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Death Penalty as Retribution
The Retributive Nature of the Death Penalty
The peaceful fabric of society is torn whenever a crime is committed. In the case of murder, the suffering of the victim's loved ones can be unbearable and last for a lifetime. The destructive ripple effect of these tragedies cannot be compensated for in any way, not even by the capture, conviction, and execution of the killer. However, many states still rely on the death penalty as a form of retribution for capital murder, but if the wrong committed cannot be corrected or compensated for, then what value does the death penalty serve?
One argument in favor of the death penalty is that it allows the government to exact retribution by taking the life of the killer (Budziszewski). Retribution, known by some as 'an eye for an eye' and 'just deserts' form of retaliation, attempts to reestablish social order by forcing the criminal to suffer in the same way that his or her victims did. This form of justice has been attributed to Genesis 9 (5-6) in the Old Testament of the King James Bible, which states that "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed & #8230;" (Budziszewski para. 4). The equivalent phrase 'an eye for an eye' can also be found in three other locations in the bible.
However, retribution can be defined a number of ways. To better understand the nature of retribution, this essay will examine how retribution, in the form of the death penalty, is being used in the United States.
1. Instrumental Retribution
Gerber and Jackson conclude that retribution can be roughly grouped into two forms, instrumental and retributive (62-63). Instrumental retribution implies the penalty serves some purpose, such as deterring future criminal acts and/or compensating victims. As discussed above, common sense dictates that victims cannot receive just compensation when an act of murder has been committed. In addition, the value of the death penalty for deterring future murders has been questioned by legal experts (Fagan). As Jeffrey Fagan discusses, the FBI reported that 16,137 murders were committed in the United States in 2004, but only 125 killers were given the death sentence and 59 were executed (para. 11). U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White, when deciding Furman v. Georgia (1972), claimed that such a small number of executions, in the face of so many murders, would have little or no deterrence on future crimes (para. 15). The instrumental value of retribution for capital murder is therefore questionable at best.
2. Retribution as Revenge
The need for revenge is a universally experienced emotion when a loved one has been murdered; a response is that is both understandable and expected. Revenge as retribution is a form of retaliation against the perpetrator, with the goal of causing at least as much suffering as was caused by the criminal act (Gerber and Jackson 63). Retributive revenge has been defined by researchers in this field as primarily an emotional response to see the offender suffer.
What are missing from revenge as retribution are the goals of material compensation or proportionality (Gerber and Jackson 63). In the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the execution of inmates for crimes that did not result in death is excessive and therefore unconstitutional (DeathPenaltyInfo.org), which means that revenge as retribution is not formally practiced by the U.S. criminal justice system. In addition, how would anyone increase the suffering of an executed prisoner, unless we began to torture death row inmates while they await execution? Revenge is therefore unavailable as a form of retribution in contemporary America.
3. Just Deserts Retribution
Given the horrendous nature of some murders, it's hard not to feel the need for the revenge. Monica Allen, aged 29, was found dead along a highway in southern Utah on December 22, 1997 (MurderVictims.com, para. 1-2). Brit Allen Ripkowski was later arrested in Houston as a possible suspect in Monica's murder and the unknown whereabouts of her 2-year-old daughter, Nikki Frome. Ripkowski eventually confessed to killing the daughter. He later disposed of the child's body by burying her in a suitcase in a shallow grave northeast of Houston, Texas (MurderVictims.com, para. 32-38). Tried in Houston for the murder of Nikki, several of the jurors started sobbing as they watched Ripkowski's taped testimony in which he described in detail how he suffocated the defenseless child with his hand.
Ripkowski received the death penalty by the Houston jury in 1999 (MurderVictims.com, para. 67-73). Texas jurors deciding between the death penalty and life imprisonment are generally required to consider two issues: (1) any mitigating circumstances that argue against a death sentence and (2) whether the killer continues to represent a threat to society. Since Ripkowski waived a ruling on mitigating circumstances and the jurors unanimously believed he continued to represent a threat to society, a death sentence was imposed. The cold and calculated suffocation of both Monica and Nikki, and the apparent lack of remorse for his actions, could not have been interpreted in any other way.
Nate Frome, the father of Nikki Frome, stated shortly before the sentencing decision that he wanted Nikki's killer dead (MurderVictims.com, para. 67-73). "He didn't ask her if she wanted to live or if she wanted to die. She didn't have anybody standing up for her. Why should he be any different?" (para. 68). Robert Frome, Nikki's grandfather, stated after the verdict was read that "This has made a believer in the death penalty of every family member because of the utterly depraved and evil manner in which he took Nikki's life and Monica's life" (para. 72). Families of murder victims, if the Fromes and Allens are good examples, therefore feel a strong need for retribution and the death penalty seems to fill this need.
Since American society does not allow revenge retribution in capital murder cases and instrumental retribution is largely irrelevant, this leaves 'just deserts' retribution. In contrast to revenge retribution, just deserts retribution includes an element of proportionality (Gerber and Jackson 63). This is equivalent to 'an eye for an eye' type of penalty. In other words, a killer should lose the right to go on living.
van den Haag would argue that a just deserts form of retribution, in the form of the death penalty, serves a valuable function in society because it provides a proportional and just response to the crime of capital murder (para. 16). Its primary purpose is to help mend the torn fabric of society by proving that the legal system is capable of providing justice in the form of retribution. The emotional statements made by Nikki's father and grandfather suggest that family members of murder victims consider the death penalty an acceptable form of retribution, which would help mend society. In addition, Ripkowski's conviction and death penalty sentence reveals how society shifts the burden for retribution off the shoulders of the victim's families and into the criminal justice system. Just deserts retribution is therefore sanctioned by civilized society.
There are, however, many critics of the death penalty as a legitimate form of retribution. In response to Justice Brennan's statements that the death penalty is degrading and inhumane, van den Haag counters with his own argument that the death penalty is in fact less degrading and inhumane than life in prison (para. 21-24). van den Haag argues instead that society takes an intense interest in a killer's actions and this interest confirms that the convict is viewed as a member of society and therefore a human being; however, the killer's conviction and execution shows that he or she has been deemed unfit to remain. If any degradation has occurred on the part of the killer, van den Haag argues, it is self-inflicted. van den Haag further addresses the inhumanity that Justice…[continue]
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