Capital Punishment in the United States
In 1977, the United States reinstated capital punishment; since then, about 1,100 convicts have been executed. As a nation in general, the United States has been using the death penalty less often than it was used previously. However, certain states have been widening the qualifications for sentencing a convict to death. Capital punishment needs to be abolished because it is ineffective in crime deterrence, morally questionable, discriminatory, and predisposed to errors.
It is true that capital punishment helps prevent the prisons from becoming overpopulated. By executing some of the “worst criminals,” the prisons do become less populated. Even though this is true, this does not justify killing. If the world as a whole became overpopulated, it would not be justified to kill people in order to stop the increase and worsening of the overpopulation.
People in favor of capital punishment often argue that it helps deter crime; that is, it makes people who would normally commit a crime not do so because that person is afraid of being sentenced to death. The problem with this argument is that it has never been proven that there is a relation between the use of capital punishment and the decrease in crimes committed (Issitt, 2007). There is actually proof in the data that in states and countries that capital punishment has been outlawed the number of murders committed is actually fewer (Should, 1927). In states and countries that have abolished capital punishment, there is not a single case where the number of murders has increased (Should, 1927). According to a 2009 Colorado University study, researchers found that from a number of the best criminologists from around the country, 88% do not believe capital punishment deters homicide (CU, 2009). The seventy-seven criminologists were asked to answer the questionnaire based on empirical evidence, not their own opinions (CU, 2009). This 87% said that if capital punishment was to be banned throughout the United States, there would be no effect on the number of homicides (CU, 2009). Also, based on the statistics at the Death Penalty Information Center, the South in the United States has not only the highest number of executions but also the highest number of murders based on the population (Editorial: Editorial, 2009). Therefore, the argument that capital punishment deters people from committing death penalty eligible crimes has been disproven by the facts.
Sentencing of the Innocent
Supporters of capital punishment argue it is useful for ridding dangerous criminals from the population. However, by doing this, many innocent people have been convicted and even executed for crimes they did not commit. The Innocence Project has made it their goal to expose these deadly errors in capital punishment (Ballaro, 2007). In 1992, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld founded a legal clinic that had the goal of proving the innocence of accused people through DNA testing after the conviction had already been placed on the person (Ballaro, 2007). DNA is the most common method by which convicts are proven to be innocent (McLaughlin, 1998). By May of 2007, about 200 people have been proven innocent by DNA testing after they had been convicted. Fifteen of these had been sentenced to death (Ballaro, 2007). All of the convicts who had their innocence proven by the Innocence Project had served a total of 2,475 years (Ballaro, 2007). Even just one of these cases should cause there to be questions as to whether capital punishment should continue to be used as a method of punishment.
For about every seven people federally executed, one person is vindicated and released from death row (McLaughlin, 1998). In one-third of the cases of wrongful conviction, the conviction was due to false testimony; many of these were from jailhouse informants (McLaughlin, 1998). Other factors that led to wrongful convictions included eyewitnesses who faultily identified the defendant as the perpetrator (McLaughlin, 1998). Even some innocent suspects confessed to the crimes due to coercion tactics used by the interrogators and prosecutors (McLaughlin, 1998). In one instance, a man named Gary Gauger was convicted of murdering his parents and was sentenced to death (McLaughlin, 1998). During an interrogation, the police were so intent on getting a confession that they incorrectly took one of his statements and interpreted it as a confession (McLaughlin, 1998). Even though there was a significant lack of physical evidence, he was convicted and sentenced under the death penalty (McLaughlin, 1998). Finally, when a federal wiretap revealed two bikers belonging to a gang talking about how they had committed the murders, Gauger was released (McLaughlin, 1998). Gauger is now suing the local law enforcement that led to his wrongful conviction; he is actually somewhat encouraged by the mishap because he believes it will result in improvements to the United States justice system by preventing future situations like his (McLaughlin, 1998). There are other cases where the conviction was not very reliable. Some of these cases even ended with the convict actually being executed. The Death Row Information Center named at least five recent cases that had serious doubts about whether the decision was reliable; however, the defendants in these cases were still executed despite the questionable nature of the convictions (Witherbee, 2007).
Cruel and unusual
In the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the founding fathers placed a protection to keep the government from inflicting any punishment that is considered cruel and unusual. Based on the government’s current definition of cruel and unusual punishment, capital punishment does not currently fall under that category of punishment. However, several instances have occurred where the government’s definition has been shown to be questionable at best. In September of 2009, the state of Ohio stopped the execution of Romell Broom; the execution proceedings had actually already started when they had to call it to a stop (Editorial: Deadly, 2009). Mr. Broom had already been placed on the execution table; the execution team began putting the needle into his vein (Editorial: Deadly, 2009). The first attempt was unsuccessful because the vein was not viable. After seventeen more attempts to find a suitable vein, the governor of Ohio, Ted Strickland, stopped the execution (Editorial: Deadly, 2009). These eighteen attempts took about two hours (Editorial: Deadly, 2009). Governor Strickland decided to not execute anyone on death row in the state of Ohio for two months (Editorial: Deadly, 2009). Two prisoners who were scheduled for execution have been postponed by the governor due to his decision to resolve the state’s situation before continuing capital punishment (Editorial: Deadly, 2009). Strickland wants to wait so the facts and possible causes can be investigated and hopefully will be able to find a way to make improvements to the process of executions (Editorial: Deadly, 2009). The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction wanted to make sure it was clear that since the reinstating of capital punishment in Ohio in 1999, thirty-two out of thirty-three executions have been successful (Editorial: Deadly, 2009). However, it needs to be understood that there were at least two executions that had experienced problems during the execution procedures; these two executions were continued and resulted in the convict being successfully executed (Editorial: Deadly, 2009). These other two instances were similar to Romell Broom’s; the execution teams of the other two also had trouble getting the needle to go into the convicts’ arms (Editorial: Enough, 2009). Each of those other two times, it took about an hour to finally find a viable vein (Editorial: Enough, 2009).
The Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, with a two to one majority, decided that this incident raises the question of whether the state of Ohio is correctly following the proper protocol for executions; it also raises the question of whether the state is violating the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment (Editorial: Deadly, 2009). The government’s goal in the process used in capital punishment is to make there be a difference between the civilized government and the barbaric murderer (Editorial: Deadly, 2009). Thirty-six states have chosen lethal injection over the firing squad and electrocution because they think that it is more civilized (Editorial: Deadly, 2009).Therein lies the problem; is it possible for there to be a civilized way to kill someone?
Inconsistencies and discrimination
Another problem with capital punishment is the issue of how it is not always applied in the same way for similar situations; this kind of inconsistency is not just, which is a goal in the United States justice system. In 1972, a Supreme Court case known as Furman v. Georgia, dealt with the issue of inconsistencies and apparent randomness in the application of capital punishment in the state of Georgia (Ballaro, 2007). The Supreme Court decided that the Georgia state laws on punishment were unconstitutional because they were inconsistent and did not provide equal protection under the law as guaranteed by the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution (Ballaro, 2007). However, with the Supreme Court case Gregg v. Georgia in 1976, the Supreme Court made a decision that allowed for the reimplementation of capital punishment (Ballaro, 2007). The Supreme Court explained its decision by stating that capital punishment is not necessarily unconstitutional as long as it is used properly and equally; it was insisted that capital punishment must be used in line with the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment (Ballaro, 2007).
Even with the Supreme Court’s pressure for the proper use of capital punishment, the patterns show that its use is still very inconsistent. Using the basis of statistics, a convict whose victim was white has a higher possibility of facing capital punishment than a convict whose victim was not white (Ballaro, 2007). It is also statistically shown that convicts with the highest possibility of being sentenced to death are those who are African American and whose victims are white (Ballaro, 2007). As of 2007, there were 3,350 people on death row. Of these inmates, almost all were in lower financial classes; it is much more common for a person who cannot afford to hire their own expert investigators, psychiatrists, and lawyers to receive the death penalty than someone who can afford these (Ballaro, 2007). About forty percent of the inmates on death row were African American with a significant number belonging to other minorities (Ballaro, 2007). The Death Row Information Center found that in twenty percent of cases where an African American received the death penalty, the jury was an all-white jury (Witherbee, 2007). In 2001, the Justice Department said that about three-fourths of the convicts on death row were minorities (Siegel, 2001). Statistically speaking, the factors involved in a murder convict receiving the death penalty have more to do with race, gender, and economic class of both the convict and the victim than with how reprehensible the crime was (Ballaro, 2007).
Other factors also affect whether or not a convict will receive the death penalty. For instance, the area in which the crime is being prosecuted also affects the possibility of the convict being sentenced to death; prosecutors in certain areas have more of a tendency to push for the death penalty to be used (Ballaro, 2007). The social and political views of the judge and the jury have also been shown to affect the possibility of the convict receiving the death penalty (Ballaro, 2007). In the words of Senator Russell Feingold: “We cannot in good conscience put people to death until we are confident in the fairness of the system” (Siegel, 2001). However, the problems that make the system unjust are not able to be fixed. Prosecutors, judges, juries, and people in general will always have their own opinions and their own views on certain things. This means that the system can never be absolutely fair; since this is true, we cannot continue to use capital punishment with a clear conscience.
There have been many heated debates about whether capital punishment should continue to be in use. The lack of crime deterrence, the sentencing of innocent people, and the discriminatory and inconsistent nature are the reasons why capital punishment should be abolished. If this can be confirmed in the minds of the American people, the justice system in the United States will be much improved. The United States would become an even more perfect union.
Ballaro, B. (2007). Point: Capital punishment should be abolished. Points of View: Death Penalty, 2. Retrieved October 19, 2009, from the Points of View Reference Center database.
CU study: Death penalty doesn’t deter murder. (2009). Daily Camera(Boulder, CO), Retrieved November 6, 2009, from Newspaper Source database.
Editorial: Deadly serious. (2009). Akron Beacon Journal. Retrieved October 23, 2009, from Newspaper Source database.
Editorial: Editorial: Abolition of death penalty is overdue. (2009). Messenger-Inquirer. Retrieved October 23, 2009, from Newspaper Source database.
Editorial: Enough of the death penalty: Execution mistakes? Cases in Ohio, Texas show why capital punishment should end. (2009). The Hartford Courant. Retrieved October 23, 2009, from Newspaper Source database.
Issitt, M. (2007). Death penalty: An overview. Points of View: Death Penalty, 1. Retrieved October 19, 2009, from the Points of View Reference Center database.
McLaughlin, A. (1998). Tales of journey from death row to freedom. Christian Science Monitor, Volume 90, Issue 246. Retrieved November 7, 2009, from the Points of View Reference Center database.
Siegel, R. (2001). Analysis: Senate panel meets to discuss racial disparity in death penalty sentences. All Things Considered(NPR). Retrieved November 6, 2009, from the Points of View Reference Center database.
Witherbee, A. (2007). Point: Crime or punishment? The argument against capital punishment. Points of View: Death Penalty. Retrieved November 8, 2009, from the Points of View Reference Center database.
Should capital punishment be abolished? Con. (1927). Congressional Digest. Volume 6, Issue 8/9. Retrieved November 8, 2009, from the Points of View Reference Center database.