| Since ancient Roman and Greek civilizations, capital punishment has been utilized as castigation for severe and despicable crimes (Encyclopedia Britannica). The first laws written allowing capital punishment date back to Eighteenth Century B.C. (History of the Death Penalty). The American Heritage Dictionary defines the term as "The penalty of death for the commission of a crime" (American Heritage). Today, capital punishment is often referred to as the death penalty. Since life and death are the main components of capital punishment, it is very much an ethical issue, and has been the subject of many heated debates. Is this practice of murdering people who have been found guilty of heinous crimes constitutional, or even in keeping with good moral behavior? The death penalty is unethical because it falls under the category of cruel and unusual punishment, it is inconsistent, and it may cause the death of innocent people.
The 8th Amendment to the United States Constitution states, "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted" (Constitution). This amendment refers to the treatment of criminals. The most commonly used methods of execution today are lethal injection or electrocution, but some states authorize alternate techniques such as a gas chamber, hanging, or a firing squad (Methods of Execution). Are these tactics not thought to be cruel punishment? What punishment could be considered crueler than that of death?
Many people do not realize how the different methods of execution actually work. In the case of lethal injection, the most common method, the prisoner is strapped to a gurney, and injected with various substances. First, a harmless saline injection is given. Next, there is an injection of sodium thiopental to put the person to sleep. The third injection of pancuronium bromide causes paralysis and makes breathing impossible. The final step is an injection of potassium chloride to stop the heart. Doctors cannot perform these injections because it breaks the medical code of ethics, the Hippocratic Oath. This leaves only individuals who are not as well trained or as experienced to handle what is clearly a medical matter. As a result, mistakes are made. Incorrect needle placement or other errors cause extreme pain and delay (Descriptions of Execution Methods).
Since 1976, 154 inmates have been executed by means of electrocution (Methods of Execution). In this type of execution, all of the subject's hair is shaved from their body to promote conductivity. They are then affixed to the electric chair and secured with belts. An electrode is placed on the scalp and another electrode is covered with Electro-Creme to conduct electricity and placed on the leg. The eyes of the inmate are covered with a blindfold. When it is time, the executioner sends a jolt of electricity, usually around 2000 volts. This current continues for 30 seconds and is turned off. After the body has cooled, they check for a heartbeat. If there is one, the action is repeated until no heartbeat is found. In 1994, United States Supreme Court Justice William Brennan described in detail the graphic nature of electrocution, saying,
"The prisoner's eyeballs sometimes pop out and rest on [his] cheeks. The prisoner often defecates, urinates, and vomits blood and drool. The body turns bright red as its temperature rises, and the prisoner's flesh swells and his skin stretches to the point of breaking. Sometimes the prisoner catches fire....Witnesses hear a loud and sustained sound like bacon frying, and the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh permeates the chamber" (Ecenbarger).
On February 8th, 2008, Nebraska, the only state in which electrocution was the sole method of execution, deemed the practice unconstitutional because there was evidence that it could be considered a form of torture. Speaking on the ruling, Judge William Connolly said, "We recognize the temptation to make the prisoner suffer, just as the prisoner made an innocent victim suffer. But it is the hallmark of a civilized society that we punish cruelty without practicing it" (Reed).
Gas chambers, firing squads, and hangings are much more uncommon than the previous two methods mentioned above, combining for only sixteen uses since 1976, but it is certain that each one of these techniques involves a great deal of pain and suffering as well (Methods of Execution). Being in a gas chamber has been compared to having a heart attack. According to prison warden Clifton Duffy, "At first there is evidence of extreme horror, pain, and strangling. The eyes pop. The skin turns purple and the victim begins to drool" (Weisberg). The firing squad involves five shooters shooting at the inmate, whose head is covered. Whether intentionally or not, often times the shooters miss the heart, resulting in a slow death. In hangings, the body drops suddenly to break the neck. Usually the death is not immediate, however (Descriptions of Execution Methods). Human error adds to the horror and immorality of execution. Since 1980, there have been at least 40 instances of executions that were either performed incorrectly or just did not work ideally. Witnesses of these defective executions walked away feeling very disturbed and bothered. In one such case, a male witness fainted at the sight of the prisoner's agony. In several lethal injections, the prisoners had to help the executioners find a good vein to use, sometimes taking almost an hour to begin the process. Others react violently to the injections. In 1983, Jimmy Lee Gray was executed by means of a gas chamber. The witnesses were so upset by his gasps for oxygen that they were released while he was still alive. He eventually died after hitting his head against a pole repeatedly and moaning 11 times. Information released later reported that Barry Bruce, who was in charge of the execution, was drunk (Radelet).
