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The Case Against Capital Punishment

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Capital Punishment has been a part of the United States justice system for as long as our democracy has existed. Capital Punishment has evolved from the clearly barbaric forms such as hanging by the gallows to the supposedly “civilized” forms used today, mainly electrocution and lethal injection. However, while many people maintain that the death penalty is an effective and necessary part of the United States judiciary system, the death penalty should be removed as an available punishment for US court systems because capital punishment as a whole is not actually protected by the constitution, the various forms of capital punishment have been individually found to be unconstitutional, and Capital Punishment does not serve its intended purpose.

Whenever the constitutionality of capital punishment is discussed there are two amendments which are thought to pertain the most to the issue, Amendments V and VII, which state as follows, respectively: “No Person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime….nor be deprived of life…without due process of law” and “Cruel and unusual punishments <shall not be> inflicted.” Many believe that the Fifth Amendment protects Capital Punishment, because the death penalty cannot be inflicted unless the accused is given the rights guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment, namely a fair trial. However, there is a large difference between protecting something and simply saying that something is not illegal. The exact wording of the constitution simply states that it would be illegal to take away a person’s life without giving them a fair trial, which in no way protects the reverse idea. The Fifth Amendment does not protect the death penalty; it simply says that inflicting it without the due process afforded to all Americans by the Constitution is illegal. Nowhere in the constitution are guidelines laid out in regards to the institution of capital punishment, nor are there any indications in the constitution that capital punishment should ever be used as a form of justice. Removing the death penalty as an option for US courts would simply outlaw death as a punishment in any case, with or without a trial.
The other argument normally made in favor of Capital Punishment is that the current methods used by the government to carry out the sentence are not outlawed by the Eighth Amendment, as they are not “cruel and unusual”. This however is not the case, as not only is the ambiguity of the wording of the Amendment a problem, so too is the fact that the punishments used today are in fact cruel and unusual. Currently there are five forms of Capital Punishment still available for use in at least one state in the US, which are as follows, Lethal Injection (now the main form of execution for all states), Electrocution, Gas Chamber, Hanging, and Firing Squad. Now the first and most obvious point is that all but one state has outlawed firing squad as a viable option, meaning that 49 states have eliminated this method as a humane form of execution. Also, all but two states have eliminated Hanging as an option, and all but four states have eliminated the gas chamber for use. Clearly, an over-whelming majority of US state judiciary systems have found that these forms of execution are no longer viable in today’s society, most likely because they are unconstitutional because they are cruel and unusual. Even when one looks at the main form of execution used today, lethal injection, there are some clear oddities in the logic of its use. It is listed that the only reason states like Oklahoma or New Hampshire even have methods as outdated as firing squad or hanging is because they need backup forms for cases where lethal injection is found to be unconstitutional. So, lethal injection has already been found unconstitutional by the sixteen states that outlaw the death penalty, and even in the states that allow the death penalty they realize that it is unconstitutional enough that they need a backup. States who allow the use of the death penalty and those who don’t seem to agree that lethal injection is an unconstitutional form of punishment. The last form of capital punishment remaining is that of the electric chair, which has been used to kill over forty-three hundred people since its beginning in New York Auburn State Prison in 1890. The fact that lethal injection has replaced the electric chair is clear evidence that the electric chair is being phased out, after its near century long run of inhumanity and horror. Even ten years ago the press was already talking about the removal of the electric chair as a form of capital punishment, highlighted by a 2001 Los Angeles Times article that discussed the electric chair and its retirement. The article brings up many of the horrifying accounts of the use of the electric chair, which sound more like the horror stories of a Halloween thriller movie than something that actually happens in our world today. One account states “After several grisly executions--one inmate bled from the nose and two had flames shoot from their heads--Florida switched to lethal injection last year to avert a U.S. Supreme Court review of whether electrocution was cruel and unusual.” Accounts like this make it so clear that the electric chair is one of the cruel and unusual forms of punishment that the Eight Amendment speaks of. This was so clear to the government of the state of Florida that it foresaw what the Supreme Court would have ruled had they actually investigated the constitutionality of the electric chair, they would have ruled that the electric chair is a cruel and unusual form of punishment, and would there form have been declared unconstitutional. It’s clear that the constitutionality of any form of capital punishment used today is not even debatable. Innumerable accounts of horror and countless court findings have shown state governments and regular people this very fact, so the United States government should realize this very fact and abolish Capital Punishment as we know it.
