Capital punishment debate: Wikis


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Capital punishment
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The use of capital punishment, frequently known as the death penalty, is highly controversial. Although laws vary between different countries as to what crimes may warrant capital punishment, the crimes for which it is most commonly used are murder and drug-related offences.


Popular opinion

In the United States of America, the use of Capital Punishment is generally accepted, with 78 percent of the Republican Party and 52 percent the Democratic Party in support of its use for the crime of murder [1]. The Constitution Party is in support of the death penalty, and the Green Party is opposed to its use. Recent polling indicated that 65 percent of the American population supports the death penalty as an appropriate punishment for murder.[citation needed]

Worldwide, there is little consensus. Capital punishment is abolished in Europe [2], except for Belarus, which regularly practices it, and Latvia, which retains it for crimes committed during wartime. The Council of Europe prohibits any member state from practicing it. Both Turkey and Russia were pressed to abolish capital punishment as a condition for joining. Turkey abolished capital punishment after it was ruled unconstitutional in 2004, while Russia established a moratorium in 1996, which was renewed in 2009 by the Constitutional Court of Russia, pending abolition. There is little opposition to the death penalty in China, Japan, and most Middle Eastern and African countries, where it continues to be practiced.

Execution of innocent people

Capital punishment is often opposed on the grounds that innocent people will inevitably be convicted. This fact is well supported in the US. Between 1973 and 2005, 123 people in 25 states were released from death row when new evidence of their innocence emerged.[3] However, statistics likely understate the actual problem of wrongful convictions because once an execution has occurred there is often insufficient motivation and finance to keep a case open, and it becomes unlikely at that point that the miscarriage of justice will ever be exposed.

Another issue is the quality of the defense in a case where the accused has a public defender. The competence of the defense attorney "is a better predictor of whether or not someone will be sentenced to death than the facts of the crime".[4]

Also, improper procedure may result in unfair executions. For example, Amnesty International argues that, in Singapore, "the Misuse of Drugs Act contains a series of presumptions which shift the burden of proof from the prosecution to the accused. This conflicts with the universally guaranteed right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty".[5] However, this refers to a situation when someone is being caught with drugs. In this situation, in almost any jurisdiction, the prosecution has a prima facie case. It may be possible to argue that the standard of proof should be raised to the higher standard of beyond the shadow of a doubt for a death sentence to be imposed in a capital case. However, many dispute the assertion that this falls under the definition of "improper procedure".

Examples of disputed executions

Numerous death row inmates and executed criminals have been popularly thought to be innocent.[6].

  • In Texas, Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted of murdering his three young daughters in 1991 by setting his house on fire. In 2009, a report conducted by Dr. Craig Beyler, hired by the Texas Forensic Science Commission to review the case, found that "a finding of arson could not be sustained". Beyler said that key testimony from a fire marshal at Willingham's trial was "hardly consistent with a scientific mind-set and is more characteristic of mystics or psychics." [7] He was executed by lethal injection on February 17, 2004.
  • Jesse Tafero was a convicted rapist and drug dealer who was later convicted of murdering two police officers in 1976 along with an accomplice, Sonia Jacobs. They were both sentenced to death based in part on the testimony of a third person, Walter Rhodes, who was an accessory to the crime and testified against the pair in exchange for a reduced sentence. Jacobs got help from a friend who worked to release her, and in 1981 her sentence was commuted. In 1982, Rhodes recanted his testimony and claimed full responsibility for the crime. Despite this admission and Tafero's own protestations, Tafero was executed in 1990. In 1992 the conviction against Jacobs was thrown out, and the state didn't have enough evidence to retry her. She entered a plea of no contest and was released for time served. It has been presumed that the same evidence was used against Tafero, who likely would have been released as well.[8]
  • Wayne Felker was a recently released sex offender and a suspect in the disappearance of a woman in 1981. He was under police surveillance for two weeks prior to the woman's body being found. Her autopsy was conducted by an unqualified technician, and the results were changed to show the death as having occurred while Felker was under surveillance. After his conviction, his lawyers presented testimony by forensic experts that the body couldn't have been dead for more than three days before it was found. A stack of evidence was found that had been hidden by the prosecution—evidence that wasn't presented in court and included DNA evidence that might have exonerated Felker or cast doubt on his guilt. There was even a signed confession from another suspect in the paperwork, but despite all this, Felker was executed in 1996.[4] In 2000, his case was reopened as the first executed person to have DNA testing used to prove innocence after execution. Although the tests were ruled inconclusive as to innocence or guilt, coupled with the other testimony and mishandling of evidence they might have been enough to prevent his conviction or at least led to a new trial.[9]
  • Roger Keith Coleman was an inmate whose claim of innocence was widely supported by death penalty opponents, but after the execution, SMD examination proved that he was actually guilty.[10]
  • Colin Campbell Ross was hanged for the rape and murder of a child which became known as The Gun Alley Murder, despite there being evidence that he was innocent. Following his execution in 1922, efforts were made to clear his name, and in the 1990s old evidence was re-examined with modern forensic techniques which supported the view that Ross was innocent. In 2006 an appeal for mercy was made to Victoria's Chief Justice and on 27 May 2008, the Victorian government pardoned Ross in what is believed to be an Australian legal first.[11]

