The Death Penalty 1
Final Paper – The Death Penalty
The Death Penalty 2
The death penalty, also known as capital punishment, was created to punish those
criminals who have committed such heinous acts of monstrosity that we do not deem
them fit to live. Usually people receive the death penalty when they are found guilty of
committing murder. A sentence of life imprisonment is not fitting punishment to their
heinous crimes and therefore these criminals are sentenced to death.
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According to Larry Elder, author of Showdown: Confronting Bias, Lies and the Special
Interests That Divide America, the death penalty “makes a profound statement that you
have committed the ultimate sin against society, and society is making a moral
statement about your conduct: You have to sacrifice your life” (Ballard, 2003).
Proponents of the death penalty will argue that capital punishment should be
enforced for several reasons. One reason is that they believe the death penalty acts as
a deterrent, that is, it sets an example for potential criminals that if you commit this
same crime you will be punished in the same manner. “Deterrence theorists view
murder as rational behavior, and assume that in calculating the gains and losses from
killing, potential offenders are aware of the death penalty and regard it as a more severe
sanction than imprisonment” (Bailey & Peterson, 1994).
Another reason death penalty advocates support the death penalty is that they
believe it brings justice: a murderer took an innocent person’s life and therefore he must
give up his own. Why should someone who killed another person be allowed to live in a
jail for the rest of his life, get a roof over his head and three square meals a day? A lot
of people do not see life imprisonment as a punishment when these prisoners are
receiving food and shelter and are better off than homeless people. They have their life
and they are not tortured, so basically they are living comfortably. Some people also
believe “some murders are so outrageously unjustified that execution is fully called for”
(Lyons, 2002). Dudley Sharp of the Justice for All criminal justice reform organization
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believes “The punishment of murderers has been earned by the pain and suffering they
have imposed on their victims” (Dudley, 2002). Death penalty advocates also argue that
putting to death a killer will bring closure to a grieving victim’s family.
Despite these reasons, I still firmly believe that the death penalty should be
abolished. The possibility that an innocent man could be executed is the most important
reason the death penalty should be abolished. Our justice system is flawed, and this is
evident when you look at how many innocent men might have been put to death had
they not been exonerated when evidence proved they were not guilty of the crime they
were convicted of. According to Congressional Black Caucus chairman Rep. Elijah E.
Cummings, nationwide 100 condemned inmates were exonerated and were freed from
death row since 1976 (Ballard, 2003). Outgoing Illinois Governor George Ryan stayed
executions in his state when he realized “that the system that convicts and sentences
the inmates on death row ‘is haunted by error’" (Moore, 2003). Another example of an
innocent man being incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit was Frank Lee Smith.
Eleven months after he died of cancer while on death row, DNA evidence cleared him of
the murder of Shandra Whitehead (Long & Wallsten, 2002). A 1987 Stanford law
review study revealed that in this country in the last century, 23 innocent people have
been executed because our legal system uses the death penalty (Doesn't the Death
Penalty, 2002). The list goes on and on. Study after study shows that innocent people
have been executed and they will continue to be as long as we enforce the death
penalty. Since the death penalty is irreversible, these people will never have the chance
to be exonerated and freed. Luckily, with the concern of flaws in the system, House
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members have taken measures to give all state and federal prisoners easier access to
DNA testing to prove claims of innocence (Dorning, 2002).
The system of capital punishment has also been proven to be plagued with
racism and bias. When Illinois Governor George Ryan ordered a state commission to
conduct an extensive review of capital punishment, it was discovered that killers of
black defendants were 60 percent less likely to be given the death penalty than those
convicted of killing whites (Peirce, 2003). It is also startling to know that 55 percent of
the people who make up the population of America's death row are people of color and
43 percent of those death row inmates are African-American (Hawkins, 2002).
Journalist Bob Herbert writes “It is becoming ever more obvious that whether or not you
get the death penalty depends a great deal more on who you are than what you did…
we won't execute Andrea Yates, the Texas woman who coldly and methodically
drowned her five children” (Herbert, 2002).
