Essay: The Death Penalty

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  • The Death Penalty
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The Death Penalty has been around for a good part of human history. Essentially, the idea was established in a set of laws by the Code of Hammurabi in eighteenth century B.C. Through history, executions included but were not limited to; crucifixion, drowning, hanging, guillotine, impalement, and other methods. In tenth century A.D., hanging became a popular method of execution in Britain. Today, America’s use of the death sentence was greatly influenced by their old motherland, Britain. When European settlers came to the new world, they introduced their practice of capital punishment. The first recorded execution in America occurred in the Jamestown colony of Virginia in 1608. Since then, executions were carried out as a judiciary measure causing a controversial dispute among the people in the nation. The death penalty in America appeared in numerous cases debating whether it is constitutional or not. Most notably is the case of Furman v. Georgia in 1972, which temporarily put a halt to the system to renovate its procedures in each state, and Gregg v. Georgia in 1976 which overthrew the Furman v. Georgia decision and reinstated the judicial sentence. Additionally, controversial debates have risen from the death penalty, such as racial discrimination, persecution of juveniles, deterrence, society’s evolving standards, and the use of lethal injection.

Unequal penalties tend to be inflicted unfairly among parties who are equally guilty. Furman v. Georgia withheld a cease to this unfairness among the states towards the guilty.

Furman, a black male, “killed a [homeowner] while seeking to enter the home at night” (Cornell). Furman shot the victim through a closed door while escaping the premises. The defendant, aged twenty six, only completed grade school. While awaiting his trial, Furman underwent psychiatric labs at the Georgia Central State Hospital to diagnose his mental condition. It was reported by physicians that he was truly insane and must “retain his present diagnosis of Mental Deficiency, Mild to Moderate, with Psychotic Episodes associated with Convulsive Disorder”(Cornell). It was then that the physicians finally concluded his condition was not of one that could cooperate with a counsel to fulfill his defense in court. Furthermore, it was agreed that his condition must be treated by either psychiatric hospitalization or the engagement in medical treatment.

The case of Furman v. Georgia reached the Supreme Court along with several others such as, Jackson v. Georgia and Branch v. Texas. Furman’s case along with Jackson’s and Branches were granted certiorari from the Supreme Court. Certiorari was given, providing an order for the lower court to allow the higher court to review their decision on a case. The Supreme Court called the Writ of Certiorari to go over the verdict of Georgia’s state court on Furman’s case. Conclusively, all three men were found guilty. “Furman was found guilty of murder while the other two appellants were convicted of rape by their courts of original jurisdiction” (Case Brief Summary).

The accused, William Henry Furman, argued that he would undergo a violation of both the Fourteenth (Civil Rights) and Eighth amendment’s (Protection against cruel and unusual punishment.). He claimed the injustice of this decision, for he would be deprived of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”(Case Brief Summary) which are granted to all citizens under the United States Constitution.

The Justices involved in Furman’s case were Chief Justice Burger, Justice Douglas, Justice Brennan, Justice Stewart, Justice White, Justice Marshall, Justice Blackmun, Justice Powell, and Justice Rehnquist. The issue presented to the court was; “Does the imposition and carrying out the death penalty (in these cases) constitute ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ of the eighth and fourteenth amendment?”(Case Brief Summary) The majority consisting of Justices Douglas, Brennan, Stewart, White, and Marshall agreed with the issue under separate concurrences. While the minority of Blackmun, Powell, Rehnquist, and Chief Justice Burger, disagreed with each providing their separate dissents. In a majority decision, the Court concluded: “In light of history, experience, and the present limitations of human knowledge, we find it quite impossible to say that committing to the untrammeled discretion of the jury the power to pronounce life or death in capital cases is offensive to anything in the Constitution.”(Cornell) As a result of the court’s review on the Furman v. Georgia case, all death sentences in the United States were ceased.

