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Capital Punishment Essay - The Death Penalty

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The Death Penalty

 

        The death penalty is a very controversial issue.  Many people have

different opinions about how a criminal should be disciplined. Over 80% of

Americans favor the death penalty.

Presently, thirty-eight states have the death penalty, but is the concept of "a

life for a life" the best way to castigate a criminal?  Of the thirteen states

that do not have the death penalty, is crime more likely to occur there than in

states that have the death penalty?  (The Economist, April 1, 1995, p. 19)  Have

there been criminals wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death row?  Does the

death penalty really scare criminals off and make them think twice about

committing a crime?  Is the death penalty fair to everyone, even the minorities

and the poor?  How does mental illness and retardation come into play?     

 

        When a person is sentenced to death by lethal injection in New Jersey,

the provisions of N.J.S. 2C:  11-3 say that the "punishment shall be imposed by

continuous, intravenous administration until the person is dead of a lethal

quantity of an ultrashot acting barbiturate in combination with a chemical

paralytic agent in a quantity sufficient to cause death."  Prior to the lethal

injection, the person shall be sedated by a licensed physician, registered nurse,

or other qualified personnel, by either oral tablet or capsule or an

intramuscular injection of a narcotic or barbiturate such as morphine, cocaine,

or demerol.  In the provisions of the N.J.S.  2C:  49-3, it says that the

Commissioner of the Department of Corrections determines the substances and

procedure to be used in execution.  The Commissioner shall also designate

persons who are qualified to administer injections and who are familiar with

medical procedures, other than licensed physicians.  Also, persons conducting

the execution must be unknown to the person being executed.  Under the N.J.S.

2C:  49-7, only certain people are allowed to be present at the execution.  They

include:  the Commissioner, execution technicians, two licensed physicians, six

adult citizens, no more than two clergymen not related to the person, two

representatives from major news wire services, two television representatives,

two newspaper representatives, and two radio representatives.  No one related

either by blood or by marriage to the person being executed or to the victim is

permitted to be present during the execution.  (New Jersey Statutes Annotated:

Title 2C Code of Criminal Justice:  2C:  37 to 2C:  End)

 

        There are two very important Supreme Court cases dealing with capital

punishment.  In 1972, in the case of Furman vs. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled

that under then existing laws, "the imposition and carrying out of the death

penalty...constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth

and Fourteenth Amendments."  Four years later, in the case of Gregg vs. Georgia,

the Supreme Court shifted in the opposite direction, and ruled that "the

punishment of death does not invariably violate the Constitution."  The Court

ruled that these new statutes contained "objective standards to guide,

regularize, and make rationally reviewable the process of imposing the sentence

of death."  (Bedau, Hugo Adam, American Civil Liberties Union, prodigy)

 

       There are many different reasons, pro and con, for the death penalty.

The following are the most frequently cited arguments for the death penalty.

Some believe that those who kill deserve to die.  When someone takes another

person's life, they forfeit or sacrifice their own right to live.  Murder is one

of the worst crimes a person can commit and it deserves the worst penalty.  The

death penalty is the greatest deterrent to murder.  If people know that they

will be punished by death, they will be less likely to commit crimes and kill.

Statistics show that since 1976, fewer than two hundred of the 2500-plus people

on death row have been executed.  Some say that more than 20,000 murders that

take place each year could have been prevented if criminals believed they would

be executed for their crimes.  Murders pose a threat to everyone and should be

isolated from society.  The death penalty guarantees that the killer would not

be able to kill again.  Life imprisonment does not guarantee that.  Criminals

can be released on parole or escape from prison, giving them opportunities to

murder again.  (Scholastic Update, Sept. 4, 1992, p. 13-16)

 

        The arguments against the death penalty are just as strong.  Two wrongs

do not make a right.  How many times have children heard that from their

parents?  Adults should follow their own advice.  Murder is murder and it is

wrong no matter what, even if it is ruled constitutional.   In the civilized

society that we live in, is the notion of "an eye for an eye" acceptable?

