Please remember that this paper is in TurnItIn so do not plagerize. This paper was for my Criminal Law 1 class and I got a 99 on the final paper. I used to be pro-death penalty; however, as I’ve evolved in my philosophy and have come to know morality as being universal, I can no longer support it. Also, I did not include economics in this paper because there are reports that sort of cancel each other out. In other words, people saying the death penalty is less expensive have reports to show that is the case; however, those that claim LWOP (Life WithOut Parole) also have reports that show their stance is the case. I couldn’t find proof enough to satisfy me.
Death Penalty: Might Does Not Make Right by Reagen Dandridge Desilets is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Death Penalty: Might Does Not Make Right
Reagen Dandridge Desilets
Trident Technical College
14SP_F2 CRJ115 Criminal Law I (W04)
April 6, 2014
The death penalty was brought to America by colonial settlers and continues more than 400 years later to this day. There are several studies that claim to justify the continued use of the death penalty; however, there is other research that explains how they do not hold up under scrutiny. In the interests of justice, we must follow through with due diligence to ensure that we are not allowing cruel and unusual punishments to be applied. This paper will explore some of the history and research into this topic and show why it needs careful reconsideration for abolishment.
Death Penalty: Might Does Not Make Right
The death penalty has been a tool used by authorities in an attempt to control the actions of people for centuries; the first codified death penalty laws go back to the Eighteenth Century B.C. in the Code of King Hammaurabi of Babylon (DPIC). In the United States of America, the death penalty was brought by European settlers. The first recorded execution occurred in Jamestown, Virginia in 1608 when Captain George Kendall was executed for being a Spanish spy (Winglfield). The types of crimes punishable by death were vast ranging from theological crimes such as denying the “true God”, to minor crimes like stealing grapes, killing a chicken or trading with natives, to major crimes such as murder (DPIC). Since we can see the absurdity of killing someone over religious beliefs or where the victim had little to no actual harm, it would be wise to continue to question the use of such an absolute form of punishment.
One of the prominent reasons stated for the continued use of the death penalty is that it is a deterrent (Mocan & Gittings, 2003). There have been some studies attempting to support such claims; however, there are others that question the methodologies used in those studies (Donohue & Wolfers, 2006) (Radelet & Lacock, 2009). If a study claims to prove that the death penalty is an effective deterrent, but uses incomplete or questionable methods, then their claims to empirical evidence are not truly empirical. With lives hanging in the balance, this is a vitally important distinction to make. Is their theory falsifiable and if it is, then they failed to prove their theory has any merit whatsoever (Booth, 2004). Donohue and Wolfers (2006) and Radelet and Lacock (2009) have done well to show the errors in several studies, thereby falsifying them. In fact, there are very few academics that support the death penalty as an acceptable form of punishment (Flanders, 2013).
Some claim that morality is upheld with the death penalty in place. Morality is frequently confused with social mores. Mores change from culture to culture and to say that mores are the same as morality denies that there is a universal morality (Gert, 2011). An example of social mores would be the prohibition of vices such as recreational marijuana use. While society frowns upon the recreational use of marijuana and may call those that do use it in such a fashion “immoral”, it is in fact not immoral as it does not cause harm to another person. There are five harms: “death, pain, disability, loss of freedom, and loss of pleasure” (Gert, 2004). So to call the death penalty moral is to say that the person administering it is not causing harm to another person. Compare that to someone smoking marijuana. The person getting high is not causing harm to anyone while the executioner most certainly is. The death penalty, therefore, is a social more, not a moral act. “The death penalty honors human dignity by treating the defendant as a free moral actor able to control his own destiny for good or for ill; it does not treat him as an animal with no moral sense” (Fein, 2001). This attempt to transfer the moral burden of killing a convicted offender to said offender falls short. Yes, there are indeed consequences to one’s actions; however, it does not relieve those initiating, cooperating, and conducting the executions of their responsibility of causing harm to another person.
There are a few people who claim that the death penalty is a form of self-defense. Self-defense, up to and including lethal force, is certainly an acceptable act when needed to protect oneself and other innocents from imminent harm (Gert, 2004). The idea equating the death penalty with self-defense was put forward by Gian Rinaldo Carli as a response to Cesare Beccaria’s 1764 treatise, On Crimes and Punishments (Maestro, 1980). Beccaria proposed a number of changes to the penal legal systems of the time including abolishing the death penalty. Carli rebutted saying that the victim, having been killed by the offender, would have killed the offender in the course of self-defense if they had the means to do so. The death of the offender is planned in advance and executed while the offender is unable to cause harm to anyone else involved, making the act not of self-defense but rather an immoral act of harm more akin to premeditated murder.
