Essay, Research Paper: Capital Punishment

Legal Issues

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The topic I chose for my research paper is Capital punishment. I chose this
topic because I think Capital punishment should be banned in all states. The
death penalty violates religious beliefs about killing, remains unfair to
minorities and is therefore unconstitutional, and is inhumane and barbaric. The
death penalty constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the
Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments (Bedau 2). Those who had shown no respect for
life would be restrained, permanently if necessary, so they could not further
endanger other members of the community (Cauthen 2). But the purpose of
confinement would not be vengeance or punishment (Cauthen 2). Rather an ideal
community would show no mercy even to those who had shown no mercy (Cauthen 2).
It would return good for evil. The aim of isolation is reconciliation and not
revenge. Although the founders of the new country were generally in favor of the
death penalty for certain crimes, many Americans in the late Eighteenth and
early Nineteenth century were highly vocal opponents, known as abolitionists
(Stewart 12). The best known of the American abolitionists was Dr. Benjamin
Rush, a signer of The Declaration of Independence and a confidant of Benjamin
Franklin (Stewart 12). Like many other Americans at the time, Rush equated the
death penalty with a cruel monarchy specifically that of England's George and
believed that the new republic should have nothing to do with executions
(Stewart 12). Rush wrote a number of pamphlets and books arguing that the very
idea of a death penalty contradicted the notion of humanity and divine love
(Stewart 12). "Who are we to destroy what god has made". It is far
better to reform a criminal than to destroy him. It is shown that Capital
punishment leads many citizens suffering before they are officially dead. When
Mississippi executed Jimmy Lee Gray in the gas chamber in 1983, his head was not
immobilized (Stewart 30). As the poison gas began suffocating Gray, eyewitnesses
and media representatives reporting Gray "suffering a torturous death, his
head flailing about wildly, smashing the medal pipe (behind his chair used for
support) many times before he lost consciousness" (Stewart 30). The
electric chair and hanging too, sometimes fail to be quick, and there have been
glitches in lethal injections- executioners have sometimes had difficulty
finding usable veins into which to inject the poison, and some victims have
suffered breathing trauma before being rendered unconscious by the injection
(Stewart 30). Several electrocutions in recent years have taken more than
fifteen minutes to kill the condemned man, and meanwhile he has been severely
burnt (Stewart 76). How can it serve the purposes of a modern society to condone
such torture. Americans also express great concern over the possibility that an
innocent person maybe killed by the state for the crime he or she did not commit
(Jackson 45). At least 23 cases have resulted in the execution of innocent
people (Jackson 45). Since 1900, this country, there have been on the average
more than four cases per year in which an entirely innocent person was convicted
of murder. (Bedau 8). Scores of these people were sentenced to death. In many
cases, a reprieve or commutation arrived just hours, or even minutes, before the
scheduled execution (Bedau). In 1986 a white women was shot and killed at a dry
cleaners in Monroeville, Alabama. (Stewart 66). The town was shocked by the
murder; however, for the next eight months the police were unable to come up
with any likely suspects (Stewart 66). Finally police arrested Walter McMillian,
a black man who lived in a nearby town. (Stewart 66). McMillian denied murdering
the women at the dry cleaners; he claimed he was at a fish fry all that day with
friends and relatives (Stewart 66). In fact, his story corroborated by several
people (Stewart 66). Nevertheless, McMillian was arrested, tried, convicted, and
imprisoned on death row even before formal sentencing (Stewart 66). For more
than six years, Walter McMillian lived on death row while various appeals were
filed in his behalf, all of which were denied (Stewart 67). Eventually, however,
new attorneys took over the case an a volunteer basis, and were able to
demonstrate serious improprieties in the prosecution's case, such as withholding
evidence that would have proved McMillian's innocence (Stewart 67). The
television show 60 minutes featured McMillian's case in November 1992 (Stewart
67). Partly because of outraged public response to the report, Alabama agreed to
begin a new investigation, and eventually admitted that a terrible mistake had
been made (Stewart 67). On March 3, 1993, McMillian was freed. What does this
tell the community about trials? It tells me that sometimes they are mislead.
