, hitting one's parents or denying the existence of God were included in crimes punishable by death
By the early 20th century, different states in the Union had different practices regarding the death penalty. Nevada instituted the use of cyanide gas in 1924 as a more humane alternative for its inmates. The period of the Great Depression also saw an increase in executions. On average, there were 167 executions per year during the 1930s
than during any other period in American history.
In the 1950s, however, a tide of anti-death penalty sentiments swept through the United States. By 1972, these sentiments bloomed into Furman v. Georgia, which argued that the death penalty was often a result of arbitrary sentencing. This Supreme Court decision held that death penalty statues had to be rewritten, to eliminate "cruel and unusual" forms of punishment. Though the decision found that capital punishment was unconstitutional, it left the door open for states to revise their methods of execution, in order to comply with the new statutes.
Today, majority of the states have death penalty statutes. Only 12 states do not have the death penalty. Currently, each death penalty state has different categories of death penalty crimes. However, these crimes revolve around different forms of homicide and, in some instances, aggravated kidnapping, aircraft hijacking and capital sexual assault.
Arguments against the death penalty
Many well-meaning death penalty activists have argued for the abolition of the death penalty. However, as this paper will show, many of these reasons are misguided or illogical.
First, many opponents of the death penalty argue that the system is fraught with danger. The disparities in its application make the death penalty discriminatory towards ethnic minorities, the poor, the uneducated, and the mentally-challenged. Indeed, most of the people on death row are poor, uneducated. Many suffer from mental illness. Majority of those on death row are African-American or Hispanic.
However, this argument does not address the fact that people who are in jail have been convicted by juries of their peers. Also, studies have shown that though there are more minorities on death row, white defendants have been twice more likely to be executed than their African-American counterparts. Many white death row inmates are executed an average of 15 months sooner than black defendants.
Second, death penalty opponents point to the risk of executing innocent people. They cite statistics regarding how many death row inmates have later been found innocent. Between 1976 and 1981, more than 80 death row inmates nationwide have been freed, after charges against them were dropped due to wrongful convictions and overwhelming evidence of innocence.
More people continue to be released after being found innocent. To opponents of the death penalty, the danger of executing an innocent person should be enough reason for a moratorium on the death penalty.
However, the fact that innocent people have been released should also indicate another truth -- that the legal system works. The complex and long appeals process allows lawyers and judges to act as checks and balances. The release of prisoners who were found innocent is proof that the system remains intact. After all, there have been no cases where an executed man was later found innocent.
Related to this, the advancement of DNA technology should allay fears of an innocent person accidentally being executed. Since every individual's DNA is unique, DNA is a reliable identifier. Unlike other identifying marks like fingerprints and facial features, DNA cannot be altered. Modern science can thus distinguish between individual DNA samples with great accuracy, making DNA a much-improved version of fingerprinting. Scientific techniques are also improving the reliability and efficiency of DNA testing. This new technique allows investigators to extract DNA evidence from smaller, older and less well-preserved biological evidence fragments.
These improved techniques are all a safeguard against false convictions. They also allow investigators and scientists to assess a person's guilt or innocence with far greater accuracy.
In summary, arguments against the death penalty do not always hold water. The supposedly racist nature of capital punishment is belied by the fact that white defendants are more likely to get executed, after spending shorter amounts of time on death row. Furthermore, the availability of new DNA techniques will provide an added safety net, ensuring that the innocent are freed and that the guilty are punished.
Arguments for the death penalty
While opponents have presented flimsy reasons in their call to abolish the death penalty, those who continue to support the death penalty make good points. Many of them view the death penalty as a tool of necessity, and are far from the vengeful people that they are often characterized.
Perhaps the main reason for supporting the death penalty is for the deterrent effect. Proponents of the death penalty say that capital punishment is the most effective way to maintain order. The threat of execution should be enough to scare people into behaving in a lawful manner.
Many maintain that there is no link between the death penalty and crimes such as homicide. A New York Times report argues, for example, that 10 of the 12 states without the death penalty have homicide rates much lower than the national average. This is cited as proof that other factors like stricter gun control laws are better deterrents to violent crime.
However, the possibility of a needle leeching poison into your blood is surely a powerful deterrent. It is an argument based not just facts, but largely on conventional wisdom and an understanding of human nature. As Charles Rice states, "Death is an awesome and awful penalty ... that exert(s) a restraining effect on some criminals who would otherwise commit a crime.
In one of the few statistical studies that purports that the death penalty has a deterrent effect, Jay Johansen tracked the number of executions in America over a 20-year period. He found that during the period from 1965 to 1982, when there were few executions in the United States, the homicide rate steadily increased. However, when the number of executions increased from 1983 to 1996, the homicide rate fell. This, he argues, is statistical proof that the death penalty is a deterrent, especially against violent crime.
Some opponents of the death penalty also focus on the practice's supposed unconstitutional nature. Supposedly, the inequity that is inherent in capital punishment as well as the inconsistent administration of the death penalty justifies the creation of a Constitutional amendment banning capital punishment in the United States.
However, once again, this argument is refuted by alternative legal interpretations. In their 1972 decision Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court struck down capital punishment in 39 states because capital punishment was deemed "cruel and unusual" punishment. The decision was the closest the United States has come to a moratorium on capital punishment. However, in its pivotal 1976 decision in Gregg…