Death Penalty: Is It Fair?
Death penalty is a form of punishment issued by a court of law against an individual when he or she has been found guilty of a serious criminal offense. It is mostly referred to as capital punishment (Stearman, 2007). This paper explores death penalty and argues against its use as a fine for crimes committed irrespective of the severity of the offenses. Arguments in support of death penalty are also considered with exploration of the weaknesses of ideas advanced to support it.
There are two types of crimes, namely misdemeanors and felonies. Misdemeanors are less serious crimes such as theft cases. Punishments for such crimes include fines and/ or community service orders. Felonies are more serious crimes such as murder, rape, or kidnapping and are punishable by fines and community service but more often by jail terms, sometimes even life imprisonment. Certain severe crimes or capital crimes are punished by death penalty. Example of such capital crimes includes a murder, though some nations have used death penalty to punish crimes like rape, treason, drug or human trafficking, and even for renouncing one’s religion (Stearman, 2007).
The punishment for capital crimes involves execution of the persons found guilty. This is done to ensure that offender’s will not recidivate. And this acts as a deterrent for potential criminals. However, careful evaluation and analysis of the use of death penalty reveals that its application and justification do not clearly support its popular use. Most countries in the world have been practicing capital punishment. In the early twentieth century, death penalty was common, but it is not used currently in most countries (Stearman, 2007).
Arguments against Death Penalty, its Application and Justification
The pros and cons of death penalty are debatable. The questions of whether it can be justified, and whether it is applied fairly have been on the increase today. Death penalty works as a method of punishment to persons who commit capital offences. There have been debates that the end of punishment makes the criminal not to commit any other of such crimes. However, the concern that analysts continue to raise is whether executing one individual prevents commission of the similar crimes in future. Latzer & McCord (2010) cited that penalties issued in the criminal justice system should aim at rehabilitating criminals and not to revenge or make them an example to others. The death penalty is equivalent to revenge against the capital offence committed. The purpose of punishment for offenses committed is to correct the criminal’s behavior and protect property and life. The death penalty does not achieve this purpose. Instead, it destroys the life of a person who could have been given a chance to reconcile.
Death penalty is not a proven deterrent to potential future murders. Several deterrent studies have been done that show that the death penalty is not a better deterrent than life imprisonment. Research by Ehrlich that credited death penalty as a way to deter other potential criminals has since been discredited. William Bowers of Northeastern University cited by (Latzer & McCord, 2010) maintains that the capital punishment increases the likelihood of murders. Deterrence cannot, therefore, be used as a reason for justifying the death penalty. This explains why most states in the United States did not accept the capital punishment. Ironically, they still register very low rates of the capital offenses. For example, an FBI Uniform Crime Report given out on September 15, 2008 showed that the South, which accounted for over 82 % of executions in the year 1976, had the highest rates of murder. The Northeast carries out fewer executions, about 1% (Latzer & McCord, 2010).
The same high rate is seen when one compares countries in United States and Europe that do not use death penalty. Further, the death penalty cannot be considered deterrent because most people who commit crimes, leading to the death penalty, do not expect to be caught. In fact, most of them carefully weigh the punishment that is about to be accorded to them before they act. They weigh the difference between life imprisonment and a possible execution (Stearman, 2007).
Frequently, people commit capital offenses under the influence of drugs and alcohol. In such circumstances, crimes are committed impulsively as people lose their moral sense of judgment. Offenses committed under such circumstances cannot be deterred through the death penalty or other forms of capital punishment (Corrections Digest, 1991). When the logical thinking has been disrupted, crime is committed heedless of the consequences of such crimes on themselves or others. Former Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox made a remark that .most of the people executed in Texas were not deterred by death penalty law that was in place. In fact, those under life sentences are of less threat to commit any other crimes, than those serving sentences. Therefore, the death penalty cannot be justified to deter other people from committing crimes (Latzer & McCord, 2010).
When a government or state punishes its citizens by death penalty, it can be considered as a retribution or revenge. The first response from a person injured is to inflict pain with the same measure on the other person. This can be compared to the passing death penalty on capital crimes. But the standards of a society demand better measures than this. The emotional impulse is, thus, not a justifying reason to invoke capital punishment, taking into account all the accompanying problems and risks (Walker, 2008).
The legal and justice systems should lead the society into principles that respect and honor life, even life of the capital offender. Allowing or encouraging the death penalty extends the chain of killing and violence. Many victims’ families do not support the idea of death penalty. The families are often left suffering, especially in cases, where the person convicted was the sole breadwinner in a family. Besides, the psychological, emotional and social stigma, stress and related challenges that families of a death penalty victim face cannot be emphasized in this discourse (Walker, 2008).
