10 Reasons The Death Penalty Should Be Legal
Should the death penalty be legal? To listen to some people in favor of the abolition of the death penalty or organizations such as Amnesty International the United States, by executing criminals, stands alongside such countries as China and Saudi Arabia in its barbarity.
Many countries in the world, including most of Europe have rescinded their death penalties. The decision to do so is often lauded as the choice of a rational, modern, mature and humane society There was a time, in living memory, when there was a moratorium on executions in the United States (see below) but the death penalty was reinstated in 36 states.
Recent problems with botched executions including a 2014 execution by lethal injection that took 1 hour and 40 minutes to take effect, the prisoner in pain all the while, have reopened the debate as to whether the United States should continue to execute prisoners for certain crimes.
We believe that the death penalty should continue to be legal, and that it plays an important role in our fight against crime and punishment of the perpetrators of those crimes. Here are our top 10 reasons why the death penalty should remain legal.
The Constitution Allows For The Application Of The Death Penalty
The Constitution of the United States, more specifically through the application of the Fifth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments permit the use of the death penalty in appropriate cases.
There were, most notably in the 1960s, several attempts made to declare the use of the death penalty unconstitutional based on the fact that it was ‘cruel and unusual’ and therefore contrary to the Eighth Amendment. The 1958 Supreme Court case of Trop V Dulles while not a death penalty case interpreted the Eighth Amendment as containing an ‘evolving standard of decency that marked the progress of a maturing society’. This statement was used as a basis for the abolitionist campaign. 10 years later in 1968 in US v Jackson the Supreme Court started to consider the practical application of the death penalty ruling that the death penalty could be imposed even when not recommended by a Jury. The same year the Court ruled that a juror’s reservations to the death penalty were not enough to bar them from serving in and of themselves unless they were so strong as to prevent the juror from making an impartial decision.
By 1972 Eighth Amendment challenges resulted in State Death Penalty Statutes being suspended for unconstitutionality as they could, as drafted, result in arbitrary sentencing. The states immediately started to fight back, redrafting their statutes to address the problems highlighted by the Supreme Court. The death penalty was effectively reinstated by 1977 when the first execution in years took place in Utah.
The death penalty has therefore been challenged, found wanting, redrafted and found to be legal and constitutional. There is no reason, therefore, for the death penalty to be suspended.
The Death Penalty Acts As A Deterrent
The death penalty is no longer fashionable. Ruled illegal in much of Europe and most of the developed world America is unusual amongst equivalent nations in its adherence to the practice. Liberal abolitionists have argued that the flaws in the legal system including the potential for the execution of innocents and the societal disparities in sentencing (see below) are of sufficient concern as to make the practice unethical.
The once deeply held public and professional opinion that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to crime is widely dismissed but there is more truth in it than the liberals and abolitionists want to acknowledge. Studies undertaken over a number of years show, unequivocally that between 3 and 18 lives could be saved by each execution of a guilty killer. Results from the University of Colorado in Denver show that an execution saves 5 lives while the commuting of a death sentence results in about five more. The reasoning is simple, if the costs of doing something become too high, people will change their behavior to avoid those costs. If the cost reduces people will indulge in that behavior once more.
Yet more research has shown that when the state of Illinois suspended executions in 2000 there were an extra 150 homicides over the following 4 years. More research needs to be undertaken to ensure the quality and accuracy of the methodology and data but the results seem incontrovertible – the death penalty acts as a deterrent and as a result saves lives.
The Death Penalty Allows The State To Exact Appropriate Retribution, Criminals Must Face The Consequences Of Their Actions
We are taught (or at least we should be) from our earliest years that actions have consequences. Touching a hot stove burns your hand, annoying your parent causes them to punish you etc. Every parent knows that failing to link actions to consequences leads to children who do what they want when they want. The same holds true for adults. We pay our taxes because we don’t want to face the consequences of not doing so. Consequences bring order to our society.
The same holds true for violent and dangerous crimes, where someone acts in such a way as to take the life of another they have to be punished, they have to expect retribution, they have to pay the price of their actions and it should be in equal measure.
Abolitionists often confuse retribution (the payment of debt to society) with revenge which is a hot blooded reaction to the loss by those who have suffered it. We have a police and subsequently legal process precisely to prevent hot blooded revenge from taking over and to ensure a rational, logical and fair response to a crime. This is why the death penalty is a reasonable and proportionate response to a killing but not to a rape, no matter how violent, where the victim does not lose their life.
If there is no retribution (or no reasonable level of retribution) exacted then there is no reasonable deterrent (see above) to prevent homicide.
Life Sentences For Criminals Who Should Expect The Death Penalty Are An Unfair Financial Burden On The State
Those who are opposed to the death penalty often like to claim that it is extremely expensive citing figures of up to $2 million per individual in death row. The equivalent costs of detaining a prisoner for life without parole come in, they claim, at $1 million per individual.
