Assessing the Death Penalty

Dead or Alive? The Death Penalty

When a loved one is murdered, it is hard to deal with feelings of rage, hate, and even vengeance toward the killer. The crime that has been committed is immense and deserves punishment, but is the death penalty really the answer? Capital punishment, an unreliable system and inhuman retribution, is unacceptable. The crime rate is unaffected, execution methods are torturous, and innocent death row prisoners are unfairly losing their lives.

First, there has not yet been a study that can prove that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime. In fact, FBI statistics say that the murder rate in some states that use the death penalty is twice as high as in states that do not. Some researchers have even found that execution not only fails to prevent crime, but it may also increase the number of homicides. The researchers of the U.S. Browser-Pierce study, as well as many others who have analyzed facts compiled before and after, noted a “brutalizing” effect on society resulting from executions. After studying the executions between the years 1907 and 1963, they concluded that an average of two additional homicides were committed in the month after an execution.

While capital punishment does not seem like a unique way to prevent crime, it does provide a unique form of punishment. The execution methods are often excruciatingly painful and inhumane. In 1994, it took David Lawson five minutes to die in North Carolina’s gas chamber. During those last minutes, he screamed, “I’m human! I’m human!”

Gassing is terrible, but electrocution is by far the most barbaric method. In an Indiana prison on October 16, 1985, it took five charges of electricity to execute William Vandiver. Seventeen agonizing minutes of electrocution passed before he died. Dr. Harold Hillman, director of the Unity Laboratory in Applied Neurology, University of Surrey, England, studied the autopsies of thirteen men electrocuted in Florida and Alabama from 1983 to 1990. He concluded that in order for death to be instantaneous, the full force of the electrical current would have to reach the brain. Instead, he maintains, only a small percentage of the current may reach the brain, because most of it travels from the electrode, through and over the skin to reach the other electrode. This reveals, according to Dr. Hillman, that there is minimal brain damage in comparison to massive burns on the skin, making the execution to the still conscious patient “intensely painful.”

Lethal injection has been called the most humane method of execution. Of course, it’s a more humane method than those used in the past: burning, boiling, crushing with heavy weights, pouring molten lead on the body. Even so, lethal injection can cause many complications. For example, in 1992, an Oklahoma prisoner had a violent reaction to the drugs used in lethal injection that caused the muscles in his jaw, neck, and abdomen to jerk spasmodically as he gagged and gasped for air. Also, some doctors say the injections can be hard to administer, because many prisoners have scarred veins due to drug use and even diabetes. Sometimes minor surgery is necessary in order to reach a deeper vein.

Because the death penalty is an irrevocable process, it demands unerring human judgment from the people who are a part of the legal system. Because humans are in fact that, “only human,” many innocent people have been executed and will continue to be executed in the future. Even the most foolproof legal system still has its flaws. False testimony, mistaken identification, misinterpretation of evidence, community prejudices, pressures, an attorney’s error of judgment, a prosecutor’s misconduct, and delayed access to or withholding of evidence often result in the execution of innocent people. Amnesty International showed a recent study that revealed 400 cases of wrongful convictions for capital offenses that occurred in the U.S. between 1900 and 1991. Most were lifted on appeal because of evidence proving innocence years after the sentence. Sadly for twenty-three of the prisoners, the evidence came too late.

In no way should the victim of a crime be forgotten. Murder is wrong. It takes away innocent lives every day. Still, society should not set the example of “an eye for an eye,” for as Gandhi said, “the whole world will be blind.” Let the guilty be punished. Let them regret what they have done for the rest of their lives, but the children of today need to see that violence is not the way to solve their problems. As stated by William Randolph Hearst in The Congressional Digest, “Cruelty and viciousness are not abolished by cruelty and viciousness-not even by legalized cruelty and viciousness.”