Four years after Furman’s case, the state of Georgia faced a similar court case with Troy Leon Gregg. Troy was accused “on the basis of evidence that he had killed and robbed two men” (Cornell). Georgia’s Supreme Court could not consider charging the death sentence unless, 1. The murder was committed simultaneously with other capital felonies; 2, murder was committed to gain possession of the victim’s possessions; or 3 that the act of homicide was inhumane and evil. The jury of the state court found the defendant’s crimes a violation of the first and second circumstances, resulting in a sentence of death. Troy also argued that an execution violated his rights provided by the eighth and fourteenth amendments. Gregg along with defendants from Proffitt v. Florida, Jurek v. Texas, Woodson v. North Carolina, and Roberts v. Louisiana all requested review by the Supreme Court and planned to declare the death penalty as an infringement of the eighth amendment permanently. The decision took several years to be established, yet the Burger Court which consisted of Justice Burger, Brennan, Stewart, White, Marshall, Blackmun, Powell, Rehnquist, and Stevens finally reached it. The justices were to determine the morality of the death penalty assuring that it was not prohibited by the eighth amendment. In three months, majority was reached with a 7-to-2 decision, concluding, the utilization of the death penalty only in extreme criminal cases which called forth such harsh punishment. The state of Georgia became entitled to provide fair convictions to all accused by means of conducting the sentence and trial separately. The court therefore understood the necessity of the death penalty to remain existent for major offenders.

In conclusion, “Capital punishment does not violate the Eighth or Fourteenth amendments of the United States Constitution provided it is set forth in a carefully drafted statute that ensures the sentencing authority has adequate information and guidance in reaching its decision”(Cornell). Through Gregg v. Georgia, the Unites States Supreme Court repealed Furman’s halt on death sentences and reannounced the usage of it as capital punishment under strict regulations. Under which regulations only Texas, Georgia, and Florida met at the time to carry out executions. The five cases which included Gregg v. Georgia, began the controversial dispute over the legal use of capital punishment in America, where many branching issues are debated today.

Several topics surrounding the death penalty are involved in controversial debates today. One that dominates media headlines today is racial discrimination. In America’s capital for the death penalty, Houston, Texas, black defendants facing trial are three times more likely to receive death sentences than whites. Studies show that “Harris County, the ground zero of the death penalty in the US. The county, which incorporates Houston, Texas’s largest city, has carried out 116 executions in the modern era – more than any entire state in the union apart from Texas itself.”(The Guardian) Professor Raymond Paternoster, a criminologist from the University of Maryland, carried out research on the county and participated in the case of Duane Buck, also from Houston who is currently on death row. In 2013, Texas courts reviewed Duane’s death sentence which was decided in 1995. Duane was charged with double homicide on his former girlfriend, Debra Gardner, and a man called Kenneth Butler. The crime was committed during the time period of Paternoster’s research of “504 cases involving adult defendants who had been indicted for capital murder in Harris County between 1992 and 1999.”(The Guardian) African Americans were more than likely to be prosecuted than their white counterparts. Although Harris County, “has a black population of 19%, African Americans represent almost 50% of the people detained in its jails, while 68% of the past 34 executions to emerge from the area involved black inmates.”(The Guardian) This reveals that somewhere in the system, racial discrimination against African Americans undoubtedly exists. From a previous testimony during Duane’s hearing in 1995, Dr. Walter Quijano, a psychologist, claimed that African Americans have a higher risk of reoffending when released than white prisoners do. Quijano’s testimony further proved that Duane’s original sentence was racially influenced, leading to a halt to his execution. In Texas courts, the jury decides the fate of the convicted person. So imagine the ability of selecting the jury influenced by racial prejudice. The people who possessed control over that power have been revealed to be racially discriminating. “There is an abundance of evidence demonstrating that throughout Holmes’ tenure, the Harris County district attorney’s office excluded African Americans from jury service because of their race.”(The Guardian) Slanderous emails were also leaked in 2008 from Charles Rosenthal, who was the Chief Prosecutor at the time. One email pertaining to African Americans included a joke “that having Bill Clinton in the White House was akin to having a black president because he “smoked marijuana and receives a check from the government each month.”(The Guardian) It is undeniable that racial discrimination exists in the positions of power that influences the fates of black people in justice systems. The defendants have been affected by this racial discrimination in both indirect and direct manners. A major example of how racial discrimination is portrayed within the practice of this corporal punishment indirectly is by monopolizing the jurors. Cases have been presented in which the prosecutors constructed a list where they expressed several citizens they did not wanted to be excluded from the jury. This occurrence dates back to 1986, with a case of an 18 year old African American man in northwest Georgia. Before the trial, “defense lawyers filed a request with the judge to prevent prosecutors from using a pretrial tactic to exclude African Americans from serving on the jury.”(The Christian Science Monitor) Prosecutors believed that by decreasing the number of African Americans in the jury, the tide would turn against the defendant’s favor. By implementing an all-white jury to create a racial stigma against minorities in courts, it would hopefully deter other people from committing the same crimes.