Brutalization effect

The brutalization effect, also known as the brutalization hypothesis, argues that the death penalty has a brutalizing or coarsening effect either upon society or those officials and jurors involved in a criminal justice system which imposes it. Capital punishment sends a certain message that it is acceptable to kill in some circumstances, or that society has a disregard for the sanctity of life. Bowers and Pierce claim a definite increase in homicides in the months immediately after an execution. This appears in an analysis done relative to the executions in New York state between 1907-1963. The brutalizing effect of the death penalty may be responsible for increasing the number of murders in jurisdictions in which it is practiced. [12] , [13]

Legality of capital punishment

Critics of the death penalty commonly argue that the death penalty specifically and explicitly violates the right to life clause stated in most modern constitutions and human right treaties. It violates sections 3 and 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While it is not a legally binding document, the declaration served as the foundation for the legally-binding International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which most of countries signed (with some legal reservation). Yet supporters point out Article 6 of the document which states that capital punishment is an exception to the right to life.[citation needed]

Other supporters of the death penalty point out that the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution states: "No person shall... be deprived of life ...without due process of law...", and the 14th Amendment says: "No state shall ... deprive any person of life ... without due process of law." Therefore it is claimed that "with due process" a person may be constitutionally deprived of life. Also, section 3 of the declaration proclaims the right to liberty to be universal, a right which is violated by incarceration. Therefore, it is claimed that one cannot hold capital punishment unconstitutional unless incarceration is as well.[citation needed]

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights specifically allows implementation of the death penalty and incarceration as a part of a criminal justice system.[citation needed]

Racial factors in the United States

African Americans have made up 41 percent of death row inmates and 34 percent of those actually executed since 1976 but currently are only 12 percent of the general population.[14] However, others note that African Americans are an even larger 50 percent of the total prison population. U.S. Department of Justice statistics show that African-Americans constituted 48 percent of adults charged with homicide but only 41 percent of those sentenced of death. Once arrested for murder, African-Americans are less likely to receive a capital sentence than are whites.[15]

Academic studies indicate that the single greatest predictor of whether a death sentence is given is not the race of the defendant but the race of the victim. According to a 2003 Amnesty International report, blacks and whites were the victims of murder in almost equal numbers, yet 80 percent of the people executed since 1977 were convicted of murdering white victims.[14] But, others say intra-racial murders, most likely between persons who know one another are circumstances often viewed as inappropriate for the death penalty. Because those sentenced to death often don't know their victims (e.g., killing during rape or robbery), this victim is likely to be white.[15]

Five of the ten inmates on Connecticut's death row have been condemned for the murders of minorities and five of the 37 inmates executed in South Carolina were white men convicted of murdering African-Americans. In October 2000, a study found that distribution of death sentences is biased against whites in Southerns states, where most of the executions takes place. The study found the distribution of death sentences to be race-neutral in the Midwest and West and racially biased against blacks in Pennsylvania. Since 1976, Pennsylvania had executed three inmates, all white.[16]

Use of the death penalty on plea bargain

Supporters of the death penalty, especially those who do not believe in the deterrent effect of the death penalty, say the threat of the death penalty could be used to urge capital defendants to plead guilty, testify against accomplices, or disclose the location of the victim's body. Norman Frink, a senior deputy district attorney in the state of Oregon, considers capital punishment a valuable tool for prosecutors. The threat of death leads defendants to enter plea deals for life without parole or life with a minimum of 30 years—-the two other penalties, besides death, that Oregon allows for aggravated murder.[17] In a plea agreement reached with Washington state prosecutors, Gary Ridgway, a Seattle-area man who admitted to 48 murders since 1982 accepted a sentence of life in prison without parole. Prosecutors spared Ridgway from execution in exchange for his cooperation in leading police to the remains of still-missing victims.[18][19][20]


In addition to wider moral arguments on capital punishment, the existence of a deterrence effect is disputed. Studies differ as to whether executions deter other potential criminals from committing murder or other crimes.

A November 18, 2007 New York Times article[21] reported the following information:

  • One reason that there is no general consensus on whether or not the death penalty is a deterrent is that it is used so rarely - only about one out of every 300 murders actually results in an execution. In 2005 in the Stanford Law Review, John J. Donohue III, a law professor at Yale with a doctorate in economics, and Justin Wolfers, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote that the death penalty "... is applied so rarely that the number of homicides it can plausibly have caused or deterred cannot reliably be disentangled from the large year-to-year changes in the homicide rate caused by other factors... The existing evidence for deterrence... is surprisingly fragile." Wolfers stated, "If I was allowed 1,000 executions and 1,000 exonerations, and I was allowed to do it in a random, focused way, I could probably give you an answer."
  • Naci Mocan, an economist at Louisiana State University, authored a study that looked at all 3,054 U.S. counties over two decades, and concluded that each execution saved five lives. Mocan stated, "I personally am opposed to the death penalty... But my research shows that there is a deterrent effect."
  • Joanna M. Shepherd, a law professor at Emory with a doctorate in economics who was involved in several studies on the death penalty, stated, "I am definitely against the death penalty on lots of different grounds... But I do believe that people respond to incentives." Shepherd found that the death penalty had a deterrent effect only in those states that executed at least nine people between 1977 and 1996. In the Michigan Law Review in 2005, Shepherd wrote, "Deterrence cannot be achieved with a half-hearted execution program."

