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The death penalty a controversy and debate

Death penalty has been an issue of controversy and debate for ages and one comes across a large number of arguments for and against capital punishment system. Capital punishments were prevalent at one stage or other in the developmental history of many nations and many of them have constitutionally abolished death penalty from their criminal justice systems. Advocates of death penalty in the United States argue that death penalty is the need of the time as homicides and serious offences are at an increasing rate and that the provision for capital punishment can act as the strongest corrective measure in a crime prone condition. Besides, there are many who believe that many innocent lives can be saved by providing death penalty to dreaded criminals. The retributive belief that death penalty is essential to preserve retributive justice whereby murderers get the full punishment they deserve and the utilitarian argument that death penalty deters or is necessary to incapacitate prospective criminals have immensely supported capital punishments in the nation. On the other hand, the major argument against death penalty is that it is against human rights, ethics, and morality. Whatever may be the arguments for and against the practice, when it comes to implementation of a law such as capital punishment on state level, it is essential to consider the pros and cons of death penalty in the nation, the underlying reasons behind the creation of the capital punishment, the moral and ethical issues related to it, how much the implementation of it is efficient in fulfilling its purpose, and whether there are any other alternatives to achieving the same purposes as that of death penalty. The higher cost of using the capital punishment and the liabilities it causes on the state’s governance are also to be unearthed. In doing so the paper tries to compare and contrast capital punishment with its closest possible alternative-life imprisonment without any possibility for parole. The paper seeks to make a probe into the various aspects of capital punishment and it emphasises that capital punishment should be abolished in the United States as it does not deter other criminals, as there is the increased risk of innocents being executed and as the cost of execution is higher than that of life imprisonment.

2 Discussion

There have been a number of debates over the future of capital punishment in the United States. However, it is a fact that the opponents as well as the supporters of death penalty system are not entirely satisfied with the current system of capital punishments and the way death penalty is administered in the nation. Even a number of national opinion polls have brought about conflicting results with regard to the elimination capital punishments. This has prompted most of the politicians to take a neutral stand in this controversial issue. On the other hand, there are many who favour life time imprisonment without any chance of parole to death sentencing. In fact, the abolitionists have played a pivotal role in educating the public of the laws regarding life in prison without parole whereby they seek to convince people that such murderers will never be released or allowed to commit further deadly crimes (Marzilli 2008, p. 94). They also argue that United States should follow the example set by other Western industrialized nations in abolishing capital punishment. There are also many who hold that “gun control, drug treatment, better schools, and other social programs are much more effective than the death penalty in reducing crime” (Marzilli 2008, p. 96). Similarly, one should also bear in mind that there are several nations that have brought down crime rates even after abolishing death sentence.

Abolition of Capital Punishments: Pros and Cons: It is essential to consider the advantages and disadvantages of capital punishments in the United States. Stephen B. Bright argues that death penalty is an outdated form of punishment which belonged to the primitive ages when prisons and jail systems were limited. He cites the examples of South Africa and Russia, two nations that have abolished death sentencing in the 1990s. According to him, in USA, there are many other factors like racism, poverty, improper police and prosecution practices that decide death penalty for the perpetrator, rather than the seriousness of the crime committed (Bright, 2000, p. 2). To substantiate his argument, Stephen provides a number of instances where the convicts who were sentenced for death penalty were later proved to be innocents and thus points out how the judicial system of the nation come to hasty conclusions and sentence people for capital punishments. In the same way, in most of the cases the accused were not given proper legal assistance and even the mentally retarded people were convicted for capital punishment. Thus, he concludes that there exists fallibility of the court system of the nation and he exhorts that the government should pay heed to the public demand to abolish death penalty from the nation.

