The controversial topic of the death penalty in the United States has been growing strong over the years, and yet the penalty still remains solid with in the court system and in practice, particularly in Texas. This final and absolute solution to heinous crimes remains a problem because of the very real threat of false convictions. With the use of DNA evidence and even added or non-factual eyewitness reports, numerous convicted individuals are being exonerated from their fate. These individuals, facing the death penalty for crimes they did not commit dodged a huge bullet, no pun intended. But even with these very real sob stories, can the death penalty still be used in our justice system? To answer that question, one cannot rely completely on pathos-induced thought process.
Hopefully not out of arrogance, my view on capital punishment has always been a favorable one. This may be due to my upbringing in the Southern United States and without much exposure to impoverished social economic areas to which the death penalty seems to be the most prevalent (Dhawan, H, 2015). But because I feel so strongly for it, I must keep insisting until proven otherwise that the death penalty is an acceptable form of punishment for the most heinous of criminals. Of course there must be a limit to whom and what is deemed punishable by death. An opponent to my position may quickly think “what if the criminal does not deserve it” or “does the death penalty deter crime” and other questions along that line such as the arguments purposed in innocanceproject.org. Any arguments for or against the death penalty should really be focused on the philosophical aspect of the death penalty and not on the clear misuse of it. I will, however, discuss the threat of incorrect rulings, as they must be taken into consideration. I will also cover whether it deters crime and common arguments against the death penalty as well as discuss some convicted innocence cases and answer the big question: should capital punishment continue to be imposed when though there is a chance that an innocent person could be put to death for a crime they did not commit?
To set the tone of my argument for the death penalty, I must add that this is a very serious topic and anyone erroneously for or against capital punishment cannot be taken seriously. J.R.R. Tolkien, in Lord of the Rings, beautifully words it, “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment” (Tolkien, pg. 85), which is to say, that there will be people that live and deserve death and others who are purely innocent that are unfairly put to death. Innoccanceproject.org provides 333 cases in which have since been repealed due to a number of reasons, but the number one reason is Eyewitness Misidentification (Reference Figure 1).
The best story about this life threatening mistake is the misidentification of Marvin Anderson. This horrendous case took place in 1982 before DNA evidence was widely used or reliable. Marvin Anderson was questioned about a rape that occurred in the past week. He was mistakenly convicted because of the racial assumptions of police and the mistaken identification from the victim. As a result, Marvin was convicted of two counts of rape, forcible sodomy, abduction, and robbery for which he was completely innocent (Innocenceproject.org, 2002). This outrageous claim by the victim very well could have ended an innocent man’s life. The justice system’s spectacular and unreasonable ruling based on this woman’s unclear accusation is absolutely unacceptable and gives the anti-death penalty party every reason to object to the idea of using capital punishment. But it must be suggested that using these situations from Innocenceproject for fantastic misuse of the justice system and its capital punishment option is an inadequate argument for the abolishment of the death penalty. Relying on such extreme cases may very well be the reason why the death penalty is still around after so many objections over the years.
An echoing argument for and against the death penalty is the topic of deterrence. Whether the death penalty actually does deter crime can be a smoking gun for either party. An interesting case of widely used successful capital punishment would be from the Indian Rebellion of 1857. At this point, European and more specifically English rule had reached a breaking point for colonial India. Several groups of opposition such as Hindu and Muslim sepoys, took arms against the Crown and set up initiation policies in which a British Officer, Soldier, or citizens must be killed to join (Raghavan, 2005). To combat this effective and deadly force, the British used what is commonly known as “blowing from a gun”. Originally a Mongrel form of capital punishment, the victim is tied to the muzzle of a cannon with their back pressed against the opening. The British imposed this order, “to fire off at the mouth of cannon the leader of the thieves who was made prisoner, that others may be deterred” (Long, 1869). Although many British officers saw this barbaric and serious form of punishment as going too far, the results were successful pacifying of revolts (Brown, 2014) and did not struggle with serious opposition even up until Indian Independence in 1947.
Now, this one serious and over exaggerated example of deterrence is only used to show the wide reaching possibilities of the death penalty, and I am in no way suggesting this as an actual solution to crime. Mentioned in the beginning of this essay, anyone can easily be mistaken as a criminal. To suggest deterrence occurred within the United States, one does not have to look as far back. The United States Supreme Court outlawed the use of capital punishment from 1972 with the notable case of Furman v. Georgia until 1976, when the lights went out in Georgia, and capital punishment was reinstated with the landmark case of Gregg v. Georgia (Cole, 2016). The crimes per capita and executions show a direct correlation throughout those times (reference Figure 2) and although this maybe only one case in which an anti-capital punishment individual may dismiss as irrelevant, the figures cannot be ignored.
