The death penalty is the center of a highly publicized controversy. The sentencing of the 18-year-old American Michael Fay to a caning in Singapore and Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun’s unequivocal public renunciation of capital punishment have intensified current debate over punishment in general and capital punishment in particular—the topic of this essay.
The Fay controversy and the Blackmun declaration raise deep questions about how to get “the punishment to fit the crime” (Bedau 67). This is a difficult issue. Why do, or should, we seek the death of some criminals? How might we define death punishment, the justification of which is being debated here? The argument of this paper is that punishment must involve unpleasant consequences for the one being punished of capital crimes – death.
The myth persists that by sanctioning “an eye for an eye” the Bible is calling for the death sentence. Take a careful look. The same Mosaic laws (to be found principally in Exodus XXI and Deuteronomy XIX) that are all too commonly assumed to condone capital punishment also call for death. The Hebrew text, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” was meant to prohibit mass killings (Bedau 240).
Is it justifiable for an authorized representative of society to inflict death on those found guilty of committing capital crimes? On the issue of capital punishment, there is as clear a clash of moral intuitions. Justice requires payment in kind and thus that murderers should die. Surely, the most convincing argument for the death penalty is that it protects innocent people by stopping convicted murderers from committing murder again.
The death penalty is marginally necessary to deter crimes better than less severe penalties. More significant results come from the capital punishment’s restraining effect on the much larger population where can be future killers—what criminologists name as general deterrence. Testimony for death penalty’s general deterrent effect is found in three sources: logic, firsthand reports, and social science research.
Logic presents the conclusion that the capital punishment is the most effective deterrent for some kinds of killers. As Professor James Q. Wilson has said: “People are governed in their daily lives by rewards and penalties of every sort. We shop for bargain prices, praise our children for good behavior and scold them for bad, expect lower interest rates to stimulate home building and fear that higher ones will depress it, and conduct ourselves in public in ways that lead our friends and neighbors to form good opinions of us.
To assert that ‘deterrence doesn’t work’ is tantamount to either denying the plainest facts of everyday life or claiming that would-be criminals are utterly different from the rest of us” (Bedau 189). Many murderers on death row declare that they did not think of the death penalty when they killed people. This is surely true. That is exactly the point. If they had thought of future death penalty, they would not have committed their horrible murders.
The death penalty for the murderers makes a number of assumptions about the relationship between death punishment and the well being of those who suffered loss as a result of the crime. It is assumed that there is a “zerosum” relationship between the welfare of the victim’s relative and that of the offender: the greater the suffering to be inflicted on the offender, the better the victim’s loved ones should feel (Bedau 231).
Perhaps a linkage of the selected penalty to the feelings of satisfaction of the victim’s relatives becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, with the relatives feeling rewarded by the jury’s choice of death penalty. The death penalty serves to release tensions in people, that it makes them feel that justice is being done.
However, the imposition of the death penalty must be constitutional which imposes a dual procedure for the death penalty: first, conviction beyond a reasonable doubt for the act(s); and second, a separate sentencing hearing in which evidence relevant to personal culpability is admissible. The court, prior to imposition of the death penalty, have to find the existence of certain aggravating factors and the absence of relevant mitigating factors (for example, age, psychiatric history, family background, and the like); the death penalty judgment, in turn, is subject to appellate review as its fairness and the absence of invidious factors.
Bedau, Hugo Adam. Debating the Death Penalty: Should America Have Capital Punishment? The Experts on Both Sides Make Their Best Case. Oxford University Press: New York. Publication Year: 2004.