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Today, the United States is virtually the only remaining industrialized and democractic nation in the world to apply the death penalty, although a few other countries have the options on their books but the punishment is rarely enforcement. The heated debate over the efficacy of the death penalty continues, and the arguments on both sides of the issue are charged with emotion and some convincing evidence in support of their respective views. There are some very compelling reasons, though, to retain the death penalty as a last-resort punishment for some criminals. Despite criticisms of the practice to the contrary, this paper will demonstrate the death penalty is based on solid historic and legal justification, absolutely prevents violent criminals from ever reoffending again, and provides families of murder victims with the closure they desperately need to resume their normal lives.
Review and Discussion
Executed Criminals Cannot Reoffend
Despite criticisms of the practice, the fact remains that violent criminals who are put to death will not reoffend. Indeed, even though a violent criminal who has tortured, maimed and killed several people outright may be sentenced to life imprisonment, there is always the chance this criminal will be paroled or otherwise released some day and go on to kill again. In this regard, Ferrall reports that, "Death penalty proponents present specific cases where the death penalty is deserved, including murders committed by persons sentenced earlier but subsequently released" (2004:365). Therefore, the death penalty absolutely ensures that these criminals will never have this opportunity again, something that has occurred a number of times in American history (Geraghty 2003).
The death penalty as it is applied in the United States today is also based on deterrence, utilitarian tradition, the theory of just deserts, and other rationale arguments that death penalty proponents emphasize all serve to justify the practice (Bienen 1999). Moreover, the death penalty enjoys widespread support among many segments of the American public. For instance, according to Bienen, "A recent Chicago Tribune survey of 790 Illinois voters shows a majority favors the death penalty" (1999:751). Proponents of the death penalty are also in favor of the practice because it "sends a strong message to the entire community about the consequences of crime" (Dieter 2008:789). Although the precise deterrent effects of the death penalty on crime rates remains the subject of intense debate, the bottom line is that an executed capital offense defendant's criminal career is over once and for all, and American society will not have worry about this individual ever again. In this regard, Ferrall makes the point that, "The question of the deterrent effect of capital punishment has not been conclusively answered; the many statistical variables may make a final conclusion impossible. Society must, therefore, risk a decision" (2004:365). It is reasonable to suggest that in risking such a decision when their own safety and welfare is at stake, as well as that of their families, the decision would come down on the side of favoring the death penalty.
Historic and Legal Justification for the Death Penalty
There is a plethora of historic and legal justification for the use of death penalty in certain cases. For example, in the Holy Bible's Leviticus 24:19-21 (King James Version), it is clearly stated that, "If a man inflicts an injury on his fellow citizen, just as he has done it must be done to him -- fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth -- just as he inflicts an injury on another person that same injury must be inflicted on him. One who beats an animal to death must make restitution for it, but one who beats a person to death must be put to death." Likewise, Deuteronomy 19:16-21 (King James Version) emphasizes the deterrence qualities of the death penalty thusly: "Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother: so shalt thou put the evil away from among you. And those which remain shall hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil among you. And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot."
This historic justification extends to the early United States as well. For example, Cottrol describes a "colonial American world where executions were a ritualistic exercise designed in part to punish crime, but perhaps more significantly, staged to reaffirm the moral and social order and the place of the members of the community in that order" (2004:1641). Furthermore, despite some legal wrangling over the years, including a decade-long ban on the practice beginning in 1972, the Supreme Court has since held that the death penalty as practiced in the United States is constitutional and does not violate the "cruel and unusual punishment" prohibitions contained in the Bill of Rights (Geraghty 2003; Dieter 2008). According to Black's Law Dictionary, the death penalty is the "supreme penalty exacted as punishment for murder, and other capital crimes. The death penalty has been held to not be, under all circumstances, cruel and unusual punishment, within prohibitions of the Eighth and Fourteen Amendments of the U.S. Constitution" (1999:400).
Moreover, capital offense defendants are provided with an enormous array of rights to appeal to ensure that their due process rights are protected and that they have every opportunity to present evidence to prove why they should not be executed, a process that frequently extends into years and even decades and cost the American taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars as a result (Dieter 2008). For example, according to Farrell, "In recent years, many states have implemented stringent requirements in the qualifications of attorneys appointed to represent death penalty defendants, thereby causing the states to incur significant expenditure to pay for the defense. Extensive review of capital sentences is also common" (2004:366).
Clearly, capital offense defendants are afforded every possible opportunity under the law to avoid being executed and many in fact succeed in doing so; however, for those who fail to provide sufficiently compelling evidence to the contrary, the death penalty is the logical and inevitable outcome of the legal process. Although critics of the death penalty argue that it is used disproportionately against racial minorities and the poor, Farrell (2004) emphasizes that these arguments are not inherently part of the death penalty itself, but rather the manner in which it is adjudicated and administered. Rather than doing away with the death penalty outright, Farrell maintains that "We should seek to improve its administration rather than abolish it. When the portion of capitally sentenced persons who are black is measured against the number of persons tried for murder, rather than against the general population, the punishment is not shown to be racially disproportionate" (2004:366).
The Death Penalty Provides Closure for Family Members
Finally, the death penalty provides important closure for families that have been devastated by violent crimes. Just as family members will relentlessly seek missing loved ones until they are found or their fate determined with certainty, people who have experienced the loss of a loved one at the hands of a cold-blooded killer may need to know that that criminal has paid the ultimate price in return. For instance, according to Bandes, although the term "closure" is an umbrella term that encompasses a number of cause, in this context, the death penalty helps families of murder victims deal with "the grief, anger, and pain a murder leaves in its wake" (2009:1). Perhaps not surprisingly, Bedau and Cassell emphasize that, "Families of murder victims are among the most fervent supporters of the death penalty. Watching the perpetrator die helps the families reach closure" (2004:8). Certainly, it is reasonable to suggest that no one actually wants to watch another human being die, at least not mentally…[continue]
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