VANGUARD INCARCERATED PRESS: The Death Penalty – Deterrent or Inhumane?

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By Jamel Walker

Communication 321: Interpersonal Communication

One of the more controversial aspects of the US justice system is whether the death penalty should remain an option for the punishment of crime. This controversy is primarily borne from the historical roots of capital punishment in this country, including against which segments of our society it has been disproportionately used. Throughout our history, there has been periodic debate regarding whether is constitutes cruel and inhumane punishment; justice or revenge; a biblically ordained edict ad found in Exodus 21:23-25:

“and if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” (King James Version)

or a deterrent.

Should one pause to contemplate the question the above title asks,a reasonable conclusion to be drawn is the jury has spoken, death penalty is not a deterrent. This reasonable conclusion would lead one therefore to determine that, because it is not a deterrent, it must be cruel and inhumane. However, this of course, is a matter of opinion. Is there any evidence to support this, and other, opinions, concerning the uselessness of such punishment in a modern civilized society? Of course there is.

Most criminologists found that based on “the overwhelming weight of the evidence,” that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime (Smith 2000:628). Throughout the history of this country, many of the states that have used the death penalty have had the highest rates of homicide. In contrast, “those states that have abolished the death penalty have not seen a rise in homicide rates, nor have those states that have reinstated the death penalty seen a reduction in homicide rates (Peterson & Bailey, 1998; Zimring, 2003). (Berger et al., 88) Some criminologists suggest that the use of the death penalty may have the opposite effect, and actually increase the rate of homicide in those states that carry out executions. This phenomenon is called the brutalization effect.

For example, Williams Bowers and Glen Pierce argue that executions “devalue life by the example of human sacrifice” and sends a message that it is appropriate to “kill those who offend us” (1980:456). They conducted a meta-analysis of the “monthly executions in New York between 1906 and 1963 and monthly homicides between 1907 and 1964” and found that, on average, two additional homicides occurred each month following an execution in that state. Similarly, a study in California found that homicides were twice as high during the years when the state was executing an inmate every month (1952-1967) than during the period when it carried out no executions (1968-1991) (Godfrey & Schiraldi, 1995). Research that examined the reinstatement of the death penalty in Arizona in 1992 after a 30-year moratorium, and in Oklahoma in 1980 after a 25 year moratorium found evidence of a brutalization effect as well (Bailey, 1998; Cochran et al., 1994; Thompson, 1997, Berger et al. p.88).

In this face of evidence, it certainly is reasonable to ask why one would insist the death penalty is a deterrent, and not cruel and inhumane. Perhaps because it is not deterrence opponents of the death penalty are looking for, but retribution under this guise of this relative term we call, justice. For those individuals, the death penalty is “a life for a life.” Those who subscribe to this circular reasoning believe, “if you kill one of us, we will kill one of you;” relying on the false belief that because the Bible says “life for life,” our society has the moral right to take a life as punishment. However, one could credibly argue that the taking of a life is morally wrong no matter who is doing the taking, especially when the motivations for doing so are also immoral.

Consider the fact that, “Michael Radelet and colleagues (1992) found that 416 defendants in the twentieth century were wrongfully convicted, 23 of whom were executed. The Death Penalty Information Center (2008b) reported that since “1973, 130 people have been released from death row due to post trial findings of innocence” (Berger et. al., 453). Thus, because there is no evidence that individuals who were actually innocent were put to death, to continue to have a justice system that is capable of putting innocent people to death is the epitome of immorality. Also consider the fact that:

“Samuel Gross (1996) argues that mistaken convictions may be more common in capital murder cases than in other cases because police and prosecutors are under great pressure to apprehend the perpetrator as quickly as possible. This pressure may lead them to make hasty judgements, to use informants of questionable reliability, and to coerce suspects into confessions” (Berger et al., 453).

Moreover, statistical evidence has shown that “Black offenders who murder White victims had a higher probability of receiving a death sentence than defendants in cases with other racial patterns of offenders and victims” (Berger et al., 454). Furthermore, as of 2006, “over 40 percent of persons on death row are African American” (US Department of Justice 2006). Nevertheless, in the face of such evidence that the death penalty is applied unfairly, it persists.

How immorally cruel is it to continue to utilize a system where evidence has indicated that it is not a deterrent to crime; but instead, due to the brutalization effect, increases homicides; innocent people have been put to death-many times strictly based on the color of their skin or their socioeconomic status?

In the face of such overwhelming evidence, proponents would desperately say “but the death penalty is more humane than life in prison.” Here is my answer: from 21 years of age until I was 23, I spent my days awaiting trial with the death penalty hanging over my head like the sword of Damocles. My life was spared when one person in the district attorney’s office who is responsible for deciding who would and who would not face the death penalty decided that, should the jury find me guilty, the judge would have to decide whether I would be sentenced to life with or without the possibility of parole. She chose the latter. Perhaps it is more humane if one does not have to spend years of their life with the sword of Damocles hanging over their head; watching as, one by one, that sword falls on others as they march, or are dragged to their execution. However, that is exactly what it feels like waiting to be executed. How humane is that?

Jamel Walker, is serving Life Without Parole. He is a social justice advocate, writer, Certified Literacy Mentor, and a member of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society. He has earned undergraduate degrees in Sociology, and Social and Behavioral Science. He is an undergraduate student at California State University – Sacramento majoring in Communication Studies.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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