Death penalty in USA
Is the death penalty ethically acceptable?
No state has an absolute right to put its worst criminals to death although a majority of a state's residents may wish to confer that right on it. Of course all states do kill people, even where they do not have the death penalty. Our police are armed (by the state) and people get killed in shoot outs with them. Majority opinion is typically in favor of the death penalty, with recent surveys indicating around a 60 – 65% level of support. Opponents believe that it is wrong for the state to kill, per se. A factor that is conveniently overlooked by anti-death penalty campaigners is that we are all ultimately going to die and in many cases we will know of this in advance and suffer great pain and emotional anguish in the process. This is particularly true of those diagnosed as having terminal cancer. It is apparently socially acceptable to be "sentenced to death" by one's doctor without having committed any crime at all but totally unacceptable to be sentenced to death by a jury having been convicted of first degree murder after due process. Another of the anti-death penalty fallacies is the implication that the alternative to execution is the inmate just walking away and resuming their normal everyday life. This is of course not true – they will typically spend the rest of it behind bars.
So let us examine the merits to both the pro and anti arguments.
Arguments for the death penalty.
• Incapacitation of the criminal.
Execution permanently removes the worst criminals from society and is safer for prison guards, fellow inmates and the rest of us (in the event of an escape) than long term or permanent incarceration. It is self evident that dead criminals cannot commit any further crimes either in prison or after escaping from it.
Money is not an inexhaustible commodity and the state may very well better spend our tax dollars on the old, the young and the sick rather than the long term imprisonment of murderers, rapists etc. However in the USA the cost of executing someone over giving them life in prison is often higher. This is because of endless appeals being allowed in most states where the average time spent on death row is over 16 years. It is estimated that a capital case resulting in execution costs $3-4 million, whereas the typical cost of keeping someone in prison is $30-35,000 a year or less than a million dollars for a typical life sentence. However this figure does not include for appeals and the increasing cost of health care as inmates age. The states of Colorado, Kansas, Maryland, Montana and New Hampshire have all considered abolition due to the high cost of capital cases effecting their budget deficits. California will spend an estimated $137 million during 2009 on its 700 capital cases.
Execution is a very real punishment rather than some form of "rehabilitative" treatment, the criminal is made to suffer in proportion to the offence. Whether there is a place in a modern society for the old fashioned principal of "an eye for an eye" is a matter of personal opinion. Retribution is seen by many as a reason for favoring the death penalty. It is also felt by many families of murder victims to be a strong reason for witnessing the execution of their loved one's murderer, in states that allow this, as it provides closure for them. Anti capital punishment campaigners are fond of mis-quoting Ghandi’s saying that "an eye for an eye makes the world go blind". This is nonsense because it wrongly presumes that we all commit murder, whereas only a tiny proportion of people do. Given a population of around 306 million and a homicide rate of around 15,200 per annum less than 0.4% of the population actually commit a homicide in any given year. Or conversely 99.6% of us do not kill.
Does the death penalty deter? It is difficult to be certain whether it does or doesn’t. It is certainly not used as a deterrent by individual states, but rather, purely as a punishment. In most states, executions are a very rare occurrence. Only a very tiny proportion of murderers are sentenced to death in the first place - about 1.5%. In 2013 just 80 death sentences were handed down in the whole country. Only a small proportion of those sentenced to death are eventually executed, some may have their sentence reduced on appeal, some will die of natural causes awaiting execution. In all states, other than Texas, Oklahoma, Virginia and Delaware, the number of executions as compared to death sentences and murders is infinitesimally small. Texas accounts for 37.6% of all US executions since 1977. With the exception of Oklahoma, Texas and Florida, 51% of the population, who commit 12% of all murders, are virtually exempt from actual execution it would seem, this being the female half of society. Just twelve women have been executed between 1984 and 2010, of whom one was consensual – Christina Riggs in Arkansas. 57 women were on death row nationally at October 2013.
