Politics and The Death Penalty

Politics and The Death Penalty

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The question regarding whether the United States should implement the death penalty as a form of punishment is a heated issue in American politics. The topic is so divisive because it deals with death, which is permanent. Life is valued in every society, and when life is taken away, emotions rise. Most human beings maintain a strong underlying fear of dying, so they wish to prevent their own death, especially their murder, at any cost. Furthermore, since crime is a prevalent problem in the U.S., Americans yearn for a successful way to reduce the homicide rate. However, most Americans do not favor the use of the death penalty when other options, such as life in prison without parole plus restitution, are presented (Dieter). By comparing the empirical and moral claims of the arguments in favor and against the use of the death penalty, we suggest that the presidential candidate take a cautiously anti-death penalty stance.

The key issues involve whether the U.S. should sustain the current death penalty system, abolish it in favor of life in prison without parole plus restitution, or only reform the system to make it less costly and free of class, racial, and mental illness discrepancies. Many people have a stake in the issue. Organizations such as Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union are against the death penalty because they claim it is a cruel and unusual form of punishment, while other groups such as the National Center for Policy Analysis support the death penalty because they believe that life sentences do not deter homicide. Furthermore, victims’ families have a stake in the issue because they deserve justice for their murdered loved ones, and convicted murders have a stake because their own lives are in jeopardy as they sit on death row. Most importantly, all the citizens of the United States are involved in the matter, since the way in which we punish crime affects public safety.

Death penalty supporters believe that capital punishment is the only sure way to deter murderers from committing murders again. “The argument that murderers are the least likely of all criminals to repeat their crimes is not only irrelevant, but also increasingly false. Six percent of young adults paroled in 1978 after having been convicted of murder were arrested for murder again with six years of release” (Death Penalty Paper).

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The death penalty is the only absolute punishment for severe crimes, preventing convicted criminals from committing crimes again. “Obviously, those executed can’t murder again” (Death Penalty Paper).

Furthermore, death penalty supporters argue that the concern should be in saving the lives of potential victims, not protecting the rights of the criminals. “Of the roughly 52,000 state prison inmates serving time for murder in 1984, an estimated 810 had previously been convicted of murder and had killed 821 persons following their previous murder convictions. Executing each of these inmates would have saved 821 lives” (Death Penalty Paper). Ernest van den Haag, a Professor of Jurisprudence at Fordham University who has closely studied deterrence, wrote:

Even though statistical demonstrations are not conclusive, and perhaps cannot be, capital punishment is likely to deter more than other punishments because people fear death more than anything else. They fear most death deliberately inflicted by law and schedule by the courts. Whatever people fear the most is likely to deter the most. Hence, the threat of the death penalty may deter some murderers who otherwise might not have been deterred (Deterrence: In Support).

Thus, death penalty supporters claim that even the possibility that capital punishment will deter murderers from murdering again is enough reason to maintain the system.

However, by comparing national homicide rates, it is clear that the death penalty does not deter crime. A study on the years spanning from 1973 to 1984 illustrated that death penalty states have a generally higher homicide rate than states that do not enforce the death penalty (Paternoster). Furthermore, during the 1970’s moratorium on the death penalty, there was no unusually significant increase in the number of homicides. In 1975, when the death penalty was not in use, the homicide rate was 8.8 per 100,000. Unfortunately, after the death penalty was reinstated, the homicide rate rose steadily to 10.2 in 1980 (U.S. Dept. of Justice). In fact, studies have shown that the number of homicides increases shortly after an execution (Paternoster). This phenomenon, known as the “brutalization effect,” suggests that by allowing the government to order an execution, the United States sends out the message that murder can be justified (Paternoster). In addition, more publicity surrounding executions did not decrease the number of homicides (Paternoster). Even when people were made more aware of the consequences that go along with committing a murder, they murdered regardless. Furthermore, international comparisons indicate the unsuccessfulness of the death penalty in deterring homicide. In 1975, Canada’s homicide rate hit a peak 3.09 per 100,000 people. In 1976, its death penalty was abolished, and the homicide rate has decreased steadily by 42% (Facts and Figures on the Death Penalty). Thus, it is clear that the deterrence effect is nonexistent.

