Final Project – Carla Caban
By Carla Caban
April 27, 2017
On April 24, 2017 Jack Jones became the 1,452nd person to be executed in the United States since 1977. Jones was convicted and sentenced to death for the rape and murder of Mary Philips back in 1996. Jones among the other 1,451 people that have been executed exemplify the act of capital punishment that has been in effect in the United States for essentially all of the country’s existence. The death penalty in the Unites States for many years has been a topic of vast public dispute. Ever since the death penalty was abolished and later reinstated back in 1976, public opinion has shifted back and forth on whether to favor or oppose such sentence. For this piece, I wanted to gather more information about the death penalty and contrast both opposing and favoring views on it. I wanted to take a closer look into which states still have in effect the death penalty, which states have carried out the most executions, and ultimately what are other factors contribute to this debate. First, let’s consider the history of the death penalty in the United States.
As the timeline showed, with data taken from CNN, with the introduction of the lethal injection as a form of execution, there have been many concerns regarding whether or not this falls under “cruel or unusual punishment.” In order to be able to comprehend and examine the death penalty and its pros and cons, Hugo Adam Bedau, in a work published by the American Civil Liberties Union entitled “The Case Against the Death Penalty,” presents eight angles by which the death penalty may be analyzed. These are: the costs of the death penalty relative to incarceration, the barbarity of the practice, its public support, its increasing rejection by the global community, whether it is unfair, whether it punishes the innocent, whether it is a deterrent, and whether it is unjust retribution. By putting these into perspective one can construct a more rounded opinion on which side to stand.
Why in Favor?
So why be in favor of the death penalty? By taking into consideration these eight angles, the death penalty can guarantee that a person that has committed a heinous crime pays for what he or she did. Additionally, it removes that person from further committing additional harm to society or to himself. Some may add that it provides some level of justice to the victims of those affected by their heinous crimes. Ultimately, it could also serve as a deterrent for other criminals to commit similar heinous acts. However, there is no definite evidence that the death penalty has indeed acted as a deterrent or whether it provides a fair reason for the government to take the life of another. Most of the population are still in favor of the death penalty with 49% support compared to 42% that are opposed, however, the number continues to decline. According to Pew Research Center, Democrats account for much of the decline in support over the past two decades. In 2016, just 34% of Democrats favored the death penalty, compared with 72% of Republicans. With public support steadily declining over the past few years the nation’s attention has become focused on the possible risk of substantive error in the process of sentencing someone to death, which is why some are against it.
From my research and personal experiences and taking into consideration the eight angles again, I believe most of the people that are opposed to the death penalty is because they struggle with the morality of the act. Another is due to the possibility that an innocent person might be wrongly convicted to death. Although, there has been no conclusive evidence showing that individuals who were bound to death row that got pardoned were executed. In addition, with controversial executions like Clayton Lockett it raises concerns on the barbarity of the practice. Another aspect that comes into questions is the cost. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, cases without the death penalty can cost $740,000, while cases where the death penalty is sought can cost up to $1.26 million. Maintaining each death row prisoner can costs taxpayers $90,000 more per year than a prisoner in general population. These number need to be taken with caution since they can vary from state to state. Plus, more substantive factors should be of more value to decision makers than the cost. Furthermore, there also seems to be a global resistance towards capital punishment. According to Amnesty International, for the first time in a decade, the United States was not among the top five countries that carry out executions. The U.S. ranked seventh internationally, behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan and Egypt with the last four countries excluding Egypt accounting for 87% of total executions. For some that is not a place where they want the United States to stand.
With both views, there are its challenges and with these there is limited reliable information where the public can base their decisions on. Aspects such as geography, selection of jury, discretion and media coverage can all affect the way in which a trial is decided or interpreted by the public. Nonetheless, there are safeguards put in place to prevent substantive errors from being made such as the Appellate Court where defendants have the automatic right to appeal their verdict.
Does public opinion affect outcomes?
This chart compares the support of the death penalty with the number of executions done by year. From this chart one can see that there is a slight correlation of these two. But are they directly proportional? It would be hard to find exact evidence on that. However, having support of capital punishment seems to justify the government’s use of it. Let’s take a look at the discrepancies of public opinion over the years as well as gender, racial and partisan gaps in views.
Of the 35 jurisdictions that still hold the death penalty some states stand out more than others. For example Texas with 542, Oklahoma with 112, Virginia with 112 and Florida with 92.
According to Jeffrey Tobin from the New Yorker, there are many factors that have led to the decline of the death penalty in recent years. Some of them being: less crime over all, with less fear among the public as a result; exonerations based on DNA evidence have lead jurors to hesitate before imposing a death penalty sentence; reluctance of pharmaceutical companies to provide the lethal-injection drugs and thus the search for a drug protocol that passes constitutional agreement. With these factors being some of the cause for the decline in support there is a heightened emphasis on the juries to make the right legal decision. The future of the death penalty is in jeopardy if the American public believe that substantive errors occur widely in capital cases and whether the American people believe that the government does not care or that they are trying to hide the nature of the problem. I believe that although it is now legal in 35 jurisdictions the death penalty will still be practiced in the United States. It will not be until a specific case comes that raises concerns that the death penalty will go away.
Below is a list of all the people that have been executed in the United States since 1977.