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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 McVeigh's exection

Stephen Nathanson "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 422)

Death Penalty Information Center

Ethics 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 (also Potter)

Jeffrey Reiman "Against the Death Penalty" 

Reiman spells out his argument quite clearly on p 424:

  • 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

Fight the Death Penalty in the US - Dutch site militantly opposed to US executions. Europe does not have a death penalty and they even abolished its use for war crimes, including genocide. European Union policy opposes the death penalty. Indeed, "Many Europeans See Bush as Executioner Extraodinaire" and the Europeans are especially unimpressed at American requests for statements in human rights documents that it is acceptable for the US to execute juveniles and the mentally ill. 

European Union Policy Statement on Death Penalty

Read the brief filed by the European Union in the juvenile death penalty case that is being heard by the Supreme Court this term


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 executed. 

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

Google Web Directory: Death Penalty

Cornell Law School Death Penalty cases and law

find out what the last 220 death row inmates in Texas requested for their last meal

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 discusses 

  • the worth of a life
  • the importance of rehabilitation and "our Christian commitment to seek the redemption and reconciliation of the wrongdoer"
  • 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)
  • errors
  • 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

Catholics Against Capital Punishment

Pope John Paul II's statement opposing executions

Conference of Catholic Bishops

Faith based crime prevention

Additional Resources on Capital Punishment

~~ Televise executions? ~~


From (former) Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun

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.

"Dissenting Opinion: Callins v. Collins" (full text via Ethics Updates)


Murder, 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.

Mumia Abu-Jamal - read the columns he wrote from death row about race, justice and the death penalty

Capital Defense Newsletter (review of current cases, news and law)

Is lethal injection cruel and unusual punishment? Background and links to Baze v. Rees, No. 04-CI-01094 (Ky. Cir. Ct. July 8, 2005)

The Public Cause Network: The Death Penalty Debate

Amnesty International: DEATH PENALTY Questions and Answers

The Jurist (Law Professors' Network): Death Penalty

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)

Clark County Prosecutor: 1000 Death Penalty Links!

Good background and organized links

Wabash Center Internet Guide for Teaching & Learning Theology and Religion: Capital Punishment Links

Death Penalty for Female Offenders

Death Row Speaks


Robert Johnson, Death Work: A Study of the Modern Execution Process. An Awesome job of explaining what is involved in an execution from the perspectives of inmates, executioners and witnesses. 

Richard Moran, Executioner's Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair

Donald Cabana, Death At Midnight: The Confessions of an Executioner

Sister Helen Prejean's New book is The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions

Bedeau, Death Penalty in America: Current Controversies

The Book of Execution : An Encyclopedia of Methods of Judicial Execution

Mr Death: The Rise & Fall of Fred Leuchter (video)

>U.S. 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

Innocence Project

Justice Denied: Magazine for the Wrongfully Convicted

Problems of innocence and the death penalty from Truth In Justice

The Disappearance of Executive Clemency in Capital Cases: What Has Happened to Mercy in America? (Austin Sarat,

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)


Executing the mentally retarded and incompetent: 

A 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 (Washington Post).

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 March 01)


Adkins v Virginia (2002, U.S. Supreme Court): Executions of mentally retarded criminals are “cruel and unusual punishments” prohibited by the Eighth Amendment

Medicating Prisoners So They Can Be Killed: A Federal Court Approves Forcible Antipsychotic Treatment for Mentally Incompetent Convicts ( column)


Executing juveniles: 

Can Juveniles Constitutionally Be Executed? The Supreme Court Will Consider the Question in a Pending Case (

Background 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, discussion]


Pro-Life & Pro-Capital Punishment?

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? [Andrew Sullivan, Double-deathers: Why are so few people against abortion and the death penalty?]

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