The Death Penalty This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

December 2, 2010
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To be human is a very beautiful, and at the same time vulnerable thing. Each day new individuals make their way into the world, and others pass away. Yet none of these deaths are as tragic as those who are victims of aggravated murder. Soon after their faces will vanish from newspaper pages, their names escalate down to a whisper. Their resounding impact in later years will linger in greater quiet than the initial— to the criminal, their family, in the souls of their countrymen—perhaps unknowingly towards those who may have become future victims.

The use of death penalty remains a dominant controversial issue because of its large scope. Incorporating issues like law, justice, sociology, and criminal psychology, there is no doubt capital punishment has a strong impact on crime across America. Constantly debates rage over its morality and its effectiveness between anti-death penalty activists and those who are pro-death penalty--sometimes right outside the courtroom. Those against the death penalty claim it is murder, those for it claim it is retribution, not revenge. The reason for these mixed feelings are simple--citizens across America recognize the threat of crime to their own lives. It is the methods in which crime--in the case of the death penalty, extreme crime involving the loss of human life--is dealt with that causes the controversy. For the good of society as a whole, we should keep the death penalty as a form of protection: It is an effective crime deterrent, eliminates the possibility of repeat offenses, and is administered in a fair and accurate manner that reflects the aims of our Justice System.

How exactly does the death penalty impact the lives of Americans? To acknowledge its scope, we must first understand the conditions that would make a murderer eligible for the death penalty. With each murder case a series of aggravating factors, or factors that increase the severity of the case, or mitigating factors, which decrease the severity of the case, are presented. Aggravated murder is a murder made worse by certain factors which include: previous convictions, heinous, cruel, or depraved manner of committing offense, premeditation, and others. Mitigating factors, which may be severe enough to void the administration of the death penalty, include impaired capacity and mental or emotional disturbance. In order for the defendant to be sentenced to death after being proved guilty, the aggravating factors must outweigh the mitigating factors on what can be imagined as a “scale of justice”. It is only the most severe of all murders that are eligible for the death penalty, and the process is handled with great care.
We hear the stories of murderers convicted of death from the media quite often. Those who were deemed aggravated murderers and placed on the Illinois Death Row include:

A couple who shot and killed a woman, cut her nearly full-term baby from her womb, and killed two of her other children;

Two brothers who beat a sleeping couple to death with baseball bats;

A father who tortured his mute, severely retarded stepdaughter for years until she died;

A man who killed a couple after telling them to have their last kiss;

A man who took eight women to remote locations and stripped, bound and murdered them.
The ripple effect of crime in our daily lives can be felt by all, but only after viewing such cases do we realize the true extent of human vulnerability. Our minds immediately, turn towards the families of the victims, passing slowly onto fear of our own safety. Imagine if such a murderer escaped to commit subsequent murders, or others decided to follow his example. Imagine those who could potentially become future victims in an instant. Our Justice system has a responsibility to protect innocent life, and in this sense, the Death Penalty is justified. As a nation, we have not progressed to the point where we can suppress the actions of aggravated murderers without the use of the death penalty. There remains a compelling need to ensure public protection in the form of the death penalty, both as a method of denying the criminal a chance to repeat his or her crime and as a method of negative motivational influence—or deterrence—for future potential criminals.

Today, though death penalty reform has succeeded in it being administered fairly, prison reform has not been successful. Life in prison without parole is so unreliable that it could hardly be referred to as “life in prison without parole.” The prison time of a murderer is getting to be shorter and shorter—Escapes and sentence changes may occur; parole boards and criminal rights activists may give the person a chance to repeat his or her crime. Such occurred in the 1966 shooting case in which Kenneth McDuff was guilty and sentenced to life in prison without parole. With Texas prisons overflowing, he was quietly turned loose on parole. Subsequently, he committed multiple rapes and murders. Sometimes inmates will hurt prison guards. David McGuinn was a guard at a Maryland prison. One night, two prisoners got out and stabbed him to death, later escaping. With regard to society as a whole, the law and justice system are responsible for protecting people, especially those who may be vulnerable. We need the death penalty as a precaution, in order to minimize the chance of repeat murder by those likely to do so.

Not only does the death penalty prevent murder by the same criminal, but it also prevents future murderers by acting as a deterrent. In turn, other victims are saved. Death Penalty opponents don’t like to admit it, but by wanting to abolish the death penalty, they are steering us down a road we have taken before. During the late 1950s, every state allowed the death penalty. The early 1960s saw a decline in the number of murders, causing criminal justice policy makers to argue that, since the murder rate was so low, the death penalty was no longer needed. The death penalty was abolished altogether for this and other reasons in 1972. Unfortunately, this led to the murder rate skyrocketing to nearly double what it was before. In 1973, it reached the 1933 peak, hitting an all time high in the year before it was reinstated. Only until the death penalty was put into practice again did the murder rate fall back to the way it was in the 1960s. Another circumstance in which the death penalty was successful in deterring murder was in Harris County, Texas. After the death penalty was brought back, murder rates dropped 73% (Dovohey 18).