Race is another factor that causes debate on the use of the death penalty. There exists a stigma around the death penalty that capital punishment cases are performed with an inherent bias towards people of color. Supporters of the death penalty argue that of the total number of individuals who have been executed since 1976, only 306 were black while 510 were white (“Race”) and of the total number of persons executed in 2002 alone, 53 were white while only 18 were black (“Capital”). Also, white inmates comprised more than half (57.2%) of those executed on death row since 1976 (“Race of Death Row Inmates Executed Since 1976”). Statistics show that whites also outnumber blacks on death row. As of 2002, the number of white prisoners on death row, 1,931, greatly outnumbers the number of black prisoners on death row, 1,554 (“Key”). Furthermore, when looking at the overall defendant-victim ratios of executions, the majority (56.81%) of cases involve a white defendant with a white victim (Kent). Thus, death penalty supporters believe that the statistics show that there are no racial prejudices in death sentencing.

However, there do exist racial prejudices in the implementation of the death penalty. There are currently 1600 black prisoners under the death sentence, only 62 less than whites. (U.S. Dept. of Justice) However, while whites make up 77% of the U.S. population (including Hispanic persons who identify themselves as white), blacks make up only 13%. (U.S. Census Bureau) (King) Therefore there is a clear bias in the execution of the death penalty when the overall racial makeup of the U.S. population is taken into account.

Contrary to public belief, utilization of the death penalty is much more costly than keeping a criminal imprisoned for life without parole. In fact, the death penalty poses a significant financial drain on the individual states as well as on the central government, spending the same money that is used to build and maintain schools, hospitals, recreational parks, roads and highways. On death row, the average cost is $55.14 per day to incarcerate an inmate, with the stay on death row being 12 years. This means that it will cost a state roughly $241,513.20 per inmate on death row until they are executed. This however is not where the significant amount of money is spent. Since the U.S. Judicial System is constructed to ensure everyone fair and equal rights, inmates are entitled to the appeals process upon their death penalty sentence. In fact, the first appeals are automatic. During the course of appeals, the cost of using the death penalty becomes significantly larger. From 1982 to 1997, the cost of capital punishment cases in the U.S. totals over $1.6 billion dollars. Comparing the costs of the death penalty versus life imprisonment is a bit more difficult, as the cost of trial (defense and prosecution attorneys, bringing the case to court) varies:

Example of trial costs in Los Angeles, California

Trial Defense Prosecution Defense Prosecution Court L.A. Jail Total Cost
Attorney Attorney Investigation Investigation
Capital $385,998 $771,996 $48,523 $48,523 $506,408 $136,875 $1,898,323
Regular $160,058 $320,116 $ 5,105 $ 5,105 $ 82,188 $ 54,750 $ 627,322
This chart represents a case study performed as part of a Master’s thesis at University of California at Berkley, and is a small representation of the varying costs at the trial level. California alone spends $90 million annually, with $78 million of that going towards the judicial process. In Texas and North Carolina, it costs over $2 million per execution.

Furthermore, international comparisons indicate that the death penalty is not the best way to ensure public safety. The death penalty has been abolished in our “peer” countries such as England, Australia, Canada, France, and Germany for ordinary crimes such as murder and rape. The U.S. remains retentionist along with China, North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, countries of questionable human rights practices. According to Amnesty International, while 122 countries denounce the death penalty, only 83 still implement it (Facts and Figures on the Death Penalty). However, with 83 countries refusing to abolish the death penalty, 71% of world executions in 2002 took place in the U.S., China, and Iran (Facts and Figures on the Death Penalty). With all of these executions, the United States still remains one of the most murderous places in the world. In 2000, the U.S. had the sixth highest homicide rate, at 5.87 people per 100,000 (Int’l Comparisons of Criminal Justice Stats). Washington D.C. remains the most murderous capital in the world, with a 45.79 per 100,000-murder rate reported in 2000 (Int’l Comparisons of Criminal Justice Stats). In terms of handgun murders, while New Zealand had two murders due to handguns, Japan fifteen, and United Kingdom thirty in 1996, the United States had 9,390 (Brady Center). Thus, gun control should be a greater concern to Americans than the implementation of the death penalty, since we are not succeeding in ensuring our citizens’ safety, in comparison with the rest of the world.

