AP English Language and Composition, Period 6
6 June 2012
The most important intangible to Americans is arguably our liberty. The year 1776 marked the first, but not nearly the last time that Americans would fight a war for freedom, and it was during this tumultuous time, at the end of the eighteenth century, that America won its freedom from their tyrannical oppressors, and over the course of the next two-hundred and thirty-six years America would continue to fight wars to defend the ideals of democracy not only on her shores but in such far away places as Germany, Russia, Vietnam, and Korea. Throughout all of these conflicts a debate has been raging back and forth on whether the death penalty is allowable by the high moral standards the American people claim to uphold as the epitome of a civilized and democratic nation. Capital punishment is the legal execution of citizens by the government and for years, particularly the past fifty or so, opponents have argued that punishment by death has no legal, moral, or ethical grounds, and it is a proven fact that those executed are “nearly always poor and disproportionately black” (Andre, and Velasquez). Also, nearly every country in Europe has banned capital punishment as well as our neighbors directly to the north and south. So why then is the death penalty still widely implemented throughout the United States? Does the death penalty not violate the democratic ideals that we strive to uphold?
Furman v. Georgia (1972) stopped the use of the death penalty when the Supreme Court found that it was infrequently being applied in arbitrary and unpredictable ways, a huge victory for the abolitionist movement. However this decision allowed that if states revised their death penalty statues in order to limit irregularities then the death penalty could once again be legal in the United States. In 1976 executions were permitted to resume following the verdict reached in the cases collectively known as the Gregg decision. Since its reinstatement in 1976 “1,295 convicted murderers have been executed in the United States” (U.S. Executions Since 1879). Of those executed DNA testing along with a combination of fresh evidence has revealed that at least ten people, but probably many more, were in all likelihood innocent of the charges against them, and were wrongfully executed, and another one-hundred and forty people were released from death row after new evidence revealed that they were in fact innocent. It is then a reasonable assertion to make that throughout the United States history of the death penalty the government has undoubtedly executed people innocent of the crimes they supposedly committed. How can American citizens stand by and allow this to happen some might ask. Well, recent data gathered by “a 2011 Gallup Poll, which annually tracks America’s abstract support for the death penalty, recorded the lowest level of support, and the highest level of opposition, in almost 40 years” (CNS Staff) and there has been an overall trend shying away from the death penalty. In 2000 there were thirty-eight states in which the death penalty was legal punishment. That number has since declined to thirty-four states and serves to illustrate Americans growing discomfort with capital punishment. The death penalty today is not so unlike the one that the Supreme Court struck down in 1976. Today’s arbitrary system has no logical reasons to explain the small number of death penalty convictions and executions out of so many eligible cases. In 1976 when the death penalty was reinstated the new system was designed to be fairer and more sensible than it had been in the past. However we can see today that this has not been the case and a multitude of arbitrary factors still decide who is sentenced to die and who to live.
Cameron Todd Willingham was accused of setting a fire that killed his three young daughters and in 2004 he was executed despite surfacing evidence that he might in fact be innocent of the crime and “since 2004, further evidence in the case has led to the inescapable conclusion that Willingham did not set the fire for which he was executed” (Cardozo). Since that time a panel has been established in order to investigate the facts of the case and attempt to discover the truth behind the case.
Napoleon Beazley was seventeen years old when he committed a murder and before he was executed eighteen state legislators wrote to the governor of Texas asking him to grant clemency and even the trial judge who had to sign the execution order petitioned the Governor to at least commute the sentence to life in prison.
Kelsey Patterson was found mentally fit by a doctor known as “Dr. Death” since he so rarely found patients mentally unfit to stand trial. Patterson throughout his trial exhibited erratic behavior and The Board of Pardons and Paroles recommended that Patterson be granted clemency. Kelsey Patterson was executed May 18, 2004.
Leonard Uresti Rojas was represented by an appellate attorney who was on probation with the state bar, had a history of suffering from mental illness, and missed multiple deadlines to file appeals on Rojas’ behalf, eliminating any chance of reprieve he had. Rojas was found guilty and sentenced to death, though not before a new group of attorneys took Rojas’ case before the Court of Appeals and asked for a stay of execution, which was denied. Leonard Uresti Rojas was executed December 4, 2002.
