Cruelty of Capital Punishment


Capital punishment is the legal infliction the death penalty. 
It is obviously the most severe form of criminal punishment. (Bedau1)
Capital punishment is a controversial way of dealing with violent 
criminals. The main alternative to the death penalty is life in 
prison. Capital punishment has been around for thousands of years as a 
means of eradicating criminals. A giant debate started between 
supporters and opposers of execution, over the morality and 
effectiveness of the death penalty. The supporters claim that if you 
take a life you should pay with your life or "an eye for an eye". 
Opposers of the death penalty bring up the chance of sentencing the 
innocent and how the death penalty is inhumane. The purpose of this 
paper is to examine the process of capital punishment and the moral 
viewpoints on the death penalty. The first evidence of capital 
punishment is from Hammurabi's code, a book of Babylonian law, from 
1700BC. The Bible mentions that execution should be used for many 
crimes. (Bedau1) One example of the death penalty in the bible is 
"Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death." (Exodus 
21:12). The bible also suggests stoning a woman if she unmarried sex 
and had "wrought folly on Israel by playing the harlot in her father's 
house" (Deuteronomy 22:21) England recognized seven major crimes that 
called for execution by the end of the 15th century. These crimes 
were: murder, theft (by deceitfully taking someone goods), burglary, 
rape, and arson. As time went by more and more crimes were believed to 
deserve the death penalty and by 1800 more than 200 crimes were 
recognized as punishable by death. (Bedau2) It was not long before 
capital punishment met opposition. The Quakers made first movement 
against execution. They supported life imprisonment as a more humane 
justice. Cesare Beccaria wrote On Crimes and Punishment, a book 
criticizing torture and the death penalty, in 1764. Cesare drove many 
other philosophers, like Voltaire and Jerry Bentham, to question the 
validity of using capital punishment. (Bedau2) Contrary to what some 
may believe the process of sentencing a defendant is a very arduous 
and time-taking ordeal. After he has been arrested as the suspect of a 
crime the defendant will either tried in a state or federal court 
system. The lowest court that a litigant can be sent to is the Court 
of General jurisdiction (state level) or the US District Courts 
(federal level). Any time in the trial the defense may choose to 
appeal. Even if a suspect is sentenced to a crime the case may be 
appealed for a variety of reasons. The defendant's lawyer could claim 
that the defendant's rights were violated when he was arrested, that 
the defendant received an unfair trial, or new evidence that could 
prove the defendant's innocence has surfaced. (Guernsey,16) Next the 
appeal is taken to the Intermediate Appellate Courts (state) or the US 
Courts of Appeals (federal) who will decide if the trial court has 
erred in some way. If the appeal is granted In the state court system 
the appellate will be sent to the State Supreme Court, or in the 
federal system, to the supreme. From the State Supreme Court the case 
may be appealed again to the Supreme Court. Once the case has reached 
the supreme court the verdict is final. (Guernsey,15) This monotonous 
appealing process is the reason for the excess of inmates on death row 
today. An inmate can spend 6-10 years on death row during the 
appellate process. (Guernsey, 20) In fact only about one in 1900 
prisoners (.053%) on death row have served the death penalty. 
( "Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and 
Texas have carried out about three-quarters of all executions since 
1976." (Guernsey,22) There has been a controversy over the death 
penalty ever since the Quakers fought for reform in the 1700's.
(Bedau1) This conflict has two sides: those in favor of capital 
punishment, and those who view life without parole (LWOP) as a more 
humane alternative.

 Supporters of the death penalty rationalize executing because 
if a man takes a life he should pay for it with his own or "an eye
for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." They also use verses from the Bible 
like, "Whosoever sheds a man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed" 
(Genesis 9:6), and Exodus 21:12 to show that Christianity supports it. 
They claim that executions deter other criminals from killing in fear 
of being executed. However, this could never been proven since it 
would be very difficult to link a drop in murders to knowledge of 
recent executions. Those who oppose the death penalty have come up 
with many reasons that life in prison without parole, or LWOP, is a 
better means of dealing with violent criminals. One reason is the risk 
of executing the innocent. (Bedau1) This risk is very small 
considering that since 1900 only 23 people, who were possibly 
innocent, were executed. ( Those who oppose 
the death penalty claim that the number of blacks is disproportionate 
to that of women and white men. (Bedau1) This has been proven to be 
true and is the most vital argument of the opposers. Wealth and fame 
take a pivotal part in the trial of a defendant. Poor defendants are 
give court-appointed lawyers; however, rich and famous defendants can 
afford fancy lawyers. (Bedau1) One example of this is the OJ Simpson 
trial. If OJ was a normal middle to lower class person he would not be 
able to afford lawyers like Johnny Cochran and would probably have 
been found guilty. There are many forms of execution. Some have been 
labeled barbaric and forbidden nearly everywhere. Currently the only 
accepted means of execution are: electrocution, the gas chamber, 
firing squad and lethal injection. (Bedau1) The firing squad is only 
used it Utah upon request. (Guernsey, 54) Montana, New Hampshire and
Washington are the only states that allow hangings. (55) The electric 
chair was introduced in New York in 1890 and is now used in 24 states. 
(Bedau2) The criminal is seated in a chair. Electrodes are attached to 
the head and a leg. Pulses of 2000 volts are sent through his body for 
about three minutes or until he appears to be dead. The fact that the 
electrodes reach 1900°C and the brain reaches the boiling point causes 
one to doubt the humanity of this practice. (Guernsey, 53) Lethal
injection is thought to be the least painful method of execution. The 
person is strapped down and a given a deadly dose of barbiturates via 
IV. (Bedau2) However this process also has its flaws. "It took 
technicians 45 minutes of sticking to find a proper vein for the 
injection"(Guernsey, 59) on Peter Morin. Needles have also been know 
to fly out in the middle of the injection. (59) The gas chamber was 
first used in Nevada in 1924. (Bedau2) The prisoner is strapped into a 
chair and cyanide gas is administered through a hole in the floor. 
Death takes from three to four minutes, but prisoners have been known 
to go into convulsions or choke to death on the gas. (Guernsey, 59)

 After learning about our modern methods of execution one 
wonders if these methods are humane. Is being struck with enough
electricity to cause the eyeballs pop out of their sockets any better 
than being beheaded? (Guernsey, 59) Is the death penalty 'cruel and 
unusual punishment'? We must devise more sane methods of execution 
which are quick and efficient. Most importantly we must make the 
appeals process more orderly to cut down on the glut of inmates on 
death row, and therefore cut down on the money wasted housing 
prisoners during the appeals process. 

Works Cited 

1. Bedau, Hugo Adam "Capital Punishment" Encarta 96 Encyclopedia
(CD-ROM) Microsoft Corporation, 1996.

2. The Bible 

3. Bedau, Hugo A. "Capital Punishment" Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 
(CD-ROM) Grolier Electronic Publishing, Inc. 1995.

4. Guernsey, JoAnn Bren. Should We Have Capital Punishment?. 
Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Co., 1993.

5. (website)

6. Bender, David L., and Bruno Leone. The Death Penalty Opposing 
Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1991.


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