Understanding why criminals commit crime is also important in understanding the death penalty’s causes and ramifications. Mental illness is one cause and in 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the execution of a mentally ill person violates the eighth amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The court stated: “the intuition that such an execution simply offends humanity is evidently shared across this nation,” (“Capital Punishment”). In a 1989 case, Justice William J. Brennan determined that executions of the mentally ill “…do not further the penal goals of either retribution or deterrence” and instead is “a deliberate social imposition,” (“Capital Punishment”) “the ultimate denial of human rights” by the government. (Amnesty International)

However, if legislation is passed that prohibits the execution of the mentally retarded, death penalty supporters argue that the justice system will result in chaos. One debate is on the definition of mental illness; (Sharp) the Supreme Court believes it is individuals with IQ of 70 or below. However, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) states that it is “…biological in nature, a brain disorder that affects logical, rational thought processes and emotions.” (Hamilton) The NAMI suggests medical treatment for mentally ill offenders as a better solution to solving the problem of crime, as they usually stay longer in the hospital than if they were sentenced to life in prison. In addition, they call for a reevaluation of the judicial definition of mental illness, (Hamilton) believing that the Supreme court’s standards for mental illness are too stringent: Atlanta death row lawyer Stephen Bright believes very few criminals satisfy its criteria. (Holland)

Moreover, if criminals cannot rationalize their actions, then the death penalty can have no effect on the decisions of future offenders. Mentally ill individuals should be punished for crime, but punishment should be “proportional to the seriousness of the crime and the defendant’s mental state and the degree of moral culpability.” (“Capital Punishment”) The same argument can be applied to juveniles, defined by international standards as anyone under the age of eighteen. Juveniles “lack experience, perspective, judgment and intelligence of adults and have less capacity to control their conduct and to think in long-range terms.” (“Capital Punishment”) According to Amnesty International, only six countries have documented executions of child offenders since 1976: China, Yemen, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and the United States. In addition, the U.S. carried out 19 of these executions, more than all the other countries combined. Sixteen-year-old Sean Sellers was the last executed juvenile in the US. Amnesty International, though, says international law prohibits juvenile executions. (“Key Topics”)

Not many individuals show confidence in the judicial system; only 29% of individuals report having a great deal of confidence. (US Dept. of Justice) A reason for this lack of confidence arises from the fact that juries essentially decide the outcome of death penalty trials. Death penalty supporters believe that the erratic nature of juries is not important in the death penalty issue. Haag believes that “equality, in short, seems morally less important than justice” and “…justice is independent of distributional inequalities.” (Haag) He believes that the capricious distribution of death sentences makes no difference to whether it should exist or not; what matters is that guilty people are being punished. (Haag) However, death penalty opponents argue that it is morally unfair to place the decision in the hands of capricious juries. For example, in the Dung D. Trinh case, the first jury voted in favor of life in prison without parole, 10 to 2. But the second jury voted in favor of the death penalty, 11 to 1. California’s Orange County public defender sums up the death penalty as depending too much “…on the makeup of the juries” and “…the finding of death may be entirely capricious. How can we support a death verdict that may really be a coin toss?” (Pfeifer) Also, many jury members also believe that they are responsible for killing the person on death row. (Pfeifer) In short, the fairness of a trial depends on the makeup of the jury.

Moreover, general criminological theory suggests that offenders are themselves victims of mental and societal ills and that a reduction in crime will benefit both victims and offenders. (Hirschi) New York University professor of psychiatry, Dorothy Otnow Lewis research shows that most killers are damaged and victimized persons of child abuse and lifelong traumas. (Manserus) Death penalty opponents affirm that the problem of crime is not being solved properly by states. Lois Robinson, whose son Larry was executed in Texas in 1999, believes that the state does not want to put money into treating its mentally ill, potentially saving millions of lives of both victims and offenders. Texas spends approximately two million dollars on prosecuting the average capital murder case, but falls within the bottom ten of states in per capita expenditures on mental health. (King) Only 7.7 percent of inmates in Texas receive therapy/counseling in state correctional facilities. (US Dept. of Justice)

