The death penalty was a common form of punishment in early societies across the world. Records show that the Roman Empire, Egyptian Empire, Achaemenid Empire, Hittite Empire, Babylonian Empire, and Assyrian Empire all used capital punishment as a way of punishing serious crimes (Garrett 54). The Draconian Code of Athens took the death penalty to a completely new level in the 7th century B.C. (Baumgartner 36).
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Under this code, death was the only punishment that could be used when one is found guilty of any crime. In the United States, Thomas Bird, who was a British sailor, was the first person to be executed by the federal government on June 25, 1790, under the auspices of the ratified Constitution of the United States (Hood and Hoyle 54). Currently, the criminal justice system in the United States can use capital punishment for crimes such as treason, murder, espionage, an attempt to murder a juror, a witness or court officer, and large-scale drug trafficking (Sarat 62). The presiding judge has the mandate to decide whether an individual found guilty of any of the above crimes would face the death penalty.
The morality of the death penalty has been in the public discourse for the past several years. A section of society believes that it is immoral for the constitution to prohibit murder only for it to sanction the premeditated execution of criminals. They argue that a significant population of people in prison is innocent but is unable to argue their case convincingly because of various reasons. Many people have been executed only for their innocence to be proven at a time when it was too late for them to benefit from the truth. Another section of society believes that the only way of punishing some form of crime is through capital punishment.
A human being capable of abducting young girls and boys before raping, torturing, and finally murdering them in inhumane ways does not deserve to live (Davis and Snell 14). He or she should be put to death as a reminder to the rest of the population that such actions have dire consequences. In this essay, the researcher argues that it is necessary to abolish capital punishment, and instead suspects should be given life sentences if found guilty of serious crimes.
Sentencing an individual to death is one of the most feared judgments that a person can ever get in a court. However, the appropriateness of this form of punishment is under intense debate in modern American society. Understanding the genesis of this approach of punishing criminals can help in defining its relevance in the country. Garrett explains that it may not be possible to have clear records that explain when such a ruling was first made in various ancient kingdoms (64). The Roman, Egyptian and Babylonian Empires were known to use the death penalty as a form of punishment for serious crimes.
In the 7th century B.C., Draco enacted written laws that later gained the name Draconian code (Sarat 57). These ancient kingdoms were faced with the constant threat of attack and annihilation by other hostile states. Members of these societies were expected to behave in a given manner to protect themselves and the community. People were primitive and the concept of incarceration did not make a lot of sense to them.
Corporal and capital punishments were the only ways of instilling discipline. Those who committed serious crimes in society such as murder or an attempt to assassinate the king would face a similar punishment (Baumgartner 56). These laws would deter people from acting barbarically, hence promoting the law and order in society.
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The challenges that ancient kingdoms faced may not be the same as those in modern society. However, the death sentence is still part of the United States criminal justice system. Statistics show that execution is still a common practice in the country despite its rejection by a section of society. In 2018 alone, the government executed 25 death row inmates (Baumgartner 67). Two of them were electrocuted while the other 23 received lethal injections. Hood and Hoyle argue that society is not clear on the best approach to take when it comes to the use of capital punishment in the criminal justice system (41).
From the perspective of the death row inmate who is waiting for the execution, many people tend to be sympathetic. They feel that in some cases the government may execute an innocent person because of mistakes and shortcomings of the legal system in the country. From the perspective of families of victims of serious crimes such as rape and murder, there is always the fear that the criminal would target them again. People often break out of prison on vengeful missions. Such fears can only be eliminated when an individual considered a threat is executed. These contradictions make it difficult to address this issue of capital punishment in society. It is necessary to look at both sides of the argument based on information gathered from various sources.
Arguments against the Death Penalty
Education and liberalized media have empowered modern society, making it possible to scrutinize the concept of capital punishment beyond what is defined in the country’s constitution. In the past, members of the public would rarely question the content of the constitution because they understood little about it. The death penalty was viewed as the ultimate punishment for those who commit serious offenses. However, as people get more knowledgeable than in the past and information continues to flow freely, the death penalty has received massive attention (Garrett 88). Scholars, human rights activities, religious leaders, and other lobby groups have expressed their dissatisfaction with capital punishment. The following are some of their main reasons why they feel it is unfair to use the death penalty in modern society.
Unequal Justice System
The criminal justice system in the United States has been criticized as being favorable to a section of society. Kirchmeier explains that it is easy to convince a jury that an African American or Hispanic committed murder than it is when the suspect is White (53). The notion that African Americans are violent is still common within the country. As such, the jury always assumes that the suspect is guilty until proven innocent (Baumgartner 78).