Transitioning from prosecutors deterring crimes by racial prejudice to employing the death sentence as a deterrence of the more heinous crimes, it is debated whether or not executions have an effect on people’s decisions. Today, with the use of DNA (Deoxy-Ribo Nucleic Acid) testing’s, exoneration of inmates and errors of past executions have built an argument against the use of the death penalty. DNA testing exposed many flaws with the justice system, most notably the apprehension of the innocent and the executions of the less fortunate. Supporters argue that an inmate does not get executed right away. Prisoners are given an extended amount of time in prison while DNA results are pending or waiting for further evidence to be uncovered. The argument on its effectiveness follows the old theory, “if the cost of something (be it the purchase of an apple or the act of killing someone) becomes too high, people will change their behavior (forego apples or shy from murder).”(Washington Post) In other words, is the crime worth the consequence? For normal people, it may stop them from taking another life, but what about sociopaths and mass murderers? Premeditated murder is usually carried out by a person who is unlikely to think about the repercussions of their actions. If a person plans to kill another human being, they won’t sit around and contemplate about what happened after. Neither will people who commit the act from a moment of rage be deterred or if they are under the influence of drugs and alcohol, including the mentally ill, such as the Furman v. Georgia case. Conversely, there has been numerous studies that find a correlation between executions and murders. One of which according to Michael Summers, “In the early 1980s, the return of the death penalty was associated with a drop in the number of murders. In the mid-to-late 1980s, when the number of executions stabilized at about 20 per year, the number of murders increased. Throughout the 1990s, our society increased the number of executions, and the number of murders plummeted. Since 2001, there has been a decline in executions and an increase in murders.”(Procon) However, both sides possess no conclusive substance to support their claim. There may be good points and remotely accurate numbers that prove either side, but with no hard hitting evidence neither side has more ground than the other. The past three decades worth of research does not reveal whether capital punishment inhibits or have any effect on homicide rates. The current research has several problems concerning information and comparison with other possible disincentives. There is no comparison between execution and life imprisonment, where a more worthwhile study would analyze what people are more likely to be hindered by. No information is available on would-be offender’s mental thoughts. Deterrence is about how people react to their perceptions. Do potential criminals contemplate about ending up in the electric chair before they commit crimes? That information is missing so researchers can’t tell. Statistically, the research was flawed. The process of their studies are flawed where no actual conclusion can be made. It will take some time for researchers to find an answer that can be widely agreed on concerning deterrence. One thing that is confirmed, punishment from a misdemeanor to a felony does discourage people in general. Children are born with a natural instinct to be afraid to displease their parents. Consequently, they stray themselves away from actions their parents’ would disapprove of.

The majority of children avoid displeasing their parents but there is a select few who manage to stray away from this ideal and break the law. Juveniles have become more involved in taking part in capital offenses. The children that committed a crime are considered juveniles. When they commit a felony, they are tried as adults. This means that juveniles under eighteen can face life in prison. This is another controversial debate revolving around the justice system. Should Juveniles be tried as adults or even be placed in adult prisons? Supporters of the debate claim that teens who commit capital crimes cannot be rehabilitated and are a permanent threat to society. Due to their young age, supporters believe they cannot become law abiding citizens as they grow older. The victims of their crimes can live with an ease of mind knowing justice was served. Advocates maintain that hard punishment can deter harsh crimes by minors. A study shows that, “More than 3,000 juveniles were arrested for murder as recently as 1993, proponents note. That number declined drastically every year for the next seven years, defenders maintain; in 2007, the last year for which data are available, just 1,063 people arrested for murder were under the age of 18. Supporters say that the declining juvenile murder rate clearly proves that the tough sentences are working.”(Issues and Controversies.) Proponents declare that the U.S. Justice System must set a stand that youth crime is not tolerated. Life in prison will ensure that the juvenile offender will not cause any more problems while making society a better place. However, the other side of the debate believes in a second chance for teens to grow into a functional member of society. Protesters claim that youths face many risks when in jail, especially the facilities meant for adults. They also argue that the state and federal laws protecting juveniles are useless possessing zero authority. When placed in jails with adults, youth are vulnerable to physical and sexual assault. Case in point, “according to U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) in 2005 and 2006, 21% and 13%, respectively, of the victims of inmate-on-inmate sexual violence in jails were youth under the age of 18—a surprisingly high percentage of victims considering that only 1% of all jail inmates are juveniles.”(Gale Group) Although some jailers realize that separating the youth from adult inmates can prevent physical emotional harm, this leads to placing the youth in isolation. Leaving them in this situation can cause paranoia, anxiety attacks, awaken mental disorders, and increase their risk of committing suicide. Juveniles actually have the highest suicide rates in jails, in comparison to adult inmates. Adolescents are nineteen times more likely to commit suicide in jails than when they are in the general population, while the risk doubles when placed in an adult prison. Without juvenile detention facilities, teens are instead sent to actual prisons which are not prepared to protect youth from hazard in their environment. Not only is the setting harmful, they lack the necessary programs and education to ensure a healthy development for teens. Although it is legally required, the youth in adult facilities does not receive a continued education. Another research by the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics revealed, “that 40% of jails provided no educational services at all, only 11% of jails provided special education services, and only 7% provided vocational training.”(Gale Group) Without proper treatment and guidance, youth have a higher chance of reoffending. Sending juveniles as a punishment to discipline them is actually counterproductive when you take into account the risks and effects they face in a situation with grown criminals. Oppositions of the argument declared it to be a violation of the eighth amendment considering the effects and the extreme measures taken. As a society, opponents believe that people deserve second chances, especially at the adolescent age considering the entire life they have in front of them.

