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Law and Politics

U.S. Criminal Justice: Death Penalty

Discussion on capital punishment

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WHAT IT IS

WHY IT MATTERS

 

CIVICS: The inherent problems within the criminal justice system, such as ineffective assistance of counsel, poor forensic work, and politics of the court play a factor in the sentence an individual receives. These issues are present at all levels of the justice system, but the stakes are infinitely raised when a death sentence is involved. [Death Penalty Information Center]

 

SOCIAL: There is a moral and ethical debate. Should state governments be allowed to take an individual's life? And since medical doctors cannot perform an execution, should the practice be in place altogether? [American Medical Association]

SUPPORTERS SAY

Closure

Those in favor of capital punishment argue that victims’ family members deserve closure from the loss of a loved one. [PBS News Hour]

 

 

“Worst of the worst”

Supports say that, based on the crime they have committed, some defendants should earn the ultimate punishment.

 

Supports believe the act of murder forfeits the defendants right to life. [BBC]

 

 

Deterrent

Some supports argue that the presence of the death penalty deters criminals.

 

There is no sound evidence to support this claim.

OPPONENTS SAY

Wrongful execution

There have been 164 individuals exonerated of the crimes for which they were convicted in the United States since 1973. There have been several instances of pardons or exonerations after an individual has been executed. [Death Penalty Information Center]

 

 

Not a deterrent

Several studies show that whether or not a state has the death penalty has no effect on homicide rates, including research efforts from the U.N. [Amensity International], [National Institutes of Health]

 

The death penalty is not a deterrent to violent crime. [The Washington Post], [The New York Times]

 

 

Lethal injections 

Lethal injections are administered by individuals with no medical training, can take up to 18 minutes to execute, and is "consistently problematic." [Vox]

 

There is no national oversight on lethal injections, so each state differs in execution. [USA Today

 

Two death row inmates in Tennessee requested execution by electric chair instead of lethal injection. [Vox]

 

Lethal injection accounts for 83% of capital punishment since 1976. [Death Penalty Information Center]

 

"In light of the massive amount of evidence before us, I see no alternative but to conclude that capital punishment cannot be justified on the basis of its deterrent effect."

-Justice Marshall, U.S. Supreme Court, Furman v. Georgia, 1972

 

 

 WHERE WE ARE NOW

  • July 2019: The Department of Justice announced it would resume federal executions, ending a 16-year hold on the practice. [Associated Press] There are four prisoners set to be executed Summer 2020. [NPR]

  • July 13, 2020: The first execution was scheduled to occur in Indiana. [The New York Times] It was quickly put on hold by a federal judge in Washington. [Politico]

  • July 13, 2020: The Supreme Court stepped in, ruling in a 5-4 decision that the execution could take place. [Reuters]

  • July 14, 2020: The first federal execution in 17 years occurred at 8:07 am. [The Post and Courier]

  • 20 states have abolished the death penalty and three states have a governor-issued moratorium on executions. [Death Penalty Information Center]

  • The Ohio Legislature is trying to pass legislation that would exempt individuals with serious mental illness from receiving a death sentence. [The Columbus Dispatch] Read more about the death penalty and mental illness here.

  • As of 2017, 142 countries have abolished the death penalty. [BBC]

THINGS TO THINK ABOUT

  • Read more arguments and rebuttals here

  • What are your thoughts on a life sentence without the possibility of parole - often dubbed the slow death penalty?

  • Find resources from the American Bar Association (ABA) on mental illness and the death penalty here.

  • Should the right to have a death penalty system in place remain at the state level or should the United States make a move to abolish it nationwide?

  • How do you define “justice”?

  • Find recent enactments on capital punishment in your state here.

  • Read a mathematics professor at Dartmouth College attempt at analyzing the statistical data. Why is relying on statistics difficult?

Key Vocabulary