The United States (US) holds a unique position among all the Western nations due to the retention of capital punishment; raising various questions such as how this form of punishment has found place in the American psyche; what has kept the death penalty alive; and how such a penalty affects the American culture. Internationally, more than half of the countries in the world have gradually abolished the death penalty since the Second World War on grounds that it violates the basic right to life as well as the modern standards that define civility. But despite the fact that capital punishment has survived in America this long, Americans have always questioned and debated the appropriateness of such torturous and drastic penalty in a modern and free state.
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Instead of abolishing it, the US government has instead embarked on developing more civilized ways of executing criminals as well as affording greater legal protections to capital defendants as a way of ensuring that execution by death is only for those convicts who truly deserve to die. Hanging, electric chair, gas chamber, and lethal injection have been developed in succession while the number of offenses deserving the death penalty has gradually narrowed down. Guidelines which jurors should follow in delivering the verdict have also been created. But no matter what improvement is made to make capital punishment as comfortable as possible, this method of punishment should entirely be abolished. Capital punishment is an immoral and unjust method of punishing criminals and does little to deter crime; often causes innocent deaths of convicts; is an immoral practice; and worse still, it is a very expensive undertaking for both defendants and state (Sarat & Boulanger 2005, pp. 93-95).
Before the 20th century, punishment of criminals was carried out in public arenas with the motive that such public spectacles would educate the general population on the severe consequences of committing or being involved in certain crimes. Instruments of torture were used to inflict gruesome penalties. But the Enlightenment brought tremendous change to pre-existing societal attitudes about criminal acts and subsequent punishment. Punishment for crime changed to being the most concealed component of criminal justice and trial and sentencing of criminals now became the centre of attraction. Legal codes, procedural rules and rights of criminal made offenders and their lawyers become celebrities of some sort as they sought their place in public consciousness. Although this shift from grisly torture was a positive move, towards modernization, carrying out executions behind prison walls shifted capital punishment from being a punishment of the body to punishment of the soul. For society, such a move brought about enormous implications because capital punishment would no longer be an effective tool of deterring crime. Executions had been hidden from sight and the horrors of death from the public eye. Capital punishment can however lead to deterrence to some extent but for organized crime, it may do little to stop the gangs from continuing with their exploits (Martinez, Richardson & Brandon 2002, 49; LaFollete 2002, pp.483, 486).
If capital punishment is meant to prevent an offender from causing more harm on society on one hand, and deterring future occurrence of similar acts on the other hand, then such an argument holds very little weight when one puts into consideration persons with diminished capacity. Capital punishment fails to meet the standards of fundamental fairness when offenders lined up for execution may be suffering from low intelligence, mental incapacity, and the delusions of youth. Some convicts can also be minor children and persons under the influence of drugs or alcohol among other mitigating factors. Incapacitated persons can hardly be deterred from committing further crime. Sometimes, death is disproportionately imposed on the mentally infirm, the poor, certain minority group members or other disadvantaged people.
Such persons may or may not commit similar crimes in future if by any chance the conditions causing their infirmity are dealt with. If in any case they engage in crime, other options of punishment such as life imprisonment can be used to deliver the necessary protection to society. By inflicting capital punishment on an offender, the convict ceases to bear any responsibility for his own crime and the burden moves on to the jurors who have approved on the stat-sanctioned murder of the criminal. While the convict pays for his actions with his life, the jury on the other hand has to bear the guilt of an action that it has been carrying out for a long time. While capital punishment deprives the criminal of his life, the executioner is deprived of something too – his humanity. Instead of deterring crime, capital punishment therefore only cheapens human life (Martinez, Richardson & Brandon 2002, pp. 55, 205, 217, 231; Zimring 2004, pp.483, 486).
Capital punishment reflects an inequality of justice because the execution of one murderer for example does not help to control crime if other murderers who are equally or more guilty are not executed, either by accident, sheer capriciousness or racial discrimination. But such an approach is weak because guilt is a personal affair and the fact that others got away with a crime does not justify a lack of punishment for those that have been caught, convicted and executed. The legal system is also made up many participants, some of whom have special interests in certain legal proceedings such as lawyers, law enforcement officials, eyewitnesses, judges and juries. This makes it virtually impossible to accurately establish all the facts brought forward in a particular case. With every possibility of a death sentence, nagging doubts will linger long after the trial, raising questions about the credibility of eyewitnesses’ reports and motives, or the possibility that law enforcement officers could have arrested the wrong offender, subsequently leading to the death of an innocent man. There is also the possibility that the prosecutor may have knowingly or unknowingly produced less evidence than was required. Courts are also not incapable of failing in the process of passing judgment and there are always possibilities that miscarriages of justice may occur. While such mistakes are rectifiable in the event where an innocent man is convicted and imprisoned, there is a high possibility that capital punishment may lead to the death of an innocent person (Zimring 2004, pp.156, 158; Martinez, Richardson & Brandon 2002, pp. 37, 228).
Whatever type of punishment that is inflicted on criminals should have the sole goal of improving them morally. Punishment should be carried out within a system that offers criminals an opportunity to regret their actions as well as seek for transformation; being aided by the state to once again become morally upright and productive citizens. Capital punishment denies such an opportunity to the convicts because death eliminates them from society forever, never to have another chance for reform. For many people, capital punishment creates a bit of uneasiness because it gives no room for rehabilitation, suggesting that some criminals are beyond repair. Considering that every human being has a right to life, it is not fair to execute a criminal but an alternative of confining them to prison could be used as a way of removing danger from society and at the same time giving the criminal room for recollection and reformation (LaFollette 2002, pp.464, 477).