Another topic that discusses the nature of executions is society’s evolving standards of decency. Today, more and more Americans are unsure if the death penalty is compatible with our country’s founding belief of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It has been proven that there are people in the system that discriminates people by race, gender, sexuality, and spiritual beliefs. Even, worse is that our death sentence is plagued these people with racial disparities. How can we celebrate our country’s freedom if there are people treated unfairly in and out of courts? Over the past two centuries, our society has gradually grown liberal along with improving society as a whole. Declared independence from monarchy, we established ourselves as a representative democratic nation. We fought for basic rights, abolition of slavery, women’s rights, human rights, gay marriage, legalization of certain substances, these things are examples of how this nation has grown. So will the citizens cause an abolition to the death penalty in the next decade? People believed that slavery was one of the legitimate reasons to fight in the Civil War. After that conflict, slavery eventually became abolished. Society used to view women as lesser beings than men, even as property. By the twentieth century, women gained equal rights along with a voice in the government. Today, there are still lingering issues surrounding race and gender equality but the nation as a whole has improved so much since then. So what will stop the eventual end on the use of execution? The supposed leader of the free world in the western hemisphere still carries out legal executions when majority of the world have banned it. This presents a confusing image to other nations, United States founded on freedom and equality for its citizens continues to hold executions on the people they are supposed to protect. Shouldn’t the pioneering nation for the free world outlaw killing, even as a punishment? The constitution is blandly written for the people to lead a nation by interpreting it in the way they believe best. In short, “the Constitution acknowledges that as a society, we are capable of growing in our understanding of our shared humanity. As we learn more about ourselves as people, our criminal justice policies evolve to reflect” (NCADP) the citizen’s developing view of life. Court judges have also agreed on banning the death sentence. Retired judges such as Justice Harry Blackmun “decided, late in his term, to no longer tinker with the machinery of death. The death penalty is unconstitutional.”(Washington Times) Justice Lewis Powell also regretted his decision in McClesky v. Kemp. At the same time, other judges stand firm to keep capital punishment as it is. Justice Scalia, another firm supporter death sentences, claims that “even if racism is ineradicable… the death penalty is not.”(Washington Times) This issue is heavily debated by supporters who claim murderers showed no mercy for their victims, and opposers that believe in other methods of harmless punishments while allowing rehabilitation. The latter voice seems to grow as time goes by, the further we go into the modern era. As the community is constantly maturing to newer levels of wisdom, the 8th amendments, protection against cruel and unusual punishment, protection grows stronger as well. Our ability as a nation to refine, flourish, and be enlightened was foreshadowed by the fathers of our constitution. However, it lies with the citizen’s decision on whether to continue using executions as a form of extreme punishment or put an end to the practice. Not only do people argue that death sentences belongs with the primal past, the methods of practice violates the eighth amendment. Especially during those that fail to execute the condemned correctly, thus prolonging the suffering that comes along with the punishment itself. That is simply a form of torture, especially if the process is made more intense or left longer than it has to be. So what is the best method for these executions for decency if every procedure has a possibility to malfunction?

