Death penalty is one of the oldest methods of punishment for committed crimes. The main characteristics that define the concept of the death penalty are the following: 1) it is the most severe punishment depriving a person — whose guilt has been proven in court — of life and causing suffering to a convicted person and his/her family 2) it is a forced measure, enforceable by the state in the public interest and exclusively by the court.
The death penalty as a sentence is preceded by a long period of trial. The defendant has the opportunity to challenge the court’s decision by submitting an appeal. Often this leads to the fact that the person sentenced to death can wait for execution for years. This trend is most clearly evident in the US, where convicts can wait for the final judgment and execution for about ten years. The United States is the only country in the Americas where the death penalty is still applied. According to Amnesty International, the US is annually among the five countries which carry out most executions. This list also includes China, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. By 2012, 140 countries of the world have abolished the death penalty, while in 58 countries such punishment still exists. Yet, in 2011 it was actually carried out only in 20 states.
Traditionally, Texas is leading in the number of death sentences in the United States. It holds the first place since the abolition of the country’s moratorium. According to statistics, two-thirds of all executions in the United States are committed in Texas. The death penalty was restored in Texas in 1982, and 227 people had been executed by 2000. By 2003, the total number of executions in state prisons had reached 298; by 2008, it had reached 400; by 2012, 482 persons had been executed (according to TDCJ). Though public support for the death penalty has weakened over the recent years, the polls still show that the majority of Americans (around 65%) advocate capital punishment for those convicted of homicide.
People who have changed their opinion on the death penalty name the growing number of demonstrated cases of erroneous capital convictions, when the convicts were found innocent after execution or were released from death row before it, as the main reason to abolish it. This debate is very active in Texas, in which such events as the controversial case of Cameron Todd Willingham have caused a wave of protests against the death penalty. This paper seeks to analyze the discussion around capital punishment and prove that the death penalty is still required by our society.
The Essence of the Debate
The crimes that are punishable by death are enlisted in the main text of the Constitution. 13 states that formed the United States of America adopted the practice of the death penalty from the UK, where capital punishment was used quite often. In the US, most charges concerning all kinds of crimes are made by the prosecutor of a particular state. The US legal system is based on so-called dual sovereignty. In some cases, the state has the sovereign right, in others this right belongs to the federal government. Criminal offenses, including murder, are under the jurisdiction of individual states. About two-thirds of US states may — in accordance with their laws — use the death penalty. The federal government can also sentence to death for serious crimes, for example, for the murder of federal employees who performed their duties.
Today the death penalty is used almost exclusively in cases of murder with aggravating circumstances, such as abduction of the victim, the use of torture and other things that make the murder particularly brutal. For example, in Texas the crimes that are considered as capital murder include murders “during the commission or attempted commission of kidnapping, burglary, robbery, aggravated sexual assault, arson, obstruction or retaliation, or terroristic threat” (TDCJ).
The groups under the influence of which the death penalty was abolished in the European Union, and similar groups in the US, have criticized the United States for the use of the death penalty. These groups consist of legal elite, religious Christian circles, urban intelligentsia, etc. However in America these circles do not have the power and influence which they have in Europe. As a matter of fact, in most European countries the death penalty was abolished by the government without the support of the majority of population. In the political system of the US, the division of power (executive and legislative) is defined more clearly than in European countries, and thus it is much harder for the US government to make legislative changes. The debate about the death penalty is also aggravated by a number of arguments in favor of both opinions.
One of the main arguments in favor of the death penalty is equity of capital punishment. If someone kills another person deliberately and brutally, especially children, the elderly, or women, the punishment for this crime should be appropriate. Many people believe that the death penalty for a highly dangerous and violent criminal could save lives of other people who could become victims. Capital punishment, according to this opinion, is a measure of deterrence and retribution. Opponents of the death penalty believe that this measure is deterring and equates society to the killer. They say that under no circumstances should the government be allowed to kill people, except in time of war. Another argument is the possibility of judicial mistake.
The US has a very powerful and independent justice system. Criminals sentenced to death have different capabilities to appeal the decision. It is possible to appeal to the State Supreme Court or federal court. DNA testing has become a very important additional way to challenge the accusation of late. Of course, in any judicial system errors can occur. But in the US today, the possibility of erroneous death penalty is incredibly small. While in the old days the people who were sentenced to death on Monday would be executed on Tuesday, today, if the jury decides in favor of capital punishment, for example, in 2011, the execution will take place in 2020. According to Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), the average time on death row prior to execution is 10.60 years.
However, an unacceptably high risk of a miscarriage of justice and the probability that an innocent man will be sent to death remains one of the main arguments of the opponents of the death penalty. Thus, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, the list of people, who “were convicted, sentenced to death and subsequently acquitted of all charges related to the crime that placed them on death row, or had all charges related to the crime that placed them on death row dismissed by the prosecution, or were granted a complete pardon based on evidence of innocence” (DPIC) includes 141 persons (since 1973). This figure is a rather convincing argument. However, this statistics only proves that the system works.