On the other hand, the supporters of the capital punishment system consider death penalty as the strongest form of deterrence and preserver of judicial retribution. Ernest van den Haag, a Professor of Jurisprudence at Fordham University, repudiates the arguments of Simon by stating that it would be a failure of the judicial system of the nation if dreaded criminals are not punished for the retribution of their crimes. According to him, the capital punishment acts as the powerful deterrent for the criminal minded people to abstain from crimes as he believes in the common sense evidence that fear of the death penalty is likely to deter many would-be criminals from committing murder (Haag 2000, p.1). Besides, he holds that sparing criminals from death penalty would pose further threat to many more innocent lives. Thus, the abolitionists argue that the change should take place not in the sentencing of death penalty but the way it is pronounced. The accused are to be provided sufficient opportunity to prove his/her innocence irrespective of his/ her colour or financial status. No hasty decisions are to be taken during trials and only the deserving convicts are to be sentenced for death penalty.

While many purport that capital punishments are aimed at deterring prospective criminals from indulging in serious criminal activities, it is quite paradoxical that death sentence in the United States are inflicted in private, leaving no scope for such deterrence. Similarly, one can also find that crime rates have not come down in those states where capital punishment prevails offering no evidence that support this deterrence perspective. Bryant (2003, p. 376) makes this clear when the author purports that even though the states are spending millions of dollars into the death penalty, one can notice no resultant reduction in crime rates in these states. In this respect, Sarat argues that capital punishments has become commonplace in America. For him, capital punishments in the states take place in the face of ‘increasing doubts about the reliability and fairness of the capital punishment system’, strong criticising from international communities (mainly from democratic nations) and in many cases the issues of the victims’ innocence are remaining unresolved (Sarat, 2002, p. 13). The author also argues that capital punishments only help to weaken democratic political institutions and promote revenge rather than reconciliation or social reconstruction. One can also notice that death penalty in America is disproportionately directed towards racial minorities (who murder white victims) and in many jurisdictions blacks and African Americans are subjected to capital punishments at a rate of 38 percent higher than all others (Sarat, 2002, p. 18).

Innocence, Morality and death penalty: The growing support for the abolition of death penalty and subsequent priority for life imprisonment is the likelihood of innocent people being put to death. One can never undermine the possibility of wrongful conviction and execution of the innocents due to human error ‘the fallibility and frailty of human judgement’), perjured testimony and mistaken honest testimony (Hodgkinson & Schabas, 2004, p. 11). A significant research conducted by Bedau, Radelet and Putnam showed that there were almost 416 cases in the United States where the wrong person had been convicted and sentenced to death; the underlying reasons for these wrongful convictions varied from perjury by prosecution witnesses, mistaken eyewitness testimony, community passion against the defendants, failure in police work to overzealous prosecution (Hodgkinson & Schabas, 2004, p. 13). All this have culminated in the public demand towards the introduction of a moratorium on executions whereby a commission would decide whether it is fair to administer death penalty on the convicted. The Death penalty Information Centre (2002) observes that even though the Federal Government has undertaken great radical measures to minimise the chances of innocent people being executed, it has been identified that almost 102 persons have been released from death rows in various states based on evidence of their innocence since 1973 (Bryant 2003, p. 376) and all these evidences call for the need to abolish capital punishment in the nation.

Thus, it can be seen that even though the most significant argument against administering death penalty is the possibility of innocent people being executed, the ethical and human rights issues related to capital system also need to be addressed. Many social scientists, theologians and legal experts explain that capital punishment is morally wrong, and thus should be abolished and replaced with more humane but adequate criminal penalties. Simultaneously, social activists and right protection organizations called for a moratorium on death penalty until the American judicial system achieves an acceptable degree of accuracy and ensures highest levels of fairness in capital punishment processes. The ethical concerns with regard to capital punishment system consider it as a way of taking revenge on the perpetrators whereas morality stresses on mercy, compassion and forgiveness. Similarly, the proponents of human rights theories argue that the government does not have the right to take the life of anyone and that the value of life is to be acknowledged. Similarly, there are many who hold that the methods of execution used by the judicial system are cruel and inhumane.