As of today, fourteen states have opted to abolish capital punishment due to its unconstitutionality (Death Penalty Policy by State). Based on the grotesque descriptions of the kinds of executions being performed in the United States, it is reasonable to call execution a torturous act. It is clear, then, that the death penalty meets the criteria for cruel and unusual punishment, as well as immorality, and thus should not be allowed.
Beside the fact that capital punishment is inhumane, one of its other downfalls is inconsistency. The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty says, "The death penalty is a lethal lottery: of the 22,000 homicides committed every year approximately 150 people are sentenced to death" (10 Reasons). Why are people being punished differently for committing the same crimes? Another interesting statistic from the Bureau of Justice states, "Since 1977, blacks and whites have been the victims of murders in almost equal numbers, yet 80% of the people executed in that period were convicted of murders involving white victims" (Racial Bias). Humans are allowed to decide whether a crime is heinous enough to be punished with death. Human involvement brings on human error and bias, and neither can be eliminated. The result is inconsistency and unfairness.
Location, which should be an irrelevant factor, also makes a difference in whether the death penalty is applied. 81.8 percent of the executions in the United States take place in the southern region of the country, although the number of murders that occur there is only slightly higher than other regions (Death Penalty Information Center). 14 states do not use the death penalty. It is unfair that the fate of a person depends on state boundary lines. The importance of human judgment and location makes capital punishment seem random. In our country, we do not use the eye for an eye system. Why then is a possible penalty for murder being murdered, while other crimes are not punished with the same action for which the criminal was found guilty? The lack of precision involved makes the death penalty extremely unfair, and therefore, it is an unacceptable practice.
The most serious risk associated with the death penalty is that of killing innocent people. Mistakes in criminal trials are inevitable. Many of the people on death row are very poor, and cannot afford the best legal representation. Since 1972, over 100 people have been acquitted while on death row (NCADP). Pardons have been given minutes before execution. How many times has someone been found innocent minutes after execution? Studies show evidence of the innocence of 23 Americans who have been executed since 1900 (ACLU). This is unacceptable. The lives of 23 people have been ended for no reason. 23 homes have been left without a father, mother, son, or daughter. Plus, the true criminal goes unscathed. Innocent people are not just executed, they are murdered. The justice system is committing the exact same crime they are so determined to punish. Executing an innocent person is an irreversible error, but it is a chance that is being taken by the justice system with each execution that is performed.
A large number of United States Citizens support the death penalty. Many proponents believe that capital punishment is a good option because it costs less than keeping prisoners in jail for life. In reality, it is more expensive to put someone to death because of the extremely high costs of trials and appeals. In 1993, The Sacramento Bee performed a study analyzing the cost of execution versus life in prison. They estimated that sentencing inmates to life without parole instead of the death penalty would save the state's taxpayers $90 million a year (ACLU).
Advocates of the death penalty also argue that use of the death penalty will dissuade potential murderers from committing the crime. There is no evidence to suggest this. Speaking on the matter, United States Attorney General Janet Reno said, "I have inquired for most of my adult life about studies that might show that the death penalty is a deterrent. And I have not seen any research that would substantiate that point" (NCADP). The number of homicides per capita is actually lower in states that have abolished the death penalty (ACLU). Murderers do not consider punishments when they are taking someone's life.
Based on the evidence researched, the death penalty is a barbaric mode of punishment, and should have no place in our otherwise civilized justice system. Humans do not have the right to determine who should live and who should die. Capital punishment should be done away with because it is cruel and unusual punishment, it is used unfairly, and it allows the possibility of killing an innocent person. By executing murderers, the justice system sends a message that killing is acceptable, which is the very behavior they are trying to control.
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