The Death Penalty

   by Cayce Grove

Today we are able to punish the most severe crimes with the most severe punishment, the death penalty. In 1967, there was a moratorium put on all executions (Day 1). There have been arguments for and against the death penalty since it was reinstated in 1976. Some believe that the 956 defendants who have been executed received the punishment they deserved. However, others believe that the death penalty constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. I myself was one who did not have an opinion on the death penalty until I had the opportunity to work for a juvenile court judge, who was also a defense attorney. At times I could not understand how he could defend people who committed certain crimes, especially if they were heinous enough to receive the death penalty. That is what prompted my intrigue in this topic. The more I researched the death penalty, the more interested I became. As I researched, I learned that the death penalty discriminates racially, it discriminates against people of lower socioeconomic status, it lacks deterrent values, and the risk of error is very high. It is for these reasons I believe the death penalty should be abolished.

The death penalty is discriminatory to minorities and those of lower socioeconomic status. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 96% of states where there have been reviews of race and the death penalty found there was a pattern of either race-of-victim or race-of-defendant discrimination or both. This study indicated that 12 executions were of a White defendant whose victim was Black vs. 193 executions were of a Black defendant whose victim was White. Also, a statistical study in Philadelphia indicated that African Americans were 38% more likely to receive the death penalty vs. defendants of any other race for similar crimes. According to a study in North Carolina, the odds were 3.5 times greater for a defendant to receive the death penalty if the victim was White. A majority of inmates cannot afford legal representation. Therefore, they are granted a court-appointed attorney. Court-appointed attorneys are underpaid and inexperienced; therefore, they do not invest much time and effort in death penalty cases. According to these facts, minorities and people of lower socioeconomic status are clearly suffering more due to the discrimination that is within the death penalty.

Along with the death penalty’s being discriminatory, it is also very costly to us as taxpayers. The amount it takes to keep the death penalty active is astronomical. According to the Georgia Department of Corrections website, it takes an average of $17,000 to support one inmate in a maximum security prison for one year. If we multiply that times the ten years that inmate will spend on death row, that equals about $170,000. If we then add to that amount 3.2 million dollars for execution, we are looking at almost 3.5 million dollars. This one example just shows how much of a burden the death penalty puts on taxpayers, and I for one feel as if that money could be put to better use. The trial for a death penalty case averages about 34 days; whereas, a non-death penalty cases averages only 9 days. What it takes to execute one inmate costs three times more than what it would to house an inmate in a maximum security prison for forty years. These unnecessary and exorbitant costs will continue as long as the death penalty is used. In addition to the death penalty’s being discriminatory and costly, it also lacks deterrent values.

Opposition continues to grow for the death penalty, and surprisingly, victims’ families are voicing much of the opposition. Critics feel the death penalty lacks deterrent values when it comes to stopping/preventing certain crimes. In a 1995 national survey, police chiefs said the death penalty is the least effective means of controlling crime (Day 12). Another national survey in 2000 showed that when life without parole is offered, more people support this option than the death penalty. Murder rates are also not lower for states that enforce the death penalty versus those that do not (Day 12). In fact, states with the death penalty actually have higher crime rates (Day 12).

There are many opposing arguments when it comes to the death penalty. However, one of the worst aspects of the death penalty is the possibility of sentencing to death someone who is innocent. Many people are on death row who are innocent. During the last century alone, at least twenty-five people who were executed were later found innocent. Risk of error is as high as 68% when it comes to capital crimes (Schetky 10). There have also been questions as to whether or not eye-witnesses are as credible as the justice system once thought. This flaw could be reduced by forbidding capital punishment in cases where the conviction is based solely on the testimony of a single eyewitness.

With all this negativity towards the death penalty, it is hard to believe that it is still in effect. Someone may wonder why it is still being used. There are many groups that speak out against the death penalty. One group in particular is the Blue Ribbon Commission. This group studied the problems within the state of Illinois that pertained to death penalty. They compiled and released a series of 85 recommendations in 2003. Some of the recommendations include: Videotaping of all interrogations of capital suspects conducted in a police facility; reducing the number of crimes eligible for the death sentence from 20 to 5; forbidding capital punishment where there is only one eyewitness; barring capital punishment in cases where the defendant is mentally retarded; establishing a state-wide commission to confirm a local state’s attorney’s decision to seek the death penalty; intensifying the scrutiny of testimony provided by in-custody informants; and requiring a trial judge to concur with a jury’s determination that a death sentence is appropriate, or sentencing the defendant to natural life.

Although these recommendations are not going to abolish the death penalty over night, it is a very good start. With so much evidence showing how negative the death penalty is, it is very surprising to me that it is still in effect. Beyond the argument of the death penalty’s being good or bad, the fact that it discriminates against minorities and people of lower socioeconomic status, it is costly, it lacks deterrent values, and the risk of error is very high shows how negative the death penalty is for our society.

Cayce Grove, at the time of this speech a sophomore majoring in Social Work, reasearched and presented this speech, "The Death Penalty," for Ms. Barbara Tucker’s COMM 1110 class during spring 2005 semester.

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