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Let the Punishment Suit the Crime: The Death Penalty

The controversy surrounding the death penalty is one that can elicit intense emotion, and this is the degree of emotion that has guided the debate on the death penalty. There is a reason to accept as true that some quantity of emotion should be allowed to guide this debate because those who believe in the death punishment have an argument that it should be reserved for the worst possible crimes (Sundby, Scott E). Apparently, the worst possible crimes are committed against human beings, who are emotional beings. Given the slightest chance, they would not hesitate to crucify the people who subject them to the trauma that victims of “the worst possible crimes” have to endure. Nevertheless, the death penalty is still justifiable even in the absence of emotion; pure reason can be employed to argue for it. This article follows the debate of the death penalty, outlining the arguments proposed by both sides of the debate. The article attempts to seek the logic of both, opponents and proponents of the argument. In light of prevailing reason and sound judgment, the article concludes that the death penalty should not be abolished. Instead, the debate should be about what crimes are punishable by death.

For one to know the details of the death penalty fully, it is necessary to appreciate its history and the crimes, which are punishable by it. The death penalty has been around for centuries on end. Its history is traceable back to the eighteenth century B.C, when it was applied in Babylon during the reign of King Hammurabi (Hassal). The death punishment has persisted through the centuries, with short interludes of reprieve under such leaders as William the Conqueror (Center). The movements that champion the ending of the death punishment have a relatively shorter history. The icons of the abolitionist movement are such people as Montesquieu, Bentham, Dr. Benjamin Rush and Beccaria, who made a particularly profound impact because of his sensational writings (Bessler)
In some periods of history, draconian regimes applied the death penalty even for minor offences, but with time, and with the abolitionists playing more and more on the consciences of the authorities, a great deal of offences punishable by death were dropped. Today, almost all of the crimes punishable by death are crimes that end in the death of the victim. There are, however, several other crimes that are considered capital offences, and are liable to be punished by death. Examples of such crimes are treason, espionage, aggravated kidnapping, attempting or planning the murder of officers, jurors or witnesses plus a few other crimes. The crimes that are punishable by death vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Such countries as Japan have a plethora of reasons to subject criminals to execution while other countries, such as Albania and Canada, have abolished the death sentence altogether (Rights). In the United States, it has been left to the discretion of individual states to decide which crimes to be punished.

The death penalty is a severe punishment, and the outcry against it is understandable. Such organizations as Amnesty International that vehemently called for death penalty abolishment act in defense of the suspects and criminals. They act with the wrongdoer in mind. True enough, the criminals are human beings as well, and they deserve to be given an ear and be treated with dignity and respect. However, who minds the victims of the heinous crimes committed by these heartless criminals? Who thinks about the people killed in cold blood and indignity? Who cares about the innocent souls that were flushed down the drain by the callous brutes whom the abolitionists defend? Moreover, the crusaders for the elimination of the death sentence give no thought to the grief-stricken family members and friends of the people who have fallen prey to these immoral criminals. Nor do they think about the whelming bitterness that engulfs the families of the victims. Such bitterness could even lead to one of the family members committing murder in retaliation! These crusaders for the elimination of the death punishment do not give room for such thoughts.

The death punishment is justifiable for anybody who kills a human being. When a person picks a loaded gun and points the nozzle at another person and then pulls the trigger, there is a reason to believe that he/she has thought it over, and concluded that it is a conceivable act. Therefore, in the eyes of a murderer, it is a conceivable thing to kill a human being. The criminal understands full well that he (or she) could be the one at whom the trigger is getting pointed. Moreover, one wonders exactly what possesses the mind of a person who sets a human being on fire, or chops body parts off someone else, or kills a man in cold blