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Op-Ed: The Case Against the Death Penalty

“With every cell of my being and with every fiber of my memory I oppose the death penalty in all forms. I do not believe any civilized society should be at the service of death. I don't think it's human to become an agent of the angel of death.”

-Eli Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz concentration camp

Please note that this article is intended to provide factual coverage of events and is NOT intended to express political opinion. Any and all opinions that may be implied do not represent the official stances of the Poudre Press, Poudre School District, or Poudre High School.

It has long been a tradition in the experience of humans to punish offenses, mostly those of a violent nature, by putting the perpetrator to death. The world's first legal code, “the Ur-Nammu” called for capital punishment for the crimes of murder, rape, robbery, and even adultery. The famous Code of Hammurabi advocated for an “eye for an eye”, going far beyond the modern death penalty. In the United States, the death penalty has existed preceding it's conception, accused Salem witches were executed on certainly shaky grounds that would not clear any bar in a court today. Shortly after American independence, the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791, which guaranteed due process under the law (essentially means you must be treated fairly by the legal system in all steps of the process). With the 8th amendment declaring that “[no] cruel and unusual punishments [shall be] inflicted.” These constitutional protections provided citizens with a great deal of protection in the event where they are prosecuted by the government. If a citizen is wrongly convicted they have a right to request a new trial if new evidence makes the light of day, our court system allows appeals if a person believes that they were wronged by a lower court. We treasure these momentous aspects of our judicial system as they provide a transparent, equitable process for everyone in our nation, as these protections do not exist in many nations. However, is the death penalty a flaw in the system?

Many people and organizations in the United States believe that the death penalty violates the U.S. Constitution including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). This is through the previously mentioned Constitutional provisions providing for Due Process and Cruel and Unusual Punishment. The death penalty has been called cruel because “only a random sampling of convicted murderers in the United States receive a sentence of death.” and that “ It is unusual because only the United States of all the western industrialized nations engages in this punishment.” This suggests that unless the death penalty was an internationally western recognized form of punishment that was applied at a 100% consistent rate, then it would be considered unconstitutional. It is always worth to note that no system cannot operate without any human error, it's natural for errors to occur in life. Errors in the event of imprisonment can be rectified, however the question must be asked, what of the event where an innocent person is executed? Leading directly to the next point - how can due process exist with the death penalty? A dead individual cannot appeal a sentence that is irreversible. Whereas life imprisonment will always allow due process if necessary, the death penalty will only allow it up till the point where an individual has been executed. The ACLU put it as”[The death penalty] forever [deprives] an individual of the opportunity to benefit from new evidence or new laws that might warrant the reversal of a conviction.”

Perhaps you may be of the mind that while civil liberties remain of great importance but in the end security is more important, and that the death penalty is the greatest deterrent that currently exists. Of course this is your right to hold this worldview, yet a great advocate for dealing with the detriment of crime would be law enforcement. Polling from police chiefs has consistently held that they hold the death penalty among the lowest possible levels of deterrents in dealing with crime. When asked on what should be done to reduce violent crime less than 2% mentioned the death penalty, and it fell behind 25 other advocated methods. Rather than the death penalty they advocated for greater court funding, greater police funding, better educational opportunities, and reducing drug use. According to the Death Penalty Information Center “two-thirds of police chiefs [disagree] that the death penalty significantly reduces the number of homicides and the equal number who say that murderers do not think about the range of punishments before committing homicides.” Some would go further and say that it jeopardizes the function of law enforcement such as Robert Morgenthau a former Manhattan District Attorney quoted as saying “The death penalty actually hinders the fight against crime.”

In concluding this writing I believe a response to the Heritage Foundation’s article “The Death Penalty Is Appropriate” is in order. As was argued earlier on the issue that the Constitution prohibited the death penalty, the foundation notes that in Gregg v. Georgia (1976) the Supreme Court found that the death penalty did not necessarily violate the Constitution. However it should be noted that different legal opinions exist, and the legal principle of stare decisis (the premise that courts should respect legal precedent) while important is not absolute, with many landmark cases (a case creating a significant new legal principal) contradicting stare decisis and overturning cases, this includes Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and Lawrence v. Texas (2003). Since Gregg, the Supreme Court has imposed a variety of restrictions on the death penalty, such as prohibitions on those considered legally insane, those who committed crimes preceding the age of 18, and on any crimes that did not involve murder or treason. The point being that the legal precedent of Gregg could easily change based upon who is on the court, and how society's viewpoint of the death penalty changes. 

The Heritage Foundation goes on to claim that the death penalty “serves three legitimate penological objectives: deterrence, specific deterrence, and retribution.” Going through these in order, the issue of deterrence as discussed earlier has shown that the professionals in law enforcement and the criminal justice system, going as far back as the 90s believe that the death penalty has no place as it holds no bearing into the thought process of violent criminals. The suggestion that it remains a general deterrent is little more than media speculation. Now, specific deterrence sounds similar to deterrence, the difference according to the Heritage Foundation is “the person who is subjected to the death penalty won’t be alive to kill other people.” The premise of this argument seems flawed, as is not the purpose of imprisonment to ensure society is safe from criminals? Why is only the death penalty necessary for this requirement to be fulfilled, does this mean every violent crime should result in death? The final point is retribution, the idea that society has imposed its moral judgment through its elected Representatives, as 29 States, and the Federal Government allow the death penalty. This is a fine point, but that also means that at any time new Representatives may change the laws to undermine the penalty, and under this view then that is just as fine as a State allowing the death penalty. 

The death penalty is controversial, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion. If you find you want another view on why we should have the death penalty, make sure to check out the other article in the Poudre Press on why it's necessary.  

Please note that this article is intended to provide factual coverage of events and is NOT intended to express political opinion. Any and all opinions that may be implied do not represent the official stances of the Poudre Press, Poudre School District, or Poudre High School.


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