Death penalty has been an inalienable part of human society and its legal system for centuries, regarded as a necessary deterrent to dangerous crimes and a way to liberate the community from dangerous criminals. However, later on this type of punishment came to be regarded as a crime against humanistic ideals by many, and its validity in the legal system has been questioned. Until now, the debate rages on. This resulted in a wide discrepancy of laws on this issue. Some nations including China, the US, Iran, Belarus, and others preserve the death penalty as an option, while others like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and almost all European nations have abolished capital punishment. Still others keep the norm in their legislations, but have de facto suspended execution of criminals sentenced to capital punishment. This paper will seek to prove that death penalty has to be preserved as a valid means of prevention serious crimes. It will examine the effect of death penalty on society and its relevance to the protection of interests of common citizens.
The history of death penalty is almost as old as the history of mankind. Various means of capital punishment involved burning, hanging, drowning, crucifixion, breaking on the will, boiling to death, electrocution, firing squad, gassing - the list can be continued. The choice of a particular method in Europe in the Middle Age, for instance, depended on the social status of the condemned. Painless and respectable ways were reserved for the aristocracy; and more painful for the common people, such as hanging or breaking on the wheel. In other cases, the choice of the method was warranted by the time of crime: witches and heretics had to be burned at the stake. Capital punishment was envisaged for a broad array of crimes, “including robbery and theft, even if nobody was physically harmed in the action” (Wikipedia). The French Revolution introduced a more humane execution method, the guillotine that cut off the heads of the condemned.
The first decision to abolish capital punishment was made by the Grand Duke Leopold II of Habsburg in Granducato di Toscana (Tuscany) on 30 November 1786. The duke cancelled the penalty and ordered to destroy all the instruments of murder in his nation after being influenced by the book the Italian Cesare Beccaria Dei Delitti e Delle Pene "On Crimes and Punishments". The anniversary of the decree is since 2000 celebrated as a holiday in Tuscany.
In 2004, as reports Amnesty International, 3,797 people in 25 nations were executed. China accounts for the bulk of these executions - 3,400 cases. Kuwait is the leader in the number of executions per 100,000 residents - 400 compared to 260 in China and 230 in Iran, the runner-up on the total number, 159 (Wikipedia). In most nations, death penalty is used to punish criminals for war crimes or serious crimes associated with physical injury. In Asia (Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand) it is used to punish for drug-related crimes, even though these crimes are mot related to physical injury.
As part of anti-death penalty movement, this call to repeal this measure has been upheld by various international organizations. For instance, “the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which among other things forbids capital punishment for juveniles, has been signed and ratified by all countries except the USA and Somalia” (Wikipedia). Some international conventions such as the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Sixth Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights have been adopted, although they only bind nations that have ratified them. Organizations like the European Union demand from new members the abolition of death penalty as a condition of entry. Thus, there is a significant pressure on nations to cancel it. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are two prominent organisations fighting against death penalty.
The issues involved in the discussion of death penalty usually focus around two main parts. First, this punishment is analysed from a purely utilitarian perspective in an effort to find out whether application of capital punishment really helps to deter crime and reduce the risk of recidivism, when criminals commit repeated crimes. The evidence for this is sought in crime rates in regions and nations where executions are carried out. Second, supporters or opponents of death penalty need to find out whether this penalty can be acknowledged on moral grounds, solving the problem of whether human beings are justified in killing other human beings.
Although the arguments stated remain basically the same throughout history of the discussion, evidence can vary, and the findings, although controversial, can tilt the public opinion to one or the other side. Thus, the support for death penalty surges in nations where especially outrageous murders take place. On the contrary, a lower criminal rate reduces the support.
Death penalty, in my view, has to be supported on the ground of just retribution for murder. Still, I do not believe in death as a form of punishment for drug dealers, however heinous their activities might be, since they did not violate human lives. Political crimes should not be punished with death either, as this would open the way to political repression and physical elimination of political rivals, as it happened in Stalin's times in the Soviet Union. However, when a person murders another person, death is the right kind of retribution. This is analogous to penalties imposed for instance for robbery or theft - the criminal often has to forfeit one's possessions for taking the property of another person. Similarly, it is fair that one who has consciously taken the life of another person should suffer death.
In a research paper “Is Capital Punishment Morall Required? The Relevance of Life-Life Tradeoffs” by Cass R. Susstein and Adrian Vermeule, the authors suggest that death penalty is morally justified on the basis of distinction between acts and omissions. Most opponents of death penalty argue that it is barbaric for a government to take a human life since there is a difference between an act, such as killing a person, and omission, such as refraining from the act. But, researchers argue, by forbidding official penalty, government officials de facto allow numerous private killings that are left unpunished. However, a government that fails to maintain the welfare of the citizens by omitting death penalty from the criminal code will leave citizens unprotected and decrease their welfare “just as would a state that failed to enact simple environmental measures that could save a great many lives” (Sunstein, Vermeule 2005:41). Therefore, punishing the criminals is a necessary part of any state policy. The interests of victims or potential victims of murders cannot be overlooked in order to consider the interests of the criminals guilty of the most heinous crime - taking a person's life.