A quick analysis of the cost of detention for life without parole show that detention will cost approximately $34,000 per year for an average of 50 years. The cost of trial and appeals will come in at about $75,000. Assuming a cost increase of a conservative 2% per annum the costs come in at over $3 million for 50 years detention, rising to $5.5 million if a 4% cost increase is assumed.
While the costs of death row are higher coming in at almost double the cost of life incarceration or about $60,000 these costs are not typically borne for anywhere near as long, an average of just 6 years. Trials and appeals will also be more costly coming in at approximately $1.5 million giving a total of $1.88 million assuming 2% per annum cost increases and $1.91 million with a 4% costs increase. This analysis shows that the overall costs of the death penalty where called for are much lower than a lengthy incarceration without parole and that is even before adjustment to life costs has been made to cover the costs of treating the diseases and suffering of old age which typically are complex and expensive to treat.
The Death Penalty Can Promote Happiness and Wellbeing Amongst Non-Offenders
This may seem like a rather illogical argument but it is one that is often deployed by pro death penalty campaigners in Japan.
Crime is not rampant in Japan which experiences on average 1,200 or fewer murders a year, approximately equivalent to the number of homicides in France which has half the Japanese population. Japanese executions are carried out by hanging and 76 out of 102 inmates on death row were executed between 1993 and 2008.
Because the death penalty is used relatively sparingly in Japan (although with increasing frequency since the turn of the century) there was thought at one point that the penalty would be abolished and under one Minister of Justice there was a de facto moratorium on the death penalty as he refused to authorize executions.
Nevertheless the death penalty remains for the reason that it has an important psychological impact on Japanese society. Like Americans the Japanese work hard, they get relatively few days off and are expected to put their employer’s needs before their own. The death penalty shows the hard working ordinary Japanese that bad things happen to bad people. The necessary concomitant of this is the belief that good things happen to good people. Therefore, psychologists in Japan believe, when people see the bad punished they think they will receive rewards for being good.
Of course Japanese people are psychologically very different from Americans but the argument is interesting and could be of application in the US. After all who does not believe that people should get what is coming to them!
Race Should Not Be, And Is Not An Issue In The Application Of The Death Penalty
Read any argument for the abolition of the death penalty and you will almost certainly be told that the death penalty is an unfair burden on racial minority Americans, more specifically black Americans with the death penalty being, in effect, a reflection of a middle class ‘desire’ to strike at racial minorities. If this were true it would be a good reason to suspend the death penalty to ensure that its application was even and fair but the claims are simply so much rubbish. The death penalty in America is color blind!
Abolitionists claim that white lives are accorded more value than black because the vast majority (82%) of all death penalty murder victims are white and only 13% black. Black deaths, so the argument goes, are simply not deserving of the death penalty. However this imbalance may simply be due to the fact that more white Americans are victims of killings the circumstances of which attract the death penalty.
When it comes to actual executions the statistics are reversed. 56% of all those executed for death penalty crimes are white and only 38% black, this is despite the fact that black criminals committed 47% of all murders with whites responsible for only 38%. The conclusions are startling, white Americans who kill other whites are more likely to end up on death row than black Americans who kill whites and white killers of black victims are more likely to receive the death penalty than black killers of white victims and white killers are executed 15 months faster than black killers on death row.
Despite these statistics no one claims the system is biased against white killers. They don’t make the claim because the system is not inherently racist. Those who murder receive the death penalty if, and only if, they meet all the necessary criteria for it to be handed down not simply because of the color of their skin.
The Death Penalty Is Not Inherently Unfair On The Poor
Much like the arguments pertaining to race (see above) those in favor of abolishing the death penalty claim that it is unfairly burdensome on the poorer members of society. Those unable to afford a decent lawyer, so the claim goes, will have to make do with a public defender. These public lawyers are, in the eyes of abolitionists, incompetent, unprepared and woefully underpaid. They are often incapable of mounting an effective defense and are often nothing more than a figurehead, a sop to the American ideal of free legal representation that no longer exists in reality.
This paints a pretty picture, everyone loves an underdog and the idea that people are being denied due process and adequate representation seems inherently un-American. The pretty picture is, however, nothing more than a myth built on shaky foundations. It may have been true in the past but the reality today is very different. Over recent decades many states have overhauled their previously inadequate public defender systems and provide extensive funding for the expert witnesses required to mount an effective defense. Many law firms, looking for good publicity, will take on a capital case on a pro-bono basis and may even offer partnership to lawyers who work in capital defense cases.
Advances In Process And Science Help To Eliminate The Possibility Of Mistakes In Convictions
One of the reasons people claim that the death penalty should be abolished is the danger of an erroneous conviction. The death penalty is final, there is no coming back from it whereas a mistaken conviction leading to a life sentence can result in the individual being released and granted compensation.
The key thing to bear in mind is that while mistakes can occur in any judicial system (and they do) the likelihood of mistakes in any one case can be protected against. The standard of proof required in death penalty cases is very high and death penalty juries take their responsibilities very seriously indeed. Any person convicted of a death penalty crime has the automatic right to a funded appeal to a higher court. The checks and balances designed into the system ensure that the chances of a mistake are very low indeed. Indeed prisoners are 6 times more likely to be released from death row on appeal than walk the route to the execution chamber.
