(Written and presented for Mrs. Wingfield’s English 11AS class at Liberty High School.)
It was late the night of June 4, 1980. Catherine Johnson was walking down an alley in New York City, heading home from a night at the disco. She never made it to her destination. On the way, she was brutally raped and murdered. She never saw who it was that took her life. The next day, her friends and her family reported her missing. The police found her battered and bloody body in a dumpster, only a block from her home. After a brief investigation, the police arrested a man by the name Shawn Whitely and charged him with the crime. He had no alibi and witnesses placed him in the area at the time. He was held and charges were pressed. Several months later, he was brought to trial and convicted of first degree murder. His punishment, death. For the next 10 years, he waited in agony through the appeals process on death row until finally, to the delight of Catherine’s family, he was executed in mid 1990.
Several years passed. In 1995, Shawn’s family—who were completely convinced of his innocence—hired a private company to compare DNA evidence from the crime with the blood of the executed. Tests proved within a month that, without a doubt, Shawn was innocent. But it was too late to take back the punishment, Shawn was long dead.
This should never happen. The story may be fictional, but events like this may occur more than we would like to think. Since the 1976, more than six dozen—that’s 72—innocent death row inmates were released at some point during the appeals process before their execution (http://www.deathpenalty.net). How many were not so lucky?
I—History of Capital Punishment
Capital punishment, or the legal infliction of the death penalty, has been used as a punishment for a number of crimes since before the Code of Hammurabi written in 1750 BC (Encarta). It has been used in almost every nation from the Roman Empire to Germany to the United States at some point in history as punishment for anything from murder down to robbery. Methods of execution have included the now-unused crucifixion, boiling in oil, drawing and quartering, impalement, beheading, burning alive, crushing, tearing asunder, stoning, and drowning (Encarta). In modern times, the methods of electrocution, firing squad (only in Idaho and Utah), gas chamber, hanging (only in Montana and Washington), and lethal injection are used (http://sun.soci.niu.edu/~critcrim/dp/states.using.txt). As the world has grown, most places have outlawed the use of capital punishment. Almost all of Europe, Canada, and Australia have made this punishment illegal (http://www.deathpenalty.net), as well as the states of Alaska, Washington, DC, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconson (http://sun.soci.niu.edu/~critcrim/dp/states.using.txt).
The death penalty is supposed to be a deterrent. The threat of death is supposed to prevent people from killing. Apparently, this theory is wrong. Adjacent states where one has capital punishment and the other does not show that there is very little or no difference between the murder rates. There is absolutely no evidence to show that death is a more powerful deterrent than long-term imprisonment (Encarta). Also, when a state passes or repeals a capital punishment law, there is no significant change in the murder rate. This all shows that the death penalty does not serve as a deterrent, and therefore is not a viable alternative to long-term imprisonment.
III—Religion and Law
In 1976, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the death penalty was constitutional (Wallet Cards . . . ). Despite this, we must look directly at the Constitution of the United States of America for guidance, rather than a court’s interpretation of it. The Eigth Amendment to the constitution, part of the infamous Bill of Rights, prohibits the government from subjecting criminals to ‘cruel and unusual punishment’. Well, if a man starves his disobedient dog to death, he will most likely be charged with cruelty to animals—how can we say that electrocuting a disobedient human is any different?
Now on a religious note, the 6th commandment from God to the people of Israel states, in simple language, “Thou shalt not kill” (http://members.xoom.com/TheTen/sixth.html). There is no further explanation. The terminology is simple, and should not be misunderstood—under the law of God, it is a sin to kill. Whether you are a person, a government, or a church. No organization or person has the right to take the life of anyone, in any circumstance. Sister D’Arienzo, a Roman Catholic nun from Brooklyn, New York, calls capital punishment revenge, and says, “Hatred and revenge destroy the human spirit” (Wallet Cards . . . ).
IV—Punishment in Kind
Do we rape rapists? Do we rob robbers? Do we expose ourselves to indecent exposers? Of course not! That would be ludicrous, and society would degrade into chaos. But we do kill killers. “Capital punishment is the only time we punish the person in kind for a crime,” says Sister D’Arienzo (Wallet Cards . . . ). For some reason, murder has been set aside as somehow different—however it is a crime just like any other crime, and punishment for crimes needs to be consistent in a society. We cannot morally as a nation use revenge and anger as punishments for the ultimate crime, because we have recognized with all other crimes that such behavior is childish and not befitting of a world superpower.
The Death Penalty is a punishment fit for a nation like Iraq. A country where hypocrisy, immorality, and immaturity are commonplace and accepted. We live in the United States of America, a great nation. As a country, we need to realize that the eye-for-an-eye mentality needs to be long forgotten along with such other immature behaviors as slavery. We, after time, realized our mistakes with our treatment of our minority citizens, and now we need to realize the mistakes we’ve made with our criminals. It is nobody’s place, not mine, not yours, not the courts, and not the government’s place to take a life. Life is a sacred thing that should be preserved at all times—even the lives of those we might rather see dead. “We cannot cure murder by murder,” William Randolph Hearst once said (Wekesser 49). Mr. Hearst is right, there is no reason to believe that the killing of killers will deter or prevent others from committing similar crimes. Thomas Matt Osborne made the point that almost all murders are committed in the heat of passion, at moments when a murderer is not reasoning. If he is not reasoning, he is not thinking of the consequences or of the law. And even if they were, a murder almost never thinks that he is going to be caught (Wekesser 51). With that said, what of those who are killed mistakenly? We do not know how many innocent human beings have had their entire lives, their entire future, taken from them wrongly as punishment for a crime they had never even committed. Can we take that risk with something as sacred and precious as human life? As moral creatures, we cannot. “We know enough to say that some crimes require severe punishment. We do not know enough to say when anyone should die” (Meehan 185).
* * *Works Cited
Bedau, Hugo Adam. “Capital Punishment.” Microsoft Encarta 97. 1997 Edition
Death Penalty.net. Internet: http://www.deathpenalty.net.
Demographics of the Death Penalty. Internet:
Meehan, Mary. “The Death Penalty in the United States: Ten Reasons to Oppose It.” Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Political Issues. 1993.
Sixth Commandment. Internet: http://members.xoom.com/TheTen/sixth.htm.
“Wallet Cards: A Way to Say No to the Death Penalty.” The Washington Post 29 Nov. 1998: A24.
Wekesser, Carol, editor. The Death Penalty: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1991.