Capital punishment

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Capital punishment or the death penalty is the legal process of causing an individual's death as a punishment for a crime. A decree that one be punished in this manner is a death sentence, while the enforcement itself of such a decree is known as an execution. The term capital punishment was borrowed from the Latin capitalis ("[of/relating to] the head"), referring to the once-common method of execution by beheading.

Death sentences are currently handed down and carried out in about a third of the world's countries, including countries with very large populations such as China, India and the United States.[1] The Council of Europe prohibits the use of the death penalty by its members, and Article 2 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union prohibits the use of capital punishment.[2] The United Nations General Assembly has also passed three non-binding resolutions calling for an end to the death penalty.[3]

China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United States are the nations which perform the most executions. [4]


[edit] Death penalty laws

While most cultures have historically used capital punishment, many countries, particularly Western and democratic ones, have moved, or are moving, away from the application of this punishment.[5] Italian philosopher and politician Cesare Beccaria condemned capital punishment in his 1764 treatise On Crimes and Punishments. Early moves towards abolition began in some European countries during the mid 19th century, but the move away from capital punishment gathered momentum a century later, in the years following the Second World War, as human rights became a more significant political issue.

The 1950 European Convention on Human Rights recommended that the death penalty be abolished in European nations or restricted to times of war. Protocol 6 restricted the death penalty to times of war, and Protocol 13 later provided for the complete abolition of the death penalty. The vast majority of European countries have adopted both of these protocol, excepting a few in Eastern Europe. The United Kingdom abolished the death penalty for virtually all offences in 1969 (although it still remained a theoretically valid sentence for treason until the passage of the Human Rights Act in 1998). In December 2007 the United Nations General Assembly approved a moratorium on the death penalty, which calls for a worldwide suspension (not necessarily abolition) of capital punishment. The moratorium is not binding, but established an international consensus against the death penalty.

[edit] United States

The United States is the single exception to the western trend towards abolition, with many states still applying the ultimate penalty for serious and/or repeated crime. In 1972 a moratorium was placed on executions by the Supreme Court, not because capital punishment itself was ruled unconstitutional but because of perceived procedural flaws. After these were ironed out, executions resumed in 1976. Capital punishment is still exercised in 33 states; regions with no capital punishment include Alaska, most of New England and parts of the Midwest.[6]. Even in these regions, however, some federal offenses, such as treason, the murder of federal employees, or in some cases espionage, remain capital since federal law takes precedence; although the only three federal prisoners executed since the moratorium (all under George W. Bush) were from death penalty states, 8 of the 59 current federal death row inmates are from abolitionist states[7].

Sadly, injustices are still regularly discovered, with 140 wrongly convicted people released from death row since 1973. A peer reviewed statistical analysis concluded that at least 4% of people on death row are innocent. [8] It is estimated that 3% of American executions are botched but the proportion of lethal injections botched is much higher. [9]

[edit] Other nations where capital punishment is legal

Capital punishment also remains in most of Asia, numerous African countries and the Middle East. Usage varies from nation to nation. For example, in the United States the death penalty is usually reserved for homicide-related crimes, and in Japan for multiple homicides (done by hanging of all things). Some countries, such as Russia and South Korea, still retain death penalty laws but have stopped issuing death sentences in recent years. In communist China, the death penalty is applied for various crimes against the state, including high levels of embezzlement and tax evasion, murder and child molestation, and killing pandas. Executions happen very quickly in China, so quickly that the government maintains a fleet of "execution vans" that condemned prisoners are hustled into, killed, and popped right out the other end. In India, crimes such as mutiny, treason, murder and serious drug trafficking can be a capital offence however, the Supreme Court has given 'rarest of rare' criterion for using capital punishment. Some self-proclaimed Islamic nations such as Mauritania, Yemen, Sudan, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have capital laws against sodomy and sometimes adultery, as well as apostasy (abandoning religion or converting to another faith).[10]

[edit] Lethal injection

In the USA the current main method of execution is by lethal injection. The standard before recent times was a cocktail of three drugs that paralyse before killing. Although it is claimed by some[Who?] that this is more humane than gas, electrocution or hanging, the method can potentially mask pain. It is estimated that just over 7% of lethal injections are botched. [9]

A growing shortage of the drugs used for killing convicted criminals has begun to affect the practice of capital punishment in the United States. The European Union refuses to allow export of drugs for lethal injections, leading many states to use untested and/or unreliably sourced drug cocktails. Some states are using secrecy laws to prevent close examination of precisely what they are doing [11] and US attorney general Eric Holder, has called for greater transparency. [12] At least one execution was delayed for a time due to trouble sourcing lethal drugs. [13]

During 2014 as of August there have been 3 seriously botched executions using lethal injections.