One of the most important arguments in favor of death penalty is the fact that it helps to deter capital crimes. This issue is debatable since there have been suggestions that application of death penalty has no serious effects on the rate of murders, for instance. Besides, opponents of death penalty claim that it is not possible to deter so-called crimes-of-passion committed in an emotionally affected state when a person is not capable of thinking about future punishment. However, there is evidence that application of capital punishment can indeed prevent crimes, even those that are committed by intimates.
A study by Joanna M. Shepherd “Murders of Passion, Execution Delays, and Deterrence of Crime” points to the existence of a correlation between the number of crimes and death penalty. To find this relationship, she looks at monthly murder and execution data using least squares and negative binomial estimations. Her conclusion is that one execution helps to avert three killings on average. Capital punishment also has an effect on murders by intimates and crimes of passion. The influence is evidenced by rates of crimes committed by victims of both European and Afro-American descent. The deterring effect of death penalty, however, was found to be reduced by longer waits on the death row. As a result of this trend, “one less murder is committed for every 2.75-years reduction in death row waits” (Shepherd 2003:27).
Another paper exploring the relationship between crime rates and death penalty is “State Executions, Deterrence and the Incidence of Murder” by Paul R. Zimmerman uses U.S. state-level data over the years 1978-1997 to find out if capital punishment indeed has a deterrent effect. The paper, in evaluating the deterrent effect of capital punishment, adjusts the data for the influence of simultaneity and therefore comes up with estimates of a deterrent effect that greatly those of previous findings. Zimmermann has found that “the estimates imply that a state execution deters approximately fourteen murders per year on average” Zimmerman 2004:163). Besides, he has established that it is the announcement of death penalty that drives the effect.
The above-mentioned findings suggest that the deterrent effect of capital punishment is present and should not be neglected. If the killing of one criminal can prevent at least three, or fourteen deaths, by different calculations, this opportunity has to be exploited. We cannot forgo an opportunity to save the lives of honest, innocent, law-abiding citizens. Although any human life is precious, the efforts of the society have always been directed mostly at maintaining the well-being of those who live by its rules. They are getting more economic benefits that anti-social elements and can enjoy a more secure future. Thus, these people have to be protected by the law in the first place.
Death penalty, however improper it may seem from the point of view of defending criminals' interests, is “a guarantee of no repeat crime” (NCWC). Evidence of repeat offenders returning to normal life is scarce, and instances of recidivism are abundant. Once again, the solution depends on the main goal set for the legal system: is it to defend the interests of everybody alike or is it designed to support those who spend their lives without harming each other? If we side with those who believe that the system should in the first place support those who are law-abiding, the focus will be on prevention of deaths though murders as the greatest evil generated by crime. Despite the above-mentioned deterrent effect, we cannot effectively prevent crimes by first-time offenders. It is much easier to prevent those by repeat offenders.
One of the most outrageous instances supporting the above claim was the incident that happened in Alabama prison in 2001: Cuhuatemoc Hinricky Peraita, 25, an inmate who was serving life without parole for 3 murders was found guilty of killing a fellow inmate (Recidivism). The killer was finally sentenced to electrocution. However, if he had been sentenced to death right after the first murder, the other three could have been prevented. The life of an inmate who died at the hands of Peraita is no less valuable than his own. In fact, I strongly believe that it could have been more valuable: maybe that person has repented and was going to return to the society a re-born person? Maybe that person was not guilty of such a heinous crime as murder? Unfortunately, there is too much evidence that certain individuals tend to commit murder while others are less prone to it. Death penalty would then free society from the return of such individuals.
Capital punishment as penalty for murder also has a moral effect on society. It signals to the criminals that murder is a serious crime the community feels strongly about. In fact, it creates the useful perception of human life as something so precious that taking it has no justification. Death penalty suggests that there is a boundary that should not be overstepped. This should send a message to society members that taking a person's property, however reprehensible, is not to be condemned via taking a life. On the contrary, murder will not be tolerated, and people who have committed this crime should be removed from society as incapable of social living.
Another common argument given in favour of death penalty is an economical consideration. Comparisons differ depending on the bias of the people carrying out the comparison. Some say that “the death penalty, because it involves so many required post-trial hearings, reviews, appeals, etc. ends up costing more than life imprisonment” (NCWC). However, these extra expenses have to be diminished through increasing the cost-efficiency of the legal system, and society that is spending huge amounts on legal services would benefit from such a reform. Just considering the cost of keeping a 25-year-old inmate incarcerated till the end of one's life is startling and endorses the view that society has to select death penalty as a cheaper option.
