The Controversy Surrounding the Death Penalty
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Is the death penalty fair? Is it humane? Does it deter crime? The answers to these questions vary depending on who answers them. The issue of capital punishment raises many debates. These same questions troubled Americans just as much in the day of the Salem witch trials as now in the say of Timothy McVeigh. During the time of the Salem witchcraft trials they had the same problem as present society faces. Twenty innocent people had been sentenced to death. It was too late to reverse the decision and the jurors admitted to their mistake. The execution of innocent people is still a major concern for American citizens today.
Capital punishment barely made its way into American society. In Britain, public executions were festive and frequent in the 15th century. At the same time a movement to abolish the death penalty gained support throughout Europe. In 1753, Russia became the first important nation to ban the death penalty. The English instilled the death penalty upon America when it was just a colony. Ben Franklin opposed the death penalty as he helped write the Bill of Rights and the well alluded to 8th Amendment. In 1846 Michigan was the first to repeal capital punishment. By 1917, ten states had repealed capital punishment.
By the mid 1960s, the death penalty seemed fated for extinction. Only seven executions were conducted in 1965 and only one in 1966. For about ten years supporters and opposers of capital punishment looked to the Supreme Court for a final ruling on the constitutionality of the death penalty. The word came out in 1976 in the case of Gregg v. Georgia. The court ruled that, " the punishment of death does not violate the Constitution."
Many call capital punishment unconstitutional and point to the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution for support. The amendment states that, "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines be imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishment be inflicted." Those who oppose the death penalty target the 'cruel and unusual' phrase as an explanation of why it is unconstitutional. Since the Framers of the Constitution are no longer with us and we base our nation on the words in which that document contains, the legality of the death penalty is subject to interpretation. Since there is some ambiguity or lack of preciseness in the Constitution, heated debate surrounding this issue has risen in the last ten years.
Since the Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that capital punishment was constitutional, 490 people have been executed- more than three- quarters of them since 1990.
Those who argue against capital punishment usually use the wrongly accused as examples. Talk of the issue often centers on a study published in 1987 by Hugo Adam Bedau, a philosophy professor at Tufts University, and Michael L. Radelet, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Florida. Bedau and Radelet named 350 persons they said probably had been wrongly convicted of potentially capital crimes in the United States between 1900 and 1987. Most were later pardoned or had their convictions overturned because of new evidence. The authors say that twenty three people were executed in error.
For example, here in Tampa, a black man, Shabaka Waglini, was convicted in 1973 of killing a shopkeeper, he came within 15 hours of dying in the electric chair 10 years later. In 1987, a federal court held that the state prosecutor had knowingly allowed the main witness against Waglini to lie and had concealed evidence showing that Waglini's gun had not fired the fatal ,lbullet. Waglini was later freed.
A very important issue is whether or not the death penalty affects the people of the U.S. Those who argue against capital punishment believe that the punishment given to criminals is intended to provide for some type of rehabilitation. If the criminal is killed than the purpose of a penalty is defeated. They also believe that prison keeps dangerous criminals away from society just as well as having them killed. Those who support the death penalty argue that the fact that the lives of the criminals are being taken intimidates potential killers. Unfortunately according to a recent survey of police chiefs and sheriffs, the death penalty ranks last as a way of reducing violent crime. Patrick V. Murphy, former police chief of New York, Washington, and Detroit says that, "Police chiefs would rather spend their limited crime-fighting dollars on such proven measures as community policing, more police training, neighborhood watch programs and long prison sentences."
Many people try to fight the government and pursue the changing of laws concerning the death penalty. Instead of forcing the changes in law a Roman Catholic nun from Brooklyn, Sister Camille D'Arienzo started the Declaration of Life movement in 1994. The ever growing movement involves a pledge. The pledge states that in the case of being the victim of a murder they want the killer to be punished but not killed. "Capital punishment is the only time we punish the person in kind for a crime. We don't rape the rapist or rob the robber, but we kill the killer," says Sister D'Arienzo, insisting that death is not the answer for society's ills. Susan Sarandon, Martin Sheen, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo and U.S. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband was gunned down in a New York commuter train, are some of the more recognizable members of the movement.
Many of those who are anti death penalty believe that the execution themselves are cruel and unusual. The more common styles of execution are the gas chamber and lethal injection. Both are considered the softer of the approved execution methods. The more talked about method used in the United States is the electric chair. It is the more talked about due to the problems it sometimes encounters. There have been accounts of people living through the applications of electricity at very high voltage and having to reapply electricity until death. The eyes of the executed are commonly covered so that they do not fall out.
Lewis E. Lawes, for many years was the warden at Sing Sing Prison in New York, had this to say about what happens in the electric chair: "The prisoner leaps as if to break the strong leather straps that hold him down. Sometimes a thin wisp of smoke breaks itself out from under the helmet that hold the head of the electrode, followed by the faint odor of burning flesh. [The body heats to 130 degrees, a little less than rare roast beef.] The hands turn red, then white, and the cords of the neck stand out like steel bands." Supporters of the electric chair say it is no different than being naturally struck by lightning, which is an instant death.
Though it is debated whether the electric chair is cruel and unusual, it cant be compared to the executions in ancient Persia where condemned prisoners were often eaten alive by insects and vermin. During the middle ages common executions varied from mutilation, amputation, impaling, flaying, crucifixion, boiling in oil, drawing and quartering, breaking on the rack and burning at the stake.
Though executions are ongoing in the U.S., there are limits to what crimes are deemed punishable by the death penalty. For example any murder in the first degree may be worthy of capital punishment. This itself is another issue that displays how this nation lays its foundation on the constitution and the arguments that it brings about since it is a matter of interpretation. Since the people of this country usually do the interpreting of the constitution, the decisions are made by the people, which exemplifies what this democracy stands for. It is very possible that the rulings on capital punishment may one day change. Though 70% of Americans support the death penalty, the way the constitution is set up and how much weight this nation rests on it, if Americans ever change their mind or viewpoint concerning capital punishment it could well be abolished.
My personal interpretation of the eighth amendment leads me to believe that capital punishment is acceptable and should remain legal. I believe that the electric chair can be cruel and unusual though. I have seen an actual execution before and it looked as though the prisoner suffered. I personally hope that if they want to continue executing criminals, that they find an alternative manner of death rather than that of the electric chair, gas chamber, firing squad, and hanging. I don't think that those on death row should have a set date on which they will be executed. I think it ought to be spontaneous so that there wont be as much mental anguish.
I believe that there are benefits to capital punishment, but I also believe that there will always be a human flaw. There is always a chance that the person whose life is being taken from him is innocent. There is no reasonable argument or justification in the loss of an innocent