The Death Penalty Debate:
Philosophical & Religious Views
The Capital Punishment section of Criminal
Justice Ethics contains a series of article that sketch out some of
the themes in the debate. For more information, read Paul's columns about Mumia
Abu-Jamal and televising
"Is the Death Penalty What Murderers Deserve?"
Nathanson argues against the proposition that just
deserts leads to executions. He believes it is difficult to be able to
know what people deserve, and setting up an institution to consistently
deliver just deserts is different from the outcome in an individual
case. The analogy he uses is putting a grade on essay exams and trying
to decide between an A- and a B+. Randomness in some judging is
acceptable, but discrepancies in the death penalty are not. People
should be held responsible and punished, but "we ought not feel
confident that we can judge the precise degree of punishment that people
morally deserve, and even if we could do this, we ought not feel
confident that our criminal justice system actually does so" (p
Penalty Information Center
Updates Death Penalty resources
Cost, Deterrence, Incapacitation, Brutalization and the Death Penalty
The Scientific Evidence, Statement Before the Joint Interim Health and Welfare Committee
by Gary W. Potter
Scholarly Research and the Death Penalty
"Against the Death Penalty"
Reiman spells out his argument quite clearly on p
- 1. Though the death penalty is a just
punishment for some murder, it is not unjust to punish murderers
less harshly (down to a certain limit);
- 2. Though the death penalty would be justified
if needed to deter future murders, we have no good reason to believe
that it deters future murders
- 3. In refraining from imposing the death
penalty, the state, by its vivid and impressive example, contributes
to reducing our tolerance for cruelty and thereby fosters the
advance of human civilization as we understand it
- 4. Though the death penalty is in principle
a just penalty for murder, it is unjust in practice in
America because it is applied in arbitrary and discriminatory ways,
and this is likely to continue for the foreseeable future
Ernest van den Haag
"A Response to Reiman and Nathanson"
van den Haag argues that giving people less than
they deserve is unfair, and those who get the death penalty deserve it.
To combat discrepancies, it should be imposed and carried out more
frequently on those who deserve it; society needs to try to expand the
number of murderers who deserve the death penalty who are actually
In response to Reiman, van den Haag argues that by
not imposing the death penalty, we tolerate cruelty done by the murderer
(our restraint does not promote civilization as Reiman claims). Further,
deterrence does not matter - the question is deserts.
|For an excellent overview
of this argument, see van den Haag's THE ULTIMATE PUNISHMENT: A DEFENSE
Web Directory: Death Penalty
Law School Death Penalty cases and law
find out what the last
220 death row inmates in Texas requested for their last
National Council of
Churches USA "Abolition of the Death Penalty (policy statement)
Although many people believe the Biblical "eye
for an eye" justifies capital punishment, most faiths have a policy
statement opposing capital punishment. In this statement, the Council
- the worth of a life
- the importance of rehabilitation and "our
Christian commitment to seek the redemption and reconciliation of the
- playing God by killing people
- the lack of deterrence
- "institutionalized disregard for the
sanctity of human life contributes to the brutalization of
society" (compare with Reiman's argument above)
- discrimination against poor and minorities
|A comprehensive study of 23 years of capital punishment has found that
more than two-thirds of America's death sentences are overturned on
appeal, leading the report's author to conclude that this country has a
"broken system" that is "fraught with error." MORE
Against Capital Punishment
John Paul II's statement opposing executions
of Catholic Bishops
based crime prevention
on Capital Punishment
From (former) Supreme Court Justice
On their face, these goals of individual fairness, reasonable consistency, and absence of error appear to be attainable: Courts are in the very business of erecting procedural devices from which fair, equitable, and reliable outcomes are presumed to flow. Yet, in the death
penalty area, this Court, in my view, has engaged in a futile effort to balance these constitutional demands, and now is retreating not only from the Furman promise of consistency and rationality, but from the requirement of individualized sentencing as well.
From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death. For more than twenty years I have endeavored—indeed, I have struggled—along with a majority of this Court, to develop procedural and substantive rules that would lend more than the mere appearance of fairness to the death penalty endeavor.1 Rather than continue to coddle the Court's delusion that the desired level of fairness has been achieved [*10]and the need for regulation eviscerated, I feel morally and intellectually obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed. It is virtually self-evident to me now that no combination of procedural rules or substantive regulations ever can save the death penalty from its inherent constitutional deficiencies. The basic question—does the system accurately and consistently determine which defendants "deserve" to die?—cannot be answered in the affirmative.
