To Kill or Not to Kill …

Some crimes are so heinous, the perpetrators of those crimes so remorseless, that we want those criminals to pay for their evil deeds with their own lives.  We think they have no place in society, that in fact they do not belong in this world.  I get that, I really do, and in fact until a few years ago I was very conflicted on the issue of capital punishment.  But as I matured, as I read more, learned more, my thought processes opened to let in other perspectives, I began to question what I once firmly believed.  What, you ask, has gotten Filosofa started on this tangent?  The answer is today’s headline in the Washington Post: “After 18 botched IV attempts on a screaming, bleeding inmate, Ohio gets another chance to execute him”.

The death penalty as a form of punishment has a long history, dating back to 1608 when Captain George Kendall was hanged for the capital offense of treason in the Jamestown Colony of Virginia.  From 1930 to 2002, 4,661 executions were carried out in the U.S, about two-thirds of them in the first 20 years. Additionally, the United States Army executed 135 soldiers between 1916 and 1955 (the most recent). The largest single execution in United States history was the hanging of 38 American Indians convicted of murder and rape during the Dakota War of 1862. They were executed simultaneously on December 26, 1862, in Mankato, Minnesota.

There were no execution in the entire country between 1967 and 1977. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down capital punishment statutes in Furman v. Georgia, reducing all death sentences pending at the time to life imprisonment.  In 1976, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the constitutionality of capital punishment in the case of Gregg v. Georgia.  The United States is one of only five industrialized democracies that still practice capital punishment. Among the others, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan have executed prisoners, while South Korea currently has a moratorium in effect.

Arguments for and against capital punishment are based on moral, practical, and religious grounds. Advocates of the death penalty argue that it deters crime, is a good tool for prosecutors (in plea bargaining for example), improves the community by eliminating recidivism by executed criminals, provides closure to surviving victims or loved ones, and is a just penalty for the crimes it punishes. The arguments of opponents are equally compelling, saying it is not an effective means of deterring crime, risks the execution of the innocent and puts government on the same moral plain as the criminals. Many, including myself, would also argue that the administration of capital punishment is biased toward the poor and minorities who do not have access to the same quality of legal representation as others.

A couple of years ago, I took a law class that included a segment on wrongful convictions.  That segment was taught by members of The Innocence Project, a “national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.”  This class was an eye-opener for me.  To date, some 156 people who were on death row have been exonerated by The Innocence Project and similar organizations.  Think about that statistic … 156 human beings might have been executed for a crime they did not commit.  While admittedly, that is not my sole reason for changing my thoughts about capital punishment, it is certainly a major part of the reason.  Juries and judges are humans and humans sometimes make mistakes, especially when you consider the many flaws that exist in the legal/judicial system in the U.S.

Some would argue that executing a criminal saves the state the cost of housing and feeding him for the rest of his life, but there is a fallacy in that line of thought.  A man sentenced to the death penalty is likely to use every appeal available to him … paid for by the state.  Additionally, it costs approximately $90,000 more per year to house a prisoner on death row than in the general prison population. However, we are talking about a human life, and while politicians may try, it is still impossible to put a price tag on a human life. 

Charles Manson’s death sentence was reduced to life imprisonment in 1972, and he still lives today, at the age of 81.  Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer, is alive today at age 67.  David Berkowitz, Son of Sam, is alive and well at age 62.  Am I happy about these people surviving to old age on the taxpayer’s dime?  No.  BUT … I would rather they live to a ripe old age on my dime and yours than to take their lives.  For me, it is not a religious issue, nor a pragmatic one, but a humanist one.  I would rather see a thousand guilty men go free than to risk executing a single innocent man.  I make no attempt to sway anyone with this post, but simply felt a need to make my own opinion heard and understood.  I a very curious to hear some of your opinions on this issue, so please do feel free to comment!

11 thoughts on “To Kill or Not to Kill …

  1. I have been an opponent of the death penalty since I was a child. I think it is “cruel and unusual” and so unconstitutional. I am also opposed on moral/religious grounds. If we believe that killing a person is wrong, then we, as a society, should not kill a person, either.

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  2. Capital punishment has not proven to be an effective deterrent to other criminals. The process takes so long through the many appeals and years of waiting that it is very costly for the penal system. The justification for it seems to be revenge or retribution. I’m not sure that’s enough to justify it as a modern form of punishment.

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  3. Not an easy topic…. On the one hand I can understand that people who are emotionally connected to the crime want the culprit “gone”. On the other hand the thought of innocent people getting killed because of a mistake really makes me shiver. You can always release someone from prison, but not from the grave. Plus I really feel the strong pull of “thou shalt not kill” – not necessarily as a religious commandment, but as an ethical one. I can understand killing someone in self-defence, protecting your life or that of a loved one (or even a stranger). But sentencing someone to death, executing him, that has a cold-bloodedness I am not sure we as human beings should possess.

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  4. I am not sure and don’t quote me here, but I believe the last execution in Canada was 1967 ( the country I live in ) it would have been done at the Kingston Pen in Ontario and it would have been death by hanging , that said, I was born that year and grew up in a country (Canada) that had done away with the death penalty , I am kinda wishy washy about it, I mean on one hand… there are certain criminals that SHOULD be taken off this planet , but on the other hand…. what if there is an innocent person headed for the gallows…. case in point… David Milgaard, an innocent man who was convicted or a very violent rape and murder back in the late 60’s early 70’s … he did more than 30 years behind bars before it was discovered he was absolutely innocent ( he would have been 17 or 18 when he was convicted) … another one Steven Truscott … an innocent boy convicted of a rape and murder he didn’t commit and he was way young , like 12 or 13 when he got convicted , so ya… I grew up without the death penalty, and I lean more towards not killing criminals just in case…. but again… there are those like charles manson , ted bundy jeffrey dahmer paul bernardo etc that are indeed guilty and should be killed….. therein lies my dilemma

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    • I fully understand that dilemma … nevertheless, I give Canada a “two-thumbs-up” for abolishing the death penalty. Better safe than sorry, I think. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment! I appreciate your input.

      Liked by 1 person

I would like to hear your opinion, so please comment if you feel so inclined.

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