Moral Legal Personal Debates On Capital Punishment Criminology Essay

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Capital punishment is a debate on many levels - moral, legal, personal. The points raised range from whether the eye for an eye mentality is archaic to whether another human has a right to kill another just because one has committed a crime. These questions, and more, lead to the complexity of the death penalty debate. This paper will explore the moral reasoning for and against capital punishment, whilst taking into account two very different cases where the death penalty was used in the United States.

The history of capital punishment is complex and diverse. The capital part of the nomenclature comes from the Latin word capitalis, which regards anything involving the head, and indeed early capital punishment often involved decapitation. Even prior to this, capital punishment was widely used and examples of capital punishment can be found in the past (or present, in 58 countries) of almost every culture. Nearly every law regarding capital punishment in the past two millennia regard capital punishment as only appropriate for serious crimes, such as murder, treason or political dissent, although there are some examples where the punishment can be used for military crimes such as desertion or refusing national service. The first recorded case of capital punishment in the United States was in 1608 on a Mexican immigrant who was accused of spying for the Spanish government (Goldberg, 1974).

Since this initial incident, the history of capital punishment in the USA has been mixed throughout various states and areas. It is reported in the Espy files that over 15,000 people have been executed in the United States (or colonies before the formation of the States) since 1608 (Henderson, 2000). This suggests that the punishment is rare and, as previously mentioned, only considered in serious breaches of law. One incident stands out among the rest if only because of the nature - a mass execution of 38 people in Dakota who were convicted of rape and murder during the Dakota war of 1862 (Kronenwetter, 2001). Again, this incident stands out due to its rarity - examples of mass capital punishment are even rarer than their singular counterparts.

The 20th century brought with it a more compassionate culture and thus a different attitude towards capital punishment. It is proudly announced by citizens of Michigan that the state was the first English-speaking government in the world to ban all capital punishment for crimes other than treason (Henderson, 2000). Michigan itself can also be proud of the fact that it has not carried out a capital punishment since it joined the Union. It has now been joined by 14 other states that explicitly ban the use of capital punishment, although 35 states still currently have a law sanctioning the penalty (Banner, 2002). Several other countries now ban the death penalty, including every member state of the European Union and many South American countries including Venezuela.

Capital Punishment in the United States

Taking into account the potted history of capital punishment, it is no surprise that it causes such a debate, particularly in the United States. The United States is often championed as being a free and liberal nation, the jewel in the crown of the Western world, but still carries out capital punishment year after year with a spike in the early 2000s to pre-1950s levels of execution (Banner, 2002). Over 40 death penalties were acted upon in the year 2010 in the United States. The US government did, however, have a brief period in the 1970s where capital punishment was completely banned, and it was expected that many states would keep this ban. However, after the ban was lifted in 1977, 37 states reinstated the death penalty. Why does this champion of modernity still hold what could be seen as archaic views on this extremely harsh (and arguably archaic) punishment?

To understand this further, it would be wise to investigate the statistics in context. Since 1977, over 500 people have been executed in the United States, with Texas carrying out more than 400 of these. This rate is only rivaled by countries such as China (who carried out 1178 executions in 2008), Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Interestingly, it is regarded as part of international law that anyone under the age of 18 at the time a crime is committed should not be given the death penalty. However, there are a few countries that breach this human rights agreement - Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the USA (Kronenwetter, 2001). The USA is in fact the country with the highest rate of capital punishment in under 18s - 6 juvenile offenders have been killed since 1990. It is interesting to compare a typical American view on these countries and then point out the major similarity between them and the United States - the reaction is often unease.

Recent Cases of Capital Punishment

Cold hard facts are useful, but not necessarily the best way of illustrating a complex debate like that of capital punishment. A few case studies will now be considered to help secure the background of the issue before discussing the philosophical consequences. The first case, that of Ted Bundy, is an interesting one. Ted Bundy has been described as a violent and unrelenting sociopath due to his crimes against women that include murder, sexual assault and necrophilia. His crimes were committed against at least 30 women - he admitted to 30 homicides at trial - and ranged across several states (Philbin & Philbin, 2009). It is widely noticed that Ted Bundy used his good looks and charm to seduce these women before committing these terrible crimes against him. Ted Bundy is notable in that he managed to flee jail on two occasions before finally being apprehended in Florida in 1978 (Filiquarian Pub. 2007). When on trial in Florida, he was offered a compromise that involved him taking blame for a small number of these deaths in exchange for a 75 year sentence, which was not accepted and he was sentenced to death. He was then on trial again a few months later for another set of murders, and was again sentenced to death.

Disregarding the fact that it seems rather strange to be sentenced to death twice, the actual execution of Bundy is also of interest. The aforementioned trials took place in the late 70s, with more coming in the early 80s. Ted Bundy appealed several times during his imprisonment, but in 1988 confessed to more criminal activity giving little detail, hoping to use this to his advantage to achieve a stay of execution or a transfer to life imprisonment. This tactic did not work, and Ted Bundy famously began to contemplate suicide (something which occurs at a rate ten times that of the general American population) to avoid giving the state the satisfaction of his death. Again, this did not work and Ted Bundy was killed in 1989 by the electric chair.

