Flaws of the Death Penalty
Capital Punishment has been part of the criminal justice
system since the earliest of times. The Babylonian Hammurabi Code(ca.
1700 B.C.) decreed death for crimes as minor as the fraudulent sale of
beer(Flanders 3). Egyptians could be put to death for disclosing the
location of sacred burial sites(Flanders 3). However, in recent times
opponents have shown the death penalty to be racist, barbaric, and in
violation with the United States Constitution as "...cruel and unusual
punishment." In this country,although laws governing the application
of the death penalty have undergone many changes since biblical
times, the punishment endures, and controversy has never been greater.
A prisoner's death wish cannot grant a right not otherwise
possessed. Abolitionists maintain that the state has no right to kill
anyone. The right to reject life imprisonment and choose death should
be respected, but it changes nothing for those who oppose the death at
the hands of the state.
The death penalty is irrational- a fact that should carry
considerable weight with rationalists. As Albert Camus pointed out, "
Capital punishment....has always been a religious punishment and is
reconcilable with humanism." In other words, society has long since
left behind the archaic and barbous "customs" from the cruel "eye for
an eye" anti-human caves of religion- another factor that should
raise immediate misgivings for freethinkers.
State killings are morally bankrupt. Why do governments kill
people to show other people that killing people is wrong? Humanity
becomes associated with murderers when it replicate their deeds. Would
society allow rape as the penalty for rape or the burning of
arsonists' homes as the penalty for arson?
The state should never have the power to murder its subjects.
To give the state this power eliminates the individual's most
effective shield against tyranny of the majority and is inconsistent
with democratic principles.
Family and friends of murder victims are further victimized by
state killings. Quite a few leaders in the abolishment movement became
involved specially because someone they loved was murdered. Family of
victims repeatedly stated they wanted the murderer to die. One of the
main reasons- in addition to justice- was they wanted all the
publicity to be over. Yet. if it wasn't for the sensationalism
surrounding an execution, the media exposure would not have occurred
in the first place. Murderers would be quietly and safely put away for
life with absolutely no possibility for parole.
The death penalty violates constitutional prohibitions against
cruel and unusual punishment. The grotesque killing of Robert Harris
by the state of California on April 21,1992, and similar reports of
witnesses to hangings and lethal injections should leave doubt that
the dying process can be- and often is-grossly inhumane, regardless of
The death penalty is often used for political gain. During his
presidential gain, President Clinton rushed home for the Arkansas
execution of Rickey Ray Rector, a mentally retarded, indigent black
man. Clinton couldn't take the chance of being seen by voters as "
soft on crime." Political Analysts believe that when the death penalty
becomes an issue in a campaign, the candidate favoring capital
punishment almost inevitably will benefit.
Capital punishment discriminates against the poor. Although
murderers come from all classes, those on death row are almost without
exception poor and were living in poverty at the they were arrested.
The majority of death-row inmates were or are represented by
court-appointed public defenders- and the state is not obligated to
provide an attorney at all for appeals beyond the state level.
The application of capital punishment is racist. About 40
percent of death-row inmates are black, whereas only 8 percent of the
population as a whole are black(Flanders 25). In cases with white
victims, black defendants were four to six times more likely to
receive death sentences than white defendants who had similar
criminal histories. Studies show that the chance for a death sentence
is up to five to ten times greater in cases with white victims than
black victims(Flanders 25). In the criminal justice system, the life
of a white person is worth more than the life of a black person.
The mentally retarded are victimized by the death penalty.
Since 1989, when the Supreme Court upheld killing of the mentally
retarded, at least four such executions have occurred. According to
the Southern Center for Human Rights, at least 10 percent of death row
inmates in the United States are mentally retarded(Long 79).
Juveniles are subject to the death penalty. Since state
execution of juveniles also became permissible in the decision cited
above, at least five people who were juveniles when their crimes were
committed have executed(Long 79).
Innocent people can-and have been-executed. With the death
penalty errors are irreversible. According to a 1987 study, 23 people
who were innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted were
executed between 1900 and 1985(Long 79). Until human judgement becomes
infallible, this problem alone is reason enough to abolish the death
penalty at the hands of the state more dedicated to vengeance than to
truth and justice.
Executions do not save money. There are those who cry that we,
the taxpayers, shouldn't have to "support" condemned people for an
entire lifetime in prison-that we should simply "eliminate" them and
save ourselves time and money. The truth is that the cost of state
killing is up to three times the cost of lifetime imprisonment(Long
80). Judges and others are reluctant- as they should be-to shorten the
execution process for fear that hasty procedures will lead to the
executions of more innocent people. The death penalty has been imposed
most for murders committed during the course of another felony.
Aggravating circumstances for murder are defined in the applicable
death penalty statute. Circumstances considered for murder include:
-The crime was particularly vile, atrocious, or cruel.
-There were multiple victims.
-The crime occurred during the commission of another felony.
-The victim was a police or correctional officer in the line of duty.
-The offender was previously convicted of a capital offense or violent
-The offender directed an accomplice to commit the murder or committed
the murder at the direction of another person.
In the novel, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, the main
characters Dick and Perry were guilty of several of the circumstances
that eventually led to their demise:
-The multiple victims included all four of the Clutter family.
-The event occurred during an attempted robbery.
-Both were former inmates and had previous dealings with the law.
-Dick had chosen Perry for his instinct as a "Natural Born Killer".
Further,it seems that both Dick and Perry fell almost directly under
the common background of one convicted of death. The death penalty is
flawed in many facets. Juries in rural counties are more likely to
impose the death penalty than those in urban areas. Dick and Perry
were convicted in Garden City, a small to moderate sized town. Both
Dick and Perry were unemployed, poor, white criminals whose actions
wrecked havoc not only on the remaining Clutter family and relatives,
but on the entire town of Holcomb and surrounding areas. This only
justifies and reinforces the points stated above that capital
punishment is biased, racist, and is harmful not only to the offenders
themselves, but to the entire community. Opposition to the death
penalty finally acheived its goal when in 1972 the Supreme Court
struck down death penalty laws, finding fault not with the theory, but
with the method. However, all was lost when four years later, the
decision was once more revised and ruled the death penalty once more
legal. Death row will continue to expand. It is almost certain that
the rising level of executions will be widely condemned. The future of
capital punishment may finally come down to the question of expense. A
single capital trial now costs millions of dollars. The enormous
volume of continuing appeals strain both federal and state court
systems. Unless workable solutions are found to the practical
difficulties involved in the administration of the death penalty.
American society eventually may decide to significantly restrict or
even abandon capital punishment.
Flanders, Stephen A. Capital Punishment. New York, NY: Facts on File,
Long, Robert Emmet. Criminal Sentencing. New York, NY: H.W. Company,