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It's dark and cold, the fortress-like building has cinderblock walls, and death lurks around the perimeter. A man will die tonight. Under the blue sky, small black birds gather outside the fence that surrounds the building to flaunt their freedom. There is a gothic feel to the scene, as though you have stepped into a horror movie.
Unfortunately, this is not a scene in a horror flick; these are the surroundings of an actual prison execution. As early as the founding of the United States, capital punishment has been a controversial and hotly debated public issue. The three most common forms of death penalties currently used in the United States are the gas chamber, electrocution, and lethal injection. The firing squad is an option in Idaho, Oklahoma, and Utah; and death by hanging still remains an option in New Hampshire and Washington state.
There are major problems with our criminal justice system. In the last one hundred years, there have been more than 75 documented cases of wrongful conviction of criminal homicide. According to a 1987 Stanford University survey, at least 23 Americans have been wrongly executed in the 20th century. For this very reason, the State of Illinois imposed a moratorium on the state?s death penalty in 2000 when it was discovered that 13 inmates on its Death Row were wrongly convicted. Anthony Porter, one of the 13, spent 15 years on Death Row and was within two days of being executed, before a group of Northwestern journalism students uncovered evidence that was used to prove his innocence.
In the United States there are currently 3,490 prisoners awaiting execution. Many of these prisoners are poor and are where they are because they could not afford good legal representation. Most of these prisoners are Black, and they have been arrested and incarcerated in southern states. According to the July 2004 Quarterly Report of the NAACP Criminal Justice Project, 52% of the inmates who currently sit on Death Row are Black or Hispanic.
Another argument against capital punishment is that death sentences are not uniformly imposed as punishment in all cases where a heinous crime has been committed. In his book, Legal Lynching: Racism, Injustice and the Death Penalty, the Reverend Jesse Jackson basically argues that if you are a wealthy, White person, your odds of receiving the death penalty are low, but if you are a poor, African-American or other minority, your chances of receiving a death sentence for the same crime are much higher.
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Some, including, Amnesty International, argue that regardless of what an offender has done ? capital punishment is a just a euphemism for legally killing people and no one, not even the State, has the authority to play God.
In spite of everything a convicted criminal may have done, execution can be cruel and unusual punishment. Take for instance what happened to John Evans in Alabama?s electric chair in 1983. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, following the first jolt of electricity that passed through his body, sparks and flames erupted from the electrode attached to Evans' leg. The electrode burst from the strap holding it in place and caught on fire. Smoke and sparks also came out from under the hood near Evans's left temple. Two physicians who were witnessing the execution, entered the chamber to examine Evans and found a heartbeat. The electrode was reattached to his leg, and another jolt of electricity was applied. This second jolt resulted in more smoke and burning flesh. After re-examination, the doctors again found Evans alive with a viable heartbeat. Ignoring the pleas of Evans's lawyer, a third jolt of electricity was applied. In the end, the execution took 14 minutes and left Evans's body charred and smoldering.
As an alternative to execution, those who commit heinous crimes should be sentenced to prison and required to compensate their victim from prison employment or community service. By working, the criminal can "pay back" society and also their victim or their victim's family. According to the book Capital Punishment by Thomas Draper, the belief that execution costs less than imprisonment is false. The cost and maintenance of the execution equipment, including Death Row, as well as the cost of the endless appeals and legal fees far exceeds the expense of maintaining the death row prisoners in prison for life.
Many who oppose the death penalty are of this opinion, in general, because it is an irreversible punishment. In the event a terrible mistake has been made and a prisoner is executed who is later found to be innocent, there is no way to give the executed prisoner a second chance at life. It is incumbent on reasonable people in a rational society to acknowledge that if we have executed even one innocent person, we have executed one person too many.
Amnesty International Report. The Death Penalty. England: Amnesty International Publications, 1979.
Draper, Thomas. Capital Punishment. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1985.
"Capital Punishment." Academic American Encyclopedia. (UT CAT PLUS). 1991 ed.
Kramer, Michael. "Frying them isn't the Answer." Time 14 March 1994:32. (Stanford study)
Legal Lynching: Racism, Injustice and the Death Penalty by Jesse Jackson. New York: Marlowe & Company, 1996.