With the execution of Teresa Lewis, the first woman in almost a century to be executed in Virginia, David Farrell and Bríd Doherty debate the ethics of the death penalty
Anti Death Penalty
Homicide is the killing of a human being, under any circumstances. It is never acceptable.
Capital punishment is merely homicide under another guise. It is the planned and coordinated termination of a human being’s life, and to support it is morally defunct. It is unjustifiable. The right to life is an undeniable and inalienable human right. No matter how heinous the crime, death is never a permissible form of punishment. It exacts a swift but incomplete retribution.
No human being has the right to decide if someone live or dies. If any person kills another they will face the fullest extent of the law but this should not, either today or in the future, include death.
Can a modern liberal western society really be just that if it enforces a death penalty? Is it not fair to say that if we as a society legalise or implement the death penalty, we become as bad as the murders we endeavour to halt?
We take it upon ourselves to heartlessly exterminate a fellow human being’s life. It may be the life of a murderer, but we ourselves should not be complicit in that death. We then take on a power which people can use, but on moral grounds, never should.
It is the job of our justice system to punish those who disrupt the peace, not to kill them. It is absurd to expect our judges or jurors to accept the responsibility to end a person’s life when such an act goes against the very laws that are set out to protect it.
The death penalty also offers the criminal a way out, a way without any real long-lasting effects on their conscience, because unlike a life sentence, they are not given the time to acknowledge the gravity of their misdeeds.
We need to endeavour to rehabilitate them while ensuring they are never again free to roam the streets in light of their crimes. Surely we can see the obvious morality of this stance. We must accept that to kill a person is the ultimate crime, the ultimate wrong and a defiance of human nature.
We should not be convinced by some financial cost that it is fair to end a person’s life – that is a cold and callous justification of death more akin to the killers who commit the very deed of murder. They should be encaged, punished and rehabilitated indefinitely, rather than be freed of all moral obligations, but left to spend their days suffering in isolation.
In 2009, 52 people were killed by way of the death penalty in the USA. It may be a small number, but it is a harrowing thought none the less that the USA, a world superpower, would execute 52 members of its own society. It’s even scarier when we look at the claim by Amnesty International that, since 1992, 15 people were sentenced to death with two of them being wrongly executed, having later being exonerated by conclusive DNA evidence.
Even gloomier still; the cost of appeals against sentences of death, the act itself and security for the vociferous protests often costs much more than a lifetime in jail. The death penalty serves little or no real purpose. It is a net drain upon finances and an idea which is morally abhorrent to the vast majority of our citizens and people across the world.
The waters become murkier still with regard to secretive countries which use the veil of capital punishment to cover up executions of supposed criminals. We look at China, a country which is becoming more and more open, but is notoriously harsh towards those who oppose the state party.
While no official figures are available, Amnesty International estimates that 1,700 people were killed in China by way of the death penalty in 2009. Pictures of public executions in the notoriously secretive North Korea were once leaked to the western media, and the defending claim was that those shown had committed grave crimes.
The problem is that such actions are lent a shred of legitimacy by the fact that in parts of the USA, the leading democracy of the western world, capital punishment is also enforced.
It is never acceptable for a country or government to enforce the death penalty. By doing so, we become as bad as the criminals themselves. In the words of the great Mahatma Gandhi: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
Pro Death Penalty
The death penalty is something so divisive that it procures a schism in society, with people on both sides vehemently believing that they are correct. Some feel that the death penalty should not be abolished and that it has an important place in society.
The decision to employ the death penalty is not one that is taken lightly. There is a rigorous process by which it is decided whether it may be utilised. In determining whether the death penalty should be imposed on anyone convicted of first-degree murder, juries are authorised to hear and consider additional evidence whenever the murder was committed – as part of an act of terrorism, or by someone with two or more prior serious felony convictions.
Upon the conviction of the defendant, a separate sentencing phase is conducted during which the original jury, or a new jury under special circumstances, weighs the facts of the case.
The jury must consider the defendant’s prior criminal history, mental capacity, character, background, state of mind, and the extent of his or her participation in the crime. It then compares this evidence with the facts. The jury must reach a verdict unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt. This, combined with advancements in forensics and DNA testing, leaves very little in the way of ambiguity as to whether this person deserves to pay the ultimate price for the crime they have committed.
It isn’t possible to bring back a loved one lost to violence, but bringing peace of mind to victims’ families may be the only true consolation a legal system can provide. It may also be said that opponents of the death penalty too often ignore the victims and make martyrs of the murderers.
As the date for the execution of Stanley “Tookie” Williams – convicted murderer and alleged co-founder of LA Crips gang – drew close, many celebrities campaigned to have him exonerated. News coverage rarely mentioned Albert Owens or the Yang family, all gunned down by Williams in a series of crimes in 1979.
Williams told the BBC in a 2003 interview that his imprisonment was the result of “bad karma”. His comments were unwittingly accurate. Karma is the consequence of choices freely made. Williams chose death for a lot of people, without justice, without appeal, without consideration of anything other than his Machiavellian goals. Williams killed multiple victims, he has never taken responsibility for his crimes and he had decades to fight his death sentence. Did his victims have the same luxury?
Many opponents argue that the death penalty cheapens the value of human life. Yet as Edward Koch, lawyer and former mayor of New York City, said: “It is by exacting the highest penalty for the taking of human life that we affirm the highest value of human life.”
When we reduce the penalty for murder, we are lessening our regard for the victim’s life. As the mother of a victim of serial killer Nathaniel White said: “I have to go to the cemetery to see my daughter. Nathaniel White’s mother goes to jail to see him and I don’t think it’s fair.”
When a convicted murderer is released from prison, is it a rehabilitated and pacifistic individual that we see before us? Statistics would say no as it is estimated that over half of convicted murderers reoffend within the first six years of release. One such example is convicted murderer Jack Abbott, who made an application for parole that was supported by renowned writer Norman Mailer. His application was successful. Six weeks later, he murdered a young aspiring actor named Richard Adan.
There is also the matter of the death penalty acting as a deterrent for those on the cusp of committing a heinous crime. The perfect example for this is the state of Delaware, which executes more murderers per capita than any other state in the USA and also has low homicide rates.
The highest murder rate in Houston, Texas occurred in 1981, with 701 murders. Texas resumed executions in 1982. Since then, Houston has executed more murderers than any other city and has seen the greatest reduction in murder, from 701 in 1981 to 261 in 1996. The facts speak for themselves.
We work ourselves into a frenzy about a convicted murderer’s right to life, but we seem to forget the rights of the innocent victims whose lives were cut short, making their deaths mere numbers on a newspaper page.
A hardline stance is necessary for the end results of deterrence and prevention of murderers reoffending. Anything less than the death penalty is an insult to the victim and to society. It says that we don’t value the victim’s life enough to punish the killer fully. Murder should not be tolerated in society, and the death penalty is the ultimate means of showing that it isn’t.