History of Capital Punishment in America: Ever since the end of the Second World War one can notice a considerable decline in the rate of capital punishments in the United States. Hood (2002) offers a clear cut statistics of the number of capital punishments in the United States in various decades. During the 1930s the number of people executed in the nation was 1,670; in the 1940s it was brought down to 1,288 and in the 1950s to 717. The number of people executed in the nation was only 21 in 1963, 15 in 1964 and just 2 in 1967. The Supreme Court’s verdict in 1972 that ruled all death penalty as unconstitutional as it was being applied in ‘an arbitrary, capricious and discriminatory manner’ against the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the constitution in Furman v. Georgia case proved to be a landmark in the history of the criminal judicial system of the nation (Hood, 2002, p. 63). This prompted many of the states to redraft their statutes and frame new capital statutes which were ruled as constitutional by the Supreme Court in Gregg v. Georgia and many other cases towards 1976. Since then, there have been debates over whether capital punishments are to be abolished or not. While those states that uphold capital punishments for their deterrence effect on prospective criminals, there are 13 jurisdictions in the United States that have abolished capital punishments. In the 1970s there was an increasing public demand to reinstate capital punishments and this paved the way for new mandatory statutes regarding death penalty. Killing a police officer, murder-for-hire, multiple murder, and murder by a life-sentenced inmate became more likely to be followed by death penalties under these new mandatory statutes (Petrezselyem, 2008, p. 15). However, factors such as mental impairment, emotional disturbance and juvenile delinquency were also taken into account in such mandatory capital punishment cases. Even though the abolitionists argued that capital punishment in its very nature is cruel and unusual as per the Eighth Amendment of the constitution, the US Supreme court announced its decision on July 2, 1976 in favour of the supporters. However, the mandatory death penalty sentencing was rejected by the Supreme Court as it fails to take into such factors as individual circumstances that led to the crime. In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled in the Coker v. Georgia case that it was unconstitutional to provide death penalty for rape cases. However, The Violent Control Act of 1994 made capital punishment a discretionary penalty for offences other than murder cases. However, towards the last decade of the 20th century there was an increased difference of opinion on the legitimacy of capital punishment among the juries in the Supreme Court as well as the common public which led to controversies and debates over the abolition of capital punishment in the nation. Similarly, public opinion also has varied from time to time in public polls with regard to the abolition of capital punishments. The methods of execution in the United States vary from lethal injection, electrocution, gas chamber, hanging to firing squad; the statistics on execution in the United States since 1976 show that there were 654 executions through lethal injection whereas there were only 10 executions by electrocution, 11 by gas chamber, 3 by hanging and two via firing squad (Bryant 2003, p. 370). Abolitionists argue the death penalty is cruel and inhumane primarily because of the methods used. The pictures of the old and newly renovated San Quentin Prison Death Chambers are given below:

Figure 1: The newly renovated San Quentin Prison Death Chamber

Figure 2: The Old Death Chamber at San Quentin Prison

Capital Punishment and its Cost: One needs to consider the huge amount of money spent on capital punishments and studies have shown that the cost of death penalty is much higher compared to other forms of punishment. In this respect Mandery (2005) observes that the increasing costs of capital punishment are actually making America less safe and that it has put the nation at the danger of economic and financial liabilities. The author observes that the state of California which had little money for innovations like community policing is spending an extra $90 million per year on capital punishment whereas Texas, which spends on capital punishment an estimated $2.3 million per case has the highest murder rate in the nation (Mandery, 2005, p. 116). These statistics clearly demonstrate that there exists no cost-benefit analysis for the huge sums of money spend on administering death penalty.

