Most people will probably never commit murder and those that would are probably unlikely to be deterred by the death penalty. So the question that needs to be asked is if the death penalty does not act as a deterrent then what is its purpose?
Ridding society of evil
We have all read about cases or watched them on television where a particularly heinous crime has been committed, and because of its nature it undoubtedly evokes an emotional response. Whether it’s the way the story is recounted, the style of the news article, most of us feel sympathy for the tragic and often senseless loss of life of an innocent victim. We connect to that experience of tragedy as human beings first and foremost, but also through our own experience of personal connections, be it as a parent, sibling, or close friend. It can be a natural emotional response to isolate the criminal act of the perpetrator as something so alien and barbaric that there could only be one alternative: rid society of such evil in the name of justice for the victims and their families.
Is the death penalty really ‘corrective’?
To a large extent the death penalty is founded on the principle of ‘corrective’ action for the worst crimes committed in society. Those who face the death penalty will certainly be unable to commit another crime of such proportion in the free world ever again. But when that person is executed it is unclear whether the families of victims feel that justice is truly served. Perhaps in some cases there is a sense of relief for the victims’ families who will no longer have to worry about endless state appeals or possible changes to the original sentence; to some degree it may even feel as if it closes a chapter. The harrowing reality, however, is that no sentence for the perpetrator (death penalty or life term in prison) will bring the victim back.
Length of time on death row
Citing the US as an example, the death penalty is generally reserved for what are deemed to be the most serious crimes i.e. capital state offences. However, an area of contention is the way the death penalty is applied and the length of time someone may spend on death row before they are executed. Is death really the most severe punishment, or is the fear of knowing the date of one’s impending execution what contributes to the severity of this punitive measure?
Whether you are for or against the death penalty, what cannot be ignored is the risk of executing the innocent. The Innocence Project states that from 1973 to October 2015 there have been 156 people exonerated in the US. Notably, DNA advancements have played a substantial factor in establishing innocence in some 20 cases. It can therefore safely be assumed that there remain a number of innocent death row inmates wasting away in prison with little or no chance of exoneration.
Race and Class
Many of those who have been or are currently on death row in the US are primarily from poor and/or ethnic minority communities with poor legal representation, and convicted by juries that are not a true reflection of their peers. The very fact that the death penalty is disproportionately applied to particular social and racial groups demonstrates an inherent flaw within the US criminal justice system.
There is an even bigger debate surrounding juveniles receiving the death penalty. In the US, George Stinney Jr. was just 14 years old when he was executed for the first-degree murder of two 11 year old white girls. He was the youngest person to be executed in the US in the 20th century. His innocence was later proven and he was officially exonerated some 70 years after his death.
Mental health and low IQ levels
Even when guilt has been solidly confirmed, there is still some consideration that needs to be given to other factors. In the case of Dalton Prejean, who was given the death penalty at 17 and executed at 30, he was in fact guilty of his crime. He was convicted of killing a Louisiana State Police Trooper in 1977, and had previously killed a taxi driver in 1974. He was convicted for his previous crime, but discharged after two years following a psychiatric evaluation. His subsequent crime was committed the following year. Here lies a case that many proponents of the death penalty would feel perfectly fits the criteria for the most extreme punishment a court could impose. Yet, others who supported his sentence being commuted cited the fact that he had been tried by an all-white jury and had an IQ level just above mental retardation. Prejean was nevertheless executed in 1990.
Deficiencies within the criminal justice process
Perhaps what requires more attention is addressing some of the clear deficiencies within the criminal justice process, and allowing for a more proportionate and consistent sentencing structure across the board in accordance with the severity of the crime. A criminal justice system without the death penalty does not necessarily mean that people will be ‘let off the hook’ or released so that they can commit further crimes. Some crimes may deem it necessary for release not to be an option on the grounds of public safety. A full life sentence is an option that could replace a death penalty for the most serious crimes. Punishment is not only exacted by death. Loss of liberty is still a punishment in itself.
The finality of the death penalty cannot allow for mistakes, but mistakes are made and one mistake is one too many.
Article by Angela Coley, MSc. (Crim Justice Policy); BSc. (Social Science)