Legal definition is the only thing that defines the death penalty as something other than premeditated murder. The legal definition of murder can change from state to state but is usually something along the lines of the unlawful, intentional killing of a person with malice aforethought (Berman). Malice aforethought is the intent to harm or kill without justification, excuse, or mitigating circumstances. The key word we are looking at would be “unlawful”. The law allows for the intentional killing with malice aforethought in the instance of the death penalty. So the acceptance of a legal definition of murder is the only thing that society leans on to excuse the death penalty as an act different than murder. As such, the death penalty has become a social more and never was or could be a moral act. Legislating an immoral act doesn’t suddenly make it moral.
Another reason stated to support the death penalty is for justice. But is that really true? That depends on how someone defines justice. Dr. Budziszewski at the University of Texas at Austin claims, “Society is justly ordered when each person receives what is due to him” (2007). This is the model currently used in the United States of America and it is called the retributive model of justice (Krup, 1981). In retributive justice models, crime is breaking the law and not necessarily something that causes harm; offender accountability is about the offender accepting the infliction of harm and not the offender taking steps to repair the harm they have caused wherever possible; crime affects the government and the focus is taken from the victim and the people most closely affected by the criminal act; public safety is said to be attained by increasing laws and not by building community peace to maintain order (CRYJ). Retribution is based on revenge (The Ideology of the Death Penalty – Retribution and Revenge, 2005). Claims that retribution is a form of restitution, and not revenge, are not true as the state seeking retribution does nothing to help repair the harm to the victim and make them whole again (FindLaw). If efforts are focused on punishment instead of making the victim as whole again as possible and helping the offender to not reoffend, then there is no real justice. There isn’t any justice in revenge and it sets a bad example for citizens. It sends the message that revenge is okay; that revenge is sanctioned by the state and is to be trusted when done by the state. It attempts to cement the idea that the victim is made more whole by the state committing another premeditated murder in the name of the victim. It sends a confused message that justice and revenge are the same when they are not.
Why are revenge and justice not related? Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. makes some good generalizations about the differences between justice and revenge (2014). The first of those are that revenge is emotional and justice is rational. Justice in its most logical and moral definition is not about “getting even”. It’s about righting a wrong. Second, revenge is personal while justice is impersonal and impartial. Justice is supposed to be blind and that cannot be achieved while someone is feeding a rage to get revenge. Next, revenge is vindictiveness while justice is vindication. Basically, it’s the old adage that two wrongs do not make a right. Revenge is also about cycles whereas justice is about closure. When someone wronged commits an act of revenge, then it’s possible the offender, now a victim, may also seek revenge. It’s a vicious cycle that turns over and over and, before anyone knows it, no one remembers how it all began. However, justice aims to get restitution, rehabilitation, resolution, and closure. This will end the cycle of violence that revenge would only perpetrate. Finally, revenge concerns retaliation and justice concerns restoring balance. Revenge tends to be disproportionate because of the emotion involved in such acts. Vigilantism is frequently fed by personal senses of what is right and wrong and can be fueled when multiplied by crowds of people, such as seen in riots and lynch mobs. However, such extremism on the part of revenge isn’t going to help and justice aims to “dispassionately” restore balance through equity. Restoration is about repairing harm with equal restitution, not restitution and then some. So the goal of the death penalty, revenge, is a dangerous path to tread that does not seek justice in the end, only more harm.
All of the above discussions do not even consider when an innocent person is executed by the state. It is hard to know how many innocent people have been executed as there usually isn’t a chance for exoneration after execution (DPIC, 2014). There have been, however, a total of 116 death row inmates exonerated from 1973 to 2004 (Dieter, 2004). This may point to the very likelihood of innocent people having been executed in the past, which is far from being just or moral. Even though there have been some exonerations now does not mean that there are no longer innocent people currently facing the death penalty. Nevertheless, death penalty proponents seem to accept this grave injustice as a part of the system. Judge Mark L. Wolf of the Federal District Court in Boston admitted to the fact that innocent people are executed but still refused to declare the death penalty unconstitutional (Liptak, 2003). Judge Michael Ponsor of the Federal District Court in Springfield once wrote, “(T)hat a legal regime relying on the death penalty will inevitably execute innocent people – not too often, one hopes, but undoubtedly sometimes. Mistakes will be made because it is simply not possible to do something this difficult perfectly, all the time. Any honest proponent of capital punishment must face this fact.” (2002) And yet, even when this frightening truth is acknowledged, people refuse to take a stance against it. Instead, the responsibility of killing innocent people is thrust into the hands of the system, which is fallible precisely because it is in the hands of human beings. The system cannot exist outside of human action as it is human action. Once this blame-shifting behavior is stopped, then people would have to be held accountable for the detention and death of innocent people. Support for the death penalty would have to stop so as to not continue to kill innocent people by mistake. This issue is something those that hold to the death penalty being moral and just cannot continue to hide behind.