The question of whether or not the death penalty deters murder usually revolves around the statistical analysis. Studies have produced disputed results with disputed significance.[22] Some studies have shown a positive correlation between the death penalty and murder rates[23] - in other words, they show that where the death penalty applies, murder rates are also high. This correlation can be interpreted in either that the death penalty increases murder rates by brutalizing society (see brutalizing effect) or that higher murder rates cause the state to retain or reintroduce the death penalty. However, supporters and opponents of the various statistical studies, on both sides of the issue, argue that correlation does not equal causation.

In recent years, a number of new studies have been published, mostly by economists, that statistically demonstrate a deterrent effect of the death penalty.[24] However, critics claim severe methodological flaws in these studies and hold that the empirical data offer no basis for sound statistical conclusions about the deterrent effect.[25]

Surveys and polls conducted in the last 15 years show that some police chiefs and others involved in law enforcement may not believe that the death penalty has any deterrent effect on individuals who commit violent crimes. In a 1995 poll of randomly selected police chiefs from across the U.S, the officers rank the death penalty last as a way of deterring or preventing violent crimes. They ranked it behind many other forms of crime control including reducing drug abuse and use, lowering technical barriers when prosecuting, putting more officers on the streets, reducing the number of guns, and making prison sentences longer. They responded that a better economy with more jobs would lessen crime rates more than the death penalty (Deiter 23). In fact, only one percent of the police chiefs surveyed thought that the death penalty was the primary focus for reducing crime (Deiter 25).

However, the police chiefs surveyed were more likely to favor capital punishment than the general population.

Deiter, Richard. “The Death Penalty is not an Effective Law Enforcement Tool.” Ed. Stephen E. Schonebaum. Does Capital Punishment Deter Crime? San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1998

In addition to statistical evidence, psychological studies examine whether murderers think about the consequences of their actions before they commit a crime. Most homicides are spur-of-the-moment, spontaneous, emotionally impulsive acts. Murderers do not weigh their options very carefully in this type of setting (Jackson 27). It is very doubtful that killers give much thought to punishment before they kill (Ross 41).


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ Death Penalty Information Center, Innocence and the Death Penalty
  4. ^ Barbara McCuen, "Does DNA Technology Warrant a Death Penalty Moratorium?" (May 2000)
  5. ^ Amnesty International, "Singapore - The death penalty: A hidden toll of executions" (January 2004)
  6. ^
  7. ^ Full Text of Report on Analysis of Arson Fire Investigation in Todd Willingham Case | Texas Moratorium Network (August 2009)
  8. ^ [1]
  9. ^ [2]
  10. ^ DNA tests confirm man executed in 1992 was guilty
  11. ^ The Age: Ross cleared of murder nearly 90 years ago. Retrieved 27 May 2008.
  12. ^ Crime and Delinquency 45, 4: 481-493., 1999.
  13. ^ Crime Prevention, 150, Steven Lab.
  14. ^ a b United States of America: Death by discrimination - the continuing role of race in capital cases. | Amnesty International
  15. ^ a b [3])
  17. ^ (English)Killing Time : Dead Men Waiting on Oregon’s Death Row « Even though we don’t execute people, Frink considers capital punishment a valuable tool for prosecutors. The threat of death, he says, leads defendants to enter plea deals for life without parole or life with a minimum of 30 years—the two other penalties, besides death, that Oregon allows for aggravated murder. »
  18. ^ (English)Harvey case's shock recalled « Whalen worked out a much-criticized plea bargain arrangement with then-county prosecutor Arthur M. Ney Jr. in which Harvey would be spared the death penalty in exchange for pleading guilty to 21 murders. Later, Harvey confessed to four more murders at Drake. In September 1987, he pleaded guilty in his hometown of London, Ky., to nine more murders. »
  19. ^ Death Penalty Information Center
  20. ^ Death penalty proves useful
  21. ^ Does Death Penalty Save Lives? A New Debate, New York Times, November 18, 2007
  22. ^ Death Penalty Information Center, Facts about Deterrence and the Death Penalty
  23. ^ Joanna M. Shepherd, Capital Punishment and the Deterrence of Crime (Written Testimony for the House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, April 2004.)
  24. ^ Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, Articles on Death Penalty Deterrence
  25. ^ Death Penalty Information Center, Discussion of Recent Deterrence Studies

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