It is also imperative to compare the cost of capital punishment with that of life imprisonment without parole and researches have shown that death penalty is much more expensive than its closest alternative-life imprisonment with no parole. As Mandery observes, “Capital trials are longer and more expensive at every step than other murder trials. Pre-trial motions, expert witness investigations, jury selection, and the necessity for two trials-one on guilt and one on sentencing-make capital cases extremely costly, even before the appeals process begins” (Mandery, 2005, p. 116). One can also see that many of the capital punishments end up in life imprisonment even though the government needs to spend huge amount of money for the prosecution and trials. A comparative and contrastive analysis of the cost of death penalty and life imprisonment without parole shows that the death penalty is actually two or three times more expensive than that of life imprisonment. Barkan & Bryjak put it, capital cases are extremely time-consuming costly than life imprisonment procedures as they involve various procedures at the pre-trial and trial stages unlike non-capital cases; similarly, appeals following conviction also become mandatory, time-consuming and costly in capital cases (Barkan & Bryjak 2010, p. 447). All these prove that the federal and state governments can benefit a lot from the abolition of capital punishment and the huge amount of money spend on death capital cases can be used for the effective prevention of crimes such as the employment of community policing.

Capital punishments are also causing financial burden to the local governments and various counties. Very often, the county governments become responsible for the costs of prosecution, appeals for defending the poor convicts, and in their criminal trials. The far reaching effects of this increasing cost for capital punishment for the nation are many and varied. The large sum of money spend on death penalty not only is reflected in the shrinking budget for crime prevention but also in other developmental and health care projects. Similarly, these costs of capital punishment pose great financial trouble to the tax payers also. Mandery, in this respect, observes that in Texas taxpayers need to pay an average of $ 2.3 million towards death penalty case costs which is about three times the cost of imprisoning one at the highest security level for 40 years and in Florida the cost for each execution is $3.2 million (2005, p. 117). Thus, one can easily come to the conclusion that the high costs of capital prosecution in the nation has adverse and long lasting effects on its local, State and Federal government budgets. All these call for the need to substitute death penalties with life-without-parole sentences whereby the nation can utilize the high cost of death penalty system for better crime prevention measures and other purposes. (Baumgartner, Boef & Boydstun 2008, p. 229).

Life imprisonment over death penalty: Moral, religious and legal issues have always been an issue with regard to punishment of criminal activities of citizens of a country or a region. Some legal systems consider both life imprisonment and death penalty while others take a stand that taking a life of a human being is morally and ethically wrong (Gildenhuys 2004, p. 17). Given the various factors mentioned above, this section views awarding life imprisonment without parole as an effective alternative to capital punishments for any crimes. The factors that will be taken into consideration are the effectiveness in prevention of crime in awarding death sentences versus life imprisonment. The legal factors followed in the US are not considered here because statutes regarding the two factors differ between different states.

Proponents of death penalty state that executions will help to deter crime and will also remove the criminal from committing further crimes (Baumgartner, Boef & Boydstun 2008, p. 246). Execution in a verdict of death penalty is irreversible and does not offer a chance to the concerned individual to a life of redemption and regret apart from the fact that judicial errors may creep in such sentencing and subsequent executions (Hood 2004, p. 95). Once a person is executed it is not possible that he or she will redeem or change their attitudes and make an attempt to come back into the mainstream society. The above observation also indicates that judicial errors can result in wrongful conviction of innocent persons which could be proved as wrong in the course of time which is possible in life imprisonment. One compelling argument against death penalty is that it promotes official homicide or murder or in other words, endorses unofficial criminal acts (Robertson 2002, p. 2). In other words, it could be said that official execution will only contribute to develop an attitude that will endorse unofficial or civilian criminal acts.

