Answering this question first requires an understanding of what murder, or more technically homicide is. The law actually has a fairly strict definition of murder. First of all, for a death to be considered murder, it has to be intentional. Killing somebody by accident, for example if the brakes fail in your car, is not murder. Second, it has to be premeditated. In some countries, ‘crime of passion’ is a legitimate defense and the emotional circumstances are often taken into account when determining whether a crime is ‘murder one’ or some lesser form of unlawful killing. Obviously, carrying out the death penalty fulfills both of these criteria. However, it does not fulfill the third, which is that it must also be unlawful. The law does allow for certain situations in which even deliberate, premeditated killing is not murder. For example, an army sniper who takes out a target is not committing murder no matter how carefully he planned it.
This, though, refers to those who carry out the act of execution. How about those who determine whether or not the death penalty is lawful? Is deciding that it is legal to strap a convict to an electric chair and turn on the power ‘murder’? There are two ways of looking at this. First of all, many consider it ethical to kill another human in defense of yourself or of another person. By this definition, the death penalty can be justified as a means of defending society from these criminals. However, that works on the basic assumption that there is no alternative. General morality would indicate that killing somebody in order to defend yourself should be either a last resort or something done in the heat of passion. Locking somebody up and throwing away the key serves the same purpose as killing them, providing, of course, that prisons are kept secure and that parole for murderers is hard or impossible to obtain. The advantage of imprisonment as a punishment is that if the person then turns out to be innocent, they can be freed. Although the number of individuals wrongfully executed and exonerated posthumously is tiny, ethically, even one wrongful execution is one too many. This is, in fact, perhaps the strongest argument against the death penalty. Does it, though, make the lawmakers who determine whether the death penalty should be allowed murderers?
This too comes back to the definition. If murder has to be ‘unlawful’ then by definition making a law to allow somebody to be killed is not ‘murder’. If one uses the common ethical definition of murder, however, it could be construed in that manner. Indeed, another argument used against the death penalty is that it turns people into accomplices to murder by using their tax dollars to support executions. So, the death penalty is legally not murder, but ethically could be construed as such. However, there remain clear arguments that the death penalty is unethical. To be precise, the death penalty is not justified from the view point of defending society. Add to that the risk of executing the incorrect person or an individual not responsible for his or her actions due to insanity or mental retardation, and working towards the end of the death penalty is a clear path to follow. Using the argument that it turns people into murderers, however, shows a misunderstanding of the law.