Opponents of death penalty have given a number of arguments to support their position. In the first place, it is opposed by people on religious grounds. Representatives of various religious groups claim that only God can take a human life and human being are then not sanctioned to kill each other. However, in the Hebrew Scriptures there is evidence that Jews applied death penalty to criminals for selected types of crime. The only instance in the Christian Scriptures includes punishing by death “for lying about Church donations: Acts 5:1 to 11 describe how a couple, Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of real estate” (Religious Tolerance). The couple was killed for lying about the size of the proceeds from the sale of a house in an effort to conceal part of their income.
Proceeding to the Christian Scriptures, one finds some evidence that was said to be indicative of Christ's opposition to death penalty questionable. Thus, there is a renowned episode with the female sinner (John 8:3 - 8:11) who was supposed to be stoned to death and saved by Christ saying “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her”. Jesus was not in fact censuring the right to kill the woman according to the ancient law. Besides, there is evidence suggesting that this passage was not present in the original version of the Scripture and was later added by an unknown person (Religious Tolerance). Besides, the passage from Matthew 5:21-22 is supposed to condemn killing: "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment..." These words implicate a person who kills out of anger, but is hardly applicable to cases where a person is murdered through a verdict of qualified jury.
Thus, Christian intolerance of death penalty appears doubtful. To negate death first of all would mean the moratorium on wars that take lives of more people than death penalty. The war casualties are often innocent peaceful people who just happened to be caught in the cross-fire, unlike recidivist criminals who end up on death row. Yet most Christian states prepare military doctrines and demonstrate to each other readiness to employ their military machine to kill people if necessary. Still others are practicing war if it suits their political goals. How significantly will then abolition of death penalty forward the goal of living a Christian life?
The same argument applies to the anti-death penalty claim that the legal system should not be allowed to execute because there is a possibility of a legal mistake that will result in the death of a wrong person (NCWC). On these grounds, wars have to be forbidden in the first place since they keep killing people that are not to blame at all. They either do their best fighting for their motherland in expectation of a heroic death or just, as mentioned before, get caught in cross-fire. Thus, any nation that does not exclude a war should not exclude death penalty that is a much more balanced mechanism. Besides, the legal system is unfortunately prone to mistakes, as are all social institutions, but this does not mean that they should not be used to carry out their functions. Most other penalties like imprisonment take a heavy toll on human life, yet they are applied to criminals, even if there is a threat of ruining a person's life by mistake. Besides, returning to the incident in Alabama in the previous section, a person dying at the hands of an acknowledged murderer in prison is also a fatal mistake of the legal system. If the system rightfully recognized the capacity to continue killing in the criminal, his final victim would have saved his life.
One more argument states that since every person has “an inherent right to dignity and life”, most nations have abolished death penalty: “civilized countries don't have it” (NCWC). First, it is still preserved in many nations including the US that fits into many criteria of a civilized country. Besides, quite a few nations that have it in their penal codes like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Barbado, Bangladesh enjoy a relatively low crime rate. This underscores that death penalty adequately serves the main purpose of the legal system: to protect law-abiding citizens.
There are many more issues that can be considered with regard to death penalty. One can evaluate the racist argument, for instance, claiming that death penalty is more often imposed on Afro-Americans than European Americans and see how it relates to crime rate in the two groups. Besides, ethical perspectives on this issue can be diverse and supported by many different theories. With the arguments presented above, however, it seems clear that there are many valid reasons in support of death penalty. On the contrary, anti-death penalty arguments need to be assessed critically, as, for instance, the religious argument.
Further research into the topic is necessary, with more authoritative studies on the deterrent effect of death penalty on the criminal rates, tracing various states in the US as well as evidence from other nations. It would also be interesting to examine the historical background of nations that have both capital punishment in their law codes and extremely low crime rate to see how death penalty affects crime rates. On the more practical level, it is my deepest belief that currently capital punishment has to be preserved in order to protect potential victims. Any consideration of the crime rate cancellation would become viable if the crime rate at least for murders goes sharply down. At present, however, capital punishment serves as an important barrier on the way of criminals ready to take another person's life.
North Carolina Weslyan College. Death Penalty Arguments & Internet Resources. <http://faculty.ncwc.edu/toconnor/410/410lect15.htm>.
Recidivim. < http://www.prodeathpenalty.com/repeat_murder.htm>.
Religious Tolerance. Capital Punishment: The Death Penalty: All Points Of View. <http://www.religioustolerance.org/execute.htm>.
Shepherd, Joanna M. Murders of Passion, Execution Delays, and the Deterrence of Capital Punishment. Journal of Legal Studies, vol. 33, no. 2, pp. 283-322. <http://people.clemson.edu/~jshephe/DPpaper_fin.pdf >.
Sunstein, Cass R., and Adrian Vermeule. Is Capital Punishment Morally Required? The Relevance of Life-Life Tradeoffs. Working Paper 05-06. <http://aei-brookings.org/admin/authorpdfs/page.php?id=1131>.
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. “Capital punishment”. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment>.
Zimmerman, Paul R. State Executions, Deterrence and the Incidence of Murder. Journal of Applied Economics, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 163-193. <http://www.cema.edu.ar/publicaciones/download/volumen7/zimmerman.pdf>.