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From Manifest Destiny to hangings and slavery, our nation has abandoned the most atrocious practices in response to social evolution.
Our constitution is a living, ever evolving document. As it evolves over time, traditions that violate basic human rights are regularly amended or discarded. Now, it is time to consider the social and political implications of the death penalty. Although the 8th amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, supporters argue it is not only fair but necessary for retribution and deterrence.
Though California is considered a progressive state, its stance on the death penalty is conventional. The death penalty was briefly abolished in 1972 but reinstated in 1977, and it has been in place since then. An attempt to ban the death penalty occurred in 2012 (proposition 34) but failed to pass. Recently, citizens in 2016 had another opportunity to abolish capital punishment (proposition 62); it was defeated once more. California’s attitude remains fixed.
Retribution is one explanation for this historic trend. For example, in 2014, the majority of death penalty advocates believe “an eye for an eye.” In other words, vengeance disguised in justice—emotions runs the United States criminal justice system. In 1976, Justice Thurgood Marshall declares, “the notion that retribution can serve as a moral justification for the sanction of death… I find to be the most disturbing aspect of today’s unfortunate decisions…”
Clearly, retribution has been a long standing incentive for capital punishment. But this is the wrong path to embark upon. The American legal system must operate under rational logic or risk emotional interference.
Others believe the death penalty deters crime. But according to a 2008 survey administered by America’s top criminologists, 88% of the respondents do not believe that the death penalty helps deter homicide. In fact, a poll of 500 police chiefs believe that the top condition required to reduce violent crime is diminishing drug abuse (31%), fostering a better economy (17%), and simplifying court rules (16%); capital punishment is last at 1%.
The United States is the only western industrialized nation with the death penalty. Other nations have abolished this penalty due to a basic understanding of human rights.
In 1997, the U.N. High Commission reported the “abolition of the death penalty contributes to the enhancement of human dignity.” Similarly, Justice William J. Brennan dissents in Gregg v. Georgia, claiming it is a violation of the 8th amendment. He believes, “death is not only an unusually severe punishment…but it treats members of the human race as non humans…[It is] thus inconsistent with the fundamental premise of the Clause…” Regardless, the 5th amendment allows capital punishment as long as the defendant is guaranteed due process of law.
In reality, he or she is not. Tremendous amounts of evidence points to an unfair implementation of the death penalty. First, injections are painfully applied despite the anesthesia. From 1890 to 2010, 3% of U.S. executions were mishandled. Pavulon, a drug used in the lethal injection process, is a kind of anesthesia. However, one of its side effects is skeletal muscle paralysis, so there are times when inmates cannot express their pain from the last shot designed to stop the heart: potassium chloride.
From the moment an individual is sentenced to death to his last breath, the mental torture is unbearable. Defense Attorney, Clarence Darrow describes these tortured inmates “…irresponsible, weak, diseased” and “[penned]… in a cell, checking off the days and the hours and the minutes, until they will be…” killed.
Another horrifying matter is the arbitrariness of the death penalty. Justice Stewart claims, “it is cruel and unusual the same way getting struck by lightning is cruel and unusual.” In other words, people are randomly chosen to die. It may depend on the expertise of the defendant’s lawyer, or the amount of media coverage, but often it is because of race. In Furman v. Georgia 1972, the Supreme Court indicated that the death penalty discriminated against minorities. States were subsequently required to change their death penalty laws to eliminate discrimination.
These new standards were approved by 1976 Gregg v. Georgia. The court considered the trial fair and sentenced Gregg to death for armed robbery and murder. However, recent evidence shows otherwise. Bias is present in many cases.
According to a 2012 University of Washington study, jurors in Washington are found to be three times more likely to impose capital punishment on a black defendant than a white defendant. 82% of death penalty studies reveal the victim’s race influences chances of conviction. In fact, defendants who murder whites are more likely indicted than those who kill African Americans.
Clearly, the death penalty is not only cruel but also biased. It takes away the right to a fair and equal trial.
But perhaps “the bleakest fact of all is that the death penalty is imposed in some cases upon defendants who are actually innocent,” Justice William Brennan states. Law professor Samuel Gross recognized 4.1% of inmates were found innocent after their death. Since 1973, 155 death row inmates were released in light of new evidence. Even if there is only a 1% chance the defendant is innocent, it is better to let the individual loose than impose the death penalty.
If neither moral nor rational appeals persuade the abolishment of capital punishment, perhaps an economic appeal? Since 1978, citizens in California have paid more than 4 billion dollars in tax money for the death penalty. In fact, the costs for death row inmates are higher than for life imprisoned inmates.
Though we have gradually revised and removed long standing traditions in violation of human rights, the death penalty is still prominent despite its cruel, arbitrary, and biased system. But even it has been amended multiple times in response to our evolving constitution. For example, in Atkins v. Virginia 2002, defenders with mental retardation could no longer be executed. And in 2005, Roper v. Simmons decided juveniles are exempt from capital punishment.
The next step in our social evolution should be the abolishment of the death penalty altogether.
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