Essay, Research Paper: Death Penalty

Legal Issues

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The use of capital punishment has been a permanent fixture in society since the
earliest civilizations. It has been used for various crimes ranging from the
desertion of soldiers during wartime to the more heinous crimes of serial
killers. However, the mere fact that this brutal form of punishment and revenge
has been the policy of many nations in the past does not subsequently warrant
its implementation in today's society. The death penalty is morally and socially
unethical, should be construed as cruel and unusual punishment since it is both
discriminatory and arbitrary, has no proof of acting as a deterrent, and risks
the atrocious and unacceptable injustice of executing innocent people. As long
as capital punishment exists in our society it will continue to spark the
injustice which it has failed to curb. Capital punishment is immoral and
unethical. It does not matter who does the killing because, when a life is taken
by another, it is always wrong. By killing a human, the state lessens the value
of life and actually contributes to the growing sentiment in today's society
that certain individuals are worth more than others. When the value of life is
lessened under certain circumstances such as the life of a murderer, what is
stopping others from creating their own circumstances for the value of one's
life such as race, class, religion, and economics? Immanuel Kant, a great
philosopher of ethics, came up with the Categorical Imperative, which is a
universal command or rule that states that society and individuals "must
act in such a way that you can will that your actions become a universal law for
all to follow" (Palmer 265). There must be some set of moral and ethical
standards that even the government can not go against, otherwise how can the
state expect its citizens not to follow its own example? Those who support the
death penalty believe, or claim to believe, that capital punishment is morally
and ethically acceptable. The bulk of their evidence comes from the Old
Testament, which actually recommends the use of capital punishment for a number
of crimes. Others also quote the Sixth Commandment which, in the original
Hebrew, reads "Thou Shall Not Commit Murder." However, these literal
interpretations of selected passages from the Bible which are often quoted out
of context, corrupt the compassionate attitude of Judaism and Christianity,
second of which clearly focuses on redemption and forgiveness and urges humane
and effective ways of dealing with crime and violence. Those who use the Bible
to support the death penalty are by themselves, since almost all religious
groups in the United States regard executions as immoral. Those that argue that
the death penalty is ethical state that former great leaders and thinkers such
as Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Kant, Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Montesquieu,
and Mill all supported it (Koch 324). However, Washington and Jefferson, two
former presidents and admired men, both supported slavery as well. Surely, the
advice of someone who clearly demonstrated a total disregard for the value of
human life cannot be considered in such an argument as capital punishment. In
regard to the philosophers, Immanuel Kant, a great ethical philosopher, stated
that the motives behind actions determine whether something is moral or immoral
(Palmer 271). The motives behind the death penalty, which revolves around
revenge and the "frustration and rage of people who see that the government
is not coping with violent crime," are not of good will, thereby making
capital punishment immoral according to ethical philosophy (Bruck 329). The
question of whether executions are a "cruel" form of punishment may no
longer be an argument against capital punishment now that it can be done with
lethal injections, but it is still very "unusual" in that it applies
only to a select number of individuals, making the death penalty completely
discriminatory and arbitrary. After years of watching the ineffectiveness of
determining who should be put to death, the Supreme Court in the1972 Furman v.
Georgia decision "invalidated all existing death sentence statues as
violative of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment and thus
depopulated state death rows of 629 occupants" (Berger 352). This decision
was reached not because it was believed that the death penalty was intrinsically
cruel and unusual but because, as Justice Stewart put it, the "death
penalty as actually applied was unconstitutionally arbitrary" (Berger 353).
Local politics, money, race, and where the crime is committed can often play a
more decisive role in sentencing someone to death than the actual facts of the
crime. According to Amnesty International, the "death penalty is a lethal
lottery: just one out of every one hundred people arrested for murder is
actually executed" (Death Penalty Focus). In regards to racial
discrimination in sentencing, it has been found that "racial bias focuses
primarily on the race of the victim, not the defendant" (Berger 355). Only
31 out of the more than 15, 000 recorded executions in this country have been of
white defendants convicted of killing black victims, while black defendants
convicted of raping white women were commonly sentenced to death (Death Penalty
Focus). Stephen Nathanson, a professor of philosophy at Northwestern University
addresses the problems of discrimination and randomness best by saying, "as
long as racial, class, religious, and economic bias continue to be important
determinants of who is executed, the death penalty will continue to create and
perpetuate injustice" (Nathanson 346). Proponents of capital punishment
believe that the argument that the death penalty is discriminatory and arbitrary
does not give support to the abolition of capital punishment, but rather to the
extension of it. Edward Koch, the mayor of New York from 1978 to 1989 and death
penalty supporter, states that the discriminatory manner of the death penalty
"no longer seems to be the problem it once was," yet in 1987, the
Supreme Court case of McCleskey v. Kemp established that in Georgia someone who
kills a white person is four times more likely to be sentenced to death than
someone who kills a black person (Death Penalty Focus). In response to this,
supporters of the death penalty believe that the death penalty should be
extended to all murders. This is what was attempted after the Furman decision. A
number of states sought to resolve the discriminatory and arbitrary nature of
the death penalty by simply sentencing to death everyone convicted of
first-degree murder, but the Supreme Court rejected this proposal saying that
"mandatory death sentence laws did not really resolve the problem but
instead 'simply papered [it] over' since juries responded by refusing to convict
certain arbitrarily chosen defendants of first-degree murder" (Berger 353).