The notion of an eye for an eye, or life for life, is something that current society will never accept. For example, we cannot allow a thief to be stolen from, a rapist to be raped and thus it is not fair to put one on death penalty regardless of the severity of the offense the person has committed (Walker, 2008). Taking the life of the defendant, for example, in the United States is quite unfair. They only execute a small percentage of the people convicted of the capital offences (Walker, 2008).
It is clear that the families of people affected by the capital offences are often left in great pain and suffering. However, ending the life of the defendant does not heal their heart from such pains (Guernsey, 2010). Besides, death penalty does not give respect to humanity and life as a whole. It cannot be justified that capital offences can be ended by committing another capital offence, involving death of the offender. If, for example, it was murder, the life of the victim cannot be restored by killing the criminal. Guernsey (2010) cited that the death penalty only offers an illusion that a state can defend life by taking another life. This is not justified. Two wrongs do not make a right.
The risk of wrongful conviction and placing innocent people on death penalty is high. Once executed, it is hard to reverse a death penalty (Guernsey, 2010). There are several evidences that prove that mistakes were done in sentencing people to death. For example, since the capital punishment was reinstated in the US in 1973, about 130 convicts have been released from death sentence row because of evidence proving that they were wrongly convicted. Statistics shows that a lot of innocent inmates have been executed and put on death penalty (Latzer & McCord, 2010). In the same period in the U.S more people were executed. Until early 1990s, several innocent inmates were sentenced to death penalty until the DNA analysis came to rescue them (Latzer & McCord, 2010). The society, thus, needs to review the death penalty as a way of punishing people who commit capital offenses.
The question of fairness comes up in discourses, relating to death penalty sentences. Generally, the society needs fairness in all areas of public service and policies. Fairness, especially should be in the case of administering death penalty among the inmates, since the stakes are so high. This has not been the case in many executions offered around the world. The capital punishment does not single out worst offenders but concentrates on a group based on several factors (Guernsey, 2010). These factors include the quality of the defense counsel, the country in which the crime was committed, or the race of the defendant or victim. Many of the defendants lack proper representation of lawyers and end up, being sentenced to death.
Racial discrimination has taken the frontline in the judgments, involving capital offenses. Studies have shown that death penalty is more likely to be given in cases where the complainant is a white-American than in cases involving black-Americans. This gives an impression that the white’s lives are more precious than the black’s. The reinstatement of death penalty in U. S in 1976 have since seen 158 black defendants convicted of murder of whites while only 11 whites convicted for killing blacks (Guernsey, 2010). Such racial unfairness, thus, discredits the fairness in death penalty sentencing.
Cases have been cited where one person in one country commits a capital offense similar to commission of the same crime in another country. However, the cases are dealt with differently. In one country, the defendant is put on death penalty, while in the other receives a life imprisonment. Besides, defendants who are considered poor, from minority group, uneducated or mentally unfit receive death penalty more often. This was different compared to the others who did not have such characteristics. This shows clear unfairness in the offering of capital punishments (Walker, 2008). Thus, race and other factors like geography and economics have to be taken care of in administering capital punishments. It is based on the biasness, lack of fairness and injustices, relating to death penalty, that these refuted and alternative modes of punishment are sought.
Arguments in Favor of Death Penalty
Proponents of death penalty believe that it is a justifiable and fair way of effectively stopping the capital crimes. In fact, to some extent, death penalty serves as deterrence for future crimes (Vollum, Dennis & Jacqueline, 2004). Society has always used punishment to discourage criminal minded people from committing unlawful actions. The interest of the society to deter murder is a justification for the use of severe punishment (Stearman, 2007).
Death penalty is supported on the grounds that it promotes justice for victims. When life of one person is taken, for example, the balance of justice is disturbed, unless the stability is brought back, the stability of the society is destabilized (Stearman, 2007). Retribution has its basis in religious values and principles of “an eye for an eye”. This gives a justification for execution of people who commit severe offenses such as murder. It is a sure way of protecting the rights and welfare of the victims against deviant criminal targets. Capital offenses need severe punishments that match their severity.
