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Death Penalty: Cruel and Unusual?

September 27, 2011 | Comments: 0 | Views: 152

One of the major political issues in the U.S. these days is the controversy over the death penalty. Like abortion, the nation is clearly divided on the issue, but I suspect the number of people in favor outnumber the people opposed by about two to one.

The Controversy

Death penalty opponents work hard to make their case. They infiltrate the media, the movies, and literature, spreading their pacifist message. Their point of view seems to be that, no matter what a person has done, the death penalty is never justified. When faced with objections, they quickly leap to the argument that innocent people are sometimes executed (or have been in the past). They say the State has no right to take a human life. They claim it isn't a deterrent. And finally, they fall back on the "justice vs revenge" argument...and that's about all they have.

In spite of their efforts, many states still have a death penalty on the books. Because of the political firestorm, however, very few states actually execute anyone, which gives death penalty opponents another piece of ammunition-the "cost" of executions. Those states that actually do execute people, most notably Texas and other southern states, get crucified in the media and pop culture as "barbaric".

Finally, when nothing else works-when all the sound bites and prison protests have been exhausted, there is one final argument, and (will wonders never cease?) actually works. This desperate, last-ditch argument, the most asinine argument of them all, states that the death penalty violates the constitutional ban against "cruel and unusual punishment".

Let's examine these arguments one by one and think them through to the end.

Is the Death Penalty Ever Justified?

I find it ironic that most people who are opposed to the death penalty do not have the same objection to abortion. Quite the contrary, in fact-most death penalty opponents seem to be militantly in favor of abortion. The irony (which is so obvious that I feel silly pointing it out) is that, on the one hand, a convicted murderer has committed acts that clearly make him a danger to society, while the child who is aborted never gets a chance to make its case at all. The aborted child is the epitome of innocence, the death row inmate is just the opposite. Does no one see anything wrong with this picture?

It may be true (and often is) that the death row inmate had a horrible childhood. Many violent criminals became violent because of circumstances over which they had no control. Death penalty opponents often use this argument in an attempt to spare their lives. The argument is worth considering-if the killer had enjoyed a normal childhood, he might not have become a killer at all. The same can be said of a cute little puppy; given a normal life, it might make a wonderful pet, but let it contract rabies, and it has to be put down. For the safety of others, it has to be done, and the bottom line in death penalty cases is the safety of others. The reason one becomes a killer is irrelevant-killers have to be stopped.

The next argument, then, is that life in prison is sufficient punishment. Depending on the crime, that may be true, but many cases are so horrible, so egregious, that death is the only fitting punishment. The simple fact is that many hardened criminals are perfectly happy in prison. They've often been in and out of the system so often that it really doesn't matter to them, so a life sentence is no punishment at all. Why should such a person be allowed to live out his life behind bars, warm and fed and sheltered at taxpayers' expense for decades, while his victim has been deprived of any life at all? In a logical world, the only people who receive life sentences should be those who, at some point in the future, might actually be safe enough to be released back into society.

Those who argue that life is "so sacred" that no one should ever be put to death need to reevaluate their position; if they are truly concerned about the sacredness of life, they should be looking to protect the sacred lives of victims, not killers. Anyone who preys on the innocent does not deserve their pity; anyone who is such a threat to society that he can never be released does not deserve the taxpayers' support. Spend the money on schools, education, medical research...but not the "rights" of murderers.

To answer the question, then-yes, the death penalty is often justified. Not in every case, certainly, but anyone who cold-bloodedly, with premeditation, commits a murder (or multiple murders, as in the case of serial killers) does not deserve your sympathy.

Are Innocent People Sometimes Executed?

There is no such thing as a perfect world. There is no utopia. Innocent people have been executed, there is no question about it. Mistakes get made, and sometimes you have prosecutors who are so corrupt they should probably be put to death themselves. But a little common sense may be in order-parents sometimes beat their children, but we don't take all the children away from all the parents, do we? Teachers sometimes molest their students, but we don't outlaw the teaching profession. So it is (or should be) with the death penalty. Mistakes cannot be allowed with something so serious, but rather than abolish the death penalty (thereby putting all of society at risk), we need to change a few things to ensure such mistakes are never made.

