Is the Death Penalty for the Best or Worst?

The validity of the penalty of death has been a subject of debate as early as 1600. Proponents of the death penalty justifies it as an act of retribution, and as a deterrent for future crimes, while those who are against it state that death penalty violates the international human rights standards—that it is a fundamental violation of the human right to life. Abolitionists also cite that imposing death as punishment is irreversible which may cause injustice to those who were convicted and sentenced to death but turned out to be innocent.

In any case, the question raised by abolitionists in response to the justification that imposing death is an act of retribution: “Are there any crimes so grave, or criminal so evil, that death is the only just punishment? ” (Stuart 3) Consider this: On August 15, 1990, Angel Diaz, age 19, was sentenced in the Bronx for the murder of an Israeli immigrant who had employed one of Diaz's friends. After strangling the man with a shoelace and stabbing him, Diaz and our friends donned Halloween masks to rob, beat, and gang-rape the man's wife and 16-year-old daughter.

The women were then sexually tortured while the murdered man's 3-year-old daughter watched from her crib. Consider, again, these situations: (1)    A drug addict in New York stabs to death a vibrant, gifted, 22-year-old graduate student who has dedicated her life to helping others. (2)    A sex pervert lures little children into his home, sexually abuses them, and the kills them. Over twenty bodies are discovered on his property.

(3)    A man sends his wife and daughter on an airplane trip, puts a time bomb into their luggage, and takes out a million dollar insurance policy on them. The money will be used to pay off his gambling debts and for prostitutes. (4)    A bomb explodes outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing more than 160 people and injuring many others. These were just some of the examples cited by Louis Pojman in his article “For the Death Penalty” (1, 4).

There are, of course, thousands of similar cases which raises the questions: first, how do we feel about the cases? What should happen to the criminals in these cases? How can the victims or their loved ones ever be compansated for their crimes? Surely, the first instinct would be to feel sympathy for the victims and hatred for those responsible for the crimes. As early as 1700, proponents of the death penalty cite that “the capital punishment was a way of 'counterbalancing temptation by terror, and alarming the vicious by the prospect of misery'” (Stuart 10).

As historian and Law professor, Stuart Banner, explains: “An executed criminal was 'an example and warning, to prevent others from those courses that lead to so fatal and ignominious a conclusion—and thus those men whose lives are no longer of any use in the world, are made of some service to it by their deaths. ' Fear, terror, warning—whatever one called it, the main purpose of the death penalty was conceived to be its deterrent effect, its power to prevent prospective criminals from committing crimes” (10). Stuart further describes the capital punishment during those times:

“An execution had to be a public event, open to anyone wishing to attend... By locating executions in open spaces affording views to large numbers of people and by scheduling them in the daytime to maximize visibility and and convenience for spectators, officials sought to broadcast terror as widely as possible. (10) Until the nineteenth century, hangings were conducted outdoors, often before thousands of spectators, as part of a larger ritual including a procession to the gallows, a sermon and a speech by the condemned prisoner. Hangings were not macabre spectacles staged for a bloodthirsty crowd.

A hanging was normally asomber event, like a church service. Hanging day was a dramatic portrayal, in which everyone could participate, of the community's desire to supress wrongdoing. It was a powerful symbolic statemnt of the gravity of crime and its consequences. (24) Watching a hanging allowed spectators to signify, in the strongest possible way, their disapproval of the crime and the criminal. By attending, a spectator could witness and participate in a depiction, literally in the flesh, of the community's most important norms, those proscribing grave crimes.

For each person in the crowd, the ceremony reinforced the the community's concern for crime. At the same time, each spectator by his simple presence in effect declared his membership in that same community and his adherence to those same norms. Despite their sympathy with the condemned prisoner as a person, specators were not there to take his side against the state... There was no other occasion on which the community's interest in crime and its consequence was made so manifest. (32)

In 1764, Cesare Breccaria of Italy wrote On Crimes and Punishment wherein he argues his opposition to the death penalty. He claims that “the death of a criminal is a terrible but momentary spectacle, and therefore a less efficacious method of deterring others than the continued example of a man deprived of his liberty, condemned, as a beast of burden, to repair, by his labour, the injury he has done to society, 'If I commit such a crime', says the spectator to himself, 'I shall be reduced to that miserable condition for the rest of my life.

' A much more powerful preventive than the fear of death which men always behold in distant obscurity. ” His argument simply claims that there is no justification for the state to take the lives of criminals. He further raised a question that: “Is it not absurd, that the laws, which detest and punish homicide, should, in order to prevent murder, publicly commit murder themselves? ” (ch. 28). Because of his manuscript, abolitionists in the US gained momentum but had not altogether abolished the death penalty.

In 1794, Pensyvania became the first state to consider degrees of murder based on culpability and the first to abolish the death penalty for all offenses except first-degree murder. In 1846, Michigan became the first state to abolish the the death penalty for murder followed by Rhode Island and Winsconsin (Hood 9). But the death penalty has yet to be abolished worldwide. As of 2000, 71 countries had retained the death penalty. The capital punishment often rests on its deterrent effects as compared with alternative lesser punishments.