An argument against the death penalty which to sensible and decent persons
should seem undeniable is the fact that innocent people have been murdered by
the state in the past and in all probability more will follow. The wrongful
execution of an innocent person is such an awful injustice that in any civilized
society could never be justified, yet this is the message that the United States
is willing to pronounce. Simply put by Professor Nathanson, "to maintain
the death penalty is to be willing to risk innocent lives." In 1987, a
study conducted by Hugo Bedau and Michael Radelet appeared in the Standford Law
Review concerning the execution of innocent people. The study concluded that in
the period between 1900 to 1980, about "350 people were wrongfully
convicted of capital offenses, 139 of the 350 were sentenced to death, and 23
were actually executed" (Nathanson 344). Over this eighty year period, this
figure averages out to the death of an innocent person about every 3.4 years.
This fact is extremely disturbing and rightfully so, yet death penalty advocates
blatantly disregard the information or attempt to justify it in some way. Those
who support capital punishment claim that such cases of innocent people being
executed have never occurred. For instance, Edward Koch quotes Hugo Bedau in
support of his claim that such cases are not true, saying "it is false
sentimentality to argue that the death penalty should be abolished because of
the abstract possibility that an innocent person might be executed." Koch,
in an attempt to gain political support, acted quite unethically by quoting
Bedau out of context and implying that such cases have not occurred. According
to David Bruck, a prominent lawyer for South Carolina Office of Appellate
Defense, "All Bedau was saying was that doubts concerning executed
prisoners' guilt are almost never resolved." Koch also failed to relate in
his essay that Bedau, who had not yet released the 1987 study, had already
comprised a "list of murder convictions since 1900 in which the state
eventually admitted error" in about 400 hundred cases. Another response to
the fact that innocent people have been executed is that the small number of
innocents executed outweighs the number of lives that will be saved, since the
possibility of being executed will deter others from committing a murder, and
that lives will be saved since that murderer cannot kill again.
However,scientific studies have failed to prove that executions deter other
people from committing crime. According to Dr. Ernest van den Haag, a well-known
scholar in favor of the death penalty, "one cannot claim that it has been
proved statistically that the death penalty does deter more than alternative
penalties" (Haag 338). Haag supports his stand on the death penalty by
stating that "when they have the choice between life and death, 99 percent
of all prisoners under sentence of death prefer life in prison." This
statistic proves nothing but the fact that man has an innate desire for
survival. Those asked the question have already committed the crime and thus do
not reflect the sentiment of those considering a crime. Also, people often kill
when under great "emotional stress or under the influence of drugs or
alcohol - times when they are not thinking of the consequences" (Death
Penalty Focus). Career criminals and those that plan a crime do not expect to
get caught, thus making the consequences an invalid issue. In response to the
fact that an executed murderer will never kill again, society must ask itself
whether it is morally and ethically acceptable to risk killing an innocent
person when an alternative such as life imprisonment without possibility of
parole exists. In California since 1978, more than 1,000 people have received
this alternate sentence which includes no appeals process. The public can be
assured that those who commit heinous murders and receive this sentence will
never be free again. According to Death Penalty Focus, "A recent Field Poll
showed support for the death penalty plummeted when alternative sentencing is
available. Just 29 percent favored death over life without parole plus requiring
the defendant to work in prison and give part of his earnings as restitution to
the families of his victims." The use of capital punishment has endured
throughout the ages, yet its use today in a "civilized" society should
no longer be acceptable to morally and ethically conscious individuals. The vast
majority of countries in Western Europe and North and South America, more than
80 nations worldwide have abandoned capital punishment. Yet, the United States
remains an avid supporter in company with countries such as Iran, Iraq, and
China as one of the major users of capital punishment (Death Penalty Focus). The
use of the death penalty in its discriminatory and arbitrary methods "only
magnifies inequalities of race that persist in the criminal justice system and
in American society generally" (Berger 355). Even with the death of a
guilty man, innocence is lost, even Edward Koch admits, "The death of
anyone even a convicted killer diminishes us all." But it is a sad
commentary on the state of this country when we are willing to accept the
avoidable death of an innocent person and allow the "death penalty to
continue to create and perpetuate injustice." BibliographyBerger, Vivian, (1988.) Rolling the dice to decide who dies. New York State
Bar Journal, October Bruck, David, (1985.) The Death Penalty, The New Republic,
May 20, ---------- Death Penalty Focus (DPF), Koch, Edward, Myths and Facts
about California's Death Penalty, pamphlet --- Death and Justice, How Capital
Punishment Affirms Life Nathanson, Stephen, (1985.) The New Republic, April 15
--- What If the Death Penalty Did Save Lives?" Palmer, Donald, (1987.) An
Eye for an Eye? The Morality of Punishing by Death, ---Does the Center Hold? Van
den Haag, Ernest, (1996) An Introduction to Western Philosophy, Mayfield
Publishing Company, London. --- The Death Penalty Pro and Con: A Debate, (1983.)
Bibliography Berger, Vivian, (1988.) Rolling the Dice to Decide Who Dies, New
York State Bar Journal October Bruck, David, (1985.) "The Death Penalty,
The New Republic, May 20, --- Death Penalty Focus (DPF), Koch, Edward Myths and
Facts about California's Death Penalty, pamphlet --- Death and Justice How
Capital Punishment Affirms Life Nathanson, Stephen, (1985.) The New Republic,
April 15, What If the Death Penalty Did Save Lives? Palmer, Donald, (1987) An
Eye for an Eye? The Morality of Punishing by Death, Does the Center Hold? Van
den Haag,Ernest, (1996) An Introduction to Western Philosophy, Mayfield
Publishing Company, London --- The Death Penalty Pro and Con: A Debate, 1983.
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