First of all, no one should ever be sentenced to death on circumstantial evidence alone. No one should ever be sentenced to death based solely on eyewitness testimony (the most unreliable evidence of all). Advances in DNA technology have freed hundreds of the wrongly convicted, so without proper, irrefutable evidence, the death penalty should not be applied. However...when you have strong forensic and/or DNA evidence; when you have video evidence (the crime actually captured on camera); or when you have a reliable confession backed by other evidence, then you have a reasonable certainty that a mistake will not be made.

I don't advocate executing all killers. Crimes of passion generally don't qualify for the death penalty. Good people sometimes make mistakes and are not a true threat to society. Their crimes must be punished, but they can often be released after their debt is paid with no risk to the community. It is the habitual killer, the repeat offender, the man (or woman) who has killed before and will kill again, who needs to be put to sleep. It has to be done for the safety of others, and no amount of rationalizing is going to change the fact that it is the right thing to do.

Does the State Have a Right to Execute?

If the State doesn't have the right, then who does? I admit there have been times when I would like to see vigilante justice applied, but that's emotional and not logical. We are a nation of laws, and everyone deserves due process, no matter how egregious the crime.

We depend on the State to protect us. The State provides police and fire protection, military protection, and protection against criminals. The courts were set up for this very purpose, to confine and punish those who harm others. When the crime is sufficiently brutal to justify the death penalty, and the evidence is sufficient to convict, then the State has the authority and the right to execute. Of course it does.

It's a stupid question.

Is It Justice or Revenge?

Does it really matter? What is this "moral high ground" all about that some people use in an attempt to shame those who favor the death penalty? What's wrong with the desire for revenge? I have no problem with revenge, as long as it's justified. If a playground bully is constantly tormenting a smaller child, I will be the first one to stand up and cheer when the victim finally gets fed up and breaks the bully's nose. That is revenge, and it is justice.

Was it revenge when Ted Bundy was executed? John Wayne Gacy? Timothy McVeigh? Were those executions revenge? For some people they were, and I'm okay with that. Those executions were also justice. By executing those killers, many other lives were spared.

When it comes to executing killers, revenge is justice.

Is the Death Penalty Expensive?

In recent years, with budget deficits soaring in almost every state, a lot of noise has been made about the "cost of executions". Don't fall for that. It's a stupid, dishonest argument designed to confuse you and shore up a weak-minded position against the death penalty.

Let's face it-rope isn't very expensive. Neither is a bullet. Thirty seconds of electricity isn't very expensive. A handful of cyanide pellets and a little sulphuric acid doesn't cost very much. A few ounces of chemicals (Sodium tiopental, Pancuronium bromide, and Potassium chloride) might cost a little more, but isn't going to break the bank. Add to that the salaries of those who conduct the execution, and the ingredients of the last meal, and you might spend a few hundred dollars on a convicted killer's final moments, but how does that stack up against feeding and housing that same killer for the next half century?

Let's face it-the cost of executions is practically zero.

What is not cheap is keeping a convicted killer alive for thirty years and paying hundreds of expensive lawyers millions of dollars to plead his case in endless appeals while he writes children's books and eventually dies of cancer or old age. When people try to make you feel outraged at the "cost of executions", that is what they're really talking about.

California is the most embarrassing example of how not to have a Death Row. As of July 1, 2011, California was housing 719 people on Death Row (by contrast, Texas had 322). Some of them have been there since the 1970s (almost 40 years in some cases). That is not a "death penalty"'s "life imprisonment on Death Row". I don't remember the last time we executed anybody in California, but it was probably Clarence Ray Allen in January of 2006. Allen was only the 13th person executed in California since April 8, 1967 (executions had been abolished between 1972 and 1992). At that rate, California's Death Row is the safest place to live on the entire planet.

Is the Death Penalty "Cruel and Unusual"?

This has to be the most laughable of stupid arguments ever heard on the issue. (First of all, who cares? The United States Constitution bans cruel and unusual punishment, but it never, ever, says the person to be executed cannot feel pain. Why should the capital killer be immune to a little physical pain? Did his victims die a painless death?)

The search for a "humane" form of execution has been going on for centuries. In 1789 France, a man named Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotine was looking for such a method when he devised a machine that still carries his name and is now considered one of the most barbaric instruments of death ever fashioned. As horrific as it was, the guillotine was a major step forward in the history of cruelty.