Not all accused people will be as lucky as Walter will. This story just goes to
show us that innocent people have been convicted. There is an effective
alternative to burning the life out of human beings in the name of public
safety. That alternative is just as permanent, at least as great a deterrent and
for those who are so inclined-far less expensive than the exhaustive legal
appeals required in capital cases. The alternative is life imprisonment without
the possibility of parole. Life imprisonment without parole can keep society
safe without needlessly taking human life. Two case studies demonstrate the
effectiveness of life without parole as a meaningful, practical alternative to
the death penalty (Biscup 51). In Alabama life without the possibility of parole
has been met with praise where it is seen not only as an alternative to the
death penalty, but as a more efficient means of sentencing (Biscup 52). The
Alabama experience has shown that an increase in those sentenced to life without
parole does not lead directly to overcrowded prisons (Biscup 52). The proportion
of all Alabama prisoners who are truly incarcerated for life is less than nine
percent, not even close to being a major reason for overcrowding. It is obvious
that if Americans be4came generally aware of life without possibility of parole
as a viable means of punishing violent criminals, the death penalty would not be
featured so prominently is our national discourse. The money we citizens pay in
taxes is being wasted on cruel and unusual punishment. The long paper trails
involved in trying and appealing are not only time consuming, but also costly
(Stewart 50). For example, California spends 90 million each year- that's
taxpayers dollars on Capital cases. In North Carolina each execution runs 2.6
million; each one in Texas is about 2.3 million. Florida leads them all, with a
single execution costing taxpayers a whopping 3.2 million. Surely the money
could be better spent. A Duke University Study estimates that the fifty-six
executions that occurred in 1995 cost Americans 121 million, enough to hire
three thousand police officers at 40,000 each. Federal Judge Alex Kozinski
complains "We have constructed a machine that is extremely expensive,
chokes our legal institutions, and visits repeated trauma on victim's
families". A Question that always pops up in my head is "Is the Death
Penalty used as a sign of Discrimination"? In 1972 when the Supreme Court
noted that racial discrimination resulted in different patterns of sentencing
and rates of execution for white convicted murders and black convicted murders.
The supreme courts decision in Furman vs. Georgia was backed up by many studies
and showed that blacks were executed at a rate far out of proportion to their
numbers, and the Court urged States to rework their statutes to correct what it
saw to be arbitrary and discriminatory use of the death penalty (Stewart 62).
The nations death rows have always had a disproportionately large population of
African-Americans, relative to their fraction of the total population (Bedau 6).
Over the past century, black offenders, as compared to white, were often
executed for crimes less often receiving the death penalty, such as rape and
burglary (Bedau 6). Since the revival of the death penalty in the mid 1970's,
about half of those on death row at any given time have been black. A
disproportionately large fraction given the black/white ratio of the total
population, but not so obviously unfair if judged by the fact that roughly fifty
percent of all those arrested for murder were also black (Bedau 6).
Nevertheless, when those under death sentence are examined more closely, it
turns out that the race is a decisive factor after all. Discrimination against
the poor is also well established (Bedau 7). Approximately ninety percent of
those on death row could not afford to hire a lawyer when they were tried. A
defendant's poverty, lack of firm social roots in the community, inadequate
legal representation at trial or on appeal-all these have been common factors
among death row populations (Bedau 7). It is wrong to kill. It is wrong for
these people to have killed in the community, but it is also wrong for the state
to premeditate another murder (Bender 141). Capital punishment is cruel and
unusual. It is a relic of the earliest days of penology, when slavery, branding,
and other corporal punishments were commonplace (Bedau 2). Opposition to the
death penalty does not arise from misplaced sympathy for convicted murderers. On
the contrary, murder demonstrates a lack of respect for human life. For this
very reason, murder is abhorrent, and any policy of state authorized killings is
immoral. Executions gives society the unmistakable message that human life no
longer deserves respect when it is useful to take it that homicide is legitimate
when deemed justified by pragmatic concerns (Bedau 3). Capital punishment wastes
resources. It squanders the time and energy of courts, prosecuting attorneys,
defense counsel, juries, and courtroom and correctional personnel. It unduly
burdens the system of criminal justice, and it is therefore counterproductive as
an instrument for society's control of violent crime (Bedau 3). It epitomizes
the tragic inefficacy and brutality of the resort to violence rather than reason
for the solution of difficult social problems. A decent and humane society does
not deliberately kill human beings. An execution is dramatic, public spectacle
of official, violent homicide that teaches the permissibility of killing people
to solve social problems-the worst possible example to set for society. In
conclusion Capital punishment does not deter crime, and the death penalty is
uncivilized in theory and unfair and inequitable in practice. We should not
think of the motto "An eye for an eye". We should make our society a
human place, without the use of the death penalty.
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