The Death Penalty Is Dead Wrong

One hot-button issue of criminal law is the imposition of the death penalty. In 1972, the United States Supreme Court basically banned the death penalty as a violation of the Constitution’s 8th Amendment that prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Four years later, however, the Supreme Court held that the death penalty is constitutional when applied to persons who commit a “narrow category of the most serious crimes” and whose extreme culpability makes them “the most deserving of execution.”

In its decisions since 1976, the Supreme Court has limited the imposition of the death penalty to murder cases involving aggravating (or “special”) circumstances, such as intentional killings involving multiple deaths, murders accompanied by kidnapping, and the killing of an on-duty peace officer.

The nation’s highest court has invalidated the use of the death penalty for juveniles and mentally retarded persons. The court has also consistently ruled that the commission of a crime not involving death cannot result in the sentencing of the felon to death. Accordingly, cases involving the rapes of adult women—even cases involving the brutal rape of children under the age of 12—have been struck down by the high court. The last execution for the rape of an adult or child was in 1964, and other non-homicide case took place in 1963.

The two main arguments in favor of the death penalty are retribution (an eye for an eye) and deterrence of capital crimes by other persons. However, statistics do not back up the claim that the death penalty serves as a preventive measure to keep one person from killing another. In fact, in one state the number of murders went down after the death penalty was abolished!

Not all 50 states permit the imposition of the death penalty. Only 36 states currently impose the ultimate penalty of death in appropriate cases. And internationally, almost all civilized Western nations have abolished the death penalty. When a person flees to another country after committing a murder, the other nation will usually refuse to extradite him or her back to the United States unless the U.S. authorities guarantee they will not seek the death penalty.

One economic reason for banning the death penalty is that studies show it costs less to sentence a convicted murdered to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole than sentencing him or her to death. This is due to the expense of the years, indeed decades, of multiple appeals a murderer who has been sentenced to death can take in state and federal courts. Cases involving the death penalty are frequently appealed on the basis of incompetent defense counsel, misconduct by the prosecution, prejudicial remarks of the judge, misconduct of the jury, or some other reason.

Another argument against the death penalty is that putting an innocent person to death for allegedly committing a murder is an all too common occurrence. Today, with DNA testing and other advances in forensic science, it is possible in many cases to go back 25 years or more and conduct tests on evidence that conclusively reveal that the person is innocent of the charge. It is bad enough that an innocent man or woman has served 10, 20, or more years in prison on a wrongful conviction for murder. However, when an innocent person has been put to death, we cannot say we’re sorry, we made a mistake, and you can live the rest of your life as a free man or woman.

Enforcing the death penalty brings society down to the level of a murderer. The death penalty is nothing more than legalized murder. Executions bring out the worst in some people. Some people will actually congregate at the gates of the prison on execution day waving signs and shouting slogans advocating the execution of the person. Many of these people had no connection to the murder, did not know the victim or the victim’s family, yet show up at the execution carrying signs and spewing the most vitriolic hate against the felon. These people are so angry that one would be led to believe that it was their child, parent, or best friend that had been killed rather than a stranger. When news of the success of the execution makes it way to these groups, they shout and dance gleefully. These people are sick. Executions should be somber cases, not causes for celebration.

Few murderers who have been sentenced to the death penalty actually have the sentence carried out. Because of the years of appeals, the convicted murdered dies in prison of old age, by the acts of a fellow inmate, or by suicide (most often by hanging himself or herself).

Currently, there is much debate over the issue of how to kill the convicted murderer. The electric chair, gallows, and gas chamber have been replaced by the more “humane” method of  death by lethal injection. The convicted felon is put onto a gurney and rolled into the death chamber, where he or she will be hooked up to IVs and given injections of drugs that are intended to make the person unconscious so he or she will not be awake for the procedure. A drug that paralyzes the muscles will be administered and stops the heart and breathing results in the felon’s death. However, in some cases the drugs don’t work as they should and the felon is wide awake for the procedure and experiences intense pain and suffering, feelings of suffocation, panic, and other symptoms. Because of this, many states that allow the death penalty have suspended their executions until a proper procedure can be designed and implemented.

One problem of death by lethal injection is that it is done by laymen, not medical professionals. Doctors refuse to assist in the killing of a human being on ethical grounds, such as the Hippocratic Oath’s proclamation , “First, do no harm.” The only role the physician will take in an execution is examining the felon after the lethal injection to determine whether he or she is in fact dead.

It is time for the members of federal and state legislatures throughout the United States to join other Western nations and abolish the death penalty once and for all. It is barbaric, expensive, no deterrent to others, is inhumane, brings society down to the murderer’s level, and results in the death of innocent persons.


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