The role of the death penalty as a deterrent can be examined from a psychological viewpoint as well. Human nature tells us that what is most likely to deter people is what they fear the most; in turn, the possibility of loss of life is enough to cause people to second- guess their choice while making a crucial decision. There are many analytical criminals who are afraid of death, but not afraid of jail. How are we going to control such people if they do not fear punishment?
Criminal psychologists agree that while the death penalty may not prevent spontaneous murders like random stabbing, it will be effective as a deterrent for premeditated murder, when offenders are considering possible options. In other words, if the cost of something becomes too high, then people will change their behavior (Dudley 64). The incidence where such has occurred among cold-blooded murderers is high. Luis Vera murdered Rosa Velez, a fellow neighbor. Later on he admitted: “Yeah, I shot her. She knew me and I knew I wouldn’t go to the chair.” The death penalty also played a role in the 1997 case involving Beth Carpenter, who murdered Buzz Clinton in the midst of a custody battle. Before the murder was executed, she made a plan to relocate to Ireland in order to escape the death penalty (Snapped). A group of Las Vegas gang robbers contemplated this, and under police questioning, admitted that they had stopped using weapons in their armed robberies. They feared that they would become eligible for the death penalty. Lastly, why would those accused go through numerous appeals if they did not value their own lives? Clearly, the parameters that spur someone to murder depend on many more factors than just the absence/presence of death penalty. However it is apparent that, with the death penalty in use, there are less innocent lives lost.
This deterrence effect is so large that for many, it justifies the execution of those proven guilty. However, it is unfair to execute people solely in order to achieve this deterrence effect. In turn, morality and the Constitution is a viewpoint often raised in the death penalty debate. The 8th Amendment forbids “cruel and unusual punishment.” To address both parts of the statement, the death penalty is now carried out through lethal injection, which has been ruled a humane method of execution in Baze v. Rees (Dovohey 47).But more importantly, we must examine the reasons in which the Constitution was made in the first place—to protect our people, particularly innocent citizens. Although the decision to apply the death penalty as a final punishment is one of the most solemn decisions the State can make, it is applied in the hopes that capital punishment will form deterrence to murder, and in turn honor social order and innocent life. As Bruce Fein, JD states: “A civilized society is one that heeds the needs of its people; the cries of its victims, by honoring human dignity.

In order for the death penalty to be morally justified, it must be fair not only to the innocent but also to the defendant, in order to ensure the innocent are not executed in an attempt to save other innocent lives. Often others will object to the death penalty in fear that it is inaccurate. Although mistakes in our justice system for any kind of case are inevitable, the death penalty process today remains concerned about protecting the defendant as well as the victim—as it should be. In this way, the death penalty is not revenge, but retribution—a justified response to the offender’s actions. The exhaustive process of sentencing one to death involves multiple appeals and various jury regulations that insure the defendant is tried by an impartial jury. An element of certainty has come with the implementation of DNA testing program and the post-innocence protection act. Though there are misleading statistics published stating that there have been over 1000 people freed from death row since the late 1900s, these statistics fail to differentiate between the truly innocent and those getting off on legal technicalities. In fact, there is no credible evidence to show that there has been a single innocent man executed since 1990.

Furthermore, the death penalty trial is an impartial process that is not biased towards race. The reasons more minorities are on death row are not because of bias, but because they simply commit more incidents of murder due to conditions such as poverty, as concluded by the American Justice Department after a statistical study. Some death penalty opponents claim killers of whites are more likely to get a death sentence than killers of blacks. But a statistical study by Stephen Klein of the RAND Corporation came to the conclusion that that neither the race of the victim nor that of the killer appeared to affect death-penalty sentencing in California. The same held true in Kentucky. Aggravated murderers are not sentenced to death because of their race, but the crimes they committed.

Today, the death penalty holds a necessary, though controversial place in society. Over the years, America’s opinion towards the death penalty has wavered, usually due to emotional influence. Yet at the same time, the issue of the death penalty is not about emotion, and it cannot be decided by pure compassion. As a part of the American spirit, we all would like to believe that second chances could be given. However, when it comes to the death penalty, the cost of these second chances is often too high; such is written over the pages of our criminal history. Many of us have found that oftentimes, in order to protect society, and insure justice, extreme measures must be taken. Though it is one of the most solemn decisions to make, we need the death penalty because we need a final line to protect human lives. We should refrain from abolishing the death penalty in the near future, and instead continue to address the areas in which the desire to commit serious crime may stem from, such as childhood abuse, in our schools and communities, so that each child may grow up safely and contribute to society in a positive way.

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