Discussion on the Death Penalty

Created by Li Ling Lee

By: Megan Sommer/ Junior Guest Writer

Take our poll:

Are you for or against the death penalty?

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Source: Jay Coop, STATES AND CAPITAL PUNISHMENT – National Conference of State Legislatures     RED=States with a valid death penalty statute; BLUE=States without the death penalty

What’s the worst thing that you have ever done? Maybe filled your plastic soda cup at the machine twice without paying?

Most of us have never committed murder, so what does it matter to what extent the law enforces punishments? Should we go so far as to to say punishment should be an eye for an eye? Or, does sentencing someone to capital punishment contradict the message we are trying to establish to not kill people?

Source: Public Religion Research Institute (2014)The death penalty brings up issues across the board; how it plays a factor in religion, how ethical it is, and whether or not it violates the constitution.

No matter what the religion, all religiosities can have some grey zones and can even seem to contradict one another. One religion in particular, Christianity, has divided its followers on the subject of capital punishment. Some argue that the Scripture mandates capital punishment, often quoting Genesis 9:6.

Genesis 9:6 says, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.”

This is part of the larger covenant that God made with Noah after the flood. It not only reflects the great value of human life, but also gives the reason for that value: Man is made in God’s image.The absolute language of Genesis 9:6 suggests that all those who kill another human being must be killed. And since this mandate was given long before the Mosaic Law to all who survived the flood, it apparently has universal application (see prisonfellowship.org). 

Furthermore, Exodus 21:23-25 establishes that punishment must be proportional to the offense (prisonfellowship.org).  According to Exodus 21:23-25, the saying eye for an eye applies when someone is murdered, but  how does that mindset work in contemporary society?

In contrast, other Christians say the Scripture prohibits the death penalty.

Dan Van Ness author of Restoring Justice: An Introduction to Restorative Justice and Crime and Its Victims

Christ’s teaching emphasizes forgiveness and willingness to suffer evil rather than resist it by force. This may not be definitive on the issue of the state’s authority to execute, but it does demonstrate a different approach to responding to evil than that established on Mt. Sinai. Christ’s example in not demanding death for the adulteress supports this argument (John 8),” writes Dan Van Ness in A Call to Dialogue on Capital Punishment

During those times and as of today, the thought of enforcing the death penalty was not taken lightly. Although the Law may sound bloodthirsty, it was applied with great restraint.

Van Ness further states: “In Ezekiel 33:11 God laments, ‘As sure as I live . . . I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.’ The Lawgiver Himself was reluctant to impose the death penalty, preferring that the wrongdoers repent.Reluctance is not refusal. But it does imply that execution should be a last resort, and, as Ezekiel 33 suggests, repentance or contrition could commute the death sentence.”

This poses the issue of the certainty to which a person can be determined guilty. Over the years humans evolve in good and bad ways, making it harder to tell the difference between someone who is a criminal and someone who is not.

In between the two polarizing sides, some Christians argue the Scripture merely permits capital punishment rather than it taking a side.

Van Ness states: “New Testament passages assume the existence of the death penalty but don’t take a position one way or the other. Romans 13 comes closest to speaking of the state’s authority to execute, but significantly it refers to the state’s authority, not obligation, to execute. This is consistent with the position that states are permitted, not mandated or prohibited, the use of this sanction.”

Despite our social divides, one can agree that most religions have a stance on the death penalty, and each follower can interpret their religions teachings their own way, therefore no one religion is definitively correct in their teachings but can merely argue their side.

The highly debated question on the topic of capital punishment is whether or not it is ethical.

There are multiple ways to look at the death penalty, but to break it down there are two sides; for and against. What is the purpose of punishment?  

We take our lead from one major source, our parents—and they no doubt took their lead from their own parents. When your young child emulates what he just saw in a Rambo movie, you give him a stern lecture about what is real and what is not, what is acceptable in real life and what is not.  When your child tries some crazy acrobatic move off a piece of furniture and hurts himself, you might spank him to be sure that he remembers never to do it again.

So when the child grows up, breaks into a home, and steals electronics, he gets caught and goes to prison.  His time in prison is meant to deprive him of the freedom to go where he wants anywhere in the world, and to do what he wants when he wants.  This is the punishment, and most people do learn from it.  In general, no one wants to go back.  

But if that child grows up and murders someone for their wallet or just for fun, and they are in turn put to death, they are taught precisely nothing, because they are no longer alive to learn from it.  We cannot rehabilitate a person by killing him or her. We can only threaten and warn people not to do something. 

