Downfalls of Capital Punishment


 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 frought 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 1) 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 
402). 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)


Bright, Steven B., and Patrick J. Keenan. "Judges and the Politics of 
Death: Deciding Between the Bill of Rights and the Next Election in 
Capital Cases."

Boston University Law Review 75 (1995): 768-69.

Cavanagh, Suzanne, and David Teasley. "Capital Punishment: A Brief
Overview." CRS Report For Congress 95-505GOV (1995): 4.

Frame, Randy. "A Matter Of Life and Death." Christianity Today 14 Aug.
1995: 50

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

Stewart, David O. "Dealing with Death." American Bar Association 
Journal 80.11 (1994): 50

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

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


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