When the authors of our Constitution drafted the language concerning cruel and unusual punishment, they lived in a world that still remembered hanging, beheading, drawing and quartering, burning at the stake, and disembowelment...all while the victim was alive and conscious. Watch the ending of the movie Braveheart (which depicts, but does not show, disembowelment); watch the movie The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc(which graphically depicts burning at the stake); watch the miniseries The Tudors (which graphically depicts beheading, disembowelment, and burning at the stake). Yes, they are just movies, but the forms of execution they depict were once sanctioned by the State. When the Framers banned "cruel and unusual punishment", it was those forms of execution they had in mind.

Since then, many forms of execution have been used and discarded as cruel and unusual. Hanging was the staple for centuries; hanging killed by either 1) breaking the neck after a short drop, or 2) slow strangulation. Electrocution was intended to be less cruel than hanging, but we've all heard horror stories of botched executions in the electric chair. Similarly, the gas chamber was intended to be more humane than the "chair"-but again, case histories are replete with victims gagging and choking on cyanide fumes before finally giving up the ghost. (Carbon monoxide would have been far more humane.)

Finally, at long last, someone came up with the obvious solution-lethal injection. It is clearly the most painless form of execution ever used, yet even now we hear complaints that it is cruel and unusual. Witnesses to such events sometimes relate that the executed was seen to be thrashing about or convulsing as the drugs did their work. And that is considered cruel.

Have you ever had a colonoscopy? I have. I'm not sure what they injected me with, but I can tell you unequivocally that the minute that drug hit my bloodstream I was gone. I didn't feel a thing. Surgeons do horrible things to people every day, but the patients are oblivious to it all. They may wake up in pain, they may be sore for weeks afterward, but while the surgeon was carving them up, they felt nothing. NOTHING!

The body will react to trauma, but that does not mean the person is aware of it. The first drug given to a convicted killer is designed to render him unconscious, and whatever happens after that he does not feel. His victims, of course, may have suffered hideous agony before they died, and they are the ones I care about. They are the only ones any of us should care about.

Is Capital Punishment a Deterrent?

Good question. The answer is Yes.

Crimes of passion will not be deterred by the death penalty. Crimes of passion will not be deterred by anything. When a man finds his wife with another man (or a woman finds her husband with another woman) and kills them both in a fit of rage, he or she is acting on rage alone. No amount of logic or persuasion is going to deter that murder. That person isn't thinking about prison or the death penalty or anything else. Only after the fact will that person think at all. In that case, the death penalty is not a deterrent.

Other murders are committed with dispassion, however. Serial killers leave the house with the intent to kill; their motivation may be pathological in nature, and perhaps they can't control themselves, but they plan to kill from the moment they set out. Armed robbers who gun down a convenience store clerk usually don't need to shoot the victim, yet they do anyway. A person who kills for a "thrill", or just to "watch someone die", does it dispassionately. They know in advance that it's wrong and they weigh their chances of getting caught, yet they do it anyway. The same is true for contract killers. For such people-those who kill dispassionately-the death penalty can be a deterrent.

But only if it is applied consistently.

Have you ever come to a red light and didn't want to stop? You could see the side streets were empty, so you knew it was "safe" to run the red light-i.e., you weren't going to hit another car. Did you stop anyway? If so, why? Or maybe you didn't stop, because you didn't see any police cars and figured your chances of getting caught were virtually nil. No police cars equated to no deterrent.

Most criminals, especially career criminals, play the odds. They know they might be arrested and go to prison, but they figure the odds are in their favor. People who murder other people probably figure their chances of being executed are so low that they are willing to risk it.

In the red-light scenario, what would you do if you knew there was a cop car at every intersection, or perhaps a camera that would record your license plate? You would probably stop every time. I certainly would. By the same logic, the cold, dispassionate killer who knows that his crime has a 95% chance of getting him executed will probably not commit the murder. It's just human nature-if I know I can get away with it, maybe I'll do it. If I know I can't...let me think about it some more.

That's why the death penalty is so important. More specifically, that's why the consistent application of the death penalty is so important.

If used correctly, the death penalty is a deterrent. Certainly, the killer who is executed will never kill again.

And even if it isn't, it should still be used. It isn't called "capital deterrence", it's called "capital punishment". Let the punishment fit the crime.

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