  1. In the state of Ohio Dennis McGuire was executed using a drug combination which a Harvard anesthologist warned would leave him conscious and aware of what happened while he suffocated. McGuire gasped for 10 minutes, clenched his fists and tried to rise from the gurney. [14] Amnesty International considers suffocation a form of torture. [15]
  2. In Arizona Joseph Wood gasped for roughly 2 hours and was injected 15 times before finally dying. [16] There are widespread fears that Wood was tortured. [17] Since the potency of drugs that needed so many injections is unknown we cannot currently establish how much he could feel. There have been calls for an inquiry. [18]
  3. Oklahoma used an experimental drug cocktail as a substitute for the now-unavailable standard mixture in order to execute Clayton Lockett. Lockett died an agonizing death in what was obviously a botched attempt to execute him. For part of the time blinds were drawn to prevent witnesses observing exactly what happened. [19][20] In a blog post appearing shortly thereafter, biologist PZ Myers wondered why it was difficult to conduct judicial executions in a humane manner when euthanizing animals painlessly is a simple process. [21] Isaan Tharoor, a blogger for the Washington Post argues that other gruesome forms of execution are more humane than what happened to Lockett, whether that's beheading, firing squad, hanging, or falling from a height. [22]

[edit] Support

In the United States, many Evangelical Christians support the death penalty despite being "pro-life", making the distinction between "innocent" life and "non-innocent" life. Judgment is not, as is often stated, left to God.[23] Of course, without capital punishment, their religion would have had a lot of trouble getting started. Indeed, the Bible lists a vast number of "crimes" which "merit" the death penalty.

Capital punishment is generally supported by conservatives — you know, the ones against abortion because they "hold to the sanctity of life", yet somehow seem to feel that an adult life has no particular sanctity if it is being lived by a person who, for whatever reason, has committed a particular crime.

Thankfully, it's not true of all conservative or religious groups; some people and religious organizations that are anti-abortion, such as the Roman Catholic Church and those subscribing to "consistent life ethic", are also anti-capital punishment and often anti-war, too.

On the flip side, individuals such as pundit Bill Maher espouse views which could be said to amount to a "consistent death ethic", with Maher humorously referring to himself as being "pro-death" due to his support of abortion and euthanasia as well as the death penalty.

[edit] Opposition

The Roman Catholic Church is now relatively consistent in its pro-life stance, opposing both abortion and most cases of capital punishment, although some American Catholics don't seem to have noticed. [24]

Opponents of capital punishment usually cite a number of reasons for their position, from the view that it creates a moral vacuum at the heart of society wherein the only body with the authority to legitimately and with premeditation kill is the State, that it is institutionalized barbarism, and pointing to the small but significant number of cases where the death penalty has been enacted and the accused has been subsequently demonstrated to be innocent of the crime for which they suffered the ultimate penalty. There are many examples of innocent people being executed — see below for a list. There is (in the U.S.) currently a program funding DNA testing of evidence to exonerate potentially wrongly convicted inmates on death row, which is producing a steady trickle of freed prisoners.

There is also the rather abstract concept that a state is subservient to its people, and may never take their lives for any reason. And the United States, after all these years, still has one of the worst murder rates in the developed world. Something's definitely not working.

[edit] Biases

Another issue for the U.S. and its continued use of the death penalty is the evident racial bias in its application. Black males are far more likely to be sentenced to death for similar or even lesser crimes than white males, and the death penalty is more likely to be imposed when the victim is white. A gender bias is also evident, with very few women receiving the death penalty, even in light of the disparity in criminal incidence. Both of these biases indicate to outside observers that in spite of the protestations of its supporters that the death penalty is all about deterrence, it has a much murkier rationale that puts the whole process on a very dubious footing. This effect is attributed to the US practice of having the death penalty requested by the prosecution during and after conviction, rather than by a more impartial source such as a judge. Of course, judges aren't free of bias, and may impose harsher penalties during an election year.[25]

[edit] Deterrent effect

The supposed deterrent effect is also dubious as it doesn't deter against the main motives for murder; passion, compulsion and profit. The first two cannot be deterred against practically by definition. In the case of the third no one commits a crime anticipating that they will be apprehended and punished - those who do anticipate such scenarios usually have plans to get away with it; be it destroying the evidence, framing someone else, hiding from law enforcement, or getting a good lawyer to beat the rap. Additionally there is the "might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb" effect — once someone is subject to the ultimate penalty, there is nothing to hold them back. Once the "point of no return" has been reached (i.e. rape, murder, etc.), there is no longer a deterrent to further crimes to avoid capture and punishment. (Admittedly this holds true whatever the ultimate penalty is — be it lifelong imprisonment, death or deportation!) FBI data shows that over the last 20 years, the murder rate has, on average, been higher in states which retain the death penalty than those which do not.

