Capital punishment has always been a controversial issue in the US. Throughout history, a large majority of Americans have been in favour of it, especially in cases dealing with murder; however, this has nonetheless varied from decade to decade.
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Capital Punishment Controversy
Several international human rights treaties denouncing capital punishment have been drafted over the last 60 years, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Adopted by the UN in1948), European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) (drafted in 1950), The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1966), the American Convention on Human Rights (adopted in 1969); all of which stipulate a right to life and a fair trial. There is no denying that the number of death sentences in the US has declined since 1999; nevertheless, in 2012 there are still 33 states that retain the death penalty as opposed to the 17 states which do not.
In Favor of the Death Penalty
Previous pro-death penalty attitudes were based on the old religious adage “an eye for an eye” or retribution for heinous crimes. One of the reasons why so many families of past murder victims have been present at their murderers’ executions is to bring about a feeling of closure for the loss of a loved one. There is also the argument that punishment should fit the crime, which gives rise to the question whether capital punishment is really cruel and unusual punishment for child molesters, serial killers, rapists who kill, terrorists etc. Those who favor capital punishment believe that it is a moral deterrence, that execution will stop future criminals from killing. Some feel that lifelong incarceration is a much worse punishment than death because it preys on the physical and mental health of the criminal.
Good Behavior and Appeals
Another argument for the death penalty is that through good behavior and by appeals, criminals may be paroled. This may be due to the fact that political leaders change over time, and may be induced to reduce sentences or give amnesty. Then there is the argument that a prisoner is just too dangerous to keep alive. Here we have the classic example of a terrorist, war criminal or an organized crime leader - who all have links with other outside terrorists, war criminals or members of a criminal organization equally dangerous to society.There is the fear that jurors and family members may be threatened or criminal activities continue, if such an infamous criminal were to be kept alive in prison.
An argument which can be used either for or against capital punishment is based on the use of DNA. Before this scientific discovery, one of the main arguments against the death penalty was the fear of putting an innocent person to death. Today, scientific technology has been able to prove if a person is guilty of crime or not. And there is, of course, the argument that lifelong incarceration costs the tax payer money. Here it is important to refer to not only living expenses in prisons but also soaring medical expenses for aging or terminally ill inmates.
Against the Death Penalty
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 61% would choose an alternative method of punishment, life in prison without parole, for capital crimes than capital punishment.
As mentioned above, the USA, as well as other countries that still practise the death penalty, has been subject to pressure by international human rights organizations.
Cruel and Unusual Punishment
In America, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), established in 1920, aimed at defending and preserving the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person by the Constitution and US laws. For the past 50 years, they have represented individuals and organizations in lawsuits that violate the Constitution. One of its current issues is the opposition to the death penalty. Their main arguments against the death penalty mirror the many American views. The belief is that the death penalty inherently violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment. Although it is believed that everyone should be judged fairly and given protection, this is not always the case. Famous court cases have shown that the death penalty system is often dependent on the income of or the race of the accused, the skills of the attorney, as well as where the crime took place.
Financial costs of capital punishment to the taxpayer very often become much higher than incarcerating someone in prison for life. Funds that could be used on crime prevention, solving crimes etc. are instead used on death penalty cases embroiled in endless appeals, legal battles and court procedures.
Capital Punishment and Crime Deterrence
Another argument against capital punishment is that the death penalty does not deter crime. Some believe that if quickly employed, such punishment would be an effective deterrent and influence on criminal behavior. This has been proven to be impossible today due to the fact that the amount of time between sentencing and execution is long. Murder trials take a long time to process, as well as post-conviction appeals. Many crimes are non-premeditated, but have been committed in the heat of the moment. The death penalty would not prevent such crimes. Furthermore, the death penalty is no threat to political terrorists whose acts of terrorism are meticulously premeditated and based on ideology. Martyrdom is their final goal, i.e. The Oklahoma Bomber, Timothy Mc Veigh (executed 2001). Lastly, there is always the inevitability of error and the chance of an innocent victim being put to death. Faulty eyewitness identification, perjury, and legal errors may lead to wrongful convictions.
The USA is an ever developing multicultural, multiethnic society. Its social structure is so diverse that public opinion will continue to change according to domestic, as well as historical, catastrophes taking place. Solving domestic social problems like poverty, race relations, mental health issues, unemployment, and the use of guns etc. that lead to murder will, of course, decrease the number of people sentenced to death. However, no matter what the views are on the death penalty, our humanity will forever be questioned; nothing will ever bring back the innocent victims killed.
Tasks and Activities
- The death penalty works as a crime deterrent.
- Enforcing the death penalty puts us on the same level as the killer/s who commit/s the crime/s.
- Terrorists are an exception to the rule and should be executed no matter what.
- It is unrealistic to think that a worldwide abolition of the death penalty will ever become the international norm.
After dividing the class into groups, go online to The Death Penalty Information Center - Fact Sheet and research the following:
- How many Americans are FOR the death penalty?
- How many Americans are AGAINST the death Penalty?
- Which states still carry out the death penalty?
a. What are the statistics for this decade (2000-2013)?
b. Where in the USA have most executions taken place?
- How does race influence the death penalty in the USA?
- What are the most common methods of execution still being used today?
- Which political groups are for the death penalty? What are their arguments?
- What political groups are against the death penalty? What are their arguments?
Present your findings through graphs and pictures to the class.
Write a Report
Choose ONE of the following:
- Go online and find a famous court case where the accused/defendant was sentenced to death. Write a report on what happened, the outcome of the case and whether the sentence was actually carried out.
- Go online and find a famous court case where the accused/defendant was actually innocent of the crime. Write a report on what happened, the outcome of the case and whether the sentence was actually carried out.
Write an Essay
In many discussions relating to the death penalty, the victims of homicide seem to be forgotten. Write an essay in which you explain what organizations and society can do to help the families of murder victims. See How to Write a Five Paragraph Essay.
Write an Editorial
- Write an editorial for a newspaper where you discuss in detail the methods of capital crime prevention possible in today’s society.
- Worldwide terrorism strikes at the heart of all of us. Write an editorial for a newspaper where you discuss methods of prevention in today’s changing, multicultural society.
Write a Manuscript for a TV interview
- Write an interview for a famous TV talk show where you discuss the alternatives to the death penalty. Make your own YouTube version.
The Death Penalty in the USA – A Short History
The Green Mile (trailer)