Farnham Jon Farnham Philosophical Problems in the Law Craig Duncan May 4, 2005 Capital Punishment Ruling The last prisoner to be executed in the state of New York was put to death 42
years ago. Since then the capital punishment statute has been repealed, revised, returned, suspended again, and today it sits on hold for debate while four death row inmates sit in prison awaiting their fate. Around the nation several states continue to execute prisoners while others do not. The question on the table, therefore, is whether the state of New York should begin again to enforce its capital punishment statute. Capital punishment is a difficult issue. For a while I went back and forth on the subject without being sure which way to rule, without being able to decide whether or not capital punishment is too cruel, too hypocritical, too dangerous, or in some cases even too lenient. Upon weighing the options, however, I did come to the decision that capital punishment should be returned to New York State. For a while I was hung up on the criticisms of the death penalty, as they are rather convincing and deserve close consideration. First of all, there is the alternative of life imprisonment without parole. As the death penalty acts as a perfect form of incapacitation, so too must life imprisonment. A life sentence, however, is not completely fail proof. Prison is a nasty place, a place where inmates become hardened to survive, where violent criminals can kill inside the prison walls and, in the worst case, escape. There is no guarantee. The death penalty, on the other hand, represents a complete removal of any threat the person can ever pose again.
Farnham Also in terms of the utilitarian reasons for punishment is the idea of deterrence. The idea of deterring the criminal, as well as the rest of society from committing crimes is a strong case for the use of punishment. Therefore, if capital punishment were to be
proven to deter severe crimes then there is a strong case for its use. Oddly, however, both sides used deterrence for their own support. Death penalty advocates argue that capital punishment deters, while anti death penalty advocates argue it does not. In the end I had to consider the findings inconclusive, though I am pretty confident that capital punishment would not deter less. Therefore, this can not be used as an argument against capital punishment. And if there are studies that do show the death penalty deters then error is better in that direction. The scariest criticism of the death penalty is that it is unfairly applied. On the one hand, statistics have shown that the death penalty is applied in a racist manner. White dominant juries along with almost exclusively white prosecutors have seen to it that black murderers and killers of white victims both receive the death penalty more commonly. The problem here is not the death penalty, however, but the tendencies of the people making the decisions. If juries are racist then the problem is far worse than capital punishment. Racist juries are likely always to be racist. Therefore, studies should be done on whether or not minorities are more likely to be convicted for any crime or sentence. This is not an argument against the death penalty. If we found that black murderers were more likely to receive a life sentence, we would never consider revoking the life sentence altogether. The law system in general needs to be better integrated, and this needs to happen as soon as possible. Nobody should simply believe that to do away with the death penalty will solve this problem.
Farnham On the other hand, there is always the chance that innocent people will be executed. This is more of a certainty than a chance really, and advances in forensics, mainly DNA testing, have revealed the problem through a number of exonerations over the past few decades. I do not act under the belief that the sacrifice of one innocent
individual to save hundreds more is acceptable. A sacrifice is completely different than a mistake, which is why the death penalty costs more money than life imprisonment. Capital punishment splurges to make sure that death row candidates have access to the lengthy, expensive appeals process so that such mistakes can be minimized. And I say minimized because nothing is fool proof, not even life imprisonment. To abolish the death penalty and then send an innocent to prison for life without parole is a serious risk as well, especially if not as much money is going to be spent on his appeals process. The reason I support the death penalty is for more of a retributive approach than anything else. Considering the utilitarian approaches generally result in a stalemate, I take a bit more of a justice stance. For example, to consider Timothy McVey, the worst domestic terrorist in our history, it’s hard to say that he doesn’t deserve to die. He made the choice to take multiple innocent human lives, and so that choice should translate into him giving up his own right to life. Why even take the chance of him escaping or publishing books on why the Federal Government should die, of spreading his message or his explosive know how to anyone else. This man deserves to die. Families of the deceased deserve to know that he is dead. To this an anti capital punishment advocate may pose two objections: that the government would be merely committing an act of revenge and that the government is stooping to the level of the killer. I disagree. Revenge is when a civilian takes the law
Farnham into his own hands; revenge is an eye for an eye. Capital punishment is more controlled than that. Capital punishment doesn’t torture torturers or rape rapists, nor does it do anything without a conviction by due process of the law. The existence of capital
punishment, if anything, deters revenge. If families know justice will be served, they are more likely to let the law do its job. In that respect, it is also clear that the government is morally well superior to the killer. After all, the government is providing an expensive opportunity for the killer to prove himself innocent, then generally offering a reasonably humane method of execution. If a man kills an entire family with an ax, the government will not in turn go to his house and kill him and his entire family with an ax as well. The man will be tried and punished. If anything, the death penalty can be getting off easy for some killers. Someone who tortures another human being to death may deserve torture back. It may even, at times fall short of justice in the eyes of the families involved who would like to see a man treated in a manner similar to the way he raped their daughter. Stepping punishment up a notch may even deter crime more. Surely if one faced the possibility of torture for murder, there’s a better chance that person may reconsider his behavior. Someone who doesn’t value his life enough to fear lethal injection may fear something more severe. Now, I do not condone this kind of punishment, but it made me wonder why the line of acceptable maximum punishment falls below this and above life imprisonment. In other words, if most of society would say that death by torture is inhumane and unacceptable punishment even if it deters and serves justice better, why don’t they say the same about lethal injection? Why should punishment max out where it does instead of one step above or below?
Farnham The answer I came to is that death by torture would be considered cruel and unusual whereby death by lethal injection would not. Not that it isn’t at all cruel, but the death penalty has existed so far back into history, in crueler forms than lethal injection, that it can’t be considered cruel and unusual punishment the way torture would be. By that logic it is constitutionally acceptable whereby torture is not. Therefore, if it is constitutionally acceptable, and there is good reason to use it, then it should be used. In conclusion, I do support capital punishment, but I support it as an extremely sparingly used form of punishment. The death penalty should not be pursued in every murder case. Life imprisonment still is a very important and effective form of punishment and should be used more commonly than execution. At the same time, though, it’s important that the possibility of execution be there. Meanwhile, the government should be working to fix the problems of racism in its justice system anyway.