Society, in general, agrees that the taking of an innocent life is an unforgivable act, and that the rape of children is particularly heinous. I will argue that all persons convicted of the crime of murder or the rape of a child under ten years of age should be given a manditory death penalty.
Capital punishment is not only justifiable but is morally correct and should be the mandatory sentence for such crimes once an individual is found guilty. It would be neither unjust nor immoral to execute such an individual. It is not logical or rational to believe that a person raised in our society does not know that the crimes of murder or the rape of a child will not be tolerated. Regardless of an individuals background or socio-economic status, individual choices lead to results that carry personal responsibility. It is inappropriate to make excuses for these criminals simply because they were not reared in well-to-do circumstances. neglected, or perhaps suffered abuse as a child. None of these forced them to make the choice to commit the crime. As stated by Ernest van den Haag, “by committing the crime, the criminal volunteered to assume the risk.” (1)If an individual commits the crime of murder, or rapes a child, that person has forfeited any moral right to continue to live, even if imprisoned for life. Their victim had no choice and no chance to live a fruitful, productive life. Why should society be required to pay the costs associated with imprisonment? A society, which values the lives of its citizens, has the right to exercise capital punishment for those who have been convicted after due process of law.
The U.S. Constitution provides for punishment of capital crimes so there is certainly no trouble with it in the law. However, some of the most impassioned arguments against capital punishment are the possibility of convicting the wrong person, and discriminatory application of the law. Abolitionists also argue that we should base on justice system on reform and rehabilitation.
First, the possibility of convicting an innocent person is often cited as an argument that the death penalty is unjust. One Internet source indicates that 350 people were wrongly convicted of homicide or capital rape from 1900- 1985. (2) (It should be noted that the article does not specify how many of these individuals were later released.) In our text, Ernest van den Haag refers to a study conducted by Hugo Bedau that found that of 7000 executions during that same period, only 25 were purportedly innocent. (Ibid. p.286) The execution of an innocent person appears much less a risk than the risk that a person guilty of this type of violence would repeat the crime. Criminals kill people knowing that they will live and either spend the rest of their lives in prison or get out in 10 to 20 years. Consistent application of the capital punishment laws would have a deterrent effect on some potential murderers if not all. While states that do carry death penalty provisions significantly outnumber those that do not, there appears to be a certain reluctance to apply the laws. As a result, many violent criminals no longer fear the court system.
Further, capital punishment laws have undergone many decades of review by the highest courts in the country and are anything but capriciously imposed. A further argument against the “innocent are convicted” is found in a review of the extensive appeal system that has been mandated by the courts that may take as much as fourteen years to complete. Even if this were a legitimate concern, the chances of an innocent person being wrongly convicted are very slim.
The second argument, discriminatory application holds that a disproportional number of non-whites receive the death penalty upon conviction, in particular, a black convicted of murdering a white. This is really an argument against a flawed justice system that favors one class of citizens over another. Unequal distribution among the guilty is irrelevant to the morality of the punishment. The system is far from perfect but can be improved. In the past, women were much less likely to be executed than men, and we are all aware that if you have enough money to hire good lawyers, you have a better chance to evade punishment. Haag (ibid.) argues that recent data indicates that the discriminatory aspect against blacks was primarily due to capital punishment for rape. Additionally, in recent years, the once prevalent trend of more non-whites than whites being executed, and more men than women, seems to be reversing. For example, in recent months I recall reading about four persons executed in the United States, two were women, and one was a white male. Working to improve the criminal justice system so that everyone who deserves the death penalty gets it, would ensure justice and equality.
Lastly, some would argue against the death penalty by claiming that our criminal justice system should be based on reform rather than punishment. Even without arguing specifically opposite this point, it is almost self-evident that the criminal who can be reformed is not the problem. The real problem is the criminal you cannot reform.
It becomes simple to say, “just give him a life sentence”. However, the problem is more complicated. Long prison terms mean large and costly institutions that must, sooner or later, be paid for by all of us. Some may argue that killing such a murderer violates his human rights and would suggest life imprisonment as a better alternative. Even from the point of view of the individual, natural life imprisonment as an alternative to capital punishment is apt to be no better than the substitution of a slow death for a quick one. In both cases, a convicted murderers only way of paying his debt to society is through dying.
In this paper, I have argued that the death penalty is a necessary form of retribution–the only adequate means of expressing society’s condemnation of a particular crime–and a necessary deterrent against this same crime. Furthermore, it is necessary for a just and effective system of criminal justice. The justification for capital punishment is based on retribution as well as deterrence. It is a just penalty for a set of horrid crimes as well as being a demonstrably effective means of protecting potential victims.
1 “The Ultimate Punishment: A Defense”, Ernest van den Haag, p.287
ETHICS: Theory and Contemporary Issues, Barbara MacKinnon,
Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1995
“Capital Punishment: Our Duty or Our Doom?”, Ethics Connection