The burden of proof shifts from the state to the suspect. The situation is often worsened by a lack of economic empowerment among African Americans. They cannot afford to hire some of the best criminal attorneys to argue their case and prove their innocence. They would rely on incompetent court-appointed lawyers willing to take pro-bono cases to help them.
Most of these lawyers are rarely interested in proving the innocence of their clients because of the massive resources that would be needed to conduct an independent investigation. Instead, they focus on plea deals as a way of concluding the case within the shortest time possible (Recinella 24). In the end, they fail to prove the innocence of their clients. When found guilty, the African American has to face another serious challenge of unfavorable perception that the working-class White members of society have towards them. Sarat explains that a judge is more likely to pronounce a death sentence to a Black than to a White when found guilty of murder or treason (90). It explains why two-thirds of death row inmates are either African Americans or Hispanics.
Manipulation of Justice by the Rich
According to Recinella, getting justice in the United States requires one to spend a significant amount of money to hire top attorneys in the country (73). Chen explains that sometimes perpetrators of crime bribe judges to ensure that they are exonerated (45). If the crime is murder, then it becomes necessary to find someone who can be blamed as a way of protecting the wealthy criminal. Kirchmeier notes that some of these people stage a crime scene and blame it on poor citizens who take the bait set for them (57).
Without proper representation, the setup would always work in favor of the wealthy and at the expense of the poor. Executing such an innocent individual primarily because he or she could not argue the case properly is unconstitutional. Even if a biased jury finds the person guilty, it is appropriate for the person to be given a life sentence with the hope that one day the truth will emerge.
Anthony Ray Hinto who was convicted of murder in 1985 in Birmingham, Alabama, is a perfect case of the possible manipulation of justice in the country (Baumgartner 90). In this case, the evidence presented at the trial was a gun. There were no eyewitnesses, fingerprints on the weapon presented in the court, or any other convincing reason to make the jury believed he committed the offense. Even the witness Ray presented to support his alibi was dismissed by the jury. He received the capital punishment sentence and he has been on death row for over 30 years. Recently, ballistic tests confirmed that the evidence presented in court was not the murder weapon (Baumgartner 56).
The state was on the verge of executing an innocent man primarily because of his race and poverty. At the same time, the real culprit went unpunished because his or her crime was borne by Ray. Similar cases have been reported in the past, only that some of the victims of injustice were not lucky enough to be exonerated before their execution.
Contradictions in the Constitution
The constitution is clear that no one should commit murder (Garrett 115). It is a contradiction that the same law that prohibits murder allows the state to execute individuals found guilty of various crimes. The government should not be able to decide who lives and dies because of politicians who may have personal interests. People tend to make mistakes and in a society where racism and extremism are common, the minority is more likely to be affected by the criminal justice system. The constitution that grants every citizen and resident of this country the right to life should also safeguard people who are convicted of various criminal offenses. A life sentence is an assurance that the threat is eliminated from society.
Inability to Execute the Sentence in a Humane Way
The United States criminal justice system stipulates that when one is sentenced to death, it is necessary to ensure that the process is conducted in the most human way possible, with minimal pain. However, Garrett explains that it is almost impossible to execute a person in a humane way (34). The use of noose and the electric chair has been replaced by lethal injections in many states across the country. The injection is believed to be a peaceful way of putting a person to death. However, several cases have been reported where the executing team faces difficulties in finding the right vein and completing the process within the shortest time possible and with minimal pain. Death by lethal injection should always take a standard time of seven minutes (Hood and Hoyle 70).
The person being executed is expected to be unconscious within the first few minutes before having a cardiac arrest. However, cases have been reported where the process takes an hour or two, during which period the person is subjected to intense pain. Recinella also argues that society often ignores the impact that the process has on the executioner (47). It is not human to take a person’s life. Studies have shown that executioners often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder because of the nature of their job.
In the botched execution of Jimmy Lee Gray, it took longer than expected for him to die. Witnesses were quickly cleared from the scene when it got ugly. Reports later indicated that the executioner was drunk (Steiker and Steiker 67). He was not strong enough to execute the prisoner while sober. Such fundamental issues are often ignored when discussing the relevance of capital punishment.
Arguments in Favour of Death Penalty
The death penalty is one of the forms of punishment that one can get in the United States, especially if one is convicted of serious crimes such as murder. Chen argues that sometimes it may not be possible to pronounce any penalty other than death (36). Most of the current crusaders of the need to abolish the death penalty hold that there is a need to temper justice with mercy. However, some of these criminals are often ruthless and merciless that it may not be reasonable to be merciful to them. The following are some of the arguments that proponents of the death penalty hold on to in support of the practice.
