Essay: Should Capital Punishment Should Be Abolished

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¶ … Capital Punishment be Abolished?

Few legal issues in the United States have been as hotly debated as the death penalty. In addition to the two main sides of the debate -- for or against the death penalty -- there are the various issues surrounding it. These include alternatives to the death penalty, such as life without parole, issues of innocence or guilt, and questions surrounding racism. In general, the public opinion appears to have moved towards the camp against the death penalty for various reasons. Although the issue is unlikely to be resolved soon, the public opinion is substantiated by the literature, which appears to indicate that not only the public, but also politicians, officials, and researchers are joining the debate for life rather than death as the harshest form of punishment.

The Harvard Law Review (1838) notes that the opinion against the death penalty is not a new phenomenon. Nevertheless, the issues surrounding what the new surge in anti-death penalty opinion are not the same as those of the past; they are relatively new. The Review names the first and most prominently addressed of these is the criminal justice system, its flaws, and the possibility of innocence. Those promoting this idea argue that executing an innocent person -- even one found guilty "beyond reasonable doubt" -- is not only irreversible, but also inexcusable. This makes those executing such justice no better than the criminals themselves.

As an alternative, activists are promoting the life without parole punishment as not only harsher, but also more effective than death. Furthermore, if a person so condemned later proves innocent, the punishment can be reversed. According the Harvard Law Review, such a punishment is promoted as both more fair and more reliable than the death penalty. One important element in this is the effect that the possibility of such a punishment has on jury decisions.

According to the Review, research has proven juries to be more likely to impose life sentences the death penalty if the possibility of no parole exists. The reason for this is the most common argument for the death penalty -- the desire to keep the perpetrator form reentering society. When life without parole is imposed, this means that the criminal is removed from society for the rest of his or her life. Statistics presented by the Harvard Law Review (1846) indicate that including such a sentence in court proceedings have indeed decreased the number of death sentences, which dropped from 317 in 1996 to 125 in 2004, with executions also decreasing 40% since 1999.

Further Review statistics substantiate the decrease of public support for capital punishment, with those in favor of the penalty dropping 18% over the ten years up to the date of the Review. One of the possible reasons for this decrease is the lower crime rate, with people feeling safer and therefore less likely to favor the death penalty. This public tendency is reflected by judicial scrutiny of the death penalty at the federal level (The Harvard Law Review 1846).

Johnson & McGunigall-Smith examines in more depth the various issues surrounding a sentence of life without parole. They argue that this form of punishment is much more suitable for crimes such as murder, as it deprives the individual not only of freedom, but also of life beyond the confines of the prison. In order to quantify these issues, the authors conducted interviews with various inmates subject to this sentence, coming to the conclusion that life without parole could be another type of "death" -- death by incarceration (Johnson & McGunigall-Smith 328).

A further argument in favor of such punishment is the fact that prisoners incarcerated for the rest of their lives do not pose particular danger to society, even those sharing the prison with them. In addition, the suffering they endure is viably equivalent with that endured by prisoners on death row.

While a "life" term officially does not in fact mean the rest of a person's life, the authors not that life without parole is also referred to as a "true life sentence," as such offenders have no hope of release before the end of their natural lives. As Johnson & McGunigall-Smith (328) note, prisoners are in effect sentence to die in prison, and is therefore at least equally, or even more horrifying, than the death penalty itself. The authors also refer to this as "civil death," meaning that the civil lives, rights, and freedoms of these prisoners are permanently removed. This is validated by the concept that murderers receiving this sentence lose their civil lives as a result of the lives they ended.

Before substantiating their arguments with various interviews and examples, the authors briefly address two objections to life without parole: the first related to public safety, and the second to the appropriateness of the punishment to the crime. These arguments are refuted, as noted above, as invalid on the strength of research findings to the contrary -- life without parole prisoners pose no special danger either to prison society or society at large; they also suffer substantially by the permanent removal of their civil lives. According to the authors, this is far worse than the death penalty, as prisoners are made to suffer for the rest of their lives, knowing that there is no reprieve besides death (Johnson & McGunigall-Smith 344).

Richard C. Dieter also addresses the death penalty on the basis of a public opinion that is shifting towards lifelong incarceration rather than death. Dieter substantiates the issues mentioned above by noting three basic reasons for this phenomenon (Dieter 1). The first is the concern regarding the risk of wrongful execution, overall fairness in the process, and the apparent inability of capital punishment to accomplish the basic purpose of its existence in the first place. Indeed, according to a 2007 opinion poll mentioned by the author, a large amount of citizens believe that a moratorium should be place on all executions, in addition to the belief that such executions are no deterrent to crime.

Dieter (1) notes that not only citizens and legal officials, but also other entities such as the press and victims' groups are beginning to reflect the increasing public opinion against the death penalty. Dieter (3) further notes that the main argument for the death penalty -- crime deterrence -- is no longer valid in the general public opinion. Indeed, 60% of poll respondents no longer believed that the death penalty could serve as a deterrent for crime, with 38% believing that it could.

An interesting point that Dieter (3) addresses is the notion that the death penalty saves lives. The argument behind this is that murderers removed from society by means of death can no longer kill. Hence, potential further murders are prevented. This is however also accomplished by a sentence to life without parole. A further advantage to this sentence is that, if DNA testing for example proves innocence after the fact of the sentence, the penalty can be removed without the loss of life.

The difficulty in the reform of the legal system to reflect the public and official view regarding the death penalty is however the choice of jurors. In capital cases, according to Dieter (4), research suggests that jurors are selected only from certain sectors of society believed to be more likely to support capital punishment. Such persons are also more likely to believe state witnesses, which could lead to wrongful convictions.

M Cholbi (255) substantiates the fact that discussion about capital punishment mainly centers around its effectiveness in deterring criminals and is validity as a vehicle of justice. These discussions no longer focus on the inherent morality of the death penalty. Instead, a more pragmatic approach has manifested itself in the public opinion. Despite the difficulties mentioned above, Cholbi notes that opponents of capital punishment has made some progress, precisely because of this pragmatic and factual approach. Much research has focused upon past convictions and statistics regarding executions of the innocent. Verifiable statistics serve as a much more powerful argument against the death penalty than an appeal to arbitrary morality.

Cholbi (255) further notes however that the issue of race as it relates to the death penalty has received surprisingly little attention from current researchers arguing against the punishment. According to the author, studies show that there is a disparity in race, with African-Americans particularly and disproportionately represented among those convicted since the 1940s. It was also found that, despite reforms during the 1970s, these disparities in the conviction rate persist. The indication is that the death penalty is far more likely to imposed for African-American defendants, on the strength of less evidence than an equivalent case for a white person.

A further complication related to this is the judicial issues sparked by the race discrepancy (Cholbi 256). Proponents of capital punishment on the one hand hold the view that race is often used as a last and desperate attempt by the opposition to overturn convictions. Opponents, on the other… [END OF PREVIEW]

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