Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Capital Punishment

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The use of capital punishment has been a permanent fixture in society since the earliest civilizations and continues to be used as a form of punishment in countries today. It has been used for various crimes ranging from the desertion of soldiers during wartime to the more heinous crimes of serial killers. However, the mere fact that this brutal form of punishment and revenge has been the policy of many nations in the past does not subsequently warrant its implementation in todays society. The death penalty is morally and socially unethical, should be construed as cruel and unusual punishment since it is both discriminatory and arbitrary, has no proof of acting as a deterrent, and risks the atrocious and unacceptable injustice of executing innocent people. As long as capital punishment exists in our society it will continue to spark the injustice which it has failed to curb. By killing a human being the state lessens the value of life and actually contributes to the growing sentiment in todays society that certain individuals are worth more than others. When the value of life is lessened under certain circumstances such as the life of a murderer, what is stopping others from creating their own circumstances for the value of ones life such as race, class, religion, and economics. Immanual Kant, a great philosopher of ethics, came up with the Categorical Imperative, which is a universal command or rule that states that society and individuals must act in such a way that you can will that your actions become a universal law for all to follow. The bulk of their evidence comes from the Old Testament which actually recommends the use of capital punishment for a number of crimes. Others also quote the Sixth Commandment which, in the original Hebrew reads, Thou Shall Not Commit Murder. However, these literal interpretations of selected passages from the Bible which are often quoted out of context corrupt the compassionate attitude of Judaism and Christianity, which clearly focuses on redemption and forgiveness, and urges humane and effective ways of dealing with crime and violence.

The motives behind the death penalty, which revolve around revenge and the frustration and rage of people who see that the government is not coping with violent crime, are not of good will, thereby making capital punishment immoral according to ethical philosophy. The question of whether executions are a cruel form of punishment may no longer be an argument against capital punishment now that it can be done with lethal injections, but it is still very unusual in that it only applies to a select number of individuals making the death penalty completely discriminatory and arbitrary. After years of watching the ineffectiveness of determining who should be put to death, the Supreme Court in the17 Furman v. Georgia decision invalidated all existing death sentence statues as violative of the Eighth Amendments ban on cruel and unusual punishment and thus depopulated state death rows of 6 occupants. This decision was reached not because it was believed that the death penalty was intrinsically cruel and unusual but because, as Justice Stewart put it, the death penalty as actually applied was unconstitutionally arbitrary. Local politics, money, race, and where the crime is committed can often play a more decisive role in sentencing someone to death than the actual facts of the crime. Proponents of capital punishment believe that the argument that the death penalty is discriminatory and arbitrary does not give support to the abolition of capital punishment, but rather to the extension of it. Edward Koch, the former mayor of New York from 1978 to 1980 and death penalty supporter, states that the discriminatory manner of the death penalty no longer seems to be the problem it once was, yet in 1987, the Supreme Court case of McCleskey v. Kemp established that in Georgia someone who kills a white person is four times more likely to be sentenced to death than someone who kills a black person (Death Penalty Focus). In response to this, supporters of the death penalty believe that the death penalty should be extended to all murders. This is what was attempted after the Furman decision.

A number of states sought to resolve the discriminatory and arbitrary nature of the death penalty by simply sentencing to death everyone convicted of first-degree murder, but the Supreme Court rejected this proposal saying that mandatory death sentence laws did not really resolve the problem but instead simply papered [it] over since juries responded by refusing to convict certain arbitrarily chosen defendants of first-degree murder. An argument against the death penalty which to sensible and decent persons should seem undeniable is the fact that innocent people have been murdered by the state in the past and in all probability more will follow. The wrongful execution of an innocent person is such an awful injustice that in any civilized society could never be justified, yet this is the message that the United States is willing to pronounce. Simply put by Professor Nathanson, to maintain the death penalty is to be willing to risk innocent lives. In 1987, a study conducted by Hugo Bedau and Michael Radelet appeared in the Standford Law Review concerning the execution of innocent people. The study concluded that in the period between 1900 to 1980, about 50 people were wrongfully convicted of capital offenses, 1 of the 50 were sentenced to death, and were actually executed. Over this eighty year period this figure averages out to the death of an innocent person about every 2.4 years. This fact is extremely disturbing and rightfully so, yet death penalty advocates blatantly disregard the information or attempt to justify it in some way. In response to the fact that a executed murderer will never kill again, society must ask itself whether it is morally and ethically acceptable to risk killing an innocent person when an alternative such as life imprisonment without possibility of parole exists. In California since 1978, more than 1,000 people have received this alternate sentence which includes no appeals process. The public can be assured that those who commit heinous murders and receive this sentence will never be free again. According to Death Penalty Focus, a recent Field Poll showed support for the death penalty plummeted when alternative sentencing is available. Just percent favored death over life without parole plus requiring the defendant to work in prison and give part of his earnings as restitution to the families of his victims. The use of capital punishment has endured throughout the ages, yet its use today in a civilized society should no longer be acceptable to morally and ethically conscience individuals. The vast majority of countries in Western Europe and North and South America - more than 80 nations worldwide - have abandoned capital punishment, yet the United States remains an avid supporter in company with countries such as Iran, Iraq, and China as one of the major users of capital punishment (Death Penalty Focus). The use of the death penalty in its discriminatory and arbitrary methods only magnifies inequalities of race that persist in the criminal justice system and in American society generally. Even with the death of a guilty man, innocence is lost, for even Edward Koch admits that the death of anyone - even a convicted killer - diminishes us all.

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