Today, the United States have moved on to use lethal injections and electric chairs as forms of executions. Generally, most states will use lethal injection first whereas a handful have the electric chair as reserves. First introduced by Oklahoma in 1921, lethal injection became the most popular method of execution for inmates in the U.S. The process of the injection involves three steps. The first dose, Sodium Thiopental, puts the convict to sleep. The second dose, Pancuronium Bromide, paralyzes them so they won’t feel any pain from the last dose, Potassium Chloride, which causes their heart to stop. Why was lethal injection introduced? Hanging was the first form of executions in the late nineteenth century where the method killed victims by breaking their necks with a rope and gravity. Flaws of hanging were if the drop was too long, the inmate would lose their head, and if the rope was to short, they would instead suffocate to death. During 1890, in a more humane way to execute convicts was through the electric chair. However, the procedure was inconsistent, “the chair had to be wired correctly… inmates often had to be jolted repeatedly before they died. Electrocution caused inmates to burn slowly and prompted violent physical reactions from them, such as spasms and vomiting. Witnesses described seeing smoke rise from inmates, and in some cases even seeing them ignite.”(Issues and Controversies) Gas chambers were also introduced in 1921, but was quickly challenged due to the prolonged pain the inmates felt while breathing in cyanide. So what made injecting chemicals into prisoners any different, or more beneficial? The process was financially expendable, and supporters claimed the anesthesia makes the process more humane and painless. However, the method has its own flaws as well, pertaining to who is administering the injection. Opposers argue that the prison officials are not trained to administer the chemicals, arguing that failure of correct administration will render the anesthesia ineffective and prolong the pain. For example, “in December 2006… the execution of Angel Diaz in Florida took 34 minutes and required a second injection, due to the fact that chemicals were injected into the muscle tissue in his arm rather than into a vein. During the execution, Diaz could be seen mouthing words.”(Issues and Controversies) Medical personnel rarely do the injection, due to the American Medical Association forbade doctors from doing so. Supporters argue that lethal injection is a huge improvement than hangings, electric chairs, and firing squads. Mark Dershwitz, anesthesiologist at Univ. of Massachusetts Medical School, claims that anyone can learn how to properly inject a needle, quote “It all boils down to the skill level in getting a functioning IV in, and you don’t need a lot of fancy initials after your name to do that.”(Issues and Controversies) Advocates also argue that the system will not be perfect and every method of execution will involve pain. Opponents counter by claiming the method is unconstitutional, violating the eighth amendment. Critics add that doctor’s measure out precise dosages, while prison officials don’t, causing prisoners to be poorly anesthetized. The combination and dosages may not be adequate to fulfil their purposes, while large doses of anesthesia will take much longer to kill than the three drug combination. The Veterinary Medical Association bans Potassium Chloride, the killing dose of the injection, because it is so painful that higher doses of anesthesia is required. Critics also argue that lethal injection is barbaric as other execution methods, where the power is given to the government. Human Rights Watch seeks to abolish executions in the U.S., but until then, states should try their best to reduce the prisoner’s risk of mental and physical agony in death. In the near future, the Supreme Court may finalize the debate over lethal injections, since their previous ruling to require medical personnel conflicts with the A.M.A.’s code of ethics, making it impossible to perform the injection as professional as possible.

Overtime, people’s opinions on death sentences will slowly grow in opposition, eventually leading to an abolition of it in the U.S. As for my opinion, I have only lived for 18 years on this planet and that time is too short to fully understand the ins and outs of the subject. I can’t really pick a side of the debate since I have not been a part of either party in circumstances of the death penalty. There are a lot of substantial arguments coming from both sides, morally, logically, emotionally, and humanely, with neither side gaining more ground than the other. Do I believe in punishment equal to the crime? Or should people deserve another chance at life? But what about the victim that was murdered and got no say in the killer’s decision? Then again, what if the victim provoked the killer or if the murderer was mentally disabled or incompetent? The arguments can lead on and on. As an 18 year old with practically no real world experience besides living with my parents who’ve worked so hard to make my life comfortable, going to school, socializing with others, being active, and other first world middle class experiences, I wouldn’t consider myself knowledgeable about death penalties. So rather than pick a side and flip flop back and forth, I can only say to decide what is right to all parties involved.

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