Execution of the innocent
The most common and most cogent argument against capital punishment is that sooner or later, innocent people will get killed, because of mistakes or flaws in the justice system.
Witnesses, (where they are part of the process), prosecutors and jurors can all make mistakes. When this is coupled with flaws in the system it is inevitable that innocent people will be convicted of crimes. Where capital punishment is used such mistakes cannot be put right.
There is ample evidence that such mistakes are possible: in the USA, 130 people sentenced to death have been found innocent since 1973 and released from death row. Source: Amnesty
The average time on death row before these exonerations was 11 years. Source: Death Penalty Information Center
Things were made worse in the USA when the Supreme Court refused to hold explicitly that the execution of a defendant in the face of significant evidence of innocence would be unconstitutional [Herrera v. Collins, 560 U.S. 390 (1993)]. However many US lawyers believe that in practice the court would not permit an execution in a case demonstrating persuasive evidence of "actual innocence".
The continuous threat of execution makes the ordeal of those wrongly convicted particularly horrible.
Retribution is wrong
Many people believe that retribution is morally flawed and problematic in concept and practice.
The main argument that retribution is immoral is that it is just a sanitised form of vengeance. Scenes of howling mobs attacking prison vans containing those accused of murder on their way to and from court, or chanting aggressively outside prisons when an offender is being executed, suggest that vengeance remains a major ingredient in the public popularity of capital punishment.
But just retribution, designed to re-establish justice, can easily be distinguished from vengeance and vindictiveness.
In any case, is vengeance necessarily a bad thing?
The Victorian legal philosopher James Fitzjames Stephens thought vengeance was an acceptable justification for punishment. Punishment, he thought, should be inflicted:
Retribution and the innocent
But the issue of the execution of innocent persons is also a problem for the retribution argument - if there is a serious risk of executing the innocent then one of the key principles of retribution - that people should get what they deserve (and therefore only what they deserve) - is violated by the current implementation of capital punishment in the USA, and any other country where errors have taken place.
Uniqueness of the death penalty
It's argued that retribution is used in a unique way in the case of the death penalty. Crimes other than murder do not receive a punishment that mimics the crime - for example rapists are not punished by sexual assault, and people guilty of assault are not ceremonially beaten up.
Camus and Dostoevsky argued that the retribution in the case of the death penalty was not fair, because the anticipatory suffering of the criminal before execution would probably outweigh the anticipatory suffering of the victim of their crime.
Others argue that the retribution argument is flawed because the death penalty delivers a 'double punishment'; that of the execution and the preceding wait, and this is a mismatch to the crime.
Many offenders are kept 'waiting' on death row for a very long time; in the USA the average wait is 10 years. Source: Death Penalty Information Center
In Japan, the accused are only informed of their execution moments before it is scheduled. The result of this is that each day of their life is lived as if it was their last.
Capital punishment is not operated retributively
Some lawyers argue that capital punishment is not really used as retribution for murder, or even consistently for a particular kind of murder.
They argue that, in the USA at least, only a small minority of murderers are actually executed, and that imposition of capital punishment on a "capriciously selected random handful" of offenders does not amount to a consistent programme of retribution.
Since capital punishment is not operated retributively, it is inappropriate to use retribution to justify capital punishment.
This argument would have no value in a society that applied the death penalty consistently for particular types of murder.
Capital punishment is not retribution enough
Some people who believe in the notion of retribution are against capital punishment because they feel the death penalty provides insufficient retribution. They argue that life imprisonment without possibility of parole causes much more suffering to the offender than a painless death after a short period of imprisonment.
Another example is the planner of a suicide bombing - execution might make that person a martyr, and therefore would be a lesser retribution than life imprisonment.
Failure to deter
The death penalty doesn't seem to deter people from committing serious violent crimes. The thing that deters is the likelihood of being caught and punished.
The general consensus among social scientists is that the deterrent effect of the death penalty is at best unproven.
In 1988 a survey was conducted for the UN to determine the relation between the death penalty and homicide rates. This was then updated in 1996. It concluded:
NB: It's actually impossible to test the deterrent effect of a punishment in a rigorous way, as to do so would require knowing how many murders would have been committed in a particular state if the law had been different during the same time period.
Deterrence is a morally flawed concept
Even if capital punishment did act as a deterrent, is it acceptable for someone to pay for the predicted future crimes of others?
Some people argue that one may as well punish innocent people; it will have the same effect.
