Ethical Arguments Against Capital Punishment
Morality can be defined as “The quality of being in accord with standards of right or good conduct.” (thefreedictionary).
The morality of capital punishment is an heavily contested issue and one that often polarises people’s views. However, in 2011 and in a leading civilised nation such as the U.S. it is arguable that there can be no circumstances in which sentencing a person to death is acceptable. America is known around the world as being a well-respected, leading democracy. The act of punishing people by death is an ancient one; it is also one that no longer has place in society.
One of the leading arguments against capital punishment is based on the value of human life. Most people believe human life to be valuable and some abolitionists think it so valuable that even the most brutal murderers should not have their lives taken from them. They believe that no amount of bad conduct can devalue an individual’s life.
Some abolitionists are less certain about this. They believe that life should be preserved unless there is significant reason not to, and that the burden is on supporters of capital punishment to validate their opinions. It could be argued that people who have this ‘on the fence’ view are not truly abolitionists.
People who strictly oppose capital punishment believe that everyone has a human right to life, regardless of crimes they may have committed and that sentencing them to death is an infringement of their basic human rights.
The opposing argument, therefore, is that an individual who commits murder is aware of their wrong doing and is forfeiting their right to life.
An extremely common case against capital punishment is that there will inevitably be errors within the justice system that result in innocent people being put to death. Jurors, prosecutors and witnesses can and do make mistakes. There are many cases of verdicts that have been appealed and the accused eventually released. If the death penalty has been implicated there is no chance of correcting the mistakes.
There is a significant body of evidence supporting the notion that mistakes such as these are possible. In the U.S. since 1973, one hundred and sixteen people on death row have been found innocent and released.
Many people consider the notion and the practice of retribution to be morally unsound. They take on the view that teaching that killing is wrong by killing is unethical.
On the other hand, capital punishment supporters maintain that in order for justice to work, criminal individuals need to suffer in a way that is proportionate to their crime. Following this rule it makes sense that a murderer should be punished with death. Many people who are unsure of their position on capital punishment do find that this idea corresponds with their inherent sense of justice. This argument in favour of retribution is often supported with the “an eye for an eye” argument. However, using this quote from the Old Testament actually demonstrates a misunderstanding of the text. The Old Testament meaning of “an eye for an eye” actually means only that a guilty individual should be punished though not too severely.
Another argument to the capital punishment supporters’ view of retribution concerns the uniqueness of the death penalty. If murderers are put on death row as a punishment directly relating to their crime, then it raises questions as to why the rule doesn’t apply to other types of crimes. For example, rapists are not punished with rape and burglars do not have their possessions taken away from them.
Other abolitionists argue that the death penalty is not, in fact, proportionate to the crime of murder. They claim that this punishment delivers two punishments; both the execution and the wait leading up to it. They see this, therefore, as a mismatch. Many offenders spend a long time on death row before finally being put to death. In the U.S. the average is ten years.
Conversely, some abolitionists oppose the death penalty as they feel it isn’t enough of a retribution. It is arguable that life imprisonment causes a much higher degree of suffering than a short imprisonment and then a painless death.
Another question when assessing the ethical appropriateness of the death sentence is whether it actually works as a crime deterrent. It doesn’t appear to; what seems to deter is the likelihood of being caught. Social scientists generally agree that the death penalty’s effectiveness as a deterrent is unproven. In 1988 a survey was conducted for the UN to determine the relation between the death penalty and homicide rates. This was then updated in 1996. It concluded:
“...research has failed to provide scientific proof that executions have a greater deterrent effect than life imprisonment. Such proof is unlikely to be forthcoming. The evidence as a whole still gives no positive support to the deterrent hypothesis. The key to real and true deterrence is to increase the likelihood of detection, arrest and conviction. The death penalty is a harsh punishment, but it is not harsh on crime (Death Penalty).
Irrespective of the moral and ethical position of capital punishment, it is arguable that to cause so much suffering to the individual is bordering on torture, and is wrong.
Some means of execution are clearly probable to cause suffering. Examples of this are execution by strangulation, lethal gas and electrocution, to name just a few. Other methods, such as firing squads and beheading have been banned because they were considered too brutal, or because the executioner had to be too closely involved.
Many countries now opt for the lethal injection method of execution as it is thought to be less severe for both the offender and the executioner. However, there are known flaws with this method, including the necessity for a medical professional to be involved in the actual killing; this is a contradiction to medical ethics.
A particularly contested area of capital punishment regards the sentencing of individuals with learning disabilities.
The Penry v. Lynaugh case provides a sound example of the issues surrounding this matter.
In 1989, in the state of Texas, Pamela Carpenter was raped and stabbed to death in her home (Chan). Before Carpenter died in hospital she was able to give the police a description of her attacker. The description led the police to Johnny Paul Penry. Penry confessed to the crime and he was charged with capital murder.
However, the conviction was the most simple part of what was to be a very long and complicated case. Penry was classed as “mentally retarded” (Chan) and therefore the suit contained far more considerations than a more standard murder trial. Penry was assessed by a clinical psychologist who testified that Penry had an IQ of fifty-four and, although he was twenty-two at the time of the trial, he was reported to have the learning age of a six-year-old and the social maturity level of a nine or ten-year old. The psychologist, Dr Brown, testified that “there’s a point at which anyone with [Penry’s] IQ is always competent, but, you know, this man is more in the borderline” (Chan 1121).
What proceeded was a long trial in which there was a distinct lack of consensus among the Justices. The main problem was in assessing Penry’s levels of comprehension and of his levels of culpability regarding the murder. Eventually the court ruled that it is not cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a mentally retarded person to death under the eighth amendment.
