Governor of Illinois, not long ago, declared a temporary moratorium on death penalty cases. He then commuted the sentences of all death row inmates in Illinois prisons. This was due to reports of egregious miscarriage of justice. Innocent people were unfairly sentenced. (Davey & Mills, 2003) While this was welcome news to some, it also provoked outrage among those who felt that the "blanket moratorium" was an injustice to the families of victims, especially since the perpetrators were sentenced because they were found guilty without a shadow of a doubt. Capital punishment is a difficult subject to discuss. Groups that support the death penalty and those that oppose it put forth arguments that are then refuted by those on the other side of the divide. Statistics, data and personal testimonies and eyewitness reports are used to support their respective causes. In the U.S., Crimes such as murder, treason and other high crimes were punishable by death. Only few countries in the world still have the death penalty. Of these, the United States and Japan are the only developed, industrialized nations that still impose it. In an average year about 20,000 homicides occur in the United States. Fewer than 300 convicted murderers are sentenced to death. (BJS, 1992) Nonetheless, the death penalty looms large in discussions because it raises important moral questions. The death penalty is the harshest punishment in jurisprudence. It is irrevocable. Further, although not intended to cause physical pain, execution is the only corporal punishment still applied to adults.
The first established death penalty laws date as far back as the Eighteenth Century B.C. In the Code of King Hammaurabi of Babylon. The death penalty was also part of the Fourteenth Century B.C.'s Hittite Code. The Seventh Century B.C.'s Draconian Code of Athens and Fifth Century B.C.'s Roman law of the Twelve Tablets made death the only punishment for all crimes. Death sentences were carried out by such means as crucifixion, drowning, beating to death, burning alive, and impalement. (DeathPenaltyInfo, 2003) In medieval times, hanging was the method of choice, as was decapitation (still in vogue in Saudi Arabia).
Britain influenced America's use of the death penalty more than any other country. When European settlers came to the new world, they brought the practice of capital punishment. Death penalty laws varied from colony to colony. Fast forward the present times. Before the 1960s, the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments were interpreted as permitting the death penalty. However, in the early 1960s, it was suggested that the death penalty was a "cruel and unusual" punishment, and therefore unconstitutional. In the late 1960s, the Supreme Court began modifying ways the death penalty was administered. In 1971, the Supreme Court again addressed the problems associated with the role of jurors and their discretion in capital cases. Defendants argued it was a violation of their Fourteenth Amendment (right to due process) for jurors to have unrestricted discretion in deciding whether the defendants should live or die. Finally, on June 29, 1972, the Supreme Court suspended the death penalty.
The death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Though the Supreme Court's decision was overriding, it was held only for certain statutes. This opened the door for states to rewrite their own capital punishment statutes. A new procedure was adopted called the bifurcation of trials. Here the trial and sentencing phases were separated. Juries could recommend a sentence besides returning a verdict. (BJS, 2003)
Nature of Debates
Proponents of the death penalty believe that it has a deterrent effect on further crimes. They believe that the death penalty abolitionists who believe that crime is not a deterrent should, by extension, eliminate punishment for every crime and close down prisons since they serve no purpose as deterrents. Death penalty proponents also believe that in measuring the effects of deterrence by statistics -- one should also compile true demographics of the populations in states that have death penalties. Strongly urbanized states are more likely to have higher crime rates than states that are more rural, such as those that lack capital punishment. They cite a 1985, a study (Layson, 1985) that showed that every execution of a murderer deters, on average, 18 murders. The study also showed that raising the number of death sentences by one percent would prevent 105 murders. Summarizing statistics, between 1965 and 1980, the number of annual murders in the United States skyrocketed from 9,960 to 23,040, a 131% increase. The murder rate doubled from 5.1 to 10.2. So the number of murders grew as the number of executions shrank.
In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is a pledge among nations to promote fundamental rights as the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world. Article declares that each person has right to protection from deprivation of life. And Article 5 states that no one shall be subjected to cruel or degrading punishment. Death penalty proponents show that one must disambiguate between a human rights violation -- murder and punishment of human rights violation -- death penalty. They believe that public sentiment in most European countries -- where death penalty is abolished -- is same (almost) as those of people in the U.S., i.e., they support it. Proponents believe that the powers that be that abolished the death penalty do so against the will of the people. (UNO, 1948)
Death penalty proponents also believe that the suggested alternative to death penalty -- life without parole -- are not final and subject to changing laws. Parole or furloughs could be instituted -- in which case, a death sentenced prisoner could be free to kill again. They cite cases of Dawud Mu'Min, James Moore and Willie Horton who were out and parole and furloughs only to perpetrate the same crimes again.
Death penalty proponents also believe in the need to separate the violence of a first degree murder and punishment for it. They also believe that the "violence does not solve anything" cliche is a tired one. They believe that, on occasion, violence is necessary and even mandated. The recent war in Iraq (arguable) was violence to free the oppressed people of a nation under a despotic ruler. Death penalty supporters also believe the same about the adage: "Two wrongs do not make a right." Once again, they stress the need to separate a crime vs. its punishment. Murder is the illegal act of taking someone's life; the death penalty is the taking of a life sanctioned by a law and opined by a jury of one's peers. What separates crime from punishment, good from evil are not their physical aspects but rather their moral aspects.
Death penalty proponents believe they are doing right by victims who are innocent. These victims suffer extreme pain and cruelty. Victim's families are left to live in the knowledge that their loved one's died a tragic death. Though one can sympathize with death row inmates because their prison life is sanitized and they might have a chance to think about their actions and reconcile with it, it evokes less sympathy than for the victims and their families.
Consider, on the other hand, the arguments of would-be death penalty abolitionists. A considerable time between the imposition of the death sentence and the actual execution is unavoidable, given the procedural safeguards required by the courts in capital cases. Starting with selecting the trial jury, murder trials take far longer when the ultimate penalty is involved. Furthermore, post-conviction appeals in death-penalty cases are far more frequent than in other cases. These factors increase the time and cost of administering criminal justice. This puts the justice system in a bind, because bypassing procedures to execute would result in the wrong person being executed. The effect is two pronged. On one hand it is too costly to go through the process of appeals. The other is that there is a danger of serious miscarriage of justice.
Abolitionists believe that people who commit murder and other crimes of personal violence either may or may not premeditate their crimes. They believe the threat of even the severest punishment will not discourage those who expect to escape detection and arrest. It is impossible to imagine how the threat of any punishment could prevent a crime that is not premeditated. Furthermore, the death penalty is a futile threat for political terrorists because they usually act in the name of an ideology that honors its martyrs. They strongly believe that capital punishment doesn't solve our society's crime problem. Threatening capital punishment leaves the underlying causes of crime unaddressed such as poverty and disparity of resources. The same principles apply to the drug wars, according to the abolitionists. Abolitionists also believe that if severe punishment could deter crime, then long-term imprisonment is severe enough to deter any rational person from committing a violent crime. They cite their own statistics: during the early 1970's death-penalty states averaged an annual rate of 7.9 criminal homicides per 100,000 population; abolitionist states averaged…