Opponents of the death penalty argue that the penalty is unjust but proponents disagree with this position because they believe what is truly unjust is the deliberate act of taking another life, murder. Further, an injustice society should not condone is allowing murderers to keep their lives after imposing the death sentence themselves on another and by that act, also sentencing the victim’s family to a life sentence of anguish. If someone steals a car, for example, and was allowed to keep and drive it around town without fear of retribution, no one would think that fair. (Olen & Barry, 1996). It is neither fair to allow anyone that steals a life to keep their own. By allowing people who have been convicted of acting as self-appointed executioners to keep their own life devalues human life on the whole. Opponents also question the deterrence factor. How the ultimate penalty does not deter murders is almost comical to consider. If the threat of a traffic ticket slows drivers on the highway, the threat of death certainly gains one’s attention.
Historically speaking, the rationale for punishing criminals has been to avenge the crime, to protect society by imprisoning the criminal, to deter that person and other potential offenders from the commission of crimes, and to obtain reparations from the offender (Wolfgang, 1998). Throughout the history of civilization, this rationale has not changed substantially. The four fundamental reasons society punishes can be classified into two areas. One is to obtain desired consequences which include protecting society, two, to seek compensation and deterrence. The other, retribution, or vengeance, involves punishment for a wrong perpetrated on society. “The death penalty is the ultimate preventative measure” (Olen & Barry, 1996).
According to those in favor of the death penalty, opponents defy reasonable logic by arguing that taking a murderer’s life devalues human life. They have never had their car stolen and don’t understand the example or they believe that the murderer’s life is more valuable than the victim’s. Taking away criminals’ freedom is the only way of showing how much we value freedom. Sending a murderer away to enjoy three meals a day and a roof over their heads for life doesn’t properly address the issue. In addition, people tend to forget the past and parole boards constantly evolve their personnel so there is always a chance, no matter how small, that the murderer will strike again if he is allowed to remain alive. A life sentence of imprisonment tends to depreciate with time. The public also forgets the crime itself as time passes. (Banner p.15) The death penalty would serve a much greater deterrence if it were carried out swiftly while the crime and offender were still fresh in the mind of the general public and potential future offenders such as it were in the 1800s. (Banner p.16) Public executions as were conducted in the bygone days are non-productive however. Crowds or mobs witnessing executions became desensitized to the spectacle. They were more excited than frightened. (Banner p.154)
Although the U.S. court system is at least among the most equitable in the world, no system of justice can expect to provide perfect results 100 percent of the time. Mistakes are inherent within all systems that rely on the human element for proof and judgment. The justice system correctly demands that a higher standard be imposed for determinations of guilt in death penalty cases. With the due processextraordinary due-process that is applied in all death penalty cases, the risk of making a mistake is minute. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, there has been no credible evidence provided that confirms any innocent persons has been executed. “The more than 100 ‘innocent’ death row inmates that were ‘exonerated’ is a sham” (Stewart, 2006). The actual figure of innocent death row inmates is nearer 40 which should be considered in context with the 7,000-plus death–row inmates added to the roles since 1973. Mistakes within the system, though few and unavoidable, should not serve as justification to eradicate the death penalty. We should never disregard the dangers of permitting murderers to kill again. The more person’s allowed out to kill again further reduces the deterrence effect thus multiplying the problem which condemns more innocent people to premature death. (Stewart, 2006).
Many proponents of the death penalty believe that it is an option of last resort for criminals that cannot be rehabilitated. They also argue that every murderer executed is one less person that the taxpayers are not feeding and housing. An execution is less costly to taxpayers than the alternative, long imprisonment. They believe “the cost of supporting criminals in maximum security prisons until they die is very high and they feel the innocent taxpayer should not have to foot the bill for the care of depraved criminals who’ve demonstrated that they have no respect for society’s laws or human life” (Olen & Barry, 1996: 273-274). Additionally, a lengthy appeals process is a costly process that ties up the court system. (Olen & Barry, 1996: 274).
The majority in this country believes it to be neither cruel nor unusual, on the contrary, they think it just and fair. For those who believe the death penalty does not deter future incidents, ask someone accused of a capital offense. The vast majority attempt to plea bargain a death sentence down to a life sentence instead. They parade a long list of family and friends as character witnesses to testify to avoid death. One thing for certain, if a murderer is executed, the death penalty acts as the ultimate deterrent for that particular murderer.
Banner, Stuart “The Death Penalty: An American History” Harvard University Press (2003).
Olen, Jeffrey & Barry, Vincent. “Applying Ethics.” Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co. (1996).
Stewart, Steven D. “A Message from the Prosecuting Attorney.” The Death Penalty. Clark County, IN: Office of the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney. (2006).
Wolfgang, M.E. (1998). “We Do Not Deserve to Kill.” Crime and Delinquency. Vol. 44, pp. 19-32.