This position could be argued as wrong as, by definition, every mentally retarded individual is handicapped in his mental abilities and, therefore, his culpability.
The death penalty for mentally retarded individuals is not banned by common law or by national consensus. However, it almost definitely violates the matter of proportionality; mentally retarded criminals do not possess the levels of culpability worthy of the death sentence.
Furthermore, as Peter Chan argues, “because of the unique finality and harshness of the death penalty, the Court should always rule in favour of life if there are any doubts or uncertainties about the correctness of the sentence” (Chan 1234).
Another example levels of culpability coming into question is when sentencing juveniles.
A study investigated the eighth amendment of societal consensus and proportionality with reference to juvenile death penalties (Crosby). A selection of individuals who had previously worked as jurors were asked to vote on whether to execute a defendant in an hypothetical case. The defendant’s age and the level of remorse displayed were mixed. The majority of the participants chose to execute the defendant in all of the situations. However the defendant’s age and the voter’s views on juvenile culpability lessened the chance of execution. The researcher commented that “the large percentage of our sample of former jurors voting to execute even the youngest defendant was unanticipated. A high rate of death sentences for the 15, 16, and 19-year-old defendants may not be quite so startling; the finding that a majority of our sample of former jurors, specifically 60.5%, voted to execute a 10-year-old child is striking” (Crosby).
In 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court sustained the structure of the death penalty. Sixteen years later the Court finally addressed this structure regarding juvenile offenders. In 1987, in the Thomson v. Oklahoma case, a majority of the Court decided that giving the death penalty to a fifteen-year-old defendant constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth amendment. Nevertheless, just two years later in the Stanford v. Kentucky case, a ruling percentage of the Court ruled that the death penalty was not unconstitutional when sentencing a sixteen or seventeen-year-old defendant (Crosby).
This seems an unethical decision. In the U.S. seventeen-year-olds are not yet even legally allowed to drink alcohol. Imposing the death sentence onto a defendant of such a young age could be argued to be barbaric.
Further to implementing capital punishment, the nation goes one step further and decides that it is appropriate to televise the executions.
Robert Bryan (Bedau 385) speaks about his time defending individuals facing the death penalty. He reports that “as the debate on televising executions became a hot topic, clients began to express their feelings about becoming a source of public entertainment. Many were strongly against such a notion, while others felt it might help the struggle to end capital punishment” (Bedau 386).
Bryan views the U.S. broadcast of executions as simply using defendants to quench America’s thirst for violent entertainment. He claims that executions bring out the worst in people, and have done throughout history. Most people have seen movies featuring scenes of capital punishment; the on screen audience are shouting and throwing objects at the person about to be killed, and then at the moment of death the crowd erupts into excitement and cheering. As Bryan rightly points out, these scenes are historically accurate.
Furthermore, Bryan argues that regardless on anyone’s position on televising executions, the larger issue is whether governments should be in the business of killing at all (Bedau 387).
William Bailey investigated the validly of the argument for murder and capital punishment as being a deterrent (Bailey). In order to do this he examined the monthly homicidal rates alongside the amount of television exposure of executions from 1976 through to 1987. His findings were that “despite the power of television as a source of news in the United States, the results of this study do not support either the deterrence argument, which contends that capital punishment reduces killings, or the brutalization argument, which contends that capital punishment promotes killings. Homicide rates were not found to be related to either the amount or the type of execution publicity over the period” (Bailey).
Bailey found no evidence that the amount of television exposure of executions had a significant effect of deterrent on the homicides during the period studied. He claims that as television has become the most depended on news medium then any deterrent to murder would be displaying the punishment via this means.
He concludes that the current numbers of executions or broadcasts of such neither dissuade nor encourage murder (Bailey).
Capital punishment provokes debate in the U.S. and all over the world. American citizen’s put their money and trust into government officials to run the country and to uphold the nation’s pride in being a country of democracy and human rights.
However, a government who would allow and promote the implementation of the death penalty cannot really be upholding either principle.
The ethical arguments against capital punishment are vast, ranging from philosophies on the value of life to basic human rights. Furthermore, the degree of disagreement within the Courts is a concern. The case of John Penry illustrates the point that a courtroom is made up of many people who will not always unanimously agree. If a decision cannot be made unanimously over an issue as fundamental as this one, then there should be no opportunity for someone to be sentenced to death despite it.
It is an embarrassment that America, one of the leading and most respected nations in the world, can still be using this out-dated tradition.
Bailey, W.C. “Murder, Capital Punishment, and Television: Execution Publicity and Homicide”. American Sociological Association. American Sociological Review, Vol. 55, No. 5 19. Jan. 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2095860
Bedau, H.A. (1998) “The Death Penalty in America: Current Controversies". OUP USA.
Chan, P. “Eighth Amendment: The Death Penalty and the Mentally Retarded Criminal: Fairness, Culpability, and Death”. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. Vol. 80, No. 4. Northwestern University. 19 Jan. 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1143696
Crosby, Catherine, Preston Britner, Kathleen Jodi and Sharon Porwtood. “The Juvenile death Penalty and the Eighth Amendment: An Empirical Investigation of Societal Concensus and Proportionality”. Law and Human Behavior, Vol. 19, No. 3. 19 Jan. 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1394003
“Death Penalty”. Amnesty International. 28 Feb. 2011. http://www.amnesty.org/en/death-penalty
“Morality”. The Free Dictionary. 28 Feb. 2011. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/morality