Should the punishment for a rape, be another rape?  Or for arson, should we burn

down the arsonist's house?  One of the government's jobs is to protect its

citizens, but there are others ways to do it without killing.  There are no

creditable studies that show that capital punishment acts effectively as a

deterrent to crime, murder, and other capital offenses.  Most crimes are

committed on the spur of the moment or in the heat of passion, and the person is

usually either under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.  Therefore, most do

not think about the consequences of their wrongful actions.  States that have

death penalty laws do not have lower crime rates or murder rates than states

without such laws.  And states that have abolished capital punishment show no

significant changes in either crime or murder rates.  Also, the death penalty

rarely discourages murderers who plan to kill because they do not believe that

they will be caught.  Humans are errable.  Mistakes are made in trying capital

cases very often and can and have taken innocent lives.  A recent study showed

that 350 people who were convicted of crimes for which they could have been put

to death for, were later found to be inculpable.  Tragically, twenty-three were

executed wrongly.  Some find that the death penalty discriminates against the

minorities and the poor and is not administrated fairly.  Approximately 20,000

murders are committed each year, but only one out of a hundred convicted

murderers are sentenced to death.  Almost half of those sentenced to die are

black and 84% of those were convicted of killing a white.  Furthermore, more

than 90% of the inmates currently on death row were too poor to hire a lawyer to

represent them at their trial.  People are being executed not because of the

heinousness of their crimes, but because of the incompetence of their lawyers.

(Scholastic Update, p. 13-16 and prodigy)

 

        The American Civil Liberties Union believes that capital punishment is

an intolerable denial of civil liberties.  They feel that the death penalty

essentially violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment

and the guarantee of due process of law and the equal protection of the laws.

The state should not take unto itself the right to kill human beings, especially

when it kills with "premeditation and ceremony, under color of law, in our names,

and when it does so in an arbitrary and discriminatory fashion."  (Bedau, Hugo

Adam, American Civil Liberties Union, prodigy)

 

        The cost of an execution is extravagantly costly.  Every study carried

out and completed have shown that it is far more expensive to put someone to

death than to jail him for life.  Two Duke University professors calculated that

between the extra costs of litigation, and of housing and guarding the inmates

as they wait on death row, the extra cost to taxpayers was $2.2 million per

execution.  The Sacramento Bee estimates that California spends $90 million each

year on the death penalty; in eighteen years the state has put precisely two

people to death.  Conservatives say that the solution to this high cost is to

curtail or cut back the number of death row inmates to appeals.  This way the

time that he is in jail will be shorten and execution will take place sooner.

The  Supreme Court's rulings on the matter rest on the notion that, as a

punishment, death is different.  It cannot be infringed arbitrarily, it must be

imposed consistently. (The Economist, 1995, p. 19-20)

 

        Have criminals been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death row?

The answer is yes.  Astonishingly enough, a recent report revealed that between

1900-1985, 350 people have been wrongfully convicted of capital offenses.  In

the last two decades, forty-eight wrongfully convicted people have been released

from death row because of innocence.  Unfortunately, twenty-three of the three

hundred and fifty people wrongfully convicted, were already executed before the

evidence came about.  Justice Thurgood Marshall, a long time opponent of the

death penalty feared that "if an individual is imprisoned for an offense he did

not commit, the error can to some extent be rectified, but if he is executed,

the wrong that has been done can never be corrected."  (Jet, March 13, 1995, p.

12-15)

 

        William Hance, a former marine, was sentenced to death for the murder of

two prostitutes and awaiting the "chair of death".  The day before, the Georgia

board of pardons and paroles rejected Hance's appeal for clemency.  The day of

the execution both the state and federal court refused to halt the execution.

Then the Supreme Court denied Hance's appeal.  The legal skirmishing had gained

him ninety extra minutes of life.  This execution was different though.  One of

the twelve jurors to sentence Hance to death swore that she never agreed to the

supposedly unanimous vote.  Gayle Daniels, the only black juror, swore on an

affidavit the she did not vote for the execution because she "did not believe

[Hance] knew what he was doing at the time of his crimes.  There was also

shocking evidence that race prejudice played a central role in the jury's

deliberations.  Finally, Hance may have been mentally retarded.  The prosecutor

who helped investigate the first murder case, Douglas Pullen, argued that "at

the very least, this man has a borderline I.Q.  That is not retarded."  But

Hance's trial in a military court for the second murder ended in the reversal of

a life sentenced after jurors determined that he lacked the capacity for

premeditation.  (Smolowe, Jill, Time, April 11, 1994, p. 61)

 

        Fortunately, not all cases end unhappily.  In several cases the accused

were found innocent just in time.  Andrew Golden was very lucky.  His case was

reversed twenty-six months after he was put on death row.  He was sentenced to

death for the possible murder of his wife, Ardelle.  She drowned in a lake.

 

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