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Security of Correctional Officers
Some of the prisoners convicted of serious crimes such as murder are violent and pose serious security threats to their fellow inmates and correctional officers. Cases, where prison warders or medical officers are attacked, have been reported in various correctional facilities. Edward Muhammad Johnson was serving a 29-year sentence at Stillwater Prison in Minnesota. He was found guilty of stabbing his girlfriend to death while her 5-year old daughter watched in horror. On July 18, 2018, at about 1:30 pm, he attacked an unsuspecting prison warden, Officer Joseph B. Gomm, who had been working with the Department of Correction for over 16 years (Rodgers).
The officer was taken to the hospital, but unfortunately, he was pronounced dead upon arrival. He was a husband, a father, a brother and a government official committed to serving his country. He was brutally murdered by an insensitive criminal who had previously murdered his girlfriend in cold blood. Edward was transferred to a maximum prison within the same state, but that is not a guarantee that he will not try a similar attack on innocent officers. As Sarat argues, these dangerous criminals still have to be served by vulnerable nurses and doctors who know very little about combat when attacked (65). There is no better punishment for such an individual other than death, however painful the process is (Hood and Hoyle 112). Society should not ignore the safety of correctional officers.
The Fear of a Possible Prison Break
Prison break is a common occurrence in various minimum and medium-security prisons across the United States. Although the government has put in place measures to eliminate any possibility of escape by prisoners, some of them use ingenious ways to find their freedom. In September 2014, T.J. Lane and two other accomplices managed to escape from Allen Correctional Institute in Lima, Ohio (Payne and Lenz).
He was serving three life sentences for murdering three of his classmates. Although authorities were able to track them down and arrest them after nine hours, Lane could track down witnesses or perceived enemies and kill them before being arrested. A life sentence to violent criminals is not always a guarantee that members of society are safe. As long as these criminals can find ways of escaping from prison, they can continue with their murderous activities.
The Need to Deter Some Form of Crime in Society
The United States is often referred to as a free world where people can practice their faith and beliefs without the fear of retribution. However, as one enjoys his or her rights, he or she has the responsibility of ensuring that others can also enjoy theirs. It is dangerous to have a society where an individual dares to commit mass murders. Others rape young children, torture them, before killing them in violent ways.
Every member of society should understand that such people have no place in our country. The best way of passing this message is through the death sentence for senseless and merciless murders (Vollum et al. 45). Some homeless criminals are comfortable being incarcerated because they are assured of regular food, clothing, and shelter. Life in prison sentence may not be a deterrent to them. Garrett argues that these criminals end up being a burden to the state after committing serious crimes (91).
Capital punishment is a topic that is shrouded with controversy in the United States. Some people feel that the government must abolish this form of punishment. They argue that it is an inhumane way of punishing those convicted of various crimes. Executing people only for their innocence to be proven later is unfair. Monetary compensation to his or her family cannot replace lives lost.
The United States criminal justice system has major weaknesses, which are often exploited by the rich in society. Handing down a sentence of life without parole may help those who are wrongly convicted to redeem themselves in case new evidence would emerge. Although some people are opposed to the abolishment of this form of punishment, the level of civilization in the country does not allow the state to decide on whether a person should live.
Baumgartner, Frank R. Deadly Justice: A Statistical Portrait of the Death Penalty. Oxford University Press, 2018.
Chen, Daniel L. “The Deterrent Effect of the Death Penalty: Evidence from British Commutations during World War I.” The Criminal Law Journal, vol. 44, no. 14, 2016, pp. 28-56.
Davis, Elizabeth, and Tracy L. Snell. “Capital Punishment, 2016.” Bureau of Justice Statistics, vol. 25, no. 14, 2018, pp. 1-17.
Garrett, Brandon L. End of Its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice. England Harvard University Press, 2017.
Hood, Roger, and Carolyn Hoyle. The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Kirchmeier, Jeffrey L. Imprisoned by the Past: Warren Mccleskey and the American Death Penalty. Oxford University Press, 2015.
Payne, Ed, and Cristy Lenz. “Convicted High School Shooter T.J. Lane Back In Custody after Prison Escape.” CNN. 2014. Web.
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Rodgers, Ben. “Family of Corrections Officer Killed in Assault Issues Statement.” ABC News. 2018. Web.
Sarat, Austin. Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty. Stanford University Press, 2014.
Steiker, Carol S., and Jordan M. Steiker. Courting Death. Harvard University Press, 2016.
Vollum, Scott, et al. The Death Penalty: Constitutional Issues, Commentaries, and Case Briefs (3rd ed.). Routledge, 2015.