Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Rethinking the Death Penalty

"With age comes wisdom"

I do not know exactly when it was that I changed my mind about the death penalty; all I know is that it happened. At one time I believed we should put to death the most heinous of criminals. Of course if something of this magnitude hit close to home for me, it is possible my thoughts on this would be quite different. After all when something this tragic affects us personally, we tend to sometimes have a very different outlook. But I would hope that at some point I could get past my anger and stick to my conscience. I hope I never have to find out.

"Legal vs. Moral"

There are essentially two justifications for punishment: legal and moral. I'm not interested in the legal aspect of this at the moment because as we know just because something is legal does not make it moral. Also I believe the first step in making it illegal is to realize it's immoral. That said, there really are two good moral reasons for being against the death penalty. First, there is the issue of whether or not we human beings have the right to sentence other human beings to death and second, there is the issue of possibly executing innocent individuals.  Given that innocent individuals have been wrongly convicted and incarcerated based on what was thought to be "solid evidence", we must then assume individuals have been executed based on that same "solid evidence". It does make you wonder, doesn't it?

"But...it was good enough for our ancestors"

It has been argued that the death penalty is much less barbaric than it used to be and if it was good enough for our ancestors it should be good enough for us, after all it made society a better place when criminal behavior was not tolerated. And what a great deterrent it was. Or was it? If it had been a deterrent there would have been no crime after the first few executions, right? Our civilization has evolved a great deal since the days of the Hammurabi Code and since 7th Century BC in Athens where the death penalty was the final punishment for all crimes. We’ve come a long way since the days when the death penalty was carried out in the form of drowning, crucifixion, boiling, beheading, hanging, impalement and burning at the stake.  Gone are the days when (in most countries) people were executed for theft, marrying into the wrong faith, and adultery. As human beings moved into more modern times, they began to see punishment by death in a different light. As our society evolved, juries became wary of the death penalty because of the brutality of its execution and so were often reluctant to impose the sentence.

"Swift, Certain, Severe"

Cesare Beccaria believed in order for punishment to be effective it had to be swift, certain, and severe. It was thought that this would deter potential criminal behavior. It's well-known that in the United States there is no such thing as swift, certain, and severe, when it comes to the death penalty. Death row inmates are not executed in a timely manner in this country. They are allowed numerous appeals. Often, death row inmates are not executed for a decade or more after being sentenced. If the idea that swift, certain, and severe is to deter crime, then obviously waiting ten, twenty years to execute an offender has zero impact on deterrence. The longer the time between the offense and the punishment, the less likely it is that the punishment can be considered an effective deterrent.

Also, think about the word swift. Executing an individual who has been on death row for a decade or longer is not swift by any means. What's the point of executing someone for something they did so long ago? It seems unjust to punish someone twenty years later even if it was a heinous crime.  The judicial system would get its point across more clearly (especially when it comes to deterrence) by executing immediately after the sentence is pronounced. However...we can't do that because taking a life is pretty serious business and before doing it we better be damn sure that individual is guilty.

"If it's not for deterrence then what?"

Theoretically, the purposes of any form of punishment are to keep the person who committed a crime from committing further crimes, showing that society disapproves of the criminal acts, deterring others from committing similar crimes, and allowing the perpetrator to make amends. Given of those purposes for punishment, where does the death penalty fall in there? It doesn't seem to fit. We could assume the death penalty is a deterrent but if that were the case, the murder rate would have decreased over the years, which overall it has not. And given the death penalty is well...death, there's no chance of rehabilitation or making amends with the victims families. So, the only reason left to support execution is vengeance for one's crime(s). In a civilized society vengeance cannot be considered acceptable reasons to take a person's life, no matter how heinous their crimes.

"But it shows we're tough!" 

Unfortunately in some parts of this nation it is difficult if not downright impossible to carry out a simple discussion regarding banning the death penalty because politics tends to get in the way. Many politicians use their pro-death penalty stance as a means of getting elected. This is how they show they are tough.  Since when did executing an individual make you tough? Since when is it acceptable to brag about the number of inmates that have been executed in your state? Why is that something to be proud of?  My experience in discussing this issue has been that many who support the death penalty generally do not want to listen to the other side. I've been in arguments with people who support the death penalty, some based their support on religious views, others just wanted to see justice done. I'd ask "what kind of justice is there in killing the person?" and the general response to that usually involves "an eye for an eye".  The thing is that if we really lived in an "an eye for an eye" society, many of those individuals who use it as a basis for their pro-death penalty argument would probably be very sorry indeed.

 "The dilemma"

  "What is the difference between a criminal killing his/her victim and the state killing the criminal?" 

Hey, it's a good question. On the surface it may seem ridiculous to ask but can you answer it logically, where it makes sense? I can't. The way I see it, it is wrong for an individual to go out and commit murder (and rightly so!) but it is not wrong for the state to do it.  Is it the motive that makes the difference? What motive would the state have for killing a convicted murderer? Now if you say "ah but the state isn't murdering the criminal, he/she is simply being punished" then the next question I have is:
"If the purpose of any form of punishment is to keep the person from committing further crimes, showing that society disapproves of the criminal acts, or deters others from committing similar crimes, or allowing the perpetrator to make amends then why aren't we just sending these individuals to life in prison instead?"
That leaves once again, only one rational answer doesn't it? Vengeance. And is that really a justifiable reason for the state to kill anyone? I'm just asking you to think about it. In the end, history will judge us for our actions. I'd like to think that when the time comes we'll have evolved. We are better than this, we can do better.


  1. Very well put! Agree whole-heartedly Jess.

  2. Very interesting take. And a very interesting read. I agree 100%, Jess!