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Revenge is part of human nature and it is quite natural for someone to strike back at whoever has injured him. But the instrument of law is designed to correct whatever deficiencies nature might bring along and hinder peaceful co-existence in society. Law is also supposed draw out the distinction between man and other beings. Capital punishment is considered lawful in some regimes but brings about a completely opposite effect. Executions reduce society to a state where primitive terrors replace reasonable judgment. In such an atmosphere, all dignity and equity disappear and mankind is pulled back into the muck of primitivism, making man less human and instead more animalistic. By practicing capital punishment, the state instead of helping to improve human conditions, becomes a mechanism for perpetuating animalistic attitudes. Human institutions abandon rational action in favor of primitive blood lust. Executions sometimes create a ‘brutalization effect’ and murderers are said to develop the tendency to be inspired by or imitate the legal killing executed upon their late colleagues (Martinez, Richardson & Brandon 2002, pp. 36, 63-64).
Through capital punishment, a convicted criminal is subjected to the same suffering that he inflicted on his victim. Such an act puts the executors of judgment and the criminals on the same level of wrongdoing. Whether a crime or a punishment is carried out through inflicting of death on the victims, both actions add up to murder. In the case of capital punishment, execution is referred to as legalized murder. But as much as capital punishment can be justified as lawful execution of punishment, criminals can also justify murder it was committed in self-defense, as a form of punishment or war. Murder therefore remains murder, whether done lawfully or unlawfully and the only difference between execution and an act of murder is therefore not physical but social, and the same case applies to both crime and punishment fro crime. The argument that capital punishment is inflicted as a last resort and that it is the most extreme penalty available for extreme crimes is a bit ludicrous when the history of capital punishment is put into consideration. In the United States for example, only a few murderers are punished through execution while the average murderers who constitute quite a vast number serve shorter sentences than non-violent drug offenders. There is also the probability of botched executions which together with the lengthy wait that characterizes the death penalty, robs capital punishment of any moral justification (LaFollette 2002, pp.155; Martinez, Richardson & Brandon 2002, pp.65, 202).
Crime is the direct result of the cultural diseases and economic malfunctions of the very societies that inflict capital punishment on their citizens even if they hold the least right to do so. These societies are extensively responsible for the violence that leads to imprisonment and subsequent imprisonment and subsequent execution; a process that unleashes more brutality and repression against unruly members as a means of preserving culture and order. The large number of criminals occupying prisons in many nations is a very eloquent testimony of the human beings’ failure to create upright societies. Capital punishment therefore becomes an indication of society’s bankruptcy in the areas of social will and social wisdom. It points to man’s shallowness through his failure to solve the basic problems of moral decay, social discord, poverty and meaninglessness. It is therefore an alluring fantasy to imagine that capital punishment can be an effective tool of protecting society from violent crime. This also raises questions about the justification of capital punishment by the state as a means of punishing crime while in actual reality this use of excessive power is more dangerous to the population than the dangers that a few extreme offenders would pose to the same population. For humanity to co-exist peaceably, they need to live in a society that upholds morality, mercy, reason and justice (Martinez, Richardson & Brandon 2002, pp.64-65).
Capital punishment is a very expensive undertaking. Contrary to popular belief among most Americans that capital punishment is cheaper than a life imprisonment, the former is more expensive considering the average age of typical life expectancy and incarceration. At the beginning of the decade, an execution would cost between USD 750,000 to 1 million although it was higher in some states. These costs resulted not from actual cost of execution but from extended legal reviews that incur high costs through maintenance of expert witnesses, attorneys and conducting investigations. This is because those dependants who wish to postpone or avoid an execution altogether have to keep appealing endlessly and this makes the whole process very expensive. The delays also create a natural reaction among the jury towards the resentment of the prisoners and lawyers who keep the justices on their toes. To deter these last minute appeals and protect the judicial image, the jury has however always responded by make such appeals as hopeless as they can be. Capital punishment is therefore not only expensive to the defendant but to the state as well considering the amount of time and money that is spent by the jury in handling a specific case. But speeding executions is not any beneficial either because it poses a great risk of executing innocent persons making capital punishment a disaster as it undermines its own legitimacy as a method of punishing criminals (LaFollete 2002, pp. 145-147, 155; Zimring 2004, pp.348-349).
Capital punishment may to some extent deter crime in a particular society or help to get rid of a few criminals; but the moral, legal, and financial disadvantages associated with the practice makes it necessary for states and their governments to reform their policies and invest more resources in creating orderliness in society rather than punishing criminals. If such social problems like social discord, meaninglessness, poverty and moral decay were taken care off, there would be less need of wasting too much time and resources in capital punishment.
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LaFollete, H. (2002). Ethics in practice: An anthology. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.
Martinez, M.J., Richardson, W.D. and Hornsby, D.B. (2002). The leviathan’s choice: Capital punishment in the twenty-first century. Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield.
Sarat, A. and Boulanger, C. (2005). The cultural lives of capital punishment: Comparative perspectives. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Zimring, F.E. (2004). The contradictions of American capital punishment. New York: Oxford University Press US.