There also exist very conflicting views in terms of religion and the death penalty. People on both sides of the capital punishment argument cite some of their religious beliefs based on the contents of the Bible. Many religious groups in support of the death penalty commonly quote Genesis: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.” (Genesis 9:6). This passage states that men should punish each other for crimes such as murder. Those in opposition to the death penalty take their textual basis of support from the New Testament, and a famous phrase in John 8:7: “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first,” (Robinson p.1). Here, the Bible claims that no one is perfect, and therefore no one has the right to pass judgment in regards to another person’s life. Even though many groups cite passages from religious texts, there are numerous contradictions and errors contained in both the New and Old Testaments, which put their information into question. Also, with so much controversy regarding the separation of church and state, the wisest position for a presidential candidate to take is to avoid religious arguments as much as possible.

Furthermore, discussing the morality of the death penalty is not complete without considering the families of the victims. Many families believe that the killing of an offender can never make up for the loss of a precious loved one and instead can cause prolonged pain. In addition, the judicial process, complete with appeal after appeal, is a painful and tedious process for the families involved. Marietta Jaeger, whose daughter was murdered, believes that “the continuous sequence of courtroom scenes inherent in death penalty cases only serve to keep emotional wounds raw and in pain for years.” (Dieter) In the Dwayne Carrekar case in New Jersey, prosecutors decided to seek life in prison without parole and not the death penalty, adhering to the victim’s family’s wishes. The victim’s mother was more interested in justice and closure than the death penalty.” (“Prosecutors Drop Death Penalty As Victims’ Mother Seeks Closure”) Organizations such as the Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation’s motives are to change the theme from killing to healing. (Dieter)

Politicians tend to avoid the death penalty question because they believe most people support executions. However, when other options of punishment are presented, the majority of Americans do not support the death penalty. Although 77% of Americans show abstract support for the death penalty, the number drops to 41% in favor the death penalty over life in prison without parole plus restitution (Dieter). Furthermore, a significant number of Americans have serious doubts as to the fairness of the imposing of the death penalty. 48% express concerns over the issue of racism in the application of punishment and 46% are concerned about the high costs (Dieter). An overwhelming 58% of Americans have worries over the question of innocence, and rightfully so (Dieter). Since 1973, 112 prisoners have been released from death row after finding evidence of their innocence (Facts and Figures on the Death Penalty).

Furthermore, studies show that people are misinformed about the death penalty. Only 4% believe that a person convicted of first-degree murder will spend his life in prison; the average estimate by Americans over how long a convicted murderer will spend in prison is only 15.6 years (Dieter). Even when people were asked if they believed that a person sentenced to life in prison without parole would actually spend their life in prison, only 11% believed it (Dieter). In reality, however, two thirds of states have mandatory life in prison with no eligibility for parole sentences for murderers, and most states have at least twenty-five year minimum sentences (Dieter). Thus, if people were correctly informed about prison sentences, they would be less likely to support the death penalty.

Because we have found that the majority of voters do not support the death penalty when other forms of punishment are presented, we suggest that the candidate take a cautiously anti-death penalty stance. There exist serious racial, class, and mental discrepancies in the implementation of the death penalty. Furthermore, we have found that executing murderers does not have a deterrence effect on the homicide rate. Most of the world has opposed the death penalty, and we should follow the lead of our peer countries. Almost all nations in opposition of the death penalty have lower crime rates than the United States, so we have nothing to lose but a decrease in the homicide rate by imitating them.

However, in order to avoid a presidential election defeat similar to the 1988 anti-death penalty candidate Michael Dukasis, the candidate may only want to sign the international treaties promising to not actively implement the death penalty, yet not abolishing the entire system either. The candidate may wish to suggest a moratorium, similar to the halt instituted in the 1970’s, until more studies have been conducted. By having the candidate present to the American public all of the evidence we have found, and by allowing him to cautiously sign international treaties and instituting a moratorium, he will be able to win the election and gain the respect of the international community, while simultaneously saving American lives.


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