All of these cases were miscarriages of justice. Napoleon Beazley was a juvenile when he committed his crime but was nevertheless executed. Kelsey Patterson was undoubtedly mentally unstable and the execution of a patient who is mentally unfit to stand trial is illegal in the United States but regardless Patterson was executed. Leonard Uresti Rojas was represented by an incompetent lawyer who undoubtedly did not represent him fairly and as a result Rojas was executed. Perhaps the greatest sin of all was the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham who beyond a doubt was innocent of his crime. All of these men were executed in Texas and they were also all executed under the watchful eye of one governor, Rick Perry. Under Rick Perry the State of Texas has executed two hundred and thirty-four people, “more than the next two states combined have executed since the death penalty was restored 35 years ago” (Waldron). Rick Perry has granted only “31 death row commutations; most of those — 28 — were the result of a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision banning capital punishment for minors” (Grissom). Rick Perry might be a familiar name to some as he recently made a legitimate bid for the presidency of the United States in the upcoming elections. During one of his campaign speeches in September 2011 he was asked about his death penalty record, and in the middle of the interviewers question, upon mention of Perry’s death toll the crowd burst into applause. This applause for the executions attributed to one man symbolizes Americans loss of the values that once set us apart as a democratic and civilized nation. That we can now applaud at the deaths of fellow human beings shows how out of touch society is with reality. Rick Perry’s death penalty record is a clear demonstration of why the death penalty is outdated and arbitrary. It is clear that the death penalty cannot be applied fairly to all defendants in every case, and it is a travesty when a human being is put to death because they could not afford the same representation as some one else. It is clear that the death penalty is inherently biased in its present form and is by nature an unjust punishment.
When Rick Perry was questioned about his feelings on what it meant that people had applauded on hearing that two hundred and thirty-four people had been executed under him he replied with “I think Americans understand justice”. I think he is wrong, I think that people applauded for the exact opposite reason, Americans do not understand justice. Executing people, particularly when they have not received fair legal counsel, may be mentally handicapped, and are in fact innocent is not justice; in fact it is an abomination and a stain on the American people. How though can Americans stand by while other Americans are being executed? It is a result of the process of dehumanization. The people of the United States are finding it easier and easier to look at a criminal and not see a fellow human being. Humanity in America is starting to deteriorate quickly and we are losing certain qualities that in the past have defined us as human, like our empathy, the ability to relate to the plights of others. “As a nation we are becoming more vengeful and often seek severe punishments for people who have performed even the smallest of infringements” (Harris). Even on television shows, like Criminal Minds, whose purpose is to reveal the inner workings of a killers thought process the perspective is still that of the “good” guys. Truman Capote's novel, In Cold Blood, was the first piece of literature to really delve into the inner workings of a criminals mind and the reader has no choice in the end but to sympathize with the killers, and end up forgetting what a heinous crime was committed. This remarkable piece of true crime was revolutionary and at the time of its release and still today it inspires controversy over the personification of the criminals.
There are a multitude of other reasons too for why the death penalty should not be an option in the United States. For one, it is an incredibly expensive process, and "is much more expensive than life without parole because the Constitution requires a long and complex judicial process for capital cases"(Woodford). It costs tax payers in California an approximate $90,000 more per year for death row prisoners than it does for prisoners in regular confinement. In California it is estimated that the death penalty costs about $137 million per year. In a court system where the maximum penalty allowed by law was life without parole the cost would be an estimated $11.5 million per year. A single death penalty trial can cost as much as $10.9 million. This extraordinary amount of money should in itself be enough to convince citizen that their money could be spent in more efficient ways, like repairing America's failing infrastructure. Statistics also show that the federal government puts more money into prisons than it does into the public school system, a fact that should outrage parents across the country. Since when did the future of American children not mean as much as keeping criminals comfortable while they serve time. Although it is not just about the money. Reforming or eliminating the death penalty, while it might save millions of dollars, also prevents the state from making a mistake that cannot be reversed. Once a person has been executed there is no going back even if evidence later shows that the defendant was innocent.
The death penalty is an arbitrary punishment that has become outdated and is no longer applicable in todays society. It is impossible for the United States to maintain it claims of being a civilized and democratic society when it continues to allow criminals to be executed. There have been cases where the defendant who was executed has since been found to be innocent and it is a serious flaw in the justice system when even one innocent person has to pay the ultimate price for a crime they did not commit, and any justice system that participates in the execution of defendants who are not mentally capable enough to understand their predicament should not be executing anyone, particularly when not all those charged with a crime are receiving fair and equal representation. The current death penalty system caters to those that can afford to hire lawyers competent enough to get them off the charges while the uneducated and poor are left to suffer in their own. The death penalty clearly needs reforming and perhaps it is time to abolish it like most other civilized and democratic countries have done.
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