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Death Penalty: To Be or Not To Be?


The death penalty and its appropriateness from the moral viewpoint present the topics associated with debate and the diversity of opinions for decades. Since the issue involves ethical considerations, there is no unity of views among specialists that deal with criminal cases regularly. This essay is aimed at discussing the ongoing death penalty debate with reference to Adam Liptak’s and Stephen Breyer’s arguments.

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Adam Liptak is a well-known lawyer and a journalist who regards capital punishment as one of his primary research interests. He has published a range of articles in The New York Times since 2002 when he became the newspaper’s columnist (Liptak, “Facing the Death”). In his most recent works dated 2016 and 2017, Liptak pursues the purpose of reporting the news regarding the legislative agenda and finding inconsistencies in his ideological opponents’ argumentation (“Facing the Death”; “In California Case”). Earlier, in 2007, he expressed his positive attitude to the idea of capital punishment with reference to academic research devoted to its crime deterrent effects (Liptak, “Does Death Penalty”). When it comes to newspaper articles, Liptak’s audience is presented by all-around readers employed in different professional fields, and it partially explains why he avoids over-relying on legal terms in his explanations. Therefore, although his works do not always reflect his position in the debate explicitly, he aims to satisfy his readers by aligning his writing strategies with the general audience’s needs.

In his works, Liptak utilizes different types of arguments to prove that capital punishment can be helpful for society. As for the logical arguments, he cites some studies that reveal positive links between the number of executions in particular states and crime prevention (Liptak, “Does Death Penalty”). He also proves his point by referring to scientific articles that demonstrate negative relationships between execution rates and homicide rates (Liptak, “Does Death Penalty”). Therefore, academic research findings present the key resources in his argumentative approach. Concerning appeals to emotions, Liptak often refers to the cases of people accused of killing children, but it does not indicate the use of public anger as an additional tool of persuasion (“Facing the Death”). Ethical appeals are also present since the author demonstrates his being well-informed and credible by examining the criticism against all studies that he supports (Liptak, “Does Death Penalty”). Regarding constraints, as a newspaper columnist, Liptak is expected to describe events rather than offer his analysis and follow the norms of professional ethics, which limits his ability to criticize colleagues.

Stephen Breyer is a Supreme Court judge who is skeptical about the idea of capital punishment. This person’s approach to argumentation is different from that preferred by Liptak as his written statements are aimed at reaching the professional audience. Unlike Liptak, he does not produce articles to be read by non-specialists – the texts in which he criticizes execution are official documents, such as dissenting opinions in a written form (Breyer, p. 6). In this rhetorical situation, the writer aims to disagree with the court’s majority opinion by applying solid scientific and legal evidence.

In particular, Breyer’s position on the topic is clear from his dissent statement in Glossip v. Gross dated 2015. In this document, the judge insists that the death penalty is a cruel and inappropriate form of punishment due to the risks of wrongful convictions and inconsistencies in the measure’s application (Breyer, p. 72). When explaining both points, he focuses on logical and ethical arguments. As an example, the claims about reliability and injustice are backed up with factual evidence, such as some previous court cases, the Supreme Court’s definitions of punishments, and statistics on wrongful convictions. By referring to multiple sources and the moral appropriateness of executions, Breyer establishes his well-informedness and humanism, thus making use of ethical appeals. Additionally, his arguments relate to unfairly long delays between the pronouncement of judgment and executions that “undermine the death penalty’s penological purpose,” as well as considerable reductions in the measure’s use (Breyer, p. 72). These claims also present an effective combination of appeals to logos and ethos. Differing from Liptak, Breyer states his position explicitly and expresses well-supported claims, thus being better at satisfying the audience.

Continuing on Breyer’s unique way of expressing his position, there are constraints related to the inappropriateness of some types of arguments in legal rhetorics. Following specific expectations associated with his profession, Breyer formulates claims using credible information resources, such as Supreme Court decisions, materials by the National Registry of Exonerations, and so on (p. 131). Furthermore, as a judge, Breyer is, first of all, anticipated to offer meaningful arguments based on the analysis of current legal practices and findings reported by contemporary researchers. With that in mind, the frequent use of emotional appeals would likely result in significant reputational losses. Knowing this, Breyer has to limit the use of pathos to remain perceived as a credible professional even though the problem is inseparable from emotional tension.


To sum it up, the capital punishment debate leaves no one indifferent and encourages those in the legal profession to demonstrate their art of argumentation. Overall, Breyer seems to be better at satisfying the readers compared to Liptak due to his sincerity and the consistent use of research. However, at the same time, Liptak’s approach to the problem deserves appreciation as he does not try to conceal his opponents’ strong claims.

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  1. Breyer, Stephen. Against the Death Penalty. Edited by John D. Bessler, The Brookings Institution, 2016.
  2. Liptak, Adam. “Does Death Penalty Save Lives? A New Debate.” The New York Times, 2007. Web.
  3. Facing the Death Penalty with a Disloyal Lawyer.The New York Times,  2017. Web.

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