Chapter 4: Should Capital Punishment Be Abolished?
Chapter 4 Preface
In a recent survey that asked “Do you favor or oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder?” 75 percent of Americans responded in favor of capital punishment, according to researcher R.M. Bohm. However, a U.S. Justice Department study reveals that when people are given information about several specific crimes that are punishable by execution, a majority will choose long prison terms over the death penalty.
This news has raised the hopes of opponents of capital punishment, who often argue that murderers should receive life sentences rather than death sentences. As punishment for the crime of first-degree murder, many states permit life sentences that strictly limit the possibility of parole; at least eighteen states allow life sentences with no possibility of parole. Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, contends that the number of death sentences in a state tends to decrease after the passage of laws allowing the alternative of life without parole. “When juries have a choice,” says Dieter, “they are picking [life without parole] as a middle ground.” Death penalty critics argue that juries’ preference for the sentence of life without parole reveals a popular desire to avoid the execution of innocent people. Moreover, Dieter adds, “What people want is safety. And they want punishment. Life without parole gives them that.”
Supporters of the death penalty, on the other hand,...
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The Death Penalty Should Be Abolished
Vicki Quade: We are taught that life is sacred, yet the people you deal with don’t believe that.
Helen Prejean: We are taught in the American way of life that some life is sacred. Innocent life is sacred. I don’t know that we’ve ever been taught that guilty life is sacred.
I don’t think we’ve been taught justice even in the ways that our laws are enacted. We have always been taught that some life is more sacred than other life.
When it comes to criminal law and criminal justice, you can definitely see that who the victim is and the status of the victim propels and initiates the justice and the punishment that is sought.
There is a direct correlation.
The more we identify with the person killed, the more outrage that is felt over the death. When other people are killed we don’t identify with, there doesn’t seem to be all that passion and outrage over the death.
There is a discrepancy.
We know what the fault lines are. We know that race has a lot to do with it. When white people are killed, when people have certain status, when a law professor or a policeman is killed, people are more outraged and punishment is more vigorously pursued.
So when we learn that all life is sacred, well, right away when you see the punishment given, you can see some life must be more sacred than other life.
Our society assumes that some people are so evil,...
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The Death Penalty Should Be Retained
Although not relevant to the legal application of the death penalty in the United States, religious issues are a significant thread within the moral debate. Biblical text is most relevant within a theocracy or a secular government which has laws that are consistent with biblical text. The United States does not, of course, fall within either category. This viewpoint is included only to counter the false claim that there is no New Testament support for capital punishment.
The Bible Does Not Prohibit the Death Penalty
• Virtually all religious scholars agree that the correctly translated commandment “Thou shalt not murder” is a prohibition against individual cases of murder. There is no biblical prohibition against the government imposition of the death penalty in deserving cases. Indeed, the government imposition of capital punishment is required for deliberate murder. . . .
• According to Clark University philosophy professor Michael Pakaluk, “If no crime deserves the death penalty, then it is hard to see why it was fitting that Christ be put to death for our sins and crucified among thieves. St. Thomas Aquinas quotes a gloss of St. Jerome on Matthew 27: ‘As Christ became accursed of the cross for us, for our salvation He was crucified as a guilty one among the guilty.’ That Christ be put to death as a guilty person, presupposes that death is a fitting punishment for those who are guilty.”. . .
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Capital Punishment Should Not Be Applied Unless Absolutely Necessary
It is my pleasure to be with you today at New York University as we address the important—and controversial—subject of the death penalty. The issue is a hotly debated one on the international scene, particularly at U.N. headquarters, where one hears more and more from nations a call to abandon its practice, if not its total abolition.
Very recently, during the Holy Father’s  visit to St. Louis, Mo., he renewed his appeal made a month earlier for a consensus to end the death penalty, calling it “both cruel and unnecessary” (from the Jan. 27, 1999, homily). At a more grass-roots level, we are increasingly hearing of pleas by individuals and groups who are realizing that fighting violence with violence does not achieve a useful purpose in society nor does it allow us to foster an ethic of respect of life that moves beyond vengeance in order to deal with violence in a more effective way.
What I share with you today is nothing new—I have spoken on this topic before. My presentation today, however, is a more detailed explication of those views. I do realize that the death penalty is a sensitive and heated topic. And so we must not relegate it to theoretical, ivory-tower discussions, as it involves not only criminals but victims who have truly been violated, their families and friends, and indeed, our very society as well.
Anger and Frustration at Rampant Crime
Media accounts are daily filled with stories of...
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Capital Punishment Deserves Cautious Support
You get to a certain age and you know—or ought to know—what you think about important issues. Open-mindedness, when understood as a willingness to change one’s mind if presented with new information or deeper insight, is a considerable virtue. But open-mindedness understood as perpetual indecision, a principled refusal to make up one’s mind in the first place, is no virtue at all. It is evidence rather of intellectual and moral slack.
I have never had much trouble deciding what I think about things, or in being willing to share with others the views I hold. (Ask my wife and children.) But sometimes I waffle—and on no question more than capital punishment. I have come, after a lifetime of wrestling with the issue, to favor the death penalty. But I do so with unwonted uncertainty and uneasiness. The execution of Karla Faye Tucker in a Texas prison on February 3, 1998, brought out all my ambivalence.
