Capital Punishment or the Death Penalty Term Paper

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Capital Punishment or the death penalty is the execution of a convicted criminal by the State as punishment for capital crimes or offenses (Wikipedia 2006). It is called "capital" because it literally and historically meant losing the head to punish or deter crime and political dissent. It was practiced in the past by almost all societies but recently, most European and Latin American states have abolished it. In most places today, capital punishment is reserved as punishment for premeditated murder, espionage, treason or as part of military justice. It is imposed on sexual and religious crimes in some Muslim countries; drug trafficking in retentionist countries; human trafficking and serious cases of corruption in countries like China; and court martial cases in world courts-martial for cowardice, desertion, insubordination and mutiny. A Gallup international survey found that 52% supported the death penalty, with 66% in North America. About half of the American public said that the death penalty has not been imposed frequently enough but it is divided on the choice between the death penalty and life without parole. The survey also said that capital punishment does not deter crime and that at least one innocent person has been executed in the past five years (Wikipedia).

Crimes, which are subject to the death penalty, vary according to jurisdiction, although some require additional aggravating circumstances (Wikipedia 2006). Aggravated kidnapping is a capital crime in Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky and South Carolina; train wrecking and perjury in California; aggravated rape for those under age in Louisiana; and capital narcotics in Florida and New Jersey. It has, however, been noted that 67% of capital convictions are eventually overturned, mostly on procedural grounds of incompetent legal counsel, police or prosecutors who suppress evidence and judges who give wrong instructions. As of April 2006, there have been a little more than a million throughout the United States. The death penalty is not recognized in 13 States and U.S. colonies. Statistics say that there is one execution for every 700 murders oe 1 in 325. The death penalty is sought and imposed more often in some jurisdictions. A 2004 Connell University survey said that, while 2.5% of nationwide convictions have been meted the death penalty, Nevada has imposed it in 6% of its cases and Texas has executed 40% of those sentenced, which is approximately four times higher than the national average. Of this number only 1.4% of those executed since 1976 have been women. It has, however, been observed that many who have been executed also received pardon for their crime (Wikipedia 2006). Examples given are slave revolts, which were considered capital crimes.

There were many methods of execution in the United States and the early colonies from 1608 to 2004 (Wikipedia 2006). Electrocution took the place of hangings and the gas chamber, burning, pressing, gibbeting or hanging in chains, breaking on wheel and bludgeoning. The current method is lethal injection, which is used or allowed in 37 or 38 States where the death penalty is recognized and in the federal government. From 1976 to 2006, 861 out of 1,026 executions have been by lethal injection, 152 by electrocution, 11 by gas chamber, 3 by hanging and 2 by firing squad. The malfunctioning and the cruelty of the electric chair led to the opting of lethal injection as a major method of execution. Whatever the method chosen, an hour or two before the execution, the convict is offered a last meal and religious services. Executions are performed in private with only invited individuals to witness the proceedings. The last to be publicly executed was Rainey Bethea on August 14, 1936 in Owensboro, Kentucky (Wikipedia).

It must be noted that, while African-Americans comprise only 12% of the American population, death row inmates are 40% African-American (Wikipedia 2006). They also constituted 34% of those actually executed since 1976. Around 50% of the prison population is also African-American, as many believe. But others say that whites are, in fact, twice as likely as African-Americans to be sentenced to the death penalty and also more quickly executed after being sentenced. Academic studies revealed that the greatest predictor of a death sentence is the race of the victim, not that of the defendant. In its 2003 report, Amnesty International said that blacks and white have been victims of murder in almost equal numbers but since 1977, 80% have been executed for murders of or involving white victims. No reason was given for the inconsistency (Wikipedia).

May 2005 Gallup survey revealed that 74% of those interviewed favored the death penalty for murder convicts with life imprisonment without parole as an option for murder (Wikipedia 2006). Elections have impact on public choice. In 1986, three justices were removed from the Supreme Court of California by the electorate, specifically because they opposed the death penalty. Religious groups were largely split on the issue, with more conservative groups more inclined to support it and the liberal groups, likelier to oppose it. The debate on the death penalty touches on four basic issues. These are the moral correctness of taking another life, the deterrence to crime, the fairness of the death penalty across social classes and the irrevocability of the penalty in the future. Other issues include the financial cost of a complete death penalty case as against lifetime imprisonment. Records showed that between 1976 and 2003, less than 2% of death row prisoners were exonerated, sentences reduced for other grounds or reasons and 112 prisoners released (Wikipedia).

Opponents of the death penalty or capital punishment reason that it should be abolished because it is racist, anti-poor, condemns innocent prisoners to death, does not deter serious crimes, and is cruel and unusual punishment (Hood 1996, New Abolitionist 2002). As already mentioned, African-Americans comprise only 12% of the whole U.S. population yet 43% of those in the death row are Blacks because the victims of their crimes are whites. More than 75% of those in the death row are non-white. The death penalty makes a crime out of being Black. Secondly, more than 90% of those accused of capital crimes are poor and cannot afford to pay an experienced criminal defense attorney. These accused have to resort to inexperienced and underpaid, inefficient and indifferent court-appointed lawyers. Criminal trials are also held quickly, often less than a week, which is hardly enough for the respondent or accused to put up and present a good defense. Moreover, the rich not only avoid punishment but are also less sentenced to death (New Abolitionist, Hood).

They also argue that the death penalty condemns innocent prisoners to death at a ratio of one in seven in the death row (New Abolitionist 2002, Hood 1996). They likewise say that, in societies which enact the death penalty, murder rates still continue to rise and decrease in those societies where it has been abolished. It is furthermore considered cruel and unusual in that it executes young people, 70% of whom are in the death row and 34% of them are mentally unstable. Amnesty International also says that 111 countries have abolished it and that an average of 3 countries follow suit per year. International human rights treaties prohibit the execution of convicts aged 18 or less at the time of the commission of the crime. There is as yet no evidence that it has a greater deterrent effect than life imprisonment. Lastly, there is always a risk of executing the innocent as long as the death penalty remains legal in a State or society (New Abolitionist, Hood).

On the other hand, supporters of the death penalty or capital punishment hold that it is not racist and that punishments, like guilt, are personal rather than racial or economic (Haag 1986). The distribution of punishment, in their opinion, is not unjust, whether it is imposed on guilty Blacks rather than on guilty whites. Justice requires that as many of the guilty ones should be sentenced and punished and those deserving should manage to escape it. Allowing escape to those who deserve it is not just nor is it unjust to the guilty who cannot escape it. Miscarriages of justice are as real and unavoidable as error in human judgment, which at times, accidentally punishes innocent people. But the reality of human error does not and should not stop society from trying those accused of crimes because the social benefits derived far outweigh the unintentional sacrifice of lives or health in the process. Furthermore, it is still more feared by criminals and would-be criminals than life imprisonment. Abolitionists erroneously place greater value on the lives of convicted murderers than those of innocent victims. But the death penalty should be retained if only to prevent the commission of capital crimes. It is far better to spare the lives of even a few prospective victims by at least trying to deter their prospective murderers. Criminal law clearly means to protect the lives of potential victims over those of actual murderers. Sir James Fitzjames Stephen suggested that capital punishment is just in that… [END OF PREVIEW]

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