Healing Over Revenge: The Case Against Capital Punishment
Leo Ogle '23
The death penalty in America is contrary to the purpose of a modern justice system. Justice is inherently not about revenge or retribution. Rather, justice and the justice system is based around forming a more perfect society through healing.
The death penalty does not provide healing to society. Susan Bandes, lawyer and professor of law at DePaul University, confirms this assertion, “The notion that death sentences and executions provide closure to victims’ families is a myth.” This concept makes sense because revenge in itself is not a closure providing experience. As humans, it is difficult to make the act of inflicting pain on another person result in closure to a victim or a victim’s family.
We see this in statistics based around closure for families of victims and survivors. A 2012 Marquette Law Review study examined the physical, pyhcological, and behavioral health of those who survived crimes that can be punished by the death penalty. One group was from a state where the death penalty was outlawed (Minnesota) and another was from Texas, where the death penalty is often sought. The results showed that survivors in Minnesota demonstrated more healthy states of living than those in Texas.
Not only does the death penalty not give closure to surviors and victim’s families, but it very often times hurts innocent people. A prime example of this is the tragic story of Cameron Todd Willingham. Mr. Willingham was a young father in 1991 when a tragic house fire claimed the lives of his three young children. A deeply flawed arson investigation placed responsibility for the blaze on Willingham.
Willingham maintained his innocence, but was executed by lethal injection in 2004. However, numerous independent arson investigators have since concluded that the fire was not an act of arson or murder, rather, it was likely an accident. An innocent man was killed for a heinous crime he did not commit. This is not an isolated case, either.
One life wrongly taken, is too many. The more staggering fact is that we as a nation have executed many more than just one innocent person. In fact, the Death Penalty Information Center says the US has sentenced at least 186 innocent people to death since 1973. Think about the 186 families who could have lost a loved one because of an action they did not commit.
Not only does the death penalty get handed out to innocent people, it also overwhelmingly wrongly condemns people of color. Of the 186 exonerated, 116 have been people of color. Furthermore, the death penalty is more likely to be sought in cases where the suspect is a person of color. This is morally reprehensible and not at all what a modern justice system should use.
The death penalty does not provide closure to the vicitims of these crimes. It plainly does not work in any meaningful way, and actively makes our nation and justice system worse because of its racial tinge. We simly must abolish the death penalty.
In Defense of Justice and the Death Penalty
William Benson '22
On the night of August 28, 2014, Timothy Jones Jr. brutally murdered his eight, seven, six, two, and one-year-old children, stuffed them in garbage bags, and dumped their bodies in an empty field in Alabama. These young, innocent children’s lives were brutally cut short by their deranged father. The question is, do these children deserve justice?
You may ask, however, what is justice? If you ask one person, they may say it is to reconcile offenders. If you ask another, it may be to create a more equal society. If you ask me, it is the very foundation of just societies, or as Madison so eloquently put it: “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been, and ever will be pursued, until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.”
Beginning in the latter half of the 20th Century, our country took a dangerous turn as it sought a new answer to the question — What is justice? By the 1970s, an entirely new form of justice had materialized: rehabilitative justice, and with it, the campaign to end the death penalty. No idea would go on to do more damage to our criminal and judicial systems than this as it sought to redefine how we interact with society’s most reprehensible.
This is why I support the death penalty: it places firmly the matter of justice at the heart of society, or as 18th Century English writer Samuel Johnson famously quipped, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
Those who are against the death penalty forget one important thing: that justice is punitive. This idea spans all civilizations, all peoples, and all time periods. Every society in history has understood the precept that there must be a punishment to fit the crime.
The death penalty is society’s tool to wield a just punishment for vicious crimes. When heinous crimes are committed, a sound and just punishment is death for the perpetrator. To say that the focus of all crimes must be to reconcile the criminal with society eclipses the fact that retribution is the only form of justice that answers the injustice that was perpetrated.
When we focus solely on reconciliation, we delegitimize the consequences of the offender’s crimes. The reason for punishment is because a crime has been committed and that there must be consequences for wrongdoing. The use of the death penalty clearly states that actions have consequences.
Further, no arguments about the dignity of the criminal can overcome the application of the death penalty. Did the dignity of the murderer’s victims matter? Did they get a say if they were to live or die? Yes, all lives do have inherent value and dignity, regardless of the offense, but this does not surpass the power of civil society to justly punish offenders and “wield the power of the sword.”
Beyond the morality of the death penalty though, one of the most common arguments against it is the cost of execution. That being said, cost itself does not invalidate justice. The character of an action does not change based on a financial cost. It is foreseeable that a society could abolish the death penalty based on the cost alone; however, that is not a direct argument against the method itself, merely its financial burden as a reason to not carry it out.
When it does come to the cost, one of the reasons it does cost so much is because of appeals. If states were to minimize the number of mandatory appeals, that is, to stand behind fulfilled justice, and if the federal courts were to defer to the criminal justice systems of the states, it is only logical to say that the cost would go significantly down, as it would remove repeated costs. In short, the Supreme Court does not need to decide every death penalty case at the 11th hour.
Further, the death penalty serves as a deterrent to crime. According to Michael Summers and Roy Alder, in The Wall Street Journal, “recent research shows that each execution carried out is correlated with about 74 fewer murders the following year…” Overall, the death penalty serves as a reminder of the consequences of criminal behavior and protects communities from dangerous aggressors.
In regards to claims that the death penalty is too error filled to be applied to anyone, I would point them to an article from The Heritage Foundation, which states: “According to Dudley Sharp, from Justice For All, a nonprofit organization that works on criminal justice reform, ‘somewhere between 15 and 30 death row inmates have been released from death row with credible evidence of actual innocence That represents about a 0.3-percent error rate of the 7,300 sentenced to death since 1973.’” Just because there are errors in the justice system, albeit small, does not make the case for the removal of justice entirely.
In conclusion, the death penalty plays an integral role in furthering justice. When societies have the means to punish the worst of crimes, it serves as both a deterrent to protect communities, but most importantly an adequate punishment to fit the vilest of crimes. So, I ask again, do the Jones children deserve justice?