Callins v. Collins" (full text via Ethics Updates)
See also JUSTICE O'CONNOR'S DEATH PENALTY REGRETS — AND RESPONSIBILITY
Race & Justice: 8 part series + updates about the 20 year
story of Daryl Hunt, a 19 year old black man ultimately exonerated of
the murder of a 25 year old white woman in North Carolina.
Abu-Jamal - read the columns he wrote from death row about race, justice
and the death penalty
Defense Newsletter (review of current cases, news and law)
Public Cause Network: The Death Penalty Debate
Amnesty International: DEATH PENALTY Questions and Answers
The Jurist (Law
Professors' Network): Death
With a Human Being Who's About to be Killed
- talk by Sister Helen Prejean (author of Dead
Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty)
County Prosecutor: 1000 Death Penalty Links!
background and organized links
Wabash Center Internet Guide for Teaching
& Learning Theology and Religion: Capital
Penalty for Female Offenders
Dept of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Capital Punishment Information.
This page contains a link to all the statistical reports published by the
government, including an annual report on capital punishment, the number of
condemned on death row and a review of state death penalty laws.
|A study by the Texas Defender Service concludes that capital defendants in the state have more than a 1 in 3 chance of being executed without benefit of competent appellate attorneys.
USA Today: How
lethal injection works
Innocents on Death
Row & Executions in Error
Denied: Magazine for the Wrongfully Convicted
Problems of innocence
and the death penalty from
The Disappearance of Executive Clemency in Capital Cases:
What Has Happened to Mercy in America? (Austin Sarat, Findlaw.com)
As DNA testing frees increasing numbers of innocents from prison, Maryland and other states across the country are facing a politically sensitive and morally complex calculus: What is the value of a life unjustly spent behind bars?
"What's a prison rape worth?" asked Ronald Kuby, a New York lawyer who has worked on compensation cases. "What's missing your child's first day of school worth? Not being with your parents as they lay dying? Having your parents go to their graves with you branded a convict?"
("Putting A Price on Innocents' Lost Years"
Washington Post, 4 Oct 2004, p A1)
mentally retarded and incompetent:
Mind too weak to Merit the Death Penalty? news on John Paul Penry, a man
with the intellectual capacity of a first grader, on Texas' death row
High Court To Review Executing Retarded:
supreme court takes up case the case of Ernest McCarver, a convicted murderer on North Carolina's death row whose
attorneys say he has an IQ of 67 (Washington Post 27
REFLECTIONS ON THE ABA'S RESOLUTIONS CONCERNING THE EXECUTION OF JUVENILES AND PERSONS WITH MENTAL RETARDATION
(Law & Contemporary Problems, 1998 - full text)
v Virginia (2002, U.S. Supreme Court): Executions of mentally retarded criminals are “cruel and unusual punishments” prohibited by the Eighth Amendment
Prisoners So They Can Be Killed: A
Federal Court Approves Forcible Antipsychotic Treatment for Mentally
Incompetent Convicts (Findlaw.com column)
Can Juveniles Constitutionally Be Executed?
The Supreme Court Will Consider the Question in a Pending Case (Findlaw.com)
information from Cornell Law School about the juvenile death penalty case the
Supreme Court will be hearing this term (2004).
The United States is one of the only countries in the world that executes juvenile offenders. It has executed more juvenile offenders in the last 13 years than all of the other countries in the world combined. The only other countries that have executed juveniles since 1990 are
China,Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia,Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Yemen, Saudia Arabia, Pakistan and China say they will no longer execute juveniles.
[Death Penalty for Teens,
George W. Bush supports a constitutional amendment to ban abortion in all circumstances, and yet, as governor of Texas, he has personally signed the death warrants of over 120 people - a full sixth of all the death-row inhabitants in America since capital punishment was revived in 1973. In an interview with Talk magazine last year, he even made fun of one of the victims of Texas' relentless execution industry, Karla Fay Tucker, mocking her pleas for mercy. And despite growing DNA evidence of the innocence of many death-row convicts across the country, Bush has shown not even the slightest glimmer of concern that the Texas judicial system may not exactly be unimpeachable. He is not alone in this cognitive dissonance. Congressman Henry Hyde, for example, is second to none in his opposition to abortion, and few doubt his sincerity. Two years ago, he said, "I look for the common thread in slavery, the Holocaust and abortion. To me, the common thread is dehumanizing people." And yet Hyde personally championed legislation two years ago that significantly curtailed the judicial review of death-row appeals. Does he even see a smidgen of inconsistency here?
Sullivan, Double-deathers: Why are so few people against abortion and the death penalty?]