Nonetheless, there are those that insist the death penalty is a strong deterrent to criminal behavior and is very effective according to David B. Mulhausen, in a 2014 article for The Daily Signal titled “Capital Punishment Works: It Deters Crime.”

Mulhaussen wrote: A more recent study by Kenneth Land of Duke University and others concluded that, from 1994 through 2005, each execution in Texas was associated with “modest, short-term reductions” in homicides, a decrease of up to 2.5 murders. And in 2009, researchers found that adopting state laws allowing defendants in child murder cases to be eligible for the death penalty was associated with an almost 20 percent reduction in rates of these crimes.

If Mulhaussen is correct, then a criminal committing a robbery will be much more apprehensive about the possibility of murdering a victim if he/she knows he/she will be executed. 

On the contrary some people argue that capital punishment does not dissuade criminals. They argue that when a criminal is committing an act; he or she is not thinking about the ramifications at that present moment because they may not be in a mental state that allows them to see the cause and effect of their actions and therefore lack the capacity to realize the crime they have just committed could result in death for themselves.

Furthermore, according to Jeff Asher, writing for FiveThirtyEight.com,  “The number of murders rose 8.6 percent nationwide in 2016, according to the FBI’s newest round of crime statistics,” and “there were an estimated 17,250 murders [in 2016], up from 15,883 in 2015.”

FiveThirtyEight data table from Jeff Asher

Capital punishment does not appear to be doing its job; it doesn’t seem to be changing every criminal’s mind about killing innocent people.  If it does not dissuade, then it serves no purpose.  

The warning of life in prison without parole must equally dissuade criminals. If you have ever had something stolen and taken away from you and the person guilty faces the consequences, that brings you closure. Capital punishment gives closure to the murder victims families.  It may not end with the murderer’s execution, but the execution does engender a feeling of relief at no longer having to think about the ordeal—a feeling which often fails to arise while the murderer still lives on.

In contrast, murdering someone because they murdered someone is hypocritical in its purest sense. It is strange that a nation would denounce the practice of murder by committing the very same act.  By doing so, we’re essentially championing the right to life by taking it from others.  True—as a whole, we are not murderers, and understandably refuse to be placed in the same category as someone like Ted Bundy.

But to many opponents of the death penalty, even Ted Bundy should have been given life without parole.  The fact that he murdered at least thirty people—for the mere reason that he enjoyed doing it—has no bearing on the hypocrisy, the flagrant dishonesty, of the declaration that such a person deserves to be killed because he had no right to kill.  If the goal of any punishment, as stated above, is to teach us those things we should not do, then the justice system should more adequately teach the criminality of killing by refusing to partake in it.

The main question dealing with the ethicality of the death penalty is whether or not there is pain inflicted on the supposed criminal. In the end, though, death is always at least a little painful.  Perhaps the only truly peaceful way to go is while asleep—but no one has ever come back to say that this didn’t hurt.  If your heart stops while you sleep, it is certainly possible that your brain will recognize a problem and wake you up at the very moment when it is too late.  So what we cannot help but let Nature do, we ought not to force on others for any reason.  If we do so, it might be fair to say that we law-abiding people, who embody the justice system, are guilty of equal cruelty towards criminals who commit murder.  

The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for one, dictates that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Forms of execution from yougov.com

In the US, there are five legal methods of execution: lethal injection, electrocution, firing squad, hanging, and gassing.  These are all intended to be as painless as possible, but they all run the risk of accidents.  

  • John Wayne Gacy, who was not afraid of death, was executed via lethal injection—the most efficient, risk-free method. Yet his death did not go as planned. The sodium thiopental entered his bloodstream successfully and put him to sleep.  The pancuronium bromide was then administered successfully to paralyze his diaphragm.  This would cause asphyxiation if the next chemical, potassium chloride, were not immediately administered to stop the heart.  But the potassium chloride had congealed in its tube before Gacy was brought into the room.  He was unconscious and unable to breathe for several minutes while the last drug’s tube was changed.  His death took eighteen minutes, instead of the usual seven.  And whether or not he was in great pain is impossible to determine. There is no easy way to go but there are those that argue that John Wayne Gacy’s incident is very rare.

It’s true that cruelty should not be legally tolerated—and the five methods listed above are very efficient in killing the condemned before he or she is able to feel it. Granted, we are not able to ask the dead whether or not they felt their necks snap, or the chemicals burn inside them—but modern American executions very rarely go awry.  It does happen, but the reported accidents since 1976 number about ten nationwide, out of 1,328.