However, one should be careful not to confuse correlation with causation. That states with the death penalty have higher murder rates than states without does not imply that there is a causal relationship between murder rates and capital punishment. The April 18, 2012 report by the National Research Council of the National Academies reviewed more than three decades of research and concluded that studies claiming a deterrent effect on murder rates from the death penalty are fundamentally flawed. Criminologist Daniel Nagin of Carnegie Mellon said: "Nothing is known about how potential murderers actually perceive their risk of punishment." The report concluded: “The committee concludes that research to date on the effect of capital punishment on homicide is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates" [26]

[edit] Racism

Racism is a factor in determining who gets executed. In the US, an execution is more likely in a murder case if the accused is black and the victim is white. A study in Philadelphia showed blacks were significantly more likely to get the death penalty than whites or defendants of other races regardless of the severity of the murder. [27] [28]

Blatant racist language on the part of the police indicates the biases at play: Texas police officer[Who?] told Clarence Brandley, who was charged with the murder of a white high school girl: "One of you two is gonna hang for this. Since you're the nigger, you're elected." Brandley was later exonerated in 1990 after ten years on death row. [29]

Judges are also known to drop an occasional N-bomb when the accused's life is at stake. In preparing for the penalty phase of an African-American defendant's trial, a white judge in Florida said in open court: "Since the nigger mom and dad are here anyway, why don't we go ahead and do the penalty phase today instead of having to subpoena them back at cost to the state." Anthony Peek was sentenced to death and the sentence was upheld by the Florida Supreme Court in 1986 reviewing his claim of racial bias.[29] Juries can also engage in racist language. One black member of the jury (that convicted a black man) later described an atmosphere of racial intimidation. A white juror said execution would leave "one less nigger to breed".[30]

[edit] Costs

Death penalty proponents often complain that taxpayer dollars would have to be used to support criminals in jail. (So off with their heads, eh?) In fact, the death penalty actually costs more in the US due to increased investigative expenses, appeals (paid for by taxpayers), and the cost of the execution itself.[31] There are also arguments that bring up the diminishing space in jails, but they fail to consider that people about to be executed are placed on death row (usually for several years in the USA) and need to be supported.

There is also a psychological cost for the death penalty for most people involved. Many workers involved in executions have reported suffering post traumatic stress disorder or similar symptoms, including flashbacks and nightmares, and they have entered bouts of deep reflection after the execution.[32] Families related to the executed person must also cope with this loss.

[edit] False Positives

There have been documented cases of executing innocent people.[33]

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

  1. "Abolitionist and Retentionist Countries," Amnesty International
  2. "Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union" (PDF). Retrieved 23 August 2010. 
  3. "moratorium on the death penalty". United Nations. 15 November 2007. Retrieved 23 August 2010. 
  4. Death penalty 'becoming thing of the past', says Amnesty
  6. See WP: Image: Death penalty statutes in the United States.svg.
  8. US death row study: 4% of defendants sentenced to die are innocent
  9. 9.0 9.1 America's 'inexorably' botched executions
  10. See the Wikipedia article on Use of capital punishment by nation.
  11. Lethal injection: Secretive US states resort to untested drugs
  12. Eric Holder 'greatly troubled' by spate of botched executions The Guardian
  13. US serial killer Joseph Franklin granted stay of executionJoseph Franklin, white supremacist serial killer, executed
  14. Doctor angry Ohio executed inmate despite 'horror' warning
  15. Introducing Amnesty’s New Global Campaign Against Torture
  16. Joseph Wood Received 15 Injections Of Untested Drug Cocktail During Arizona ExecutionArizona inmate Joseph Wood was injected 15 times with execution drugs
  17. McCain: Prolonged Arizona execution was 'torture'
  18. Arizona lawyers lead call for inquiry into Joseph Wood's two-hour execution
  19. Oklahoma execution: Clayton Lockett death witness speaks
  20. "Clayton Lockett writhed and groaned. After 43 minutes, he was declared dead"
  21. "Charles Pierce is a bit angry"
  22. 4 horrible forms of capital punishment more humane than Oklahoma’s botched execution
  23. One might argue that these non-innocent individuals should have their lives taken afterlives fast-tracked so that God can deliver the verdict sooner. That however conflicts with denominations which promotes sola fides, because if they convert at the correct moment they will not be punished for those sins in their afterlife, and they will reap whatever rewards result from their timely conversion.
  24. retrieved Aug. 26 2008
  25. Using the Death Penalty to Get Re-Elected
  27. he Increased Risks for Blacks Facing the Death Penalty
  28. Black Defendants and the Race of the Victims
  29. 29.0 29.1 The Sounds of Racism
  30. Electric chair haunts US former executions chief
  31. Death Penalty Cost, Amnesty International
  33. 10 Infamous Cases of Wrongful Execution
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