The chances of convicting innocent people are rare, since all judgments are based on evidences and there is a possibility for the defendant to appeal the ruling. There are no substantial proofs that innocent people have been executed in the past (Vollum et al, 2004). And even if such executions have occurred, then they are very rare and minimal. It is bad to imprison innocent people but the prisons cannot be emptied because of such very minimal risks (Walker, 2008). Hypothetical claims by victims that they are innocent are delaying tactics to ensure that their cases go as long as possible to delay execution justice for the victims of the crime (Latzer & McCord, 2010).
Discrediting the justice systems is a practice that has been in our society for a long time now. It is not possible to give the same sentence for two crimes just because they appear similar. Each crime is unique and each of the defendants is different. Vollum et al (2004) cited that the question of race should be out of discussion in refuting death penalty, since there are scenarios where one race is particularly notorious for certain crimes. In such cases, convictions must be passed to ensure that justice is not blocked on the basis of racial aggregations (Latzer & McCord, 2010).
Death Penalty Cannot be Justified in under Any Circumstance
Even staunch supporters of death penalty are now placed a little or no weight on the fact that death penalty deters potential criminals. Death penalty is not a deterrent because many criminals still commit crimes. In most cases, they only change tact so that the offenses do not warrant similar penalties (Latzer & McCord, 2010). These crafty plans cannot allow one to learn from the already sentenced people. Furthermore, the most people who commit capital crimes are under high levels of drugs abuse or alcohol abuse. Therefore, putting one on the death penalty and doing a little to address the factors that precipitate such criminal act does not mean doing enough to reduce crime rates. Thus, the death penalty cannot be considered as just a way of dealing with crime (Walker, 2008).
Although there are claims that very few, if any, innocent people are convicted wrongfully, it is not just for even a single person to be convicted wrongfully and put on death penalty. Any chances of convicting innocent persons must, thus, be sealed. In planning crime, the person mainly concentrates on the escape route from detection, arrest and conviction. The threat of death will not scare or discourage an individual who is planning to escape arrest from committing such a crime. Severe punishments like long periods of detainment in prison have been found to be better deterrence to capital crime offences than the death penalty (Walker, 2008).
Revenge or retribution is not just a response towards ensuring the victims’ families are healed. Using execution cannot heal their families. Instead, it causes them more pain. Further, taking away the life of the criminal means we solve the crime by killing another person. This is no respect to life and humanity as a whole. The sanctity of human life must be upheld in all the judicial decisions that are made. Besides, death penalty robes the offender the opportunity for repentance and resolve to forego criminal lifestyle(Guernsey, 2010). Arguments on retribution do not apply, especially because there can never be the exact retribution for loss caused by committal of a capital offense. The veil behind retributive justice through death penalty is, thus, illusionary and lacks any sound justification.
Argument, executing the innocent, is a rare practice and is open to discussions. Human life must be valued (Guernsey, 2010). Reports have shown that several people have been executed on wrongful convictions. Since 1973, a total of 88 people were confirmed to be wrongfully executed (Latzer & McCord, 2010). These reports were exposed by the introduction of DNA in checking evidence in convicting capital offenders. Claims of minimal risks involved in executing innocent people can, thus, not be used to justify and accept the death penalty.
Most of the defendants, facing death penalty, are discriminated based on race, color and face unfair legal representation. Studies conducted have shown that more blacks are executed than white in cases involving capital offences. For example, since 1976, 158 black defendants have been executed and only 11 whites in U. S (Latzer & McCord, 2010). When the same crime is committed, it is unfair to offer different punishments.
Capital punishment when issued as a penalty for capital crimes as discussed indeed is not justifiable and fair. Existing evidence on execution of innocent people, discrimination in offering punishment to different races and crimes committed at different regions support this. However, if substituted with life imprisonment, a better deterrence to such capital crimes could be realized. There is, thus, need for the society to value the life of both the defendant and the victims of the crimes. There is, thus, need to strike a balance in the penalties for capital offenses if the penalties are to be effective in dealing with the crime in society.
Guernsey, J. A. B. (2010). Death penalty: Fair solution or moral failure? Minneapolis: Twenty-First Century Books.
Latzer, B., & McCord, D. (2010). Death penalty cases: Leading U.S. Supreme Court cases on capital punishment. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.
Stearman, K. (2007). The death penalty. New York: Rosen Pub. Group’s Rosen Central.
Vollum, S., Dennis, R. L., & Jacqueline, B. (2004). “Confidence in the death penalty and support for its use: Exploring the value-expressive dimension of death penalty attitudes.” Justice Quarterly: JQ, 21(3), 521-546. Retrieved from ProQuest.com
Walker, I. (2008). The death penalty. Edina, Minn: ABDO Pub. Co.