This isn't true - if people are randomly picked up off the street and punished as scapegoats the only consequence is likely to be that the public will be frightened to go out.
To make a scapegoat scheme effective it would be necessary to go through the appearance of a legitimate legal process and to present evidence which convinced the public that the person being punished deserved their punishment.
While some societies have operated their legal systems on the basis of fictional evidence and confessions extracted by torture, the ethical objections to such a system are sufficient to render the argument in the second paragraph pointless.
Statistics show that the death penalty leads to a brutalisation of society and an increase in murder rate. In the USA, more murders take place in states where capital punishment is allowed. In 2010, the murder rate in states where the death penalty has been abolished was 4.01 per cent per 100,000 people. In states where the death penalty is used, the figure was 5.00 per cent. These calculations are based on figures from the FBI. The gap between death penalty states and non-death penalty states rose considerably from 4 per cent difference in 1990 to 25 per cent in 2010. Source: FBI Uniform Crime Report, from Death Penalty Information Center
Disturbed individuals may be angered and thus more likely to commit murder.
It is also linked to increased number of police officers murdered.
Brutalising the state
Capital punishment may brutalise society in a different and even more fundamental way, one that has implications for the state's relationship with all citizens.
Brutalising the law
Capital punishment is said to produce an unacceptable link between the law and violence.
But in many ways the law is inevitably linked with violence - it punishes violent crimes, and it uses punishments that 'violently' restrict human freedoms. And philosophically the law is always involved with violence in that its function includes preserving an ordered society from violent events.
Nonetheless, a strong case can be made that legal violence is clearly different from criminal violence, and that when it is used, it is used in a way that everyone can see is fair and logical.
Capital punishment 'lowers the tone' of society
Civilised societies do not tolerate torture, even if it can be shown that torture may deter, or produce other good effects.
In the same way many people feel that the death penalty is an inappropriate for a modern civilised society to respond to even the most dreadful crimes.
Because most countries - but not all - do not execute people publicly, capital punishment is not a degrading public spectacle. But it is still a media circus, receiving great publicity, so that the public are well aware of what is being done on their behalf.
However this media circus takes over the spectacle of public execution in teaching the public lessons about justice, retribution, and personal responsibility for one's own actions.
Cruel, inhumane, degrading
Regardless of the moral status of capital punishment, some argue that all ways of executing people cause so much suffering to the condemned person that they amount to torture and are wrong.
Many methods of execution are quite obviously likely to cause enormous suffering, such as execution by lethal gas, electrocution or strangulation.
Other methods have been abandoned because they were thought to be barbaric, or because they forced the executioner to be too 'hands-on'. These include firing squads and beheading.
Many countries that use capital punishment have now adopted lethal injection, because it's thought to be less cruel for the offender and less brutalising for the executioner.
Those against capital punishment believe this method has serious moral flaws and should be abandoned.
The first flaw is that it requires medical personnel being directly involved in killing (rather than just checking that the execution has terminated life). This is a fundamental contravention of medical ethics.
The second flaw is that research in April 2005 showed that lethal injection is not nearly as 'humane' as had been thought. Post mortem findings indicated that levels of anaesthetic found in offenders were consistent with wakefulness and the ability to experience pain.
Capital Punishment Essay: Benefits of the Death Penalty
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The Benefits of the Death Penalty
Crime is everywhere. Wherever we look, we find criminals and crime. Criminals have become a part of our daily lives. Does this mean we let them be the darkness of our society? No, definitely not. Eliminating crime and criminals is our duty, and we cannot ignore it. Getting the rightly accused to a just punishment is very important. Some criminals commit a crime because they have no other option to survive, but some do it for fun. I do not advocate death penalty for everybody. A person, who stole bread from a grocery store, definitely does not deserve death penalty. However, a serial killer, who kills people for fun or for his personal gain, definitely deserves death penalty. Death penalty should continue in order to eliminate the garbage of our society. Not everybody deserves to die, but some people definitely do. I support death penalty because of several reasons. Firstly, I believe that death penalty serves as a deterrent and helps in reducing crime. Secondly, it is true that death penalty is irreversible, but it is hard to kill a wrongly convicted person due to the several chances given to the convicted to prove his innocence. Thirdly, death penalty assures safety of the society by eliminating these criminals. Finally, I believe in "lex tallionis" - a life for a life.
