Should capital punishment be abolished?

Tuesday, March 03

By Clara

I recently read a journal article by Stephen B. Bright, which discussed topics of race, poverty, and the death penalty, as well as the responsibility of the legal profession. This made me question our current judicial system, which made me do some research. It shouldn't come as a surprise that capital punishment has been a hot topic of discussion in recent years, especially since the United States is the only western country to still use the death penalty. Then comes the inevitable question, should Capital punishment be abolished? If so, what alternatives are there to replace capital punishment? Today, I will be discussing the challenges one may face while being accused of a crime and facing the death penalty and why the current judicial system pertaining to capital punishment remains unjust.

Let's talk about some of the challenges the accused may face. Let's start with poverty. Did you know that 90% of people who are accused of crimes are poor? Being poor gives the accused a major disadvantage right from the get-go. When one is poor, they are unable to get a competent lawyer to represent them. In turn, they have to settle with court-appointed lawyers, which then brings us to this question: why would the state hire a lawyer to defend a person they are trying to convict? Without competent lawyers, rights and laws mean nothing. One such example would be Gary Dinkard's case. As mentioned in the journal, exonerating evidence was kept from the jury because his lawyers failed to conduct a sufficient pretrial investigation. Said evidence includes proof that Mr. Dinkard was disabled with a back injury on the day of the crime and visited his neurologist that same day. A witness also placed Mr. Dinkard at his house at the time of the murder. As a result of the insufficient evidence, Mr. Dinkard was sentenced to death for murder. Fortunately, the case was reversed due to prosecutorial misconduct. This is just one out of the many examples where an incompetent lawyer has harmed the outcome of a case tremendously.

Another common challenge faced by persons charged with crimes is racial prejudice. Race influences everything, from treatment prior to and during an arrest to the fairness of the trial and many more. In a predominantly white judicial system, persons of color are at a disadvantage.

Mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities are also common challenges faced. Multiple issues are concerned, such as sanity at the time of the crime and competency for trial, to name a few. Even persons without a diagnosable mental illness may be damaged due to the neglect or abuse they have faced. So, how does this come to play in sentencing? Let's look at the case of Arkansas vs. Rickey Ray Rector. In 1992, Rector was executed for the 1981 murder of police officer Robert Martin in Arkansas. Rector first killed a man in a restaurant, then proceeded to kill the police officer who negotiated his surrender. Finally, he shot himself in the head as a suicide attempt but failed, which resulted in a lobotomy. Rector was already mentally impaired prior to the incident, and his condition only worsened after he shot himself.

This case shocked the community as it was the first time they had experienced the death of a police officer, especially one that was well-loved in the community. Naturally, the public was for the execution of Rector. Then comes the main question. Is Rector competent enough to stand trial? The defense's doctor's diagnosis was that Rector had retrograde amnesia, brain damage, no emotion, was mildly mentally retarded, had an IQ of 63, and there was no possibility for him to be faking his condition. However, the state's doctor's diagnosis was that he was lying about the memory loss and that his condition had actually improved by the second trial, essentially implying that his behavior was a choice.

Despite the sufficient evidence of mental retardation provided, such as his child-like behavior, his IQ, and his wanting to save his dessert for later (see his last meal here), he was found competent, and the trial moved forward, which ultimately lead to his execution. This case brings about yet another question. Why did the trial move forward? Rector was clearly mentally insufficient, couldn't communicate with his defense, and did not understand the proceeding against him. Was it because of Rector's race? It was an all-white jury in a community that was only 10% black. Was Rector's race motivation for the jury to proceed with the execution?

Wrongful execution happens more often than one might think. According to Amnesty International, 151 people have been released from death row throughout the country since 1973, when new evidence of their innocence emerged. This goes to show that the evidence collected at the time of prosecution may have been insufficient in an effort to speed up the process of charging someone. Racial prejudice is also ubiquitous in the states, which may fuel wrongful prosecution. Popular 2019 American drama web television miniseries “When They See Us” perfectly depicts and highlights the flaws in the current judicial system. I believe that anyone, innocent or guilty, deserves a proper trial and prosecution. As the saying goes, innocent until proven guilty.

The main sentencing objectives are Deterrence, Rehabilitation, and Retribution, and I truly believe that rehabilitation outweighs retribution. The idea of capital punishment is ironic. Hear me out. The point of capital punishment is to punish perpetrators behind heinous crimes. However, have we considered the fact that capital punishment is essentially punishing someone using equally egregious means? As Cesare Beccaria once said Traité des Délits et des Peines, the murder that is depicted as a horrible crime is repeated in cold blood, remorselessly. Hence, I believe that capital punishment is an ironic system of justice.

Many argue that capital punishment is a human rights violation due to inhumane execution methods that have been and still are used to this day. Hanging is the most widely used method of execution, followed by shooting, lethal injection, stoning, electrocution, gas inhalation and beheading (Saudi Arabia). Needless to say, these methods especially stoning and beheading are absolutely gratuitous. Many argue that capital punishment is the worst violation of human rights, because the right to life is the most important, and capital punishment violates it without necessity and inflicts to the condemned a psychological torture.

Supporters of the death penalty may argue that it is essential as it can be used as a plea bargain, which will help prosecutors apprehend any accomplices involved in the crime. In a study conducted by Ilyana Kuziemko, it was concluded that the death penalty leads more defendants to plead guilty to their original arraignment charges. You can read the article here. However, the death penalty doesn't seem to deter people from committing serious violent crimes. The thing that deters is the likelihood of being caught and punished. It has also been proven time and time again that life imprisonment is as effective of a punishment as the death penalty.

In a survey conducted for the UN, it was concluded that research has failed to provide scientific proof that executions have a greater deterrent effect than life imprisonment. Such proof is unlikely to be forthcoming. The evidence as a whole still gives no positive support to the deterrent hypothesis. The key to real and true deterrence is to increase the likelihood of detection, arrest, and conviction. The death penalty is a harsh punishment, but it is not harsh on crime — Amnesty International.

Therefore, I believe that the disadvantages and flaws of the death penalty outweigh the one benefit that it has proven to have.

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