Mixed Feelings Toward Capital Punishment
There was a time when I felt no ambivalence on capital punishment at all. I was firmly opposed. As editor of my college newspaper, I wrote an impassioned editorial condemning the execution of Caryl Chessman, a multiple murderer whose case roused national attention before his death in the San Quentin gas chamber in the spring of 1960. The death penalty, I argued, was a barbarism that no civilized society can countenance. Christians in particular, I added, should oppose capital punishment...
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Life Without Parole Is Preferable to the Death Penalty
Texas’s bloodthirsty criminal justice officials have a dilemma. A Bible-quoting, Jesus-loving, reasonably normal looking woman named Karla Faye Tucker has been sentenced to death. Ordinarily the death penalty is no big deal in Texas, where liberals are required to carry visas and compassion is virtually illegal. It’s a state that has shown itself perfectly willing to execute the retarded and railroad the innocent. But the scheduled execution of Ms. Tucker is another matter. Even in Texas, government officials are squeamish about zapping a woman.
As journalist Sam Howe Verhovek has noted in a New York Times article, Texas has not executed a woman since 1863, “when Chipita Rodriguez was put to death for murdering a horse trader.”
Say hello to chivalry in a cowboy hat. Texas is by far the most backward state in the nation when it comes to capital punishment, but officials are searching high and low for a way to save the life of a woman who, before she got religion, joined with her boyfriend in taking a pickax to a sleeping couple, murdering them both.
According to Mr. Verhovek’s story, Ms. Tucker “boasted, just after the killings, that she had experienced a surge of sexual pleasure every time she swung the 3-foot pickax.”
But that’s all in the past. Ms. Tucker is now seen as a good Christian woman, and Pat Robertson is among the many supporters of capital punishment who have come to her defense,...
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The Death Penalty Is Preferable to Life Without Parole
Abolitionists claim that there are alternatives to the death penalty. They say that life in prison without parole serves just as well. Certainly, if you ignore all the murders criminals commit within prison when they kill prison guards and other inmates, and also when they kill decent citizens upon escape, like Dawud Mu’Min who was serving a 48-year sentence for the 1973 murder of a cab driver when he escaped a road work gang and stabbed to death a storekeeper named Gadys Nopwasky in a 1988 robbery that netted $4.00. Fortunately, there is now no chance of Mu’Min committing murder again. He was executed by the state of Virginia on November 14, 1997.
Another flaw is that life imprisonment tends to deteriorate with the passing of time. Take the Moore case in New York State for example.
In 1962, James Moore raped and strangled 14-year-old Pamela Moss. Her parents decided to spare Moore the death penalty on the condition that he be sentenced to life in prison without parole. Later on, thanks to a change in sentencing laws in 1982, James Moore is eligible for parole every two years!
If Pamela’s parents knew that they couldn’t trust the state, Moore could have been executed long ago and they could have put the whole horrible incident behind them forever. Instead they have a nightmare to deal with biannually. I’ll bet not a day goes by that they don’t kick themselves for being foolish enough to trust the liberal sham that is...
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Mentally Disadvantaged Killers Should Not Be Sentenced to Death
The death penalty is an absolute punishment. If it is to be imposed at all, it should be imposed on people whose sense of responsibility and judgment is such that they fully appreciated the seriousness of what they were doing.
These words by David Bruck, a lawyer who has represented numerous capital defendants, appeared in the International Herald Tribune on June 23, 1987. Most people not only agree with the sentiment expressed but believe that only the most cunning and culpable of criminals are executed in this country—that the mentally ill and mentally retarded are explicitly excluded. Far too often, however, they are wrong.
As things now stand, mentally disadvantaged defendants often have to rely on a defense referred to as “diminished capacity.” This simply means that such defendants may have known right from wrong but did not have full control over their actions, resulting in an inability to refrain from acts that people of average abilities could resist or simply would not commit.
The Problem with the “Diminished Capacity” Defense
Two basic problems face capital defendants trying to prove diminished capacity in court. The first is the skepticism with which most people view such a defense. All people are assumed to be normal and fully responsible for their actions, so it is the defendants’ burden to prove otherwise.
Many people mistakenly believe that...
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The Mental Competence of a Murderer Can Be Difficult to Determine
At a hearing in an Arkansas courtroom in April 1998, Charles Singleton basically argued for the right to make a choice: his sanity or his life.
Mr. Singleton, 39, on death row for the 1979 murder of a grocer named Mary Lou York, is on anti-schizophrenia medication, which, the state argues, makes him mentally competent enough to be executed. But Mr. Singleton wants to stop taking the drugs, which could well make him sufficiently delusional that state psychologists would not certify him as ready to be put to death.
“We have to convince the court that you can’t involuntarily medicate to competency if that is what is making him executable,” explains Mr. Singleton’s lawyer, Jeff Rosenzweig.
The Larger Debate
While Mr. Singleton’s case is a particularly complex legal matter, it is also part of a much broader debate hashed out in courtrooms across the nation: when is a convicted murderer so mentally deficient that he or she earns the right to be spared execution?
The question is not so much whether society should execute people who are insane, since the United States Supreme Court has firmly ruled, and even staunch death penalty proponents generally say they agree, that people who are truly mentally incompetent should not be put to death. Rather, it is how competence should be determined.
Many supporters of capital punishment insist that the number of death-row inmates who are so mentally...
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