The Case of Todd Willingham
In 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in the State of Texas for the murder of his children. During the whole trial process, as it is argued in the documentary “Death by Fire”, no sufficient evidence of his guilt was provided. Some witnesses changed their testimony. The basis of the charges included the statement of fire specialist, who suggested that the fire that killed the children could be arson, and that the defendant refused to take a lie detector test.
Willingham’s case was supported by a forensic commission, which rejected the arguments of the prosecution. The defendant refused to deal with justice — to confess in exchange for preservation of life — and has been trying to prove his innocence for 12 years. In 2009 the question of Willingham’s guilt was raised again after experts had confirmed the absence of arson. This case aroused extensive debate. According to some experts, it could be the first recognized case of judicial error in Texas that resulted in an unjust death sentence.
However, this case is not so clear as it seems from the first glance. It is worth noting that the initial investigation, which was carried out at the place of fire, found 20 indicators of arson. Also, occasional fire was excluded. The subsequent investigations were carried out using the video tape and results of laboratory tests. It is apparent that a video tape cannot be more informative than an investigation right after the incident. Also, the experts who investigated the case later based their argument on mainly 2 (of 20) indicators of arson. It appears that they ignored Willingham’s behavior during and after the fire.
Can a physically able man who loves his children do nothing to save them? Can he remain unharmed? How will a normal person behave after this? Can a person not prone to violence beat his wife? All these questions are ignored by those who defend Willingham. One of the reasons for such attitude is humanism inherent in normal human beings. The moment the convicted person is punished is a turning point. At this moment people no longer feel angry, but rather sorry for the murderer. They subconsciously start seeking evidence of innocence, and if there is no, they will invent it. This was exactly what happened in the case of Willingham. The jury and the society in general were sure of Willingham’s guilt before the execution, and changed their opinion after it. It concerns even Texans, who are rather unanimous concerning the death penalty.
The Arguments in Favor of the Death Penalty
The ethical question of whether the state can be granted the right to take a life of a citizen can never be answered decisively. Everybody has personal opinions on the issue and personal motives supporting their views. A lot of arguments support the use of the death penalty for retribution. According to public-opinion data, Texans approve the use of the death sentence, even if it is not intended to serve the purposes of social defense. As a matter of fact, Texans seated as jurors in capital cases are willing to impose the death penalty in most cases. However, the types of cases subject to the death penalty have been carefully circumscribed by statute and prosecutorial accusing practices. Almost always the death penalty is applied in the most shocking murders. It is frequently demanded and imposed in such cases, but is infrequently applied in other, less severe cases. Consequently, the death penalty has been shown to preserve the rules of proportionality, meaning its application is foreseeable, not arbitrary or impulsive. According to Jon Sorensen:
To serve as retribution, and not mere vengeance, the death penalty must be applied in a manner that is fair and consistent. Only through the consistent application of punishment can offenders receive their just deserts (78).
Those who support the abolition of the death penalty view the death in the electric chair as either immoral or unconscionable. This is the major moral question. Should a criminal who has committed a terrible act of violence with cruelty aforethought be treated with mercy? The answer is negative – the death penalty is far from being immoral. In this case, it is completely justified. Moreover, a supposedly painless lethal injection, which is applied in many states, because it is “euthanasic”, is far too good for criminals who in coldhearted disregard for their victims shed innocent blood. The truth is that other, more painful methods seem to be more appropriate to most acts of murder. According to Louis P. Pojman,
A society that is inured to watching violence in movies and TV but condemns parents for spanking their children as an act of discipline may not have the inner moral resources to discriminate between morally permissible and impermissible use of force (70).
Researchers at Emory University found that each execution prevents 18 criminal homicides. Scientists from the University of Houston noted in their studies that the Illinois moratorium on executions implemented in 2000 directly or indirectly provoked 150 murders. (Muhlhausen). The death penalty saves lives. It really affects murder rates, which is proved by the general deterrence theory, according to which “increasing the risk of apprehension and punishment for crime deters individuals from committing crime” (Muhlhausen). There are many individuals, who are sometimes tempted to commit an immoral or illegal act. A normal, civilized individual is restricted by his moral and legal consciousness, fear of possible public condemnation and, ultimately, the fear of punishment. However, some people’s temptation can be so strong that the government can keep them from committing crimes only by the threat of the most severe punishment which must be inevitable.
According to an ancient tradition which goes back to biblical times, an appropriate punishment for murder is the execution of the murderer. This is an “eye for an eye” principle. It was supported by numerous philosophers and public figures, including Plato, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, C. S. Lewis, etc. All these thinkers considered that human beings, as rational agents, have dignity. A person who committed with hatred aforethought murders loses his/her right to life and deserves to die. The main benefit given by the death penalty is its threatening effect when a potential killer realizes the fact that he/she will not live if he/she deliberately takes someone’s life.
The state should have the right to eliminate anti-social elements (murderers, serial killers, etc.) and the state should decide who these elements are, otherwise it ceases to be a state, and it will be not worthy of respect. If a man is attacked by a criminal with the intent to kill, he has the right to kill an attacker. Human society is composed of individuals, and the murder of at least one of them can be regarded as an attack against society as a totality. Capital punishment is a way to protect society’s integrity. It acts as an effective means by which society seeks to protect its citizens from violence.