There are several questions that can be raised when considering the case of Ted Bundy. He was sentenced to death not once but twice by 1980, but his execution did not occur until 1989. Why did this take so long? It is an oft-used argument by those against capital punishment that retaining criminals on death row costs nearly twice as many as detaining those within the standard prison service. The annual rate has been cited to be around $30,000 dollars - Ted Bundy must have cost the state over $250,000. Additionally, Ted Bundy managed to conceive a child whilst in jail during the 1980s, although conjugal visits were not allowed. This means that the DNA of Ted Bundy is still at large in the American society, something that should sit ill with the general population. Finally, it has been noted that Ted Bundy was offered a chance to receive life imprisonment instead of the death penalty early in his trials. He did not choose to accept this offer, suggesting that the thought of the death penalty may be more appealing than spending a life in an American jail cell. These thoughts all can be used to reduce the legitimacy of the death penalty. This does not, however, help us question the ethics of the death penalty (Kronenwetter, 2001).

A more recent case of capital punishment should be considered. Stanley Williams is an African American murdered who was convicted of killing 4 individuals, 3 of which were recent immigrants from Taiwan. The first crime was part of a robbery, and was thus committed against an individual that Williams had no prior contact with and is not considered pre-meditated. The second crime may have been racially motivated - the three victims were Asian and Williams himself had been heard referring to them as Buddha-heads, a racially derogatory term. Again, this was not considered pre-meditated and occurred during a robbery. The crime was considered a felony murder, and Williams was also convicted of robbery (Philbin & Philbin, 2009). The jury recommended the death penalty, which would be only the second to occur within the state of California, and the judge accepted this ruling. This conviction occurred in 1979, but Williams was not executed until 2005. Again, there are several questions that can be raised in response to this. Was it moral to keep a prisoner on death row for over 25 years, living to expect his death? Williams also showed some repentance for his crimes - in prison he became an anti-gang advocate. The punishment, then, may not fit his crime after several years of consideration in prison. Finally, Williams denied his involvement in the murders - is it moral to kill someone who is convinced that they did not commit the crime in question? There is no way to ever be perfectly sure that Williams committed this crime. The morality here is whether execution is valid without 100% proof of criminality.

Arguments against Capital Punishment

The prevailing argument against capital punishment is that killing is wrong in all senses, including in the instance of the death penalty (Connors, 2007). Many people in the United States are familiar with the Judeo-Christian tradition which substantiates these claims. However, it has been claimed that the translation of the Bible has been wrong, and that the word 'killing' was supposed to refer to 'murder' in the first instance. This would lead to people disregarding this moral argument. However, the point can still be raised that 'murder' is an ill-defined term. Executing a criminal could still be considered murder in many senses. There is also the issue that arises from the individual that administers the capital punishment. For example, in the case of the firing squad, several members of the execution team are issued with a blank and only one is issued with a bullet. The idea behind this is that the individual that actual administers the lethal bullet is unaware that he or she has done so, and thus is free from any psychological or moral issues (Brenner, 2006). However, simply being aware that one had the capacity to have done such a thing may cause moral implications for some. It has been noted that several people have felt that they are in breach of the Judeo-Christian ethics by even partaking in such a ritual (Sorell, 1988). It is more complicated still in the case of the lethal injection or electric chair. It is evident when one has administered a lethal injection. Does this too frame one as a murderer?

Jury selection is also a problem. A jury should be an impartial group of people who are capable of making a sound judgment in a court of law (Hestevold, 1987). Even if this is the case, there are still moral implications. Those who are part of a jury that recommends the death penalty to the judge may feel that they are in fact part of the firing squad itself. Surely a member of the public should not be forced to face such a moral dilemma. In any instance, is it moral for someone unrelated to the crime or the victim to choose a fate so serious? The moral implications of those who are part of the firing squad can be extended to those in the deciding jury, and these too could be considered murderers under some moral philosophies (Henningfield, 2006).

Finally, it has been well documented that those on death row are often tried with a state-appointed lawyer because the funds are not available for them to have the choice on who represents them. It can be questioned whether it is morally right for someone to be tried with the possibility of such a serious consequence without the choice of who represents them in a court of law (Brenner, 2006). It can also be questioned whether it is right for such a punishment to be administered to someone who is not in a position where the very best defense is available to them. This could lead to the trial being unjust, and as a result, immoral.

Arguments for Capital Punishment

A little known fact is that those areas where capital punishment is a legal option (and is carried out within a short period of time, unlike the United States) have significantly less crime than other areas. However, this is simply a statistical reason for capital punishments existence, and does not take into account the morality of the penalty (Hestevold, 1987). The main argument for capital punishment is the eye for an eye argument told earlier. This moral argument states that the only true punishment for a crime can be the equal of the crime. This means that the death penalty is completely morally justified against those have committed murder. However, the death penalty is still used as a punishment for treason or political dissidence. These are not morally justified in the same way as capital punishment for murder.

Another moral argument involves war. If it is moral for a country to send thousands and millions of individuals to war, where inevitably some of these individuals will die, then it should be moral for a state to execute those who have committed a serious crime. Sending citizens to war, where they may die, is not morally justified in the same way that using capital punishment for severe crimes is (Guernsey, 1993). It could, perhaps, be argued that it is a moral duty for the state to protect their citizens from dangerous criminals.


To conclude, it is still difficult to understand the full moral implications of the death penalty, even when considering a wide range of cases and taking all available statistics into account. As this account has shown, it is very easy to use a moral reason to argue against capital punishment - murder (or killing) is always wrong, no matter what the circumstance. However easy this may be, there are still substantial moral arguments for capital punishment, although the actual philosophy behind these reasons is slightly less obvious than the argument against the death penalty. The debate is still raging throughout the United States and throughout the world, and it is difficult to justify (or not justify) the reasoning behind capital punishment simply using moral philosophy.