Crime and Society - Lecturer Valerie Summers - December 2009
Capital punishment is historically and currently a topic of controversial political and social battles. In my discussion of capital punishment, I intend to argue that the death penalty does not have a role in modern criminal punishment schemes. In forming this argument, I base my decision on the legal definition of murder, modes of execution, and costs.
Although criminal punishment in the United States has advanced since the times of the Middle Ages, the legal language used to define first degree murder shows how the death penalty fits within the frame of murder. Steve Feldman referred to this in his guest lecture as “state sanctioned murder.” First degree murder is defined as an unlawful killing with expressed malice and forethought, formed with premeditation and deliberation. In these terms, capital punishment is the taking of a human life with significant premeditation and deliberation through trial, and with expressed malice against the perpetrator of the crime to take action in retribution. It gives the state legal power to kill a human being. Moreover, in the sanctioning of capital punishment, there is no objective stance on how it is decided or deliberated. This gives way to greater subjectivity in determining the death sentence, and brings in greater questions of bias and prejudice.
Moreover, the prison and criminal justice system often exhibit practices reminiscent of the cruel and unusual punishment of earlier, less modern times. In a recent case of an Ohio execution, inmate Kenneth Biros was convicted in 1991 and executed on December 8, 2009 using a single drug method for the first time. The one-drug method had neither been tested on humans nor given to any death row inmates, and the Ohio inmate essentially served as an experimental case. Biros’s attorney agreed, claiming the use of the drug was unconstitutional. Without knowing the proper effects of a drug, it is impossible to assess the level of pain, discomfort, or cruelty involved in the killing of a death row inmate. Moreover, certain ingredients in the drug, such as sodium thiopental, which makes the prisoner unconscious, are known to wear off without proper dosage. Without adequate testing, knowledge is unavailable regarding proper medical dosage and effective methods of killing, without the use of cruel or unusual punishment. The Ohio execution shows how arguably unconstitutional practices of killing are still utilized in the deaths of prisoners.
The cost of sustaining and executing death row inmates is another issue in my argument against capital punishment. According to the Death Penalty Information center, the cost of housing a death row inmate until execution in California, versus keeping that inmate in prison for life, is $90,000 per year, per inmate. In addition, the California Commission on the Administration of Fair Justice estimates the current annual costs of the death penalty system is $137 million per year, whereas keeping a prisoner in jail for life would cost about $11.5 million per year. Execution is expensive, especially in California where the government is taking money away from schools to maintain the prison systems and meet the basic needs of its residents. A lot of this money is attributed to the amount of years it takes for a death row inmate to be executed, as some prisoners sit on death row for longer than twenty-five years. The lengthy and time consuming waits is largely due to mandatory appeal procedures and projects like the California Innocence Project that seek to catch and free wrongfully convicted citizens. Yet, people also argue the constitutionality of the incredibly lengthy years of wait which physically and mentally take the toll on inmates, and whether this can be considered a form of cruel and unusual punishment in itself.
Capital punishment remains a controversial form of punishment in the United States. Ultimately, I take a stand against it for the reasons of state sanctioned murder, methods of execution, and costs. Yet, in the end, the discourse surrounding the issue of capital punishment is a delicate balance between minimizing bureaucracy, maximizing efficiency, and maintaining equal justice for all.