Another factor that favours a lighter sentence like life imprisonment over capital punishment is provided by Hodgkinson and Schabas. The reason is that there is an increase of unfairness in awarding of capital punishment for the same type of crimes in the United States (Hodgkinson & Schabas 2004, p. 208). The authors state the following factors that contribute to this development over the years. Courts in the US find it increasingly difficult to appoint counsels to represent death-row inmates in the country. In other words, competent people who can argue for a lesser punishment are often seen as difficult and hence can be considered to be unfair to such convicted people. Those counsels appointed are not only incompetent, but also are often accused of unethical behaviour themselves. This is an indication that competent counsels are reluctant to represent such cases and also that those who come forward will go any lengths to defend their clients. According to the authors, another aspect of this lack of fairness is that economically backward sections of the community are affected more under such circumstances. In other words, a proper investigation which could provide ‘persuasive evidence’ against providing capital punishment to such sections through proper investigations and arguments is not available. The inherent problem is that a jury comprised of common citizens may award a preliminary death penalty and such people do not have the power to counter it. The lack of understanding of the acts of psychologically disturbed persons is also an issue in this instance (Fleiner & Fleiner-Gerster 1999, p. 64).

Statistics over the years show that sentencing to death and actual executions have shown a disturbing trend in recent years. Figures ranging from the 1950s to 1970s show that the actual number of sentencing was quite low in the 1950s, but the subsequent carrying out of executions were high during this period (Barkan & Bryjak 2010, p. 443). Both sentencing and actual executions came down during the 1970s. But as mentioned earlier, both sentencing and executions have actually increased after the 1970s in the United States. This could be due to the increasing number of crimes in the modern society and a change in judicial outlook on the concept of implementing (and executing) death penalty.  

The fact is that awarding of capital punishment does not seem to have an effect on criminal activities in a particular society. For example, studies on crime over the past century in New York does not provide any real evidence that death sentence providesany real deterrence to crime when compared to life imprisonment (Owens, Carlson, & Elshtain, 2004, p. 241). Thus, it can be concluded that capital punishment and subsequent execution is not a deterrent and a solution for criminal activities in the United States. Whatever may be the reasons that the perpetuators of crimes act in a particular fashion harmful to the society, it is felt that they should be given a chance to change their outlook and attitudes. This is not possible in the case of capital punishments and executions. But a life imprisonment may provide them with a chance to transform through effective counselling and support and above all the government can save a large sum of capital invested in death penalties which can be utilized in other sectors.

3 Conclusions

Having critically analysed the various pros and cons of the capital punishment system in the United States one can come to the conclusion that death penalty should be abolished in the nation. First of all, the large sum of money spent on capital punishments not only adversely affects the budget systems of the local, State and Federal governments but it also does not have any positive impact on reducing the crime rates in such states that have not yet abolished the system. Similarly, studies have clearly demonstrated that the capital punishment system does not help to deter further similar crimes in the United States. The study also has shown that life imprisonment without any possibility for parole could be an ideal alternative to death penalties as it is comparatively less costly and provides an opportunity for innocent victims to prove their innocence. Life time imprisonment is also desirable as the dreaded criminals will never be allowed to indulge in similar dreaded crimes as they will not be offered any sorts of parole and it can also have a deterring effect on the society. The moral and ethical considerations also favour life imprisonment without parole as the method of punishment value both human life, human rights and ethical codes.

Similarly, life time imprisonment without parole also helps the judicial system to make sure that no innocents are being executed. The innocent victims get opportunity to prove their innocence even though justice can be delayed to them. Death penalty, in its implementation level is subject to a number of drawbacks and therefore it is recommended that the nation abolish the system and substitute it with its closest possible alternative-life imprisonment without any possibility for parole. It can also be seen that life imprisonment is capable of providing sufficient retribution for one’s crimes and that it has also got the potential to deter further crimes. It is high time that the United States makes meaningful constitutional amendments so as to implement the abolition of capital punishments. For this, the abolitionists need to go a long way towards creating awareness among the public, the jury and the political leaders. They also need to build public opinion in favour of the abolition of death penalty in the nation and the present trends in the nation show positive signs towards such a land mark in the judicial and constitutional history of the United States. Thus, it can be concluded that that capital punishment should be abolished in the United States as it does not deter other criminals, as there is the increased risk of innocents being executed and as the cost of execution is higher than that of life imprisonment.

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