Chapter 1: Is Capital Punishment Ethical?
Chapter 1 Preface
Most societies at some time or other have endorsed the use of the death penalty. Ancient Roman and Judaic cultures practiced retributive justice, adhering to the rule of “an eye for an eye.” The United States inherited its use of capital punishment from European settlers in the seventeenth century, promoting the notion that heinous crimes deserved severe punishment. In the eighteenth century, however, philosophers began to question the ethics of the death penalty. Italian criminologist Cesare Beccaria condemned capital punishment as an ineffective and grossly inhumane deterrent to crime. Conversely, German philosopher Immanuel Kant claimed that execution was the fairest punishment for murder, arguing that even guilt-ridden killers should die in order to gain release from their anguish. Such arguments concerning the ethics of capital punishment continue to spark controversy to the present day.
Contemporary supporters of capital punishment maintain that execution is the most suitable penalty for those who have deliberately committed murder. They contend that the principles of modern criminal justice require a murderer to face a punishment that is comparable to the harm caused by his crime. Moreover, supporters argue, the death penalty enables society to uphold the worth of innocent human life and to express its justified moral outrage at the crime of murder. In the words of criminal justice author Robert James Bidinotto, “America was founded on the...
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Capital Punishment Is Moral
On March 25, 1996, officials of the Florida Department of Corrections strapped condemned killer Pedro Medina into the electric chair at Florida State Prison. Like 38 other infamous murderers since 1976, including serial killer Ted Bundy, Medina would meet his end in the embrace of “Old Sparky.”
This time, however, the 74-year-old oak electric chair more than lived up to its grisly name—and in the process, re-opened the age-old debate over the morality of the death penalty.
After the black leather mask was lowered over Medina’s face, the first of three surges of 2,000 volts of electricity jolted his body. He lurched back in the chair. Suddenly flames shot up from the mask, and burned for perhaps ten seconds. The death chamber filled with smoke.
Death penalty opponents immediately cited the gruesome nature of the execution to call once again for an end to capital punishment.
“It was brutal, terrible,” declared witness Michael Minerva. “It was a burning alive, literally.” Minerva—a defense lawyer for a taxpayer-supported state agency that defends death row inmates—demanded that the governor halt all pending executions.
“When you torture someone to death,” added Robyn Blumner, executive director of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, “the Eighth Amendment [barring “cruel and unusual” punishment] clearly has been violated.”
Of course, Medina...
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Capital Punishment Is Reasonable
No civilized nation ever takes the death penalty for granted; two recent cases force us to consider it yet again. A Texas woman, Karla Faye Tucker, murdered two people with a pickaxe, was said to have repented in prison, and was put to death. A Montana man, Theodore Kaczynski, murdered three people with mail bombs, did not repent, and struck a bargain with the Justice Department; he pleaded guilty and will not be executed. (He also attempted to murder others and succeeded in wounding some, myself included.) Why did we execute the penitent and spare the impenitent? However we answer this question, we surely have a duty to ask it.
And we ask it—I do, anyway—with a sinking feeling, because in modern America, moral upside-downness is a specialty of the house. To eliminate race prejudice we discriminate by race. We promote the cultural assimilation of immigrant children by denying them schooling in English. We throw honest citizens in jail for child abuse, relying on testimony so phony any child could see through it. Orgasm studies are okay in public high schools but the Ten Commandments are not. We make a point of admiring manly women and womanly men. None of which has anything to do with capital punishment directly, but it all obliges us to approach any question about morality in modern America in the larger context of this country’s desperate confusion about elementary distinctions.
Why Execute Murderers?
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Capital Punishment Is Not Barbaric
Opponents of the death penalty have made an astonishing discovery—execution hurts. Armed with this vital information, they hope to win over the 75 to 80 percent of us who support capital punishment.
They are convinced that recent executions in Utah and Delaware—one by firing squad, the other by hanging—will strengthen their case. Lethal injection is said to be antiseptic. It doesn’t fully convey the horror of the state taking a human life.
But the brutality of these archaic forms of execution cannot fail to change the public’s mind, bleeding hearts bleated.
“The first reaction is disbelief,” says Bill Breedlove of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “People are disgusted by it.”
The media help the cause. Stories focused on how many minutes had passed before Billy Bailey (hanged in Delaware for the shotgun slaying of an elderly couple) was pronounced dead. We were treated to graphic accounts of bullets ripping into the body of John Albert Taylor, convicted of the murder-rape of an 11-year-old girl.
Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (a counter-ACLU) was not moved. “Most of us, who will eventually die a lingering death in a nursing home, won’t go as easily as these killers,” he observed.
“People really don’t care if a murderer is hanged or shot,” Rushford added. Some were doubtless overjoyed that Taylor faced a firing...