Deterrence means to punish somebody as an example and to create fear in other people for the punishment. Death penalty is one of those extreme punishments that would create fear in the mind of any sane person. Ernest van den Haag, in his article "On Deterrence and the Death Penalty" mentions, "One abstains from dangerous acts because of vague, inchoate, habitual and, above all, preconscious fears" (193). Everybody fears death, even animals. Most criminals would think twice if they knew their own lives were at stake. Although there is no statistical evidence that death penalty deters crime, but we have to agree that most of us fear death. Suppose there is no death penalty in a state and life imprisonment without parole is the maximum punishment. What is stopping a prisoner who is facing a life imprisonment without parole to commit another murder in the prison? According to Paul Van Slambrouck, " Assaults in prisons all over US, both against fellow inmates and against staff, have more than doubled in the past decade, according to statistics gathered by the Criminal Justice Institute in Middletown, Connecticut" (Christian Science Monitor, Internet).
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Death Penalty Capital Punishment Benefits Grocery Store Everybody Other People Extreme
There is no stopping these inmates from committing further crimes within the prison, if they are already facing the maximum punishment. Anti-death penalty advocates argue that imprisonment itself could deter criminals. They believe that we do not need to go to the extreme measure of killing the criminals to deter crime. Hugo Adam Bedau in his article, "Capital Punishment and Social Defense" mentions, "Crimes can be deterred only by making would-be criminals frightened of being arrested, convicted, and punished for crimes& " (301). Unfortunately, the ever-increasing population in the prisons proves otherwise. Somehow, just imprisonment is not enough for some people to stop them from committing a crime. The number of criminals is increasing every year. In 1990, there were 42,733 prisoners in Alaska, whereas in 1999 it increased to 68,599 (Death Penalty USA Pages, Internet). Some criminals may think that they would never be caught, and just keep committing crimes. The perfect example for this would be serial killers. For such people, death penalty should be there, so that others, who even think about committing such crimes, learn a lesson that every criminal is eventually caught.
Anti-death penalty advocates believe that death penalty is irreversible and may become a cause of irreversible mistakes. Once a person has been sentenced to death and thus death penalty practiced, there is nothing that can be done to undo the punishment if the accused turns out to be innocent. I agree that death penalty is irreversible, but the chance of making a mistake in death penalty is extremely low. Death penalty is considered an extreme punishment and the judicial system takes a lot of care in finalizing the decision. There are several safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty. For example, "Capital punishment may be imposed only when guilt is determined by clear and convincing evidence leaving no room for an alternative explanation of the facts", "Anyone sentenced to death shall receive the right to appeal to a court of higher jurisdiction", etc. (Capital Punishment: Life or Death, Internet). There are several other privileges provided to the convicted that assure that death penalty is given to the rightly accused person. According to Haag, "Trials are more likely to be fair when life is at stake - the death penalty is probably less often unjustly inflicted than others" (192). Statistics reveal that there is far less number of death sentences than life imprisonment sentences without parole given out every year. According to Federal Justice Statistics, in 1998, there were approximately 5000 criminals sentenced to life imprisonment as opposed to 74 criminals sentenced to death (Internet). This shows that judicial system itself is very careful with death sentences. Even if we assume that there are chances that an innocent person is executed, it is the problem with the trial, not the punishment. "It is not the penalty - whether death or prison - which is unjust when inflicted on the innocent, but its imposition on the innocent", writes Haag (192). When an innocent person is sentenced to death, it is not the fault of the punishment itself, but the trial that led to this punishment. There have been cases in which a person has been sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, and then after several years, it was revealed that the person was innocent. No court or compensation in this world can return the horrifying years spent in the prison by that innocent person. If we stop giving life imprisonment sentences to criminals on this ground, then probably most of the criminals would be walking around free on the streets within ten to fifteen years. The fear and trust that the society has in the judicial system would be lost. The judicial system has minimized the chances of mistakes. It is almost impossible to sentence a wrongly accused person. Then, why cause death of several innocent victims just on the bleak assumption that some day we might make a mistake?
