This assignment instructed students to write a persuasive essay which argues for a specific viewpoint or a specific action to be taken on a societal issue. I argued for a specific stance to be taken on the issue of the death penalty.
The audience for this essay is the opinion section of the Sunday New York Times. This publication has a wide readership. The largest percentage of readers are between the ages of 35 and 44, and the majority of readers have either a college degree or a graduate degree. This essay argues for a question of value.
The death penalty is an issue that has the United States quite divided. While there are many supporters of it, there is also a large amount of opposition. Currently, there are thirty-three states in which the death penalty is legal and seventeen states that have abolished it (Death Penalty Information Center). I believe the death penalty should be legal throughout the nation. There are many reasons as to why I believe the death penalty should be legalized in all states, including deterrence, retribution, and morality; and because opposing arguments do not hold up, I will refute the ideas that the death penalty is unconstitutional, irrevocable mistakes are made, and that there is a disproportionality of race and income level.
The use of capital punishment greatly deters citizens from committing crimes such as murder. Many people’s greatest fear is death; therefore if they know that death is a possible consequence for their actions, they are less likely to perform such actions. Ernest van den Haag, a professor at Fordham University, wrote about the issue of deterrence:
“…capital punishment is likely to deter more than other punishments because people fear death more than anything else. They fear most death deliberately inflicted by law and scheduled by the courts….Hence, the threat of the death penalty may deter some murderers who otherwise might not have been deterred. And surely the death penalty is the only penalty that could deter prisoners already serving a life sentence and tempted to kill a guard, or offenders about to be arrested and facing a life sentence.” (Death Penalty Curricula for High School)
van den Haag brings forth the argument that capital punishment is the strongest deterrent society has against murder, which has been proven in many studies. “Since society has the highest interest in preventing murder, it should use the strongest punishment available to deter murder…” (Death Penalty Curricula for High School). In a study conducted by Isaac Ehrlich in 1973, it was found that for each execution of a criminal seven potential victim’s lives were saved (Death Penalty Curricula for High School). This was due to other possible murderers being deterred from committing murder after realizing thatother criminals are executed for their crimes. Ehrlich’s argument was also backed up by studies following his that had similar results. Capital punishment also acts as a deterrent for recidivism (the rate at which previously convicted criminals return to committing crimes after being released); if the criminal is executed he has no opportunity to commit crimes again. Some may argue that there is not enough concrete evidence to use deterrence as an argument for the death penalty. The reason some evidence may be inconclusive is that the death penalty often takes a while to be carried out; some prisoners sit on death row for years before being executed. This can influence the effectiveness of deterrence because punishments that are carried out swiftly are better examples to others. Although the death penalty is already effective at deterring possible criminals, it would be even more effective if the legal process were carried out more quickly instead of having inmates on death row for years.
The death penalty also carries out retribution justly. “Deserved punishment protects society morally by restoring this just order, making the wrongdoer pay a price equivalent to the harm he has done.” (Budziszewski). When someone commits a crime it disturbs the order of society; these crimes take away lives, peace, and liberties from society. Giving the death penalty as a punishment simply restores order to society and adequately punishes the criminal for his wrongdoing. Retribution also serves justice for murder victims and their families. Some may see this as revenge, but this retribution is not motivated by malice, rather it is motivated by the need for justice and the principle of lex talionis (“an eye for an eye”) (Green). This lack of malice is proven in the simple definition of retribution: “retribution is a state sponsored, rational response to criminality that is justified given that the state is the victim when a crime occurs” (“Justifications for Capital Punishment). The death penalty puts the scales of justice back in balance after they were unfairly tipped towards the criminal.
The morality of the death penalty has been hotly debated for many years. Those opposed to the death penalty say that it is immoral for the government to take the life of a citizen under any circumstance. This argument is refuted by Immanuel Kant who put forth the idea that, “a society that is not willing to demand a life of somebody who has taken somebody else’s life is simply immoral” (ProCon.org). It is immoral to not properly punish a person who has committed such a horrendous crime. The criminal is also executed humanely; in no way is he subjected to torture or any form of cruelty. All states that use the death penalty use lethal injection; the days of subjecting a prisoner to hanging or the electric chair are long gone in the US. Inmates are first given a large dose of an anesthetic so they do not feel any pain (Bosner); this proves that the process is made as humane as possible so the inmates do not physically suffer. Although the issue of morality is very personal for many people, it is important to see the facts and realize that capital punishment does take morality into account and therefore is carried out in the best way possible.