Another point I would like to make is: how many murders must be deterred to successfully win support for capital punishment? Surely killing just one murderer would appeal to the average person as a sufficient means by which to put the victim and their families at ease. The difficult figure to prove is how many crimes are really deterred? I could give examples such as Arthur Shawcross who, after paroled from his 15 year sentence for the rape of two children, took 11 more lives before being arrested again, but any case like this will be subjected to dismissal among those against the death penalty (Pataki, 1997). And it is true: no one can ever accurately find that number of lives saved by the death penalty, but I plead with the reader to assume the death of the criminal is justified in that the victims and communities are put at ease and the actions of the criminal can never be repeated.
The final argument in opposition to the death penalty that must be covered is whether or not the criminal acted in a rational and logical manner when committing the crime which echoes the argument against punishing mentally ill criminals. Knee-jerk reply would be to say, they committed the crime, they have to face the consequences. But let me reference another story. Jennifer Ertman and Elizabeth Pena, 14 and 16 were coming home from school in Houston, Texas when they took a short cut and were attacked by six men including Peter Cantu and 14 year-old Raul Villareal. The next hour was hell for these two teenage girls who were repeatedly raped in such a way there was “never less than 2 men on one girl”. Peter Cantu strung up the girls with belts and shoelaces and forced the 14 year old Raul Villareal to join in as part of initiation to their gang. Finally, after attempting to kill the girls where complaints such as “the bitch won’t die” were noted, the two girls died together. To end the details and save the reader the gruesome scene, it should be noted that the gang members were boasting about the “virgin blood on them”. The five men were convicted and sentenced to death in Harris County (the Juvenile’s case will be reviewed when he turns 18) (Hall, 2015). There are numerous stories such as these. The convicted individual gets free representation whereas the victim lies dead and the opposition to capital punishment dares to claim the convicted criminal was not thinking rationally and such a capital punishment decision is unfair or too harsh. How dare anyone say that death is undeserving of crimes like these? The audacity of anyone who says criminals aren’t thinking rationally. After free, seemingly unlimited, State-provided representation, criminals are convicted and people have the nerve to say they don’t deserve punishment if it includes their death because they weren’t thinking rationally. That, as victims such as Jennifer Ertman and Elizabeth Pena beg for their lives, Peter Cantu and his gang should be taken lightly because they may not have been thinking rationally. I am sorry, but neither I, nor any other rationally thinking, moral individual can consider treating men and women like these with anything other than the most serious of punishment.
It is completely understandable that someone may not support the death penalty because it is too harsh or unfitting, and of course, absolute. The best and most sensible reason to oppose the death penalty is the chance an innocent defendant maybe wrongfully sentenced to death. But with the numerous violent and barbaric crimes, it must remain an option. With the continual advancement in DNA and effective justice systems, wrongful sentencing can and will be avoided. With careful, just, and swift action against the worst offenders, the modern era can implement capital punishment as a useful and effective price for civilization.
Brown, M. (2014). Penal Power and Colonial Rule (1st ed., p. 68, 69). Routledge.
Cole, G., Smith, C. & Dejong, C. (2016). Criminal Justice in America. (8th Ed.) Cengage Learning: Boston.
Dhawan, H., & Thakur, P. (2015, July 21). Here’s proof that poor get gallows, rich mostly escape. Retrieved November 24, 2015, from http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Heres-proof-that-poor-get-gallows-rich-mostly-escape/articleshow/48151696.cms
Hall, C. (n.d.). Jennifer Ertman & Elizabeth Pena – murder victims. Retrieved November 25, 2015, from http://www.murdervictims.com/voices/jeneliz.html
Innocenceproject.org. (n.d.). Retrieved November 25, 2015, from http://www.innocenceproject.org/cases-false-imprisonment/marvin-anderson
Figure 1. Innocenceproject.org (2013). The Causes of Wrongful Conviction, Retrieved from Innocenceproject.org (http://www.innocenceproject.org/causes-wrongful-conviction)
Long, J. (1869). Unpublished Records of Government for the Years 1748-1767 Inclusive Relating Mainly to the Social Condition of Bengal (p. 224). Harvard University.
Pataki, G. (1997, March 1). Death Penalty is a Deterrent. USA Today. Retrieved November 24, 2015.
Raghavan, V. (2005, August 30). Of Mangal Pandey and the Madras Army. Retrieved November 25, 2015, from http://www.thehindu.com/2005/08/30/stories/2005083006941100.htm
Tolkien, J. (1965). The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2d ed.,ch. 2, pg. 85). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Figure 2. Tucker, William. (2001). More Executions, Fewer Murders, Retrieved from Bimmerfest.com (http://www.bimmerfest.com/forums/showthread.php