Essay, Research Paper: Death Penalty

Legal Issues

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The death penalty is a major issue that brings up a lot of arguments in our
society. The most important question concerning the death penalty is whether it
should be abolished or not. I think that the death penalty is the ultimate
denial of human rights. It violates the right to life as proclaimed in the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the ultimate cruel, inhuman, and
degrading punishment. Race, social and economic status, location of crime, and
pure chance may be deciding factors in death sentencing. In addition,
prosecutors seek the death penalty far more frequently when the victim of the
homicide is white than when the victim is black. The actual cost of an execution
is substantially higher than the cost of imprisoning a person for life. Death
was formerly the penalty for all felonies in English law. In practice the death
penalty was never applied as widely as the law provided, as a variety of
procedures were adopted to decrease the harshness of the law. Many offenders who
committed capital crimes were pardoned, usually on condition that they agreed to
be transported to what were then the American colonies; others were allowed what
was known as benefit of clergy(Ploski 2). The beginning of benefit of clergy was
that offenders who were established priests were subject to trial by the church
courts rather than the non-religious courts. If the offender convicted of a
felony could show that he had be ordained, he was allowed to go free, subject to
the possibility of being punished by the ecclesiastical courts. In medieval
times the only proof of ordination was literacy, and it became the custom by the
17th century to allow anyone convicted of a felony to escape the death sentence
by giving proof of literacy(Ploski 4). In 18th-century England concern with
rising crime led to many statutes either extending the number of offenses
punishable with death or doing away with benefit of clergy for existing
felonies, which as a result became capital(Black 2). By the end of the
18th-century English criminal law contained about 200 capital offenses. Many
offenders who were convicted of capital crimes escaped the gallows as a result
of reprieves and royal pardons, usually on condition of transportation, and many
others who were charged with capital crimes were acquitted against the evidence,
because the jury was unwilling to see the death penalty applied in a minor
case(Black 5). The unpredictable application of the death penalty in the late
18th and early 19th centuries led to demands for humanitarian reform. Between
1820 and 1840 most capital statutes were repealed, and by 1861 only murder,
treason, arson in a royal dockyard, and piracy with violence retained the death
penalty. Until the mid-19th century executions in England were public, and
throughout the 18th century great crowds attended the regular executions in
London and other cities(Ploski 6). Often an execution was followed by scenes of
violence and disorder in the crowd. Public opinion eventually turned against the
idea of executions as spectacles, and after 1868 executions were carried out in
private prisons( Black 7). The earliest recorded execution committed in the U.S.
under state authority was in 1864. During 1864-1890, 57 persons were executed
under state authority( Kasper 8). Since the 1960’s, 100% of the executions
performed under civil authority have been state executions(Mello 7). The power
for local governments to perform executions, however, greatly dropped during
this century. Perhaps the transfer of death penalty power from local to state
governments was partially due to increased technology. Improved communications
made it easier to centralize the decision-making about executions with state
governments(Black 9). The legal killing of a criminal by carrying out a death
sentence is a type of punishment called “capital punishment”. By taking away
a criminal’s life, capital punishment is the ultimate penalty. From 1930 to
1933, 4,085 prisoners were executed in the United States(Haines 3). In 1972, the
Supreme Court ruled that laws regulating the death penalty in various states
were defined as being unconstitutional in the form in which that existed at the
time. This ruling prevented any executions from taking place period. In 1976,
however, the Supreme Court upheld revised state laws regarding capital
punishment, which made it legally possible again for states to carry out death
sentences. From 1977 to 1993, 226 prisoners were executed(Kasper 2). Capital
Punishment offenses differ between the states, and not all states have a death
penalty. Most states with the death penalty choose first-degree murder as a
capital offense. Some federal crimes also can be capital offenses, such as
certain crimes involving contract killing, killing on-duty law enforcement
officer, espionage, or assassination of the President, Vice President, a member
of Congress, or a Supreme Court Justice. Deterrence is an argument often spoken
of to justify the death penalty. On the outside, the argument makes sense.
Rational people understand links between cause and effect and crime and
punishment. A fear of death or the possibility of death also affects the
behavior of most reasonable people. People who murder, however, are rarely
intelligent at the time they commit the crime. The threat of execution at some
future dates does not enter the minds of killers acting under the influence of
drugs or alcohol, panicking while committing another crime, of simply lacking
and understanding of the force of their crime. Hired killers obviously believe
they will not be caught. The death penalty has never shown to benefit a society.
In fact, there are strong indications that it increases people’s tolerance
towards violence. No credible study yet has produced any solid evidence that the
death penalty prevents violent crimes. According to FBI statistics, the murder
rate in some states which use the death penalty is twice that of some states
which do not use the death penalty(Mello1). Even researchers who set out to
prove that police officers have greater protection in jurisdictions permitting
executions uncovered no deterrent value in the death penalty. Between 1976 and
1985, almost twice as many law enforcement officers were killed in death penalty
states, as were killed in states that did not execute(Mello 2). The widely
respected Thorsten Sellin studies, conducted in the United States during 1962,
1967, and 1980, concluded that the death penalty has no deterrent effect(Haines
4). The British Royal Commission on Capital Punishment analyzed statistics from
seven European, and three non European countries, reporting that no evidence
affiliated elimination of the death penalty to increased homicide rates(Haines
5). Some researchers have found that the death penalty not only fails to reduce
murder rates, but also may increase the number of homicides. The U.S.
Bowers-Pierce study, testing executions between 1907 and 1963, concluded that an
average of two additional homicides were committed in the month after an
execution took place(Kasper 6). Why should taxpayers pay to keep a person in
prison for life, why not execute the person and save money? This question,
appropriately offensive as it may be, is often posed by death penalty supporters
in the U.S. The fact is the cause of executing a person in the U.S. is higher
than the cost of locking up a person for life. The Unites States Supreme Court
has realized that because the death penalty is an unchangeable punishment,
capital cases require safeguards against errors. Jury selection is more lengthy
in capital cases, and expert investigators and consultants such as psychiatrists
must often be heard. Also, the costs of maintaining death rows in state prisons,
of forgiveness hearings, and of the execution itself must be added to the price
of capital punishment. A 1982 study of death penalty costs in New York placed
the cost of executing a prisoner at over $1.8 million(Mello 6). This figure is
three times the cost of imprisoning a person for life. California spends an
extra $90 million per year on capital punishment. In Florida, each execution
costs the state $3.2 million, six times more than imprisoning a prisoner for
life. Texas, with the highest execution rate, spends an estimated $2.3 million
per capital case. This is almost three times the cost of keeping someone in
prison for 40 years. A study in Kansas, which recently supported the death
penalty, showed that a capital trial costs $116,700 more than an ordinary murder
trial(Haines 7). In conclusion, I think the death penalty is wrong and should be
abolished in the United States. Even with the precautions required by the United
States judicial systems, entire miscarriages of justice take place. Innocent
people have been executed in the past and statistics show that several innocent
people are convicted of capital crimes in the United States each year. No matter
what reason a government gives for killing prisoners in its custody and no
matter what execution method used, the death penalty cannot be apart from the
issue of human rights. Human rights are not given by governments, and they
cannot be taken away by governments. Human rights belong to everyone.
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