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The State Has a Right to Execute Violent Criminals
The popular film Dead Man Walking sent more than a few ripples through the country on the topic of the death penalty. Despite the film’s well-taken point about God’s mercy, its sentimental appeal only convinced me that most arguments against the death penalty are ill-founded.
Not the overt emotional plea, the gruesomeness of the execution itself, or the film’s attempt—through the eyes of Sr. Helen Prejean—to humanize the killer shook my confidence in the state’s right to execute its most flagrant criminals.
The pope’s 1999 plea to “have mercy on [death-row criminal] Mr. Mease,” whispered in the ear of Missouri’s governor, unexpectedly shook me. The differences between the film and the pope’s witness are many, some obvious, but the one that struck me was its cool, moral logic.
Capital Punishment Is Not an Intrinsic Evil
Bear in mind what the pope did not say: He did not question the state’s right to impose the death penalty, as clearly stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He did not say the death penalty was an intrinsic evil, on a moral par with abortion and euthanasia.
The pope’s argument, in short, is not against the death penalty but against the use of the death penalty. This distinction has been obscured, and will continue to be, in the media discussions of the pope’s 1999 visit to the U.S.
Our Holy Father is leaving untouched the Catholic...
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Capital Punishment Is Not Morally Justified
When faced with compelling evidence that the death penalty is costly, arbitrary, discriminatory, prone to error, and without deterrent value, retentionists often retreat into the murky waters of moral philosophy. They argue that capital punishment is not only morally legitimate, but also morally necessary. Although we can decide questions of fact—questions about cost, deterrence, fairness, and public opinion—by analyzing the relevant data, the question of whether the death penalty is ethically justified cannot be answered by any amount of data. It is a matter of faith and argument. And that is precisely why many supporters of the death penalty would prefer to debate philosophy instead of effectiveness. If we are morally compelled to kill those who kill, further discussion of troublesome facts is irrelevant and unnecessary. Questions about how the death penalty is administered, about the cost or the consequences of the penalty may be interesting, but they do not have the power to refute a moral imperative.
The philosophical arguments surrounding capital punishment are based on religious authority, moral philosophy, criminal responsibility, and concern for victims.
The Bible Tells Me So
In their final appeals to jurors, prosecutors in capital murder trials are fond of quoting Scripture to lend authority to their arguments. And there are many verses to choose from. In particular, the Old Testament seems to suggest killing as a...
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Execution Is Inhumane
America, perhaps more than any other country, has tinkered with the mechanics of legal executions in a search for the “perfect” method. In operational terms, perfect means the most tame and reliable method of killing made possible by existing technology. Our preferred methods have evolved over the centuries. Beginning with the rather simple and unambiguous violence of hangings and shootings (by firing squads)—which involved direct and unembellished applications of techniques used elsewhere in the world and, in the case of hangings, in practice for centuries—we moved on to the relatively complicated but more tame killings made possible by twentieth-century technology: the gas chamber, the electric chair, and most recently, lethal injection. In a sense, our history lives on in today’s execution methods, since each is still in use since the advent of the contemporary death penalty in 1976. In descending order of frequency, at year’s end 1996, there have been a total of 223 executions by lethal injection, 128 by electrocution, 10 by gas, 4 by hanging, and 2 by firing squad. If we look back over the twentieth century as a whole, the predominant method has been the electric chair, which has taken well over four thousand lives. The method of the future would appear to be lethal injection. Presently authorized in thirty-two states—in contrast to electrocution, authorized today in only eleven—lethal injection is far and away the most frequently used method...
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Capital Punishment Undermines the Sacredness of Life
We, the deacons of the Diocese of Paterson, N.J., wish to address the faithful of our church and people of good will throughout the state of New Jersey regarding the question of capital punishment.
The ultimate punishment available to the state in the face of serious crime is the death penalty. Our position is rooted in our belief that human life is sacred and that we have an obligation to protect it and enhance it at all stages of development. Made in God’s image and likeness, each person is the clearest reflection of the Creator and possesses a dignity that no one can take away.
A truly human and responsible society cannot abdicate its moral responsibilities regarding the many issues related to the protection and enhancement of human life. Because life is both sacred and social, society must protect and foster it at all stages and in all circumstances through institutions such as state government. When any human being becomes a victim of violence, we all suffer diminishment of our own human dignity. When any human life ends at the hands of another person, all human life becomes vulnerable.
Capital Punishment Is No Remedy
Capital punishment seeks to remedy violent crime or murder by taking the perpetrator’s life. We are convinced, however, that this is not an appropriate response. We believe that capital punishment undermines rather than witnesses to the sacredness of human life. Moreover, capital punishment fails...
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