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Understanding Capital Punishment And The Debate Philosophy Essay

The dictionary definition of capital punishment is “the punishment by death for a crime,” also known as the “death penalty” . According to Exodus 20:2-17, “thou shalt not kill”, is just one of the Ten Commandments that the human race is expected to follow in their everyday lives. Through the years, the phrase of “thou shalt not kill” has been neglected through society. Although there are ways in which capital punishment can be justified, there are also many arguments in which it is known as “cruel and unusual punishment.” It has been a subject that has been up for debate for thousands of years and is still in question today.

The term capital originates from Latin capitalis, literally "regarding the head" (Latin caput) [2] . Capital punishment has been practiced in virtually every society, although today, only 58 nations still practice it. Other than in extreme times such as warfare, capital punishment has been abolished in a sum of 95 nations [3] . The issue of capital punishment is a matter of political, social, and religious ideology. Although a majority of the world’s nations have abolished the death penalty, over 60% of the world’s population live in countries where the death penalty is still being practiced. The four most populous countries, China, India, The United States, and Indonesia are among the most prominent users of capital punishment.

Capital Punishment is a very controversial issue in the United States. Many prominent organizations and individuals are participating in this debate. Many groups choose to support or oppose Capital Punishment for various reasons. These arguments and controversy are based on moral, practical, religious, and emotional views. [4] Many polls show that a majority of the American public supports the death penalty. A May 2005 Gallup poll showed seventy four percent of the population was in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder. In the same poll, “when life imprisonment without parole was given as an option as a punishment for murder fifty six percent supported the death penalty and thirty nine percent supported life imprisonment with five percent offering no opinion”. [5] Religious groups are widely spilt on the issue of Capital Punishment. “Generally more conservative groups are more likely to support it, and more liberal groups are more likely to oppose it.” [6] The debate over the issue of Capital Punishment is centered around four main ideas; “whether it is morally correct to kill; whether the death penalty serves as a deterrent; whether the penalty is being applied fairly across racial, social, and economic classes; and whether the irrevocability of the penalty is justified considering possible new evidence of future revelations of improper conduct by the state.” [7] Citizens of the United States support or oppose the use of Capital Punishment for a variety of reasons.

A major argument of those against the death penalty states that the death penalty does not deter murder. Dismissing capital punishment on that basis requires us to eliminate all prisons as well because they do not seem to be any more effective in the deterrence of crime. [8] “By imposing the death penalty on those who dare break the most basic rule of existence, we affirm the dignity of every other individual. [9] ” According to Jacob Sullum the editor of Reason Magazine, the death penalty is something that is just and should be carried out for those who decide to forfeit their own lives. Members of society often think about the horrible act of the murderer when deciding if the death penalty is an appropriate form of punishment. According to Sullum, deterrence of the death penalty is a minor issue. He says “capital punishment obviously has some impact on future murders, if only by stopping those who are executed from killing again.” The potential for negative consequences deters some behavior. [10] Public support for the death penalty today is around 70%. [11] Many supporters of the death penalty feel that execution makes a statement. Those who have the possibility of parole are expected to have the attitude that they can kill again once they are released. However many supporters believe that those who give up the right of an innocent life, give up their right to live. Death penalty advocates feel that that the death penalty deters crime,  is a good tool for prosecutors when dealing with plea bargaining, improves the community by making sure that convicted criminals do not offend again, provides closure to surviving victims or loved ones, and is a just penalty for their crime. [12] 