The U.S. homicide rate which includes murder and non negligent manslaughter, dropped from 24,526 in 1993 to 15,522 in 1999, the lowest since 1966 - during a period of increased use of the death penalty. Four hundred and eleven (68.5%) of the 598 executions to the end of 1999, took place between 1993 and the end of 1999. It should be noted that the distribution of these homicides is very patchy – there being far more in big cities, where 12,227 of them occurred and far fewer in rural areas. Equally the murder rate for states with the death penalty is often higher than for those without. Texas had a homicide rate of 5.4/100,000 in 2009 while Iowa which has no death penalty had a homicide rate of 1.1/100,000 in the same year. Accepting that America is not a homogenous society, there does seem to be very wide variations in the murder rates of individual states. According to FBI figures there were 15,241 homicides giving a national average of 5.0/100,000 of population. It is dangerously simplistic to say that the rise in executions in the 1990’s was the only factor in the reduction of homicides. There has been a general trend to a more punitive society (e.g., "Three strikes and your out") over this period and cities such as New York claim great success in reducing crime rates through the use of "zero tolerance" policing policies. But otherwise, that has been reasonable political and economic stability over these years and no obvious major social changes. Improvements in medical techniques have also saved many potential deaths.
Arguments against the death penalty.
There are a number of incontrovertible arguments against the death penalty. The most important one is the virtual certainty that genuinely innocent people will be executed and that there is no possible way of compensating them for this miscarriage of justice. You may well find claims of 139 "innocent" people having been released from death rows nationwide over the past 30 years or so but this number needs to be treated with great caution. Some of them were freed on legal technicalities and others succeeded at re-trials due to such factors as key witnesses having died. So the incidence of genuine innocence is much rarer than the anti-death penalty lobby and television dramas would have us believe.
Some states are still willing to prosecute on circumstantial evidence alone which is concerning. Another very genuine concern is that a person convicted of the murder may have actually killed the victim and may admit having done so but does not agree that the killing was first degree murder. Often the only people who know what really happened are the accused and the deceased. It then comes down to the skill of the prosecution and defense attorneys as to whether there will be a conviction for murder in the first or the second degree. It is thus highly probable that people have been convicted of first degree murder when they should really have only been convicted of second degree murder or manslaughter.
A second reason is the abysmal administration of the death penalty in most states. Appeals take for ever to be heard dimming witness memories of events. Attorneys on both sides are “drowning” in a sea of unresolved cases. Unelected groups who have no mandate will try to interfere with a lawful death sentence by going before a sympathetic judge and arguing for a stay. State Governors can take arbitrary decisions, as did the governor of Illinois, George Ryan who commuted the sentences of every inmate on death row there (some 190) in January 2003, without any regard for the crimes these people had been convicted of.
Although racism is claimed in the administration of the death penalty, statistics show that white prisoners are more likely to be sentenced to death on conviction for first degree murder and are also less likely to have their sentences commuted than black defendants. At the end of 2009 the racial mix of condemned inmates was as follows : White = 1,453, Black = 1,351, Latino = 384, Asian = 41, American Indian = 38. Anti death penalty groups cite as racist the disparity between the proportion of black defendants on death row and the proportion of black people in the population. However African Americans are six times more likely to be the victim of homicide than white Americans and seven times more likely to be the perpetrators. There cannot be quotas for homicide convictions, the police have to deal with the situation that they find, irrespective of the ethnic background of the perpetrator. I am willing to believe that there was an element of racism in the application of the death penalty in former times where a black defendant would receive the death penalty, particularly for killing or raping a white victim, but a white person convicted of a similar crime might well not do so. The true definition of racism is where a person is treated differently/more severely based solely upon their ethnic background.
There is no such thing as a totally humane method of putting a person to death, irrespective of what the state may claim (see later). Every form of execution causes the prisoner suffering, some methods perhaps cause less than others. One tends to think of these methods in terms of physical pain while overlooking the mental anguish that the person suffers in the time leading up to the execution. How would you feel knowing that you were going to die tomorrow at a specified minute of a specified hour?
It is claimed that the murder rate has gone up in some states in the months following an execution and it is claimed that there is a brutalizing effect upon society by carrying out executions, although this is hard to prove one way or the other. The death penalty is the most final of all punishments It removes the individual's humanity and with it any chance of rehabilitation and their giving something back to society. In the case of the worst criminals, this may be acceptable but is more questionable in the case of less awful crimes.
??? : agree statement
??? : disagree statement
??? : supporting point
??? : contrastive point