The ethics of the death penalty

Karla Faye Tucker

His congregation may be divided, but the Rev. Don Murray is
pretty sure of what he would have done in the Scott Peterson

If I was on that jury, I would not stand in the way of

said Murray, pastor of Hollister Vineyard Christian
His congregation may be divided, but the Rev. Don Murray is pretty sure of what he would have done in the Scott Peterson case.

“If I was on that jury, I would not stand in the way of death,” said Murray, pastor of Hollister Vineyard Christian Fellowship.

“We’re always supposed to be willing to give someone another chance, and yet the death penalty has been substantiated by the old testament philosophy of an eye for an eye. It would cause me to do lots of soul searching and lots of thinking about the facts and my opinion of the case, but I don’t think I would have stood in the way on that.”

Peterson’s sentence, delivered by jurors on Dec. 13, may have brought the debate over capital punishment to the forefront of the national consciousness once more, but despite claims of systemic bias and excessive cost, national opinion has changed little since the practice was reinstated in 1977.

Executions in the United states reached a modern-day high in 1999 with a total of 98 carried out across the country, but have declined steadily and precipitously in the last five years.

In 2004 there were 59. Despite the downturn, we still execute more people per year than any other country in the world except China, Iran and Vietnam. Convictions in death penalty cases have not dropped, and more than two thirds of Americans continue to support the practice of state-sanctioned execution despite the fact that they feel, on average, 12 percent of those on death row may actually be innocent, according to a January 2004 Harris Poll.

The governor of Illinois, George Ryan, called for a moratorium on the death penalty in that state in 2000 when he found more prisoners had been exonerated since the state reintroduced capital punishment in 1977 than had been executed. Five people – Alan Gell, Gordon “Randy” Steidl, Dan Bright, Ryan Matthews and Ray Willis – have been released from prison in Texas and Louisiana following DNA testing and appeals this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-capital punishment lobbyist group based in Washington, D.C.

Lobbyists who have sought to ban the practice on the grounds that it is cruel and unusual punishment won a major victory in the 2002 Supreme Court ruling, Atkins v. Virginia, which banned the execution of inmates who suffer from mental retardation.

Some 38 states still have the death penalty on the books, applicable in capital cases and sometimes limited by special circumstances. While the federal government reserves the right to execute its prisoners, capital punishment is a state’s issue, with rules varying from state to state. Juvenile offenders are still eligible for the punishment in Florida, Georgia, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Texas while the moratorium in Illinois remains in effect.

On the world stage this creates even greater controversy.

The United States is one of only 18 countries to execute a minor since 1990, according to Amnesty International, and has made no response to mounting pressure from the United Nations for a cessation of the practice.

This year 76 member nations of the UN Commission on Human Rights signed the sixth annual resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on execution.

“The death penalty is a human rights problem,” said United Nations Special Reporter Bacre Waly Ndiaye in a 1998 statement. “It’s not a matter of popularity or … a kind of political device. It’s a human rights issue because there is no state, all over the world, that does not recognize that every human being has a right to life, and the state has an obligation to protect this right to life. So even if their citizens – some of them, not the best ones – fail to respect the life of their fellows, why should the state follow their example?”

Such peer pressure has found success with nations from the European Union to Africa and the Americas, and many nations hope similarly to influence the United States.

When Amnesty International held its first summit on capital punishment in 1977, only 16 countries had outlawed the practice. Today, 82 have complete bans on the practice and another 14 have banned it in all but specific cases.

Another 22 still have laws permitting execution on the books, but have not enforced them in the last 10 years. Angola, Mozambique, Paraguay, Azerbaijan, Cyprus and the Ivory Coast are among the nations who have outlawed capital punishment in the past 24 months.

In terms of support, the push toward capital punishment has traditionally been supported on the grounds of deterrence, the idea that the possibility of life in prison is not enough to deter some from blood-lust, but that the idea of their own death just might.

Unfortunately, there is no way to measure this factor reliably. Among the general public, the idea probably has little weight. A 1995 survey of U.S. police chiefs conducted by Hart Research found that enforcement of the death penalty ranked last among effective approaches to reducing violent crime. In deterring prison murders, it could have an entirely different effect.