The death penalty is a controversial issue that also deals with the major argument of whether or not it is humane. Many refer to the death penalty as “cruel and unusual punishment” and for many years it seemed that way. Hanging was the first and most commonly used method of capital punishment in the United States. It is still used today by Washington and Delaware [13] ; however, it is likely that each state would choose lethal injection. If the subject’s neck was not broken right away there was a chance of decapitation or strangulation that could take up to 45 minutes. Prior to the days of hanging there were more “tribal” or primitive practices of execution such as stoning, crucifixion, execution by burning, or decapitation. [14] Many years later, execution by a firing squad was developed. For execution by this method, the inmate is typically bound to a chair with leather straps across his waist and head, in front of an oval-shaped canvas wall. The chair is surrounded by sandbags to absorb the inmate's blood. A black hood is pulled over the inmate's head. A doctor locates the inmate's heart with a stethoscope and pins a circular white cloth target over it. Standing in an enclosure 20 feet away, five shooters are armed with .30 caliber rifles loaded with single rounds. One of the shooters is given blank rounds. Each of the shooters aims his rifle through a slot in the canvas and fires at the inmate. (Weisberg, 1991) The prisoner dies as a result of blood loss caused by rupture of the heart or a large blood vessel, or tearing of the lungs. The person shot loses consciousness when shock causes a fall in the supply of blood to the brain. If the shooters miss the heart, by accident or intention, the prisoner bleeds to death slowly. [15] This method of execution is still used in Utah and was recently used in 1996 for inmate John Albert; however, he chose that method, otherwise Utah leans towards using lethal injection as well. The gas chamber was developed in 1924, and introduced in Nevada as a more “humane” method of execution. [16] More modern and recent methods of execution are the electric chair and lethal injection, which is most commonly used today. Electrocution however tends to present problems with the patients health if not done properly. It has said that an inmate can receive severe burns as well as dislocations and body tissue damage if not carried out properly. The most common method of the death penalty that is used today is known as “lethal injection”. Oklahoma became the first to adopt this method in 1977, and since then it has become the “most humane” form of execution.  When this method is used, the condemned person is usually bound to a gurney and a member of the execution team positions several heart monitors on this skin. Two needles (one is a back-up) are then inserted into usable veins, usually in the inmates arms. Long tubes connect the needle through a hole in a cement block wall to several intravenous drips. The first is a harmless saline solution that is started immediately. Then, at the warden's signal, a curtain is raised exposing the inmate to the witnesses in an adjoining room. Then, the inmate is injected with sodium thiopental - an anesthetic, which puts the inmate to sleep. Next flows pavulon or pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes the entire muscle system and stops the inmate's breathing. Finally, the flow of potassium chloride stops the heart. Death results from anesthetic overdose and respiratory and cardiac arrest while the condemned person is unconscious. [17]   Medical ethics keep doctors from participating in such executions; however, a doctor is present to determine when the inmate has reached death. If a vein is missed or cannot be found, the inmate’s time in the gurney could be lengthened. The death penalty in any form can cause major problems in society as well as with the person being executed. The complications of the death penalty could be seen as cruel and unusual however there are most successful executions than there are complications. The cruel and unusual idea of execution also tends to go out the window when a person’s family member is involved. It is a matter of ethics and beliefs.

Capital punishment was suspended in the United States from 1972 through 1976 primarily as a result of the Supreme Court's decision in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972). In this case, the court found the imposition of the death penalty in a consolidated group of cases to be unconstitutional, on the grounds of cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the eighth amendment to the United States Constitution. [18] In Furman, the United States Supreme Court considered a group of consolidated cases. The lead case involved an individual convicted under Georgia's death penalty statute, which featured a "unitary trial" procedure in which the jury was asked to return a verdict of guilt or innocence and, simultaneously, determine whether the defendant would be punished by death or life imprisonment. In a five-to-four decision, the Supreme Court struck down the imposition of the death penalties in each of the consolidated cases as unconstitutional. The five justices in the majority did not produce a common opinion or rationale for their decision, however, and agreed only on a short statement announcing the result. [19] In Coker vs. Georgia in 1977, the death penalty was revisited for rape, and, by implication, for any offense other than murder. [20] The United States Supreme Court, though, has placed two major restrictions on the use of the death penalty. First, the Supreme Court case of Atkins v. Virginia, decided June 20, 2002, held that executions of mentally retarded criminals are "cruel and unusual punishments" prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. Generally, a person with an IQ below 70 is considered to be mentally retarded. Prior to this decision, between 1984 and 2002 forty-four mentally retarded inmates were executed. Second, in 2005 the Supreme Court's decision in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), abolished executions for persons under the age of 18 (the age is determined at the time of crime, not the trial date). [21] People go back and forth on the issue of capital punishment and many states have made the decision to abolish the death penalty. However in states such as Texas and Virginia, the death penalty does not seem to likely to be put to death itself any time soon. [22] 