The eighth amendment to the United States Constitution prevents cruel and unusual punishment. Many opponents of capital punishment say that execution is cruel and unusual punishment and therefore violates the Constitution. As was stated earlier, the recipient of the death penalty is treated humanely and is not tortured in any way, shape, or form. After the anesthetic is administered the person feels no pain; the only part of the process that could be considered painful is when the IV is inserted, but that is done in hospitals on a daily basis and no one is calling it unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the death penalty as constitutional in cases they have presided over. In the case of Furman v. Georgia the court stated, “The punishment of death is not cruel, within the meaning of that word as used in the Constitution. It implies there is something more inhuman and barbarous, than the mere extinguishment of life” (Lowe). The Supreme Court has not found capital punishment to be unconstitutional, and therefore this argument for abolition is invalid.
Another argument put forth by death penalty abolitionists is the possibility of executing an innocent person. Many people that argue this overestimate how often this happens, it is an extremely rare occurrence and has not happened since the death penalty was reintroduced in 1976. Steven D. Stewart, the Prosecuting Attorney for Clark County Indiana, very effectively refutes this argument:
“…No system of justice can produce results which are 100% certain all the time. Mistakes will be made in any system which relies upon human testimony for proof. We should be vigilant to uncover and avoid such mistakes. Our system of justice rightfully demands a higher standard for death penalty cases. However, the risk of making a mistake with the extraordinary due process applied in death penalty cases is very small, and there is no credible evidence to show that any innocent persons have been executed at least since the death penalty was reactivated in 1976…The inevitability of a mistake should not serve as grounds to eliminate the death penalty any more than the risk of having a fatal wreck should make automobiles illegal…” (ProCon.org)
Stewart points out that death penalty cases are held to a much higher standard. Due process in these cases takes much longer so that the court can be absolutely sure that the person is guilty before sentencing him to execution. This helps to eliminate any errors that could lead to executing the wrong person. He also points out that although there is a small possibility for mistakes to be made, this does not mean capital punishment should be abolished. If everything that had the potential for harmful mistakes were outlawed, society would be extremely crippled.
It is true that there is disproportionality when it comes to the races and classes that most frequently receive the death penalty. It has been proven that minorities and those with lower income levels are overrepresented on death row. This is not due to discrimination; this is due to the higher rate at which these groups commit crime (ProCon.org). It has been argued that poverty breeds criminality; if this is true then it makes sense that those at a lower income level would more frequently be sentenced to execution than those at higher income levels (ProCon.org). It has also been proven that minorities are disproportionately poor, and therefore they would also be more likely to receive the death penalty. Ernest van den Haag said it best:
“Punishments are imposed on persons, not on…economic groups. Guilt is personal. The only relevant question is: does the person to be executed deserve the punishment? Whether or not others deserved the same punishment, whatever the economic or racial group, have avoided execution is irrelevant.” (ProCon.org)
It does not matter what race or economic status a person is, if he is guilty he must receive the appropriate punishment, which in some cases may be the death penalty.
Capital punishment can be a difficult topic to approach because people tend to have extreme views on it. The death penalty is an asset to society; it deters potential criminals as well as serves retribution to criminals, and is in no way immoral. The arguments against the death penalty often do not hold up when examined more closely. It is important that the nation is united on this issue, rather than having some states use capital punishment while others do not. The death penalty can be an extremely useful tool in sentencing criminals that have committed some of the worst crimes known to society. It is imperative that we begin to pass legislation making capital punishment legal throughout the United States so that justice can be served properly.
Bosner, Kevin. “How Lethal Injection Works.” How Stuff Works. Web. 29 March 2013. <http://people.howstuffworks.com/lethal-injection5.htm>
Budziszewski, J. “Capital Punishment: The Case for Justice.” OrthodoxyToday.org. August 2004. Web. 29 March 2013. <http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles4/BudziszewskiPunishment.php>
Death Penalty Curricula for High School. “The Death Penalty Prevents Future Murders: Agree.” Michigan State University Comm Tech Lab & Death Penalty Information Center. Web. 30 March 2013. <http://deathpenaltycurriculum.org/node/6?>
Death Penalty Information Center. “States With and Without the Death Penalty”. Death Penalty Information Center. 2013. Web. 28 March 2013. <http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/states-and-without-death-penalty>
Green, Melissa S. “The Death Penalty: Specific Issues.” Justice Center, University of Alaska Anchorage. 24 March 2005. Web. 28 March 2013. <http://justice.uaa.alaska.edu/death/issues.html>
“Justifications for Capital Punishment.” Justiceblind.com. Web. 30 March 2013. <http://www.justiceblind.com/death/dpsupport.html>
Lowe, Wesley. “Pro Death Penalty Webpage.” Wesleylowe.com. Web. 30 March 2013. <http://www.wesleylowe.com/cp.html>
ProCon.org. ProCon.org. Web. 28 March 2013. <procon.org>