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Dating back to the 18th century, the death penalty was a punishment used by many across the world. Currently, the death penalty is legal in 30 states (Gramlich). Since 1976, 1,483 people have been killed as a punishment for their crimes in the United States (Death Penalty Info). The act of killing a human as punishment for a crime that has been committed is justified in a number of ways. One of the main reasons being that if the crime is so severe, the punishment should be as well. However, capital punishment is quickly becoming less relevant and accepted in modern US society, as currently, 20 states have outlawed it. In general, the death penalty often thrives under a structural system that perpetuates the oppression and condemnation of minority groups. As human beings we cannot make reparations for the crimes of others by killing them off, nor do we have the moral capacity to decide to end another human being’s life. These factors alone are enough reason to make the death penalty illegal in the remaining 30 states. Capital punishment as a whole is a historic concept we try to keep alive. As time goes by, our nation’s hold on the death penalty hangs on by a thread. Before, almost anything was punishable by death. Today, there are new limitations/laws and statues that are being created as exceptions for justifying capital punishment. Capital punishment in general, enables discrimination, acts as entertainment in the form of death/revenge and is morally and ethically wrong.
Capital punishment has been widely used as a form of public entertainment throughout US history. We began to display executions dating back to 1608 when the first recorded execution was held in the new colonies by a firing squad (Death Penalty Info). Initially, in the 1700’s, executions were low, but as time went by and the viewings increased, the death penalty also rapidly increased and was at its peak in 1935 with on average, at least “one execution every other day.” (Drehle 3). Executions, which were predominantly hangings at the time, were handled in the public eye with little to no limitations as to who could and couldn’t view it. Often times, the audiences consisted of not only adults but children who attended these executions with them. This peak in hangings caused viewings to be a casual pastime. Three hundred years later, “in August 1936, some 20,000 people descended on Owensboro, Ky., to witness what would be the last state-sanctioned public execution in America…the crowd came in automobiles, wagons and by hundreds of freight trains…Hotels were full. In some of Owensboro’s homes all-night “hanging parties” were in progress.” (NY Times). These viewings were so normalized and popularized that they could now be compared to modern-day concerts or even the New Year’s Eve ball dropping. It was not until the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972 for 4 years, that the number of executions dropped by almost half the amount before the ruling and fluctuated at a “normal” rate after (Drehle 3). With this in mind, executions today are more private, due to new rules and regulations in each state and the transfer from public settings to correctional facilities. However, a very prominent question still remains. Does a smaller and more intimate audience, make the execution any more moral? The human being still suffers the same death at the hands of other human beings. Why is it that we came to terms with the fact that a public killing was immoral, but we just decided to push the immoral act away behind a curtain in order to save face?
How it works
As an intrinsically interconnected society, we are each responsible for the actions of our community as a whole; this includes each of our moral responsibilities to correct the issues within our justice system. Morality is the understanding of what is right or wrong in terms of interpersonal standards. We must question our actions and be held accountable for them. As individuals, we have a responsibility to make sure that as a whole society we are functioning up to peak moral standards, and in a way that makes each structural system fair and just for all people. Capital punishment is a moral roadblock within our justice system. It is widely recognized that it is morally incorrect to kill another human being. Currently, in the 20 states that still see the death penalty as a fit means of punishment, there are 5 different methods of termination that one is able to choose from; each of these methods varying state to state. (Clarks Prosecutor). The most popularized and well-known method is lethal injection. This method is also the default method unless specified otherwise by the person on death row. Lethal injection takes anywhere from 5 minutes to 2 hours to fully terminate the life of the victim. While hanging can take anywhere from 4-11 minutes, the gas chamber taking 10-18 minutes, the electric chair usually lasting about 2-15 minutes, and a firing squad taking on average less than a full minute (NBCNews). The fact that these victims are allowed to choose their means of death does not make these deaths any more moral or merciful. There is no increase in moral value because we allow another human being some form of choice in how they die. We are being complacent. As individuals and as a society. When asked, most people would say that they are not capable of killing another person as well. Furthermore, it can be argued that each of us as human beings should be held to the same moral standards. So why is that we are not okay with killing another human on our own, but when we come together as a collective society within a structural system, we argue it to be morally plausible? Perhaps it’s just a mass case of groupthink. Or perhaps its negligence and those who began to create the system of killing others for crimes have never been held fully accountable because the system capital punishment resides in fails to be questioned. It is our moral obligation to question everything; to question corruption, confront it, and challenge it to align itself with the moral outline our society very much so deserves.
