Except for a brief period in the mid-to-late twentieth century where the United States Supreme Court ordered a ban on capital punishment, the procedure has been in continual use in the United States for the remainder of its existence. Proponents and detractors have always disagreed about whether the procedure should be practiced or discontinued entirely. Those, on one hand, argue the practice deters violence and is less expensive than incarcerating a prisoner for life in a maximum-security jail, while those on the other believe the practice is inhumane and riddled by inconsistency, making it an antiquated and brutal type of punishment. Even though the United States still practices capital punishment, attitudes about its use and moral questions persist as illustrated by the fact that the methods of engaging in the practice of capital punishment have become more humane and now even some supporters of the practice are beginning to question its value as a tool of justice.
Proponents of continuing to use the death penalty often point to the much bandied-about adage that it deters others from committing murder or other heinous acts. While this argument does have some merit, the deterrent factor runs on the assumption that a person will have the morals to recognize the consequences and think twice before committing murder. Per the 2009 research of Radelet and Lacock, “a survey of the former and present presidents of the country’s top academic criminological societies, 88% of these experts rejected the notion that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to murder” (qtd. in Death Penalty Information Center, 2017, p. 3). There is also the proponent theory that the death penalty is cheaper to the taxpayer than warehousing an inmate for life with all the custodial financial responsibilities that a life sentence brings. However, this theory is under fire especially in the post-Furman era of capital punishment where states must be very careful in their legal proceeding to afford the individual convicted of murder, rape, or other heinous crimes the most complete and exhaustive legal defense possible prior to actual execution of the sentence of death. For example, in California where most of America’s inmates on death row are incarcerated, “the cost of the death penalty in the state has been over $4 billion since 1978” per the research of Alarcon & Mitchell, and the costs quoted in the study included “pretrial and trial costs, costs of automatic appeals and state habeas corpus petitions, costs of federal habeas corpus appeals, and costs of incarceration on death row” (qtd. in Death Penalty Information Center, 2017, p. 4).
On the opposing side of the death penalty controversy are the people who disagree with the use of the death penalty in the criminal justice system. Opponents of the practice most often utilize moral or legal grounds as the basis for their arguments or in some cases a combination of the two. Most often cited in the arguments against the use of the death penalty are the contentions that the use of the death penalty constitutes cruel and unusual punishment as prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This argument is the one which was used in the 1972 case of Furman v. Georgia which alleged that Georgia’s death penalty statutes constituted cruel and unusual punishment and led to a temporary moratorium on the use of the death penalty until state legislatures came up with concise procedures, in the words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger, “legislative bodies may seek to bring their laws into compliance with the Court’s ruling by providing standards for juries and judges to follow in determining the sentence in capital cases or by more narrowly defining the crimes for which the penalty is to be imposed” (Banner 263).
From the perspective of support, nationally, the death penalty favorability rating has steadily been declining and as of 2014 was around 55% (Ericson). Comparing this to the favorability rating that the death penalty has in the state of Texas, we find a wide disparity with the rest of the country. As Goldberg and Bunn noted in a study of the effectiveness of the Texas system of executing criminals on death row “Support for the death penalty in Texas is higher than it is nationwide” (62). Texans continue to believe, cutting across racial, social, economic, and political backgrounds, that their administration of the death penalty is a model for the rest of the nation to emulate. Also, it is interesting to note that, as a region, the South has the highest number of executions since 1976 with 1181, followed closely by Texas and Oklahoma with a combined total of nearly half the South’s total at 654 (Death Penalty Information Center 3). Executions are the lowest in the Northeast, with only 4 since 1976 followed by the Western region with only 85 executions. (Death Penalty Information Center 3).
Turning to one of the most contentious areas of dispute about the continued use of the death penalty, international opinion and law, we see that the number of nations that have abolished the death penalty as a punishment for capital crimes is growing. In contrast, the United States remains on the list of states which still employ the death penalty. The top-ten list of nations who executed criminals for capital crimes in 2016, as reported by Amnesty International, were:
1. China and North Korea (Amnesty International notes that thousands of executions are carried out but they cannot get an accurate accounting due to the lack of public information)
2. Iran (567+)
3. Saudi Arabia (154+)
4. Iraq (88+)
5. Pakistan (87+)
6. United States (20)
7. Somalia (14)
8. Bangladesh (10)
9. Malaysia (9)
The first thing that is blatantly obvious about the above list is that the United States is the only Western nation on the list. This fact alone is enough to make most nations embarrassed for the United States. The U.S. occupies the middle of the list with significantly less executions than its nearest larger competitor Pakistan but still more than Somalia whose government is in shambles because of decades of genocidal civil war. Another important factor is that most of the nations on the list, apart from China and North Korea, are predominantly Muslim nations who execute criminals for violations of religious laws as well as criminal ones which probably account for many of the executions carried out in those nations. Seeing these facts brought to light, this writer is embarrassed for the country of my birth and seeing these facts, this writer is going to seriously reconsider his support for the death penalty in the future.
Amnesty International. “Amnesty International Global Report: Death Sentences and Executions-2016.” Amnesty International website. https://www.amnesty.org/en/what-we-do/death-penalty/. Accessed on April 24, 2017.
Banner, Stuart. The Death Penalty, edited by Stuart Banner, Harvard University Press, 2003. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/lib/apus/detail.action?docID=3300432.
Death Penalty Information Center. “Facts About the Death Penalty.” Deathpenaltyinfo.org. https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/. Accessed April 24, 2017.
Ericson, John. (2014). Botched execution shows perils of lethal injection drug shortage. Retrieved on April 03, 2017 from: http://www.newsweek.com/2014/05/16/states-go-great-lengths-find-lethal-injection-drugs-249154.html
Goldberg, Guy and Gena Bunn. “Balancing Fairness & Finality: A Comprehensive Review of the Texas Death Penalty.” Texas Review of Law & Politics, vol. 5, no. 1, Fall2000, p. 49.