The death penalty does not bring the victim back to life and for most of the
victim’s families, putting to death the murderer will not ensure closure or ease their pain.
Some families have even managed to forgive their loved one’s killer as part of their
healing process. Rachel King, a lawyer and lobbyist against the death penalty,
discovered through numerous interviews with families of victims that they are often
strongly opposed to the death penalty, which goes against the stereotype that victim’s
families often want revenge and nothing more than to see the killer put to death (King,
2003). The father of a young woman who died in the Oklahoma City bombing states “To
me the death penalty is vengeance, and vengeance doesn't really help anyone in the
healing process” (Welch, 1997).
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There is no evidence that the death penalty deters people from committing
murder. Death penalty advocates have even agreed that capital punishment is not
known to have any deterrent effect and that it is more expensive to execute murderers
than to imprison them for life (Garbus, 1994). Other evidence that shows the death
penalty does not deter others from committing murder is the fact that the state of Illinois,
which uses capital punishment, has a higher murder rate than the state of Michigan,
which does not enforce capital punishment (Turow, 2003).
The death penalty is murder. Murderers definitely must pay for the crimes they
commit but that does not give the state the right to take a person’s life. This cycle of
killing will not bring the victim back and the death penalty is simply murder that is
sanctioned by the state. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated his thoughts on state
executions when he was quoted “Even if punishment is a proper form of justice, what is
the logic of killing to reinforce that killing is wrong?” (Geiger, 2003).
One episode of the Oprah Show involved Oprah visiting some of the death-row
inmates after they received the news that Illinois Governor George Ryan had - on his
last day in office- lessened their sentence to life in prison. Many of them mentioned that
when they had committed the heinous crime of murder, they were young and also under
the influence of drugs. Most felt remorse for the crime they committed, and almost all of
them were overcome with joy at their newfound chance at life. It is true they would
spend the rest of their days in a jail cell, but nevertheless the inmates were relieved to
know that the prospect of a certain death was no longer in their future.
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Bailey, W. C. & Peterson, R. D. (1994). Murder, Capital Punishment, and Deterrence: A
Review of the Evidence and an Examination of Police killings. Journal of Social
Issues, 50, 53-75.
Ballard, S. (2003, February). Should the Death Penalty Be Abolished? Jet, 103, 4-5.
Dorning, M. (2002, May). Support Growing for Legislative Safeguards on the Death
Penalty. Chicago Tribune, K7703.
Dudley, S. (2002, September). Still Necessary. World and I, 17, 247.
Faith Q&A: Doesn't the Death Penalty go against what Most Religions Teach? (2002,
August). Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, K2187.
Garbus, M. (1994, December). Executioners' Song. The Nation, 259, 748-750.
Geiger, J. (2003). Anti-Death Penalty Committee. Peace and Freedom, 63, 9-10.
Hawkins, S.W. (2002, September). It Is Immoral and Ineffective. World and I, 17, 247.
Herbert, B. (2002, May). Who Gets the Death Penalty? New York Times.
King, R. (2003, February). Don't Kill in Our Names: Families of Murder Victims Speak
Out against the Death Penalty. Booklist, 99, 960-961.
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Long, P & Wallsten P. (2002, December). Bush under Fire from Death Penalty
Supporters for Stay of Execution. Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.
Lyons, T. (2002, April). For Death Penalty Supporters, Now There's a Chance to Make It
Better. Sarasota Herald Tribune, BS1.
Moore, R. (2003, February). Death Penalty Debate Reflected in Movies. Knight Ridder
/Tribune News Service.
Peirce, N. (2003, January). Death Penalty: Time to Stop Dodging. Nation's Cities
Weekly, 26, 2-3.
Turow, S. (2003, January). To Kill or Not to Kill. The New Yorker, 78, 40.
Welch, B. (1997, June). A Father's Urge to Forgive. Time, 149, 36-37.