The ethical standpoint of capital punishment has always been up in the air, especially when looking at the constitutional rights of every individual, including those on death row. Many individuals, like those in the NPR Debate, “Debate: Is It Time To Abolish The Death Penalty?”, argue that the death penalty “serves a moral and social purpose in society.” Others opposing believe that “Some people deserve to die…for committing certain types of crime.” Though both sides make compelling arguments, perhaps the biggest debate concerns jeopardizing the constitutional rights for someone sentenced to death row. The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids “cruel and unusual punishments.” (Costly). Is death not a cruel punishment? Is the complete extraction of your own life from your own hands not, by very definition, unusual? Or have we normalized our culture of death and violence so much so, that we find it fair and just to kill and be killed. In 1972, Furman v. Georgia marked the first time in US history where the US Supreme Court found capital punishment to violate the US Constitution, which then caused the abolishment of capital punishment for four years. (ProCon). Following this, over 30 other Supreme Court Cases came to be due to capital punishment being unconstitutional in one way or another. Since 1976, each new case argued that at least one amendment in the constitution was in jeopardy. These cases caused adjustments to be made by creating new statutes and limitations to the death penalty in each state. These exceptions, however, are not reforms. They are instances of selective cases in which those were given back their constitutional rights. No matter the circumstance, capital punishment will always be unconstitutional.
Although it may not be widely accepted within society’s dominant discourse, it is evident that our justice system has never been in favor of people of color. This can be seen in a multitude of ways, including how severe the penalties are for minor infractions committed by minorities, or in terms of sentencing that black people receive versus their white counterparts. Regardless of if one would like to admit the fact that white privilege plays a part in our justice systems functionality, it does. So when we analyze capital punishment through a lens in which we acknowledge that black people receive harsher and more frequent sentencing, then we can also begin to clearly understand that capital punishment itself is a vehicle used to kill black people. The concept of structural racism being embedded within our justice system is indisputable.
James D. Unnever, a renowned American criminologist stated: “Two hard facts characterize the death penalty. First, the United States is the only Western industrialized nation that executes convicted murderers, and, second, race is integrally implicated in the application of the death penalty within the nation. At year-end 2005, 36 states and the federal prison system held 3,254 prisoners under a sentence of death. Despite comprising only 12 percent of the population, blacks accounted for 42 percent of those under a capital sentence. This figure has been virtually unchanged since 1994 when it was 41 percent.”
If there is ever a time, when a group of people who typically tend to fall within the margin, are described as a large double-digit statistic, in which that statistic represents the amount of this group being murdered, we must recognize it is time to evaluate the system that creates this statistic. To lie static and unmoved by the silent murders of black citizens, while white citizens who commit similar or same crimes face lesser sentences, is a failure of our moral and ethical duties. There is factual evidence to confront and acknowledge, which proves that race does, in fact, play a part in sentencing. United States General Accounting Office claims, “In 82% of the studies [reviewed], the race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty, i.e., those who murdered whites were found more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks.” (Death Penalty Info). It is argued on multiple grounds and differing schools of thought that capital punishment is generally wrong and should be abolished. Whether or not one thinks or believes that these arguments are swaying or valid, capital punishment still remains a system that is killing black citizens in a way that perpetuates and thrives off of institutionalized racism. This alone is enough to abolish capital punishment. This alone is enough to abolish any system that acts in this manner, regardless of the good some may argue that it does.
The abolishment of capital punishment is a crucial goal our society must strive to achieve within all 50 states. This resolution may not come quickly or easily. To argue that if we do not execute criminals, we would be putting the lives of innocent people in danger is valid. However, Zhu states, “It may seem regrettable to execute a handful of felons, some of whom may truly want to turn over a new leaf by the time of their death.” (Zhu). It’s evident that there will be many long academic debates, campaigns, acts of educational, and individual involvement before we find ourselves at a point where the justice system is ethical, moral, and fair for all people. This will come once we evaluate our own morality, recognize how we align ourselves with society’s ethics, and develop a sense of empathy for those who are losing a life despite what they may or may not have done in their past. Above all, we are human. This means we are also responsible for those who share this humanity with us. We have no jurisdiction when it comes to life and death, and no innate power that permits us to decide when death should occur. We are responsible for each other; even those who might have once forgotten this through an act of violence. We are still responsible for them.
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