After centuries of excusing the use of the death penalty through codified laws and social mores it is becoming less able to withstand the tests of effectiveness, justness, and morality. Other means need to be sought to find better ends, ends that will give everyone a real sense of achieving justice. The death penalty is not an effective deterrent; therefore, it serves the purpose of revenge instead of justice. The death penalty offers no restitution for the harms caused by the offender. The death penalty is an immoral act as it is the killing of someone that is not an imminent danger. The death penalty is also the ending of the life of some people that were truly innocent. It is time to evolve beyond the death penalty and adopt better ways of dealing with offenders and getting justice for victims and their families. Only then will people begin to heal and feel at peace.
Berman, S. J. (n.d.). Homicide: Murder and Manslaughter. Retrieved April 12, 2014, from Nolo: Law for All: http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/homicide-murder-manslaughter-32637.html
Booth, J. (2004, Summer). Scientific Knowledge: Truth, Induction, and Falsification. Richmond Journal of Philosophy(7), 44-49.
Budziszewski, J. (2007, January 6). Captial Punishment: The Case for Justice. Retrieved April 8, 2014, from First Things: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/01/capital-punishment-the-case-for-justice
CRYJ. (n.d.). What is Restorative Justice. Retrieved April 8, 2014, from Center for Youth Justice: http://www.restorativeyouthjustice.org/restorativejustice
Dieter, R. C. (2004, September). A Death Penalty Information Center Report. Retrieved April 12, 2014, from DPIC: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/innocence-and-crisis-american-death-penalty
Donohue, J. J., & Wolfers, J. (2006, January). Uses and Abuses of Empirical Evidence in the Death Penalty Debate. Stanford Law Review, 58, 791-846.
DPIC. (2014, March 12). Innocence and the Death Peanlty. Retrieved April 12, 2014, from Death Penalty Information Center: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/innocence-and-death-penalty
DPIC. (n.d.). Part I: History of the Death Penalty. Retrieved April 7, 2014, from Death Penalty Information Center: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/part-i-history-death-penalty#early
Fein, B. (2001, Summer). The Death Penalty, but Sparingly. Human Rights, 28(3), p. 18.
Flanders, C. (2013, Fall). The Case Against the Case Against the Death Penalty. New Criminal Law Revew: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal, 16(4), 595-620.
Gert, B. (2004). Common Morality : Deciding What to Do. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gert, B. (2011). The Definition of Morality. Retrieved April 8, 2014, from Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-definition/
Innocence Project. (n.d.). The Innocent and the Death Penalty. Retrieved April 12, 2014, from Innocence Project: http://www.innocenceproject.org/Content/The_Innocent_and_the_Death_Penalty.php
Krup, S. D. (1981, December). A Retributive-Justice Model of Sentencing. Federal Probation, 45(4), 24-29.
Letsas, G. (2009). Rights and Duties on Pitcairn Island. In D. Oliver, Justice, Legality and the Rule of Law: Lessons from the Pitcairn Prosecutions. New York: Oxford University Press.
Liptak, A. (2003, August 12). Signs Grow of Innocent People Being Executed, Judge Says. Retrieved April 12, 2014, from New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/08/12/national/12DEAT.html
Maestro, M. (1980, Feb. 29). The Death Penalty Viewed as an Act of Self-Defense by Two Italian Jurists in the Eighteenth Century. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 124(1), 52-54.
Martinson. (1996). What Works? Questions and Answers about Prison Reform. In G. S. Bridges, J. G. Weis, & R. D. Crutchfield, Criminal Justice: Readings (pp. 113-123). Thousand Oaks, California: Pine Forge Press.
Mocan, H. N., & Gittings, R. K. (2003, October). Getting off Death Row: Commuted Sentences and the Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment. Journal of Law and Economics, 46(2), 453-478.
Ponsor, M. (2002, August 22). Measuring price of death penalty. Retrieved April 12, 2014, from UMass Amherst: http://people.umass.edu/leg485/ponsor.htm
Radelet, M. L., & Lacock, T. L. (2009, Spring). Recent Developments: Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates?: The Views of Leading Criminologists. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 99(2), 489-508.
Rothbard, M. N. (1963). War, Peace, and the State. Retrieved April 12, 2014, from Ludwig von Mises Institute: http://mises.org/rothbard/warpeace.asp
Seltzer, L. F. (2014, February 6). Don’t Confuse Revenge with Justice: 5 Key Differences. Retrieved April 12, 2014, from Psychology Today: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the-self/201402/don-t-confuse-revenge-justice-5-key-differences
Winglfield, E. M. (n.d.). First Hand Accounts of Virginia, 1575-1705: A Discourse of Virginia. Retrieved April 7, 2014, from University of Virginia Library: http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/jamestown-browse?id=J1023
* Feature image in header from http://rt.com/files/news/20/b8/10/00/death-row-inmates-drug-cocktail.jpg