Reviews have shown that 23 potentially innocent people were executed in the US since 1900. Commentary on the review shows that there is no proof as to the innocence of those 23 individuals. What the study has shown is not that mistaken executions are common but that they are almost vanishingly rare. No person subsequently proved to be innocent has been executed since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1977.
Add to this the advances in forensic science and technology. DNA evidence can now be obtained from almost vanishingly small samples allowing for the innocent to be exonerated relatively easily. There is a danger that juries become conditioned by television programs and media reporting to believe that DNA holds all the answers. As a result it is vital that judges give the juries adequate directions to enable them to interpret the evidence before them. It is also why, in spite of what seems to be an almost god like ability to determine whether or not someone was present in the room or handled a weapon, we still require juries to analyze whether or not the evidence is believable. This combination of cutting edge technology and human analysis of credibility is one of the true strengths of the legal system and a defense against wrongful conviction.
The Death Penalty Need Not Be A Cruel And Painful End
36 States in the USA conduct their executions through the use of lethal injection. To many lay people this might seem a calm and peaceful, painless end. After all when a much loved pet is in pain we take them to the vet for an injection and hold them as they breathe their last, we know they feel no pain, only a gentle slide into oblivion.
The protocol for human lethal injection is slightly different. 30 of the 36 states use a combination of an anesthetic, a paralytic and a drug to stop the heart. In recent years supplies of the barbiturate of choice have run low leading to the need to source the drug elsewhere. Some experts claim that execution by lethal injection causes needless pain and suffering particularly since the anesthetic barbiturate which is meant to render the convict unconscious and unable to feel the effects of the second two drugs does not always act as intended as doses are not strictly calculated. If a sufficiently powerful dose is not administered they will feel excruciating pain.
Nevertheless the Supreme Court ruled in the 2008 decision of Baze v Rees that the triple cocktail lethal injection method did not constitute cruel and unreasonable punishment.
It is not just lethal injections that can go wrong, several executions by electric chair have also been botched requiring second jolts. Analysis shows that at least 47 executions have been botched since 1977, in some cases the convict took nearly 2 hours to die. Executions do not have to be that way. Utah allows execution by firing squad, it might seem backwards but is possibly more humane than lethal injection. The UK no longer executes prisoners but when it did the executions were done by hanging. This has been abandoned as a method of execution in most US states (it remains as a potential secondary method in New Hampshire, Delaware and Washington in the event a lethal injection cannot be carried out). Concerns with hanging include a potential lengthy suffocation process if a short drop is used or beheading if a violent long drop is used. The UK developed a system which included the use of a device to dislocate the neck which together with a drop length calculated against the bodyweight of the criminal would result in an almost instantaneous and almost painless death.
Given the concerns that exist with the preferred American execution methods of lethal injection and electrocution it would seem better to adopt (or allow prisoners to request) a firing squad or British style measured drop hanging. This would remove all potential to claim that the punishment was cruel or unusual.
The Death Penalty Is The Only Rational And Moral Response To Some Crimes
We are told, by those in favor of abolition of the death penalty, that human life is sacred, that man should not play God. The truth is, however, that those people who have committed the type of crimes for which the death penalty is applicable have put themselves beyond the pale of humanity. They have chosen to act in a manner that is directly at odds with the morals of society at large and as such they must expect to be sanctioned. Should Ted Bundy have been allowed to live? Should John Wayne Gacy?
Does the imposition of the death penalty result in man putting themselves in God’s shoes? Many Christian theologians think not. St Augustine in Chapter 21 of his book The City of God argues that the executioner in a legally sanctioned death is but a ‘sword in the hand’. Going even deeper into the core of Christian teaching St Paul mandates the use of capital punishment in appropriate circumstances in Romans 13:4 ‘If thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil’. Meanwhile Matthew reports that Jesus instructed that ‘all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword’. Human life is, indeed, sacred which is why it behoves us to punish those who take it.
The argument that it is morally superior not to execute prisoners is as seductive as it is misleading. It is easy to feel sorry for someone in an orange suit who says they repent of their crime but at the end of the day they did commit a crime. Furthermore the crime they committed, in order to find themselves on death row was no ordinary crime. It was cruel, it was violent and it ended the life of another person, an innocent victim.
It is only right and proper that people are punished for the crimes they commit. It is also right that that punishment be proportionate. What possible punishment other than death could possibly go towards expiating the guilt of the accused, allowing for appropriate retribution and act as a deterrent to others who might wish to commit such crimes.
Most of the arguments against the death penalty; those of inherent unfairness and bias towards the poor or racial minorities or the devastating potential for mistaken execution are both fallacious and misleading.
While we do believe that America could improve its method of executions to ensure that they are as swift and painless as possible we also believe that the death penalty is necessary and important and should remain at the present time.