Incapacitating a person is "depriving s/he of the physical or intellectual power of natural il/legal qualifications" (Webster, 574). Death penalty is not advocated for all criminals. Those criminals, who commit murders during self-defense or during times of passion, do not deserve death penalty. However, those people who just do not seem to learn the lesson the first time, or those who kill for fun, definitely deserve death penalty. Defendants (murderers) are allowed to shield themselves from justice by pleading insanity. Insanity means a failure to respond to the usual sort of incentives in the usual ways. If insane people are completely unresponsive to incentives, then their profits serve no social purpose, thus leading to another beneficial factor of the death penalty. People who have no social purpose do not benefit society, culture of mankind, or the basic rules of humanity. For example: This drug related brain-damaged killer barely knew his own identity when he murdered a mother and her daughter in front of a 3 year old boy. When he was finished raping the females and performed their deaths, he move on to sexually molest the boy in which he then left him to die. The retarded man then pled insanity, got to stay in jail for 22 years, eating three square meals a day, sleeping on a mattress with a blanket in air conditioned comfort and having a roof over his head (Shapiro, 61). Where do we draw the line between mentally incapable and criminally insane? When are they going to learn to resume the responsibility for their actions? I am not saying that all mentally disabled people should be subject to death penalty because they are no good to the society. However, some people pose a great fatal danger to the society in such a cruel way as seen in the above example. In such cases, death penalty becomes crucial for the benefit of the society. I believe every criminal, no matter how cruel he is, should be given at least one chance to change himself/herself. Thus, I do not advocate death penalty for people who have performed only one murder. However, there have been cases in which people have committed several murders (e.g., serial killers), or have committed crime even after imprisonment. For such people, I advocate death penalty. There needs to be a limit to which society should put up to. If somebody does not understand that going around killing people is wrong, then I believe, that letting such people live is not only a great threat to the society, but also a great burden. Advocate of anti-death penalty, Adam Bedau, wrote, "Prevention by means of incapacitation occurs only if the executed criminal would have committed other crimes if he or she had not been executed and had been punished only in some less incapacitative way (e.g., by imprisonment)" (Capital Punishment and Social Defense, 301). If people commit a crime while facing an imprisonment sentence, then their sentence should be changed to death sentence, since it is evident that they are just habitual to committing crimes and are a constant threat to the society, including the other inmates.
Some people might think that death penalty is inhuman and barbarous, but ask those people who have lost their beloved or whose lives have been tied to a hospital bed because of some barbarous person. I am sure they would be very unhappy to see the person who ruined their lives just getting a few years of imprisonment or mere rehabilitation. Consider the example of the rapist and killer given above. Now, suppose the woman raped was your wife, sister, or daughter. How would you feel knowing that the person who ruined your family is calmly enjoying the benefits of an asylum and an air-conditioned room? Anti-death penalty supporters believe that death penalty is barbarous. Well! So is murder. Death penalty is not revenge. Rather, it is a matter of putting an end to a life that has no value for other human lives. Sentencing a murderer to death is in fact a favor to the society. Despite the moral argument concerning the inhumane treatment of the criminal, we return to the "nature" of the crime committed. Can society place an unequal weight on the tragically lost lives of murder victims and the criminal? This is not an exam question in a college philosophy course but a moral conundrum at the core of perhaps the most intriguing issue facing the U. S. Supreme Court today. Punishment is meted out because of the nature of the crime, devoid of any reference to the social identity of the victim. In "The Death Penalty in America", Adam Bedau wrote, "even in the tragedy of human death there are degrees, and that it is much more tragic for the innocent to lose his life than for the State to take the life of a criminal convicted of a capital offense" (308). I believe that if one cannot value the life of another human being, then one's own life has no value.
Death penalty is good and serves a definite purpose of reducing crime as well as bringing justice to the criminals and innocent. In order to serve its purpose, it must be adjusted and made more effective and efficient. The justice system has changed dramatically in the past thirty years in order to make sure that the rightly accused is brought to justice. I believe that death penalty should not be abolished, as it ensures the safety of the society, brings justice to those who have suffered and most importantly helps in reducing crime and criminals in our society. Death penalty is important to keep the brightness of justice and public safety shining brightly on our society.
Budau, Hugo Adam. "Capital Punishment and Social Defense." Reserved reading for Philosophy 203.
Bedau, Hugo Adam. " The Death Penalty in America." New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Browning, Tonya. "Capital Punishment: Life or Death." Computer Writing and Research Lab, University of Texas. Online. Internet. 27 April 2000.
Haag, Ernest van den. "On Deterrence and the Death Penalty." Reserved reading for Philosophy 203.
Shapiro, Walter. "What say should victims have?" AskJeeves.com. Online. Internet. 29 April 2000.
Slambrouck, Paul Van. "US Prisons - Under Pressure - Show Increase in Violence." The Christian Science Monitor Online. 6 August 1998. Internet.
"Incapacitation." "Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary." 1981.