  • When the condemned is fastened into the electric chair, one of the conductors is strapped securely around the head with the bare metal flush against the shaved and wet scalp.  This permits the electricity to be conducted directly into the brain, shutting it off more quickly than the brain can register pain.
  • Hanging causes death by snapping the neck of the condemned around the second vertebrae—instantly shutting off the brain’s ability to communicate with the rest of the body, and causing the heart to stop within seconds.
  • The firing squad involves five men shooting the heart of the condemned with high-powered rifles.  The heart is completely destroyed and unconsciousness follows within seconds.
  • The gas chamber is now no longer forced on the condemned, because it frequently appeared to cause more pain than was expected or acceptable.  The gas is usually hydrogen cyanide, which inhibits mitochondrial respiration in every cell of the entire body, theoretically shutting off the brain like a light switch. But it requires that the condemned breathe deeply. It can be argued either way that the condemned feels pain or not but nothing is ever painless, especially death.

Although the religious and ethical arguments on whether or not capital punishment is right or wrong, the only way to get rid of or keep the death penalty is by citing the Constitution. The amendments in question with the death penalty are the Fifth and the Eighth Amendments.

In the court case US v. Quinones, Jed S. Rakoff, JD, US District Judge in the Southern District of New York, ruled that the death penalty violates the due process clause of the 5th Amendment.

He said, “[T]o this Court, the unacceptably high rate at which innocent persons are convicted of capital crimes, when coupled with the frequently prolonged delays before such errors are detected (and then often only fortuitously or by application of newly-developed techniques), compels the conclusion that execution under the Federal Death Penalty Act, by cutting off the opportunity for exoneration, denies due process and, indeed, is tantamount to foreseeable, state-sponsored murder of innocent human beings” (procon).

On the contrary, William D. Richardson, PhD, Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of South Dakota, et al., in their 2002 book The Leviathan’s Choice, wrote about the Fifth Amendment: “[F]ar from supporting the position advocated by death penalty opponents, the Fifth Amendment can be read as evidence that the Founders inherently supported the death penalty… If a person can never be deprived of life by the state, why is the clause ‘without due process of law’ necessary?… By including a phrase that allowed for the possibility that citizens might be denied their life, liberty, or property if certain procedural safeguards were in place–‘due process’–they implied that individual life might be taken by the state under the right circumstances” (procon).

Another amendment that pertains to the death penalty is the Eighth Amendment. William J. Brennan, JD, Justice of the US Supreme Court addressed the Eighth Amendment in the dissenting opinion in Gregg v. Georgia: “Death is not only an unusually severe punishment, unusual in its pain, in its finality, and in its enormity, but it serves no penal purpose more effectively than a less severe punishment… The fatal constitutional infirmity in the punishment of death is that it treats ‘members of the human race as nonhumans, as objects to be toyed with and discarded. [It is] thus inconsistent with the fundamental premise of the Clause that even the vilest criminal remains a human being possessed of common human dignity.’ As such it is a penalty that ‘subjects the individual to a fate forbidden by the principle of civilized treatment guaranteed by the [Clause].’ I therefore would hold, on that ground alone, that death is today a cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Clause… I would set aside the death sentences imposed… as violative of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.”

In Baze v. Rees, the US Supreme Court said that the Eighth Amendment was not violated by death penalty. The decision was written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts and held that; “Simply because an execution method may result in pain, either by accident or as an inescapable consequence of death, does not establish the sort of ‘objectively intolerable risk of harm” that qualifies as cruel and unusual… Kentucky has adopted a method of execution believed to be the most humane available, one it shares with 35 other States… Kentucky’s decision to adhere to its protocol…cannot be viewed as probative of the wanton infliction of pain under the Eighth Amendment… Throughout our history, whenever a method of execution has been challenged in this Court as cruel and unusual, the Court has rejected the challenge. Our society has nonetheless steadily moved to more humane methods of carrying out capital punishment.”

Ethical and religious arguments will always be considered in almost any case but it’s the Constitution that really determines the outcome of those cases because that is how we have governed our society and how we always will.

Conclusively, there are very strong argument for and against the death penalty but it is up to you the reader to decide where you stand on the death penalty. Religiously, ethically and constitutionally there are so many different ways to argue capital punishment. There is no right or wrong opinion it is merely what you believe.

So, what do you think? Take our poll.

Are you for or against the death penalty?

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Megan Sommer is a junior at Blue Ridge High School and is president of her class.