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Cruelty of Capital Punishment

Capital punishment is the legal infliction the death penalty.
It is obviously the most severe form of criminal punishment. (Bedau1)
Capital punishment is a controversial way of dealing with violent
criminals. The main alternative to the death penalty is life in
prison. Capital punishment has been around for thousands of years as a
means of eradicating criminals. A giant debate started between
supporters and opposers of execution, over the morality and
effectiveness of the death penalty. The supporters claim that if you
take a life you should pay with your life or “an eye for an eye”.
Opposers of the death penalty bring up the chance of sentencing the
innocent and how the death penalty is inhumane. The purpose of this
paper is to examine the process of capital punishment and the moral
viewpoints on the death penalty. The first evidence of capital
punishment is from Hammurabi’s code, a book of Babylonian law, from
1700BC. The Bible mentions that execution should be used for many
crimes. (Bedau1) One example of the death penalty in the bible is
“Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death.” (Exodus
21:12). The bible also suggests stoning a woman if she unmarried sex
and had “wrought folly on Israel by playing the harlot in her father’s
house” (Deuteronomy 22:21) England recognized seven major crimes that
called for execution by the end of the 15th century. These crimes
were: murder, theft (by deceitfully taking someone goods), burglary,
rape, and arson. As time went by more and more crimes were believed to
deserve the death penalty and by 1800 more than 200 crimes were
recognized as punishable by death. (Bedau2) It was not long before
capital punishment met opposition. The Quakers made first movement
against execution. They supported life imprisonment as a more humane
justice. Cesare Beccaria wrote On Crimes and Punishment, a book
criticizing torture and the death penalty, in 1764. Cesare drove many
other philosophers, like Voltaire and Jerry Bentham, to question the
validity of using capital punishment. (Bedau2) Contrary to what some
may believe the process of sentencing a defendant is a very arduous
and time-taking ordeal. After he has been arrested as the suspect of a
crime the defendant will either tried in a state or federal court
system. The lowest court that a litigant can be sent to is the Court
of General jurisdiction (state level) or the US District Courts
(federal level). Any time in the trial the defense may choose to
appeal. Even if a suspect is sentenced to a crime the case may be
appealed for a variety of reasons. The defendant’s lawyer could claim
that the defendant’s rights were violated when he was arrested, that
the defendant received an unfair trial, or new evidence that could
prove the defendant’s innocence has surfaced. (Guernsey,16) Next the
appeal is taken to the Intermediate Appellate Courts (state) or the US
Courts of Appeals (federal) who will decide if the trial court has
erred in some way. If the appeal is granted In the state court system
the appellate will be sent to the State Supreme Court, or in the
federal system, to the supreme. From the State Supreme Court the case
may be appealed again to the Supreme Court. Once the case has reached
the supreme court the verdict is final. (Guernsey,15) This monotonous
appealing process is the reason for the excess of inmates on death row
today. An inmate can spend 6-10 years on death row during the
appellate process. (Guernsey, 20) In fact only about one in 1900
prisoners (.053%) on death row have served the death penalty.
( “Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and
Texas have carried out about three-quarters of all executions since
1976.” (Guernsey,22) There has been a controversy over the death
penalty ever since the Quakers fought for reform in the 1700’s.

(Bedau1) This conflict has two sides: those in favor of capital
punishment, and those who view life without parole (LWOP) as a more
humane alternative.

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Supporters of the death penalty rationalize executing because
if a man takes a life he should pay for it with his own or “an eye
for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” They also use verses from the Bible
like, “Whosoever sheds a man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed”
(Genesis 9:6), and Exodus 21:12 to show that Christianity supports it.
They claim that executions deter other criminals from killing in fear
of being executed. However, this could never been proven since it
would be very difficult to link a drop in murders to knowledge of
recent executions. Those who oppose the death penalty have come up
with many reasons that life in prison without parole, or LWOP, is a
better means of dealing with violent criminals. One reason is the risk
of executing the innocent. (Bedau1) This risk is very small
considering that since 1900 only 23 people, who were possibly
innocent, were executed. ( Those who oppose
the death penalty claim that the number of blacks is disproportionate
to that of women and white men. (Bedau1) This has been proven to be
true and is the most vital argument of the opposers. Wealth and fame
take a pivotal part in the trial of a defendant. Poor defendants are
give court-appointed lawyers; however, rich and famous defendants can
afford fancy lawyers. (Bedau1) One example of this is the OJ Simpson
trial. If OJ was a normal middle to lower class person he would not be
able to afford lawyers like Johnny Cochran and would probably have
been found guilty. There are many forms of execution. Some have been
labeled barbaric and forbidden nearly everywhere. Currently the only
accepted means of execution are: electrocution, the gas chamber,
firing squad and lethal injection. (Bedau1) The firing squad is only
used it Utah upon request. (Guernsey, 54) Montana, New Hampshire and
Washington are the only states that allow hangings. (55) The electric
chair was introduced in New York in 1890 and is now used in 24 states.
(Bedau2) The criminal is seated in a chair. Electrodes are attached to
the head and a leg. Pulses of 2000 volts are sent through his body for
about three minutes or until he appears to be dead. The fact that the
electrodes reach 1900C and the brain reaches the boiling point causes
one to doubt the humanity of this practice. (Guernsey, 53) Lethal
injection is thought to be the least painful method of execution. The
person is strapped down and a given a deadly dose of barbiturates via
IV. (Bedau2) However this process also has its flaws. “It took
technicians 45 minutes of sticking to find a proper vein for the
injection”(Guernsey, 59) on Peter Morin. Needles have also been know
to fly out in the middle of the injection. (59) The gas chamber was
first used in Nevada in 1924. (Bedau2) The prisoner is strapped into a
chair and cyanide gas is administered through a hole in the floor.
Death takes from three to four minutes, but prisoners have been known
to go into convulsions or choke to death on the gas. (Guernsey, 59)
After learning about our modern methods of execution one
wonders if these methods are humane. Is being struck with enough
electricity to cause the eyeballs pop out of their sockets any better
than being beheaded? (Guernsey, 59) Is the death penalty ‘cruel and
unusual punishment’? We must devise more sane methods of execution
which are quick and efficient. Most importantly we must make the
appeals process more orderly to cut down on the glut of inmates on
death row, and therefore cut down on the money wasted housing
prisoners during the appeals process.

Works Cited
1. Bedau, Hugo Adam “Capital Punishment” Encarta 96 Encyclopedia
(CD-ROM) Microsoft Corporation, 1996.

2. The Bible
3. Bedau, Hugo A. “Capital Punishment” Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia
(CD-ROM) Grolier Electronic Publishing, Inc. 1995.

4. Guernsey, JoAnn Bren. Should We Have Capital Punishment?.
Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Co., 1993.

5. (website)
6. Bender, David L., and Bruno Leone. The Death Penalty Opposing
Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1991.


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