When discussing the death penalty, the term “habaes corpus” is commonly heard.  A writ of habeas corpus is a judicial mandate to a prison official ordering that an inmate be brought to the court so it can be determined whether or not that person is imprisoned lawfully and whether or not he should be released from custody. [23] Habeas Corpus is usually the only form of relief an inmate can see when dealing with the death penalty. The purpose of Federal habeas corpus is to ensure that state courts, through the process of direct review and State Collateral Review, have done at least a reasonable job in protecting the prisoner's Federal Constitutional Rights. Prisoners may also use Federal habeas corpus suits to bring forth new evidence that they are innocent of the crime, though to be a valid defense at this late stage in the process, evidence of innocence must be truly compelling. [24] Due to the writ of habeas corpus nearly 21% of death penalty cases are reversed. [25] It deals with the whether or not the court can determine if the defendant’s sentence has expired. Habeus Corpus is also a major deciding factor in the decision of the death penalty, but many argue that it has little or no effect.

Those who wish for Capital Punishment to be banned have many different reasons as to why it is an ineffective aspect of the justice system. One reason is that they believe it increases the financial costs of taxpayers. It is said that the cost of the use of the death penalty is several times more than that of keeping someone in prison for life. This is true because the process of putting someone to death is long and complicated. There are endless amounts of appeals, additional required procedures, and legal wrangling that drag the process out. It is also pointed out that the vast amount of legal processes that it takes to proceed with a death sentence causes a back up in the court system. Judges, Attorneys, court reporters, clerks, and court facilities all cost taxpayers an immense amount of money. [26] They also believe that the use of formal execution is considered to be cruel and unusual punishment. They believe that it violates the eighth amendment of the United States Constitution which prohibits the use of any form of cruel and unusual punishment. Abolitionists of the Capital Punishment deem that the death penalty is a revenge process which ultimately provokes and promotes more violence in the country. Those who disagree with the death penalty believe that the abolishment of Capital Punishment will eventually decrease violence. [27] Those who oppose the death penalty also believe that by putting someone on death row transfers the sympathy of society from the victim to the criminal. One example is the recent execution of “Tookie” Williams a former gang leader in 2005. He was known for founding the “Crips” gang. He was charged and convicted of the murder of four people. Because of the immense amount of followers he gathered over the years sympathy was given to “Tookie” instead of the families of the victims. The followers created websites and held candle light vigils to show their support for the murderer. [28] Abolitionists consider life in prison to be a worse punishment and a more effective deterrent than the death penalty. They believe that the death penalty is “too good” a punishment for a murderer. They deem this because the suffering of the criminal is over so fast. They believe that the punishment of life in prison gives them greater and longer suffering. The awful deed that they committed and the pain they caused will still remain with them. [29] However, supporters of the death penalty question how having a criminal rot in prison to struggle with regret is not just as cruel and unusual as the death penalty.

To many people, the death penalty is the ultimate denial of human rights. However in America, the number of executions compared to the number of murders has decreased significantly between the years of 1997 to 2007. f the 1099 executions carried out in the whole of the USA from 1977 to the end of 2007, Texas accounts for 406 or 37%.Interestingly, the murder rate in the U.S. dropped from 24,562 in 1993 to 18,209 in 1997, the lowest for years (a 26% reduction) - during a period of increased use of the death penalty. 311 (62%) of the 500 executions have been carried out in this period. The number of murders in 2003 was about 15,600.  [30] It is hard to go by statistics however, when the death penalty is involved. Many studies tend to focus on one area or a state where the death penalty is prominent or vice versa. The statistics tend to make the argument of deterrence an “iffy” subject.

