Gas ‘em, Poke ‘em, or Zap ‘em?
Is the death penalty fair? Is it humane? Does it deter crime? Regardless of religion, political affiliation, gender, or race, American is torn on the subject of capital punishment. From the Salem Witch Trials to Timothy McVeigh, the argument has been raised and refuted. During the time of the Salem trials the problem arose—twenty innocent people had been sentenced to death. Shortly thereafter, it was too late to reverse the decision and the jurors admitted to their mistake. The execution of innocent people is still a major concern for American citizens today.
Capital punishment nearly did not make its way across the pond into American society. In Britain, publicexecutions were festive and frequent in the as early as the 12th century. However, as time progressed, movements to abolish the death penalty gained support throughout Europe. In 1753, Russia became the first important nation to ban the death penalty. The English instilled the death penalty upon America when we were mere colonists. Ben Franklin opposed the death penalty as he helped write the Bill of Rights. In 1846 Michigan was the first to repeal capital punishment. By 1917, ten states had repealed capital punishment.
By the mid 1960’s, the death penalty seemed fated for extinction. In the United States, only seven executions were conducted in 1965, and only one in 1966. Over the next ten years or so, pro- and anti- executioners looked to the Supreme Court for a final ruling on the constitutionality of the death penalty. A verdict came out in 1976, in the case of Gregg v. Georgia, that, “the punishment of death does not violate the Constitution.”
Many call capital punishment unconstitutional and point to the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution for support. The amendment states that, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines be imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishment be inflicted.” Those who oppose the death penalty target the “cruel and unusual” phrase as an explanation of why it is unconstitutional. Since the framers of the Constitution, as with all debates, are no longer with us, and we base the fundamentals of our nation on the words in which that document contains, the legality of the death penalty is subject to interpretation. Since there is ambiguity or lack of preciseness of the Constitution in a modern society, heated debate surrounding this issue has risen in the last 35 years. Since the Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that capital punishment was constitutional, over 1200 people have been executed—more than ¾ of them since 1990.
Those who argue against capital punishment usually use the wrongly accused as examples. Talk of the issue often centers on a study published in 1987 by Hugo Adam Bedau, a philosophy professor at Tufts University, and Michael L. Radelet, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Florida. Bedau and Radelet named 350 persons they said probably had been wrongly convicted of potentially capital crimes in the United States between 1900 and 1987. Most were later pardoned or had their convictions overturned because of new evidence. The authors offer that twenty three people were executed in error.
Those who argue against capital punishment, in many cases, also believe that the punishment given to criminals is intended to provide for some type of rehabilitation. If the criminal is executed than the purpose of a penalty is defeated. They also believe that prison keeps dangerous criminals away from society just as well as eliminating them all together. In contrast, those who support the death penalty argue taking the lives of convicted murderers intimidates potential killers. Unfortunately, according to a recent survey of police chiefs and sheriffs across the country, the death penalty ranks last as a way of reducing violent crime. Patrick V. Murphy, former police chief of New York, Washington, and Detroit says that, “Police chiefs would rather spend their limited crime-fighting dollars on such proven measures as community policing,
more police training, neighborhood watch programs and long prison sentences.”
Many try to fight the government and pursue the reversal of laws concerning the death penalty. Instead of forcing the changes in law, a Roman Catholic nun from Brooklyn, NY, Sister Camille D'Arienzo started the Declaration of Life movement in 1994. The ever-growing movement involves a pledge—they want the killer to be punished, but not killed. “Capital punishment is the only time we punish the person in kind for a crime. We don't rape the rapist or rob the robber, but we kill the killer,” says Sister D'Arienzo, insisting that death is not the answer for society’s ills. Susan Sarandon, Martin Sheen, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo and U.S. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband was gunned down in a New York commuter train, are some of the more recognizable members of the movement.
Many of those who are anti-death penalty believe that the executions themselves are cruel and unusual. More common styles of execution are the gas chamber and lethal injection. Both are considered the “softer side” of approved execution methods. Probably the most talked about method used in the United States is the electric chair. An execution by electric chair can, and has, presented many problems. There have been accounts of people living through the applications of electricity at very high voltage and having to reapply electricity until death. The eyes of the executed are commonly covered so that they do not explode and melt.
Lewis E. Lawes, a former tenured warden at Sing Sing Prison in New York, had this to say about the electric chair, “The prisoner leaps as if to break the strong leather straps that hold him down. Sometimes a thin wisp of smoke breaks itself out from under the helmet that holds the head of the electrode, followed by the faint odor of burning flesh. The body heats to 130 degrees, a little less than rare roast beef. The hands turn red, then white, and the cords of the neck stand out like steel bands.” Supporters of the electric chair say it is no different than being naturally struck by lightning, which is an instant death.
Though it is debated whether the electric chair is cruel and unusual, it can not be compared to the executions in ancient Persia where condemned prisoners were often eaten alive by insects and vermin. During the middle-ages, common executions varied from mutilation, amputation, impaling, flaying, crucifixion, boiling in oil, drawing and quartering, being ripped apart on the rack, and burning at the stake.
Though executions are ongoing in the U.S., there are limits to what crimes are deemed punishable by the death penalty. For example, any murder in the first degree may be worthy of capital punishment. This is another issue that displays how our nation lays its foundation on the constitution and the arguments that it brings about in the matters of interpretation. It is very possible that the rulings on capital punishment may one day change. Although a reported 70% of Americans support the death penalty, chances are it will be a topic that will forever be debated such as abortion, gay marriage, and the legalization of marijuana.
The eighth amendment seemingly states, in one way or another, that capital punishment is acceptable and should remain legal. It can be argued that certain methods, such as the electric chair, can be considered cruel and unusual in some cases. Some feel that the criminal should not be made aware of the date of his or her execution. There are certainly benefits to both sides of this argument; however, with the recent scientific breakthroughs in DNA testing, many argue that we will never know how many prisoners have been innocently executed. We can all agree that human flaw is unavoidable, and there will never be a reasonable argument or justification for the execution of an innocent human being.