Is Capital Punishment Defensible?
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Is capital punishment defensible?
Submitted to: MH
In partial fulfillment of requirement for the course
Use of English
Submitted by: TDH
June 13, 2003.
Morgan Hill, a man convicted of murdering a nineteen-year-old woman, was the last person to be killed by the islands judicial system some fourteen years ago. Our government suspended the death penalty in order that amendments could be made to the laws of our country, amendments that would protect the rights of its citizens, and ensure that the perpetrators and victims of crimes are fairly treated. Recent increases in the islands crime rate however, especially in the area of homicides, has led the government to again be thinking about reinstating capital punishment as a means to deter people from performing these criminal acts. Information obtained from polls conducted on the issue of whether capital punishment should be re-established or not, has revealed that approximately ninety-five percent of the citizens of Jamaica are affirmative regarding this concern (Come back to Jamaica, hangman 2001). A critical examination of the arguments in support of this position is therefore warranted.
“Capital punishment is the infliction of death by an authorized public authority as punishment for a crime” (Oxford English Reference Dictionary 2002). The same dictionary also states that an act becomes defensible when it is justifiably supported by arguments. My task, therefore, is to evaluate how justifiable are the arguments purported for inflicting death as punishment for crime.
Charles Colson quotes from C. S. Lewiss classic essay, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment”, in which Lewis writes: “To be punished, however severely, because we have deserved it, because we ought to have known better, is to be treated as a human person made in Gods image.” Lewis, in giving his argument for punishment in general and capital punishment in particular, suggests it would be disrespectful not to award man – a rationally thinking being who knows he is responsible for his behaviour – with what he justly deserves in relation to that which he has done. The line of reasoning advanced by those who are supporters of the death penalty is that of, “an eye for an eye” and no more; “a life for a life” and no less. However murders are not reflective of the general population, except that they are human. Murdering is deviant, improbable and unpredictable behaviour. It is, therefore, not likely that before committing a crime, a murderer has nightmares about the prospects of a murder trial, a conviction, and death by whatever mean. The thought might not even enter into their thoughts (Hook 1989, 42). It is true that people do commit murders that are premeditated and orchestrated. Nevertheless, Lewiss position is based on the false assumption that all, who commit murders, are rational in their thinking.
The reasoning that is most often used to support the justifiability of capital punishment is that of general deterrence. General deterrence, according to Zehr, is the idea that punishing an offender deters others from committing similar crimes (1998, 2). However, if murders are often committed in moments of passion, when extreme emotion overcomes reason (Amnesty International 1989), then the basis for this argument rests on poor logic. Another factor that speaks to the frailty of this stance is that statistics have failed to empirically show that capital punishment, as a measure of deterrence, really works. Thus writes William H. Baker, in his book entitled “Worthy of Death”, which was published in 1973:
Statistical finding and case studies converge to disprove the claim that the death penalty has any special deterrent value. The belief in the death penalty as a deterrent is repudiated by statistical studies, since they are in no way correlated with differences in the use of the death penalty.
Still, there are others who will argue that the death penalty, as a deterrent to crime, is not the issue. They purport that capital punishment is retribution for crime. As a punishment, they argue, the death penalty is one hundred percent (100%) effective because the prisoner dies every time it is used.
Retributive justice, the next major argument used to support capital punishment, maintains that certain offenders must be killed, not to prevent or deter crime, but because of the demands of Justice (Amnesty International 1989, 16). There position is that the mere fact that a crime is committed demands an appropriate punishment. This punishment can be as simple as a slap on the hand, or as severe as death. Opponents of this position have, however, put forward the notion that retribution is nothing more than seeking revenge. They argue that, retributive justice is irrational, and borders on moral grounds. The state would not kidnap someone who has been charged for kidnapping, as a rational punishment of his crime. Also, it would be morally unacceptable and grossly irrational, for the state to rape someone as a means of retribution for the crime of rape. Consequently, killing someone for the sheer fact that he has murdered, is just as irrational and immoral.
Supporters of capital punishment also attempt to defend their position by arguing incapacitation. According to this argument, a prisoner must be killed (and thus “incapacitated”) in order to ensure that he or she never repeats the crime (Amnesty International 1989, 14). In a bid to defend this position, Casey Carmical, in his paper entitled “The Death Penalty: Morally defensible?”, presented the following finding from research conducted by professor Paul Cassell:
Out of a sample of 164 paroled Georgia murderers, eight committed subsequent murders within seven years of release. A study of twenty Oregon murderers released on parole in 1979 found that one (i.e., five percent) had committed a subsequent homicide within five years of release. Another study found that of 11,404 persons originally convicted of “willful homicide” and released during 1965 and 1974, 34 were returned to prison