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Capital Punishment


Injustice of Society
Looking out for the state of the public's satisfaction in
the scheme of capital sentencing does not constitute
serving justice. Today's system of capital punishment is
fraught with inequalities and injustices. The commonly
offered arguments for the death penalty are filled with
holes. "It was a deterrent. It removed killers. It was the
ultimate punishment. It is biblical. It satisfied the
public's need for retribution. It relieved the anguish of
the victim's family." (Grisham 120) Realistically, imposing
the death penalty is expensive and time consuming.
Retroactively, it has yet to be proven as a deterrent.
Morally, it is a continuation of the cycle of violence and
"...degrades all who are involved in its enforcement, as
well as its victim." (Stewart 1). 

Perhaps the most frequent argument for capital punishment
is that of deterrence. The prevailing thought is that
imposition of the death penalty will act to dissuade other
criminals from committing violent acts. Numerous studies
have been created attempting to prove this belief; however,
"[a]ll the evidence taken together makes it hard to be
confident that capital punishment deters more than long
prison terms do." (Cavanagh 4). Going ever farther, Bryan
Stevenson, the executive director of the Montgomery based
Equal Justice Initiative, has stated that "...people are
increasingly realizing that the more we resort to killing
as a legitimate response to our frustration and anger with
violence, the more violent our society becomes. We could
execute all three thousand people on death row, and most
people would not feel any safer tomorrow." (Frame 51). In
addition, with the growing humanitarianism of modern
society, the number of inmates actually put to death is
substantially lower than 50 years ago. This decline creates
a situation in which the death penalty ceases to be a
deterrent when the populace begins to think that one can
get away with a crime and go unpunished. Also, the less
that the death sentence is used, the more it becomes
unusual, thus coming in conflict with the eighth amendment.
This is essentially a paradox, in which the less the death
penalty is used, the less society can legally use it. The
end result is a punishment that ceases to deter any crime
at all. 

The key part of the death penalty is that it involves
death-something which is rather permanent for humans, due
to the concept of mortality. This creates a major problem
when " there continue to be many instances of innocent
people being sentenced to death." (Tabak 38). In our legal
system, there exist numerous ways in which justice might be
poorly served for a recipient of the death sentence.
Foremost is in the handling of his own defense counsel. In
the event that a defendant is without counsel, a lawyer
will be provided. "Attorney's appointed to represent
indigent capital defendants frequently lack the qualities
necessary to provide a competent defense and sometimes have
exhibited such poor character that they have subsequently
been disbarred." (Tabak 37). With payment caps or court
determined sums of, for example, $5 an hour, there is not
much incentive for a lawyer to spend a great deal of time
representing a capital defendant. When you compare this to
the prosecution, "..aided by the police, other law
enforcement agencies, crime labs, state mental hospitals,
various other scientific resources, prosecutors . .
experienced in successfully handling capital cases,
compulsory process, and grand juries...". (Tabak 37), the
defense that the court appointed counsel can offer is puny.
If, in fact, a defendant has a valid case to offer, what
chance has he to offer it and have it properly recognized.
Furthermore, why should he be punished for a misjustice
that was created by the court itself when it appointed the
incapable lawyer. Even if a defendant has proper legal
counsel, there is still the matter of impartiality of
judges. "The Supreme Court has steadily reduced the
availability of habeas corpus review of capital
convictions, placing its confidence in the notion that
state judges, who take the same oath of office as federal
judges to uphold the Constitution, can be trusted to
enforce it."(Bright 768). This makes for the biased trying
of a defendant's appeals, ".. given the overwhelming
pressure on elected state judges to heed, and perhaps even
lead to, the popular cries for the death of criminal
defendants." (Bright 769). Thirty two of the states that
impose the death penalty also employ the popular election
of judges, and several of these even have judges run with
party affiliations. This creates a deeply political justice
system-the words alone are a paradox. Can society simply
brush off mistaken execution as an incidental cost in the
greater scheme of putting a criminal to death? "Revenge is
an unworthy motive for our society to pursue." (Whittier

In our society, there is a great expectation placed on the
family of a victim to pursue vengeance to the highest
degree-the death penalty. Pat Bane, executive director of
the Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation (MVFR),
stated, "One parent told me that people made her feel like
she was betraying her son because she did not want to kill
the person who murdered him." (Frame 50). This creates a
dilemma of morality. If anything, by forcing families to
seek the death penalty, their own consciences will be
burdened by the death of the killer. Furthermore,
"[k]illing him will not bring back your son[s]." (Grisham

At some point, man must stop the violence. Seeking
temporary gratification is not a logical basis for whether
the death penalty should be imposed. Granted, revenge is
easily confused with retribution, and most would agree that
the punishment should fit the crime, but can society really
justify murdering someone else simply on the basis that
they deserved it? Government has the right and duty to
protect the greater good against people who jeopardize the
welfare of society, but a killer can be sentenced to life
without chance of parole, and society will be just as safe
as if he had been executed. 

A vast misconception concerning the death penalty is that
it saves society the costs of keeping inmates imprisoned
for long periods. In the act of preserving due process of
justice, the court appeals involved with the death penalty
becomes a long, drawn-out and very expensive process. "The
average time between sentencing and execution for the 31
prisoners put on death row in 1992 was 114 months, or nine
and a half years." (Stewart 50). "Criminal justice process
expenses, trial court costs, appellate and post-conviction
costs, and prison costs perhaps including years served on
death row awaiting execution... all told, the extra costs
per death penalty imposed in over a quarter million
dollars, and per execution exceeds $2 million." (Cavanagh
4). When you compare this to the average costs for a twenty
year prison term for first degree murder (roughly $330
thousand), the cost of putting someone away for life is a
deal. Is it really worth the hassle and money to kill a
criminal, when we can put them away for life for less money
with a great deal more ease? 

In earlier times-where capital punishment was common, the
value of life was less, and societies were more
barbaric-capital punishment was probably quite acceptable.
However, in today's society, which is becoming ever more
increasingly humanitarian, and individual rights and due
process of justice are held in high accord, the death
penalty is becoming an unrealistic form of punishment.
Also, with the ever present possibility of mistaken
execution, there will remain the question of innocence of
those put to death. Finally, man is not a divine being. He
does not have the right to inflict mortal punishment in the
name of society's welfare, when there are suitable
substitutes that require fewer resources. I ask society,
"...why don't we stop the killing?" (Grisham 404). 

Grisham, John. The Chamber. New York: Island Books, 1994. 

Stewart, David O. "Dealing with Death." American Bar
Association Journal80.11 (1994): 50 

Tabak, Ronald J. "Report: Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
and Lack of Due Process in Death Penalty Cases". Human
Rights 22.Winter (1995): 36 

Whittier, Charles H. "Moral Arguments For and Against
Capital Punishment". CRS Report For Congress (1996): 1 


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