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There is an ongoing debate about the merits of capital punishment in Kentucky.
For me, the debate ends just as soon as one brings up the morality of the death penalty. Is it right to kill another human being, regardless of what that human being does? For me, the answer to that question is a resounding “no,” unless it is a matter of self-defense.
But, many believe that justice demands “an eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth.” Therefore, they support the death penalty. So, outside of moral considerations, what are some other arguments?
According to one line of thought, capital punishment is necessary, because it deters others from committing capital crimes such as murder. This argument is questionable, however, considering that only a tiny minority of those potentially eligible for the death penalty actually receive it. Why is that the case? For several reasons, including the appeals process, which may drag out for years, as well as the fact that many murderers are not even caught, given the fear that they provoke within communities. Also, sometimes the death penalty is not sought by the prosecuting attorney, even though the offender is “death-eligible” and, in addition, it might not be imposed by a jury, again, even though the offender is “death-eligible.” (Juries tend to be reluctant to impose the death penalty, unless they are absolutely sure that the offender deserves it.)
What about the notion that if capital offenders are put away for life they might escape? That is certainly a possibility, but the likelihood is very remote, given recent security enhancements within prisons. It is getting to the point that the risk of an inmate escaping from a maximum security facility equals the odds of one being killed in an airplane crash - very small odds, indeed. So, while risk of escape may have been a cogent argument for the death penalty at one time, it is no longer so.
What about the idea that the death penalty offers comfort for the relatives of the person who has been murdered? It is true that some of these relatives do look forward to an inmate’s execution date. However, many others view capital punishment as just compounding the original infraction. Bud Welch, father of a young lady who died in the Oklahoma City bombing, at first relished the thought of Tim McVeigh being executed. However, over time, he came around to another point of view. He remembered a conversation that he had with his daughter while she was still alive, in which she indicated to him that all capital punishment taught was hate. Right now, relatives of victims can witness executions, but all they really see is someone going to sleep - just like in a dentist’s chair having a tooth pulled. If I was looking for someone to suffer from pain, I think I would be disappointed, given the way executions are carried out now, through lethal injection.
What about the idea that the state is merely supporting the capital offender, by housing and feeding him/her? My response to that is that prison is a very boring existence and that many offenders commit their capital crimes while young, and come to regret these crimes later. So, in a sense, it is more punishment having to live with what one has done in earlier years. And while the state might be spending money supporting capital offenders in prison, do we gauge all social policy based on cost? In addition, in some cases, it actually costs more to execute someone than it would to keep that person in prison for life, considering all of the costs associated with the various appeals that take place.
Let’s also consider a couple of arguments against the death penalty that would be hard to refute, even by its most ardent supporters.
First, there is the definite possibility of executing the wrong person. According to an article in USA Today (6/22/05), while 972 people had been put to death (at the time the article was written) since the 1970s, at least 119 had been taken off death row because of evidence that they were wrongly convicted or sentenced.
A good case which illustrates what can happen is the case of Anthony Porter. Porter was just two days from being executed when his execution was set aside due to the uncovering of faulty witness testimony (USA Today, 2/8/99, p. 3A). Obviously, if such evidence had been uncovered later, there would have been no possibility of undoing the damage, as there would have been with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Finally, let’s consider the standing of the U.S. with respect to other Western countries. According to an article by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, only three industrialized democracies still execute people: Japan, South Korea and the U.S. (some states and the Federal government). The fact the U.S. retains capital punishment should be a source of embarrassment to it, especially considering that none of our European allies or Canada still retain it.
The death penalty is largely a barbaric relic of the past, and is unnecessary in today’s society.
Harry Toder, Ph.D., is a professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice and director of the Criminal Justice Program at St. Catharine College.