“Salinas Valley (Penitentiary) is now about three-quarters full of lifers, so now what kind of prison environment have we created?” asked Steve Smith, an instructor for Gavilan College’s Administration of Justice Department. “Why behave? The whole concept of parole and early release is to make better prisoners, but for guys who have no hope of release, you’re going to have a problem … unless you have a punishment that’s worse – the death penalty possibly. Otherwise, the only thing you can do is either isolate them 24/7 or wait until they just get old, and they give up.”

Among the general population, belief in the death penalty runs higher among Republicans than Democrats, men than women, and whites than blacks. Religious beliefs also influence the choice.

“Man is commanded to take life for just reasons,” said the Rev. W. R. Downing, pastor of Sovereign Grace Baptist Church in Morgan Hill, who said his congregation was in agreement with the practice of capital punishment. He went on to quote Genesis 9:5-6, saying, “‘Whoso shedeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.’ When someone takes another human life unlawfully, he is striking out at God, and God has delegated the state or the local government to enforce the death penalty.”

Capital punishment abolitionists have launched renewed attacks against the practice based on statistical evidence of racial bias in the system.

Blacks receive the death penalty at a rate that is 38 percent higher than their white counterparts according to a 1998 study in the Cornell Law Review.

They also make up a similar percentage of all prisoners executed, though African Americans account for only 12.5 percent of the national population. For Latinos there is a definitively lesser concern. Hispanic defendants make up 25 and 20 percent of death row inmates in Texas and California respectively, according to the watchdog group Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights.

However, considering the Hispanic populations of these two states, the percentage is not alarming. Hispanics also make up just six percent of executed defendants, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

One overwhelming statistic that applies across state lines is the propensity for capital prosecution of men. Women make up just one and a half percent of death row inmates.

A newer concern is known as rural bias. Since those living in rural areas are far less likely to receive immediate, high-quality medical care, more rural victims die from injuries that would not be fatal in urban settings (gunshot or stabbing wounds, etc.), thus leading to a higher rate of prosecution for rural defendants.

Still, simple economics may be the most practical reason for abolishing capital punishment according to the DPIC.

While costs vary according to state, it is far more costly to try a death penalty case from the original trial to the last appeal than a regular criminal homicide case.

As far back as 1988, a study conducted by the Sacramento Bee found California paid $90 million annually in additional costs incurred from capital cases.

The majority of that money, $78 million, was incurred during trial proceedings.

Today, with 638 inmates on death row as of Oct. 1, the state has the largest number of inmates on death row in the country. Just 10 have been executed in the last 37 years.

The department of corrections is currently working on a $220 million death row to replace the one at San Quentin. It will house 1,000 inmates.

“The worst part about all of it is we’ve sentenced 600 to 700 people to death, and aside from a few celebrated cases, it’s a big yawn,” said Smith. “If I wait 14 years to execute someone, the message is lost. Even the sort of visceral retribution thing is lost. A lot of discussion is centered around the victim’s families and how it brings closure to them, but with the amount of time that’s passed, a lot of times it doesn’t do anything except dredge up old wounds.”

Unofficial surveys in class find students well in line with national averages – around two-thirds in favor of capital punishment – “despite everything I tell them,” said Smith. Lanny Brown, the assistant police chief in Gilroy, said his time in college, while filled with challenges, only solidified his belief in the death penalty’s application.

“In extreme cases, it’s appropriate,” said Brown. “I’m coming home for the evening. I walk into the 7-11 store, which unbeknownst to me is in the middle of a robbery. The person shoots me in the head just because I walked in. Those suspects would warrant the death penalty. Both the intellect and the gut say that people who take away the other person’s right to live take away their own chances. They’ve canceled their opportunity to be on the planet with the rest of us.”

Pending litigation could again change the definition of the death penalty.

In October, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Roper v. Simmons, a case addressing the constitutionality of executing someone who was under when he or she committed a crime. The court will issue an opinion during its next term.

While his sentence was vacated, attorneys for Christopher Roper argue that execution of all minors should be ruled cruel and unusual punishment under the terms of the eighth amendment.

A circuit court decision vacated his sentence.

Roper was 17 when he was arrested for the murder of Shirley Crook in Missouri.

His attorneys claim new research into adolescent brain development suggests that teenagers are physically different from adults in ways that should limit their culpability in capital crimes.

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