Another part of the growing controversy regarding Capital Punishment is the concern of “Racial Disparities”. In many Capital cases the race of the victim and the race of the criminal are major determining factors as to who is sentenced to die. [31] In 1990 the General Accounting Office reported that “in eighty two percent of the studies reviewed, race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty i.e. those who murder whites were more likely to be sentenced to deaths than those who murdered blacks.” [32] 

Those who wish to abolish Capital Punishment believe it to be cruel and unusual punishment and therefore wish to rid it of the United States justice system. Abolitionists argue that “a person sentenced to death suffers more than his victim suffered.” However the validness of this argument is questionable because how can one tell that a murderer sentenced to death suffers more than the victim? Also, “unlike the murderer, the victim deserved none of the suffering inflicted.” [33] Those who oppose the use of formal execution deem that it violates the “lex talionis” or the rule of retaliation. They believe that by sentencing a murderer to death society is trying to get revenge on the killer. However, supporters of capital punishment dispute that “punishment regardless of the motivation is not intended to revenge, offset, or compensate for the victim’s suffering, or to be measured by it. Punishment is to vindicate the law and the social order under minded by the crime.” [34] Those who oppose Capital Punishment also believe that by using formal execution on those who murder, society is continuing to encourage and promote unlawful killing. Supporters of Capital Punishment argue that “The difference between murder and execution, or between kidnapping and imprisonment, is that the first is unlawful and undeserved, the second a lawful and deserved punishment for an unlawful act.” [35] 

Supporters of the death penalty believe that it is an important and effective aspect of our justice system today. Supporters of the death penalty believe that it is a better deterrent of crime as opposed to life in prison. Cohorts of Capital Punishment acknowledge that a sentence of life in prison is somewhat risky. One reason is because it gives the criminal the chance to either escape from prison or even get out of prison on parole. This creates a second chance for the criminal to commit the same or a similar crime. [36] Supporters of Capital Punishment also believe that justice is better served with the use of the death penalty. “The most fundamental principle of justice is that the punishment should fit the crime.” [37] Supporters believe that Capital Punishment grants justice to the innocent victims and gives closure to the victim’s families. It also prevents sympathy that might be given to the criminals. The death penalty sets a strong statement, and emphasizes the importance of the criminal justice system. It accentuates the principle to protect the victim rather than the accused. [38] 

Those who oppose the use of Capital Punishment argue that it is unjust, and unconstitutional because it may lead to a possible “miscarriage of justice”. However, supporters of the use of formal execution believe that this is a weak argument. They argue that the death of innocent people cannot be stopped. This happens all the time in everyday life and all “human activities”. They believe that the use of Capital Punishment is a necessary sacrifice that must be made to keep a considerable amount of control over society and the unpredictable acts of the human race. Supporters state “We do not give up these activities because the advantages moral or material outweigh the unintended loses. Analogously, for those who think the death penalty just, miscarriages of justice are offset by the moral benefits and the usefulness of doing justice. For those who think the death penalty unjust even when it does not miscarry, miscarriages can hardly be decisive.” [39] 

The issues concerning Capital Punishment are very controversial and will continue to be debated until a compromise is found. However, it may take years for this matter to be resolved. In order to reach this compromise Supporters and Abolitionists of Capital Punishment must both revaluate the simplistic laws which date back to the beginning of mankind. If the use of Capital Punishment is kept we are violating the moral principles and laws which were set for man to follow. However, if the use of Capital Punishment is abolished it may lead to more violence in the country. Is Capital Punishment worth the risk of deliberately defying the sacred law “Thou shalt not kill.”

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