One of the strongest arguments for the abolition of Capital Punishment has always been that of accidental executions of the innocent. Since 1973 there have been 139 exonerations of inmates placed on death row, meaning one-hundred and thirty nine people have wrongfully had their lives threatened or taken away for something they did not do, keeping in mind that there are probably many more accounts of innocent people placed on death row, most of who have probably already been executed. During our discussion on Capital Punishment in class there were many arguments made by those who believe capital punishment is a legitimate form of punishment. Their main argument against the previous point was that in any system mistakes are going to be made, and mistakes are always going to be made and are unavoidable consequences of most necessary systems, in this case capital punishment. While their argument may seem to make sense it is in fact a logical fallacy that these “accidents” must occur, and that they are unavoidable. For in this case those responsible for these accidents have willingly put themselves into the situations which have caused them to make these mistakes. If Capital Punishment were not an available form of punishment under United States law, or were simply outlawed by all states of the Union, then obviously the risk of making this kind of mistake would be eliminated. Instead, people chose to have the death penalty as an option, so they have to be willing to admit that the accidents that occur from the system that they chose are their own fault. Also, in the case of the death penalty there is much more to be taken into consideration than simply how illogical the excuses behind murdering innocent people are. The mistakes being made here are horrible ones at best, as completely innocent people are not only being killed, but they are being killed by way of cruel and inhumane methods as the previous paragraph proved. When we choose to have a system that risks fireballs coming out of the heads of innocent people as we kill them because we made a mistake that we let ourselves make then there is obviously a problem with the system and it should either be changed or better, eliminated completely. Not only are our self-inflicted mistakes horrifying in nature, but they are also irreversible in many cases. While some of the inmates put in death row are found to be innocent before they are executed there have been many documented cases where the “thorough” case investigation and lengthy appeals process didn’t help, and an innocent person was executed. Once that person is killed there is no turning back, there is no mulligan in life that we can use to make up for killing an innocent person. Some think that throwing money, an apology, or an official reprieve at the family and loved ones of those affected can make up for this preventable blunder. Others believe that killing these innocent people is collateral damage that is necessary because the system the damage results from is a good one that gets rid of many more guilty and “bad” people than it does innocent people. But human lives are not just points that you can tally up as pluses and minuses and be okay with any system that throws out a positive number. There has never been and never will be a reason to make mistakes this horrible that are preventable. Even Greenberg admits this toward the end of his article when he states “unless one can assure a full and steady stream of executions, sufficient to do the jobs the death penalty proponents claim that it can do, there is further reason to kill no one at all.” Greenberg realizes that these preventable mistakes shouldn’t be allowed to be made and that when it comes down to it the system of capital punishment is intended to remove only those who we feel have committed crimes horrible enough to warrant the loss of their life. Instead the system additionally kills innocent people, who were guilty of no such atrocities; therefore the system does not serve its intended purpose, and should be removed.
Capital Punishment has been a part of our legal system for a very large amount of time, but this is another case of the old ways is not always the best ways. Capital Punishment is an outdated form of justice that should be removed from the United States judicial systems because it does not succeed in its intended purpose, the methods by which it is enforced our unconstitutional, and the Constitution does not protect the death penalty. Killing people doesn’t make the world a better place, killing innocent people isn’t just collateral damage, and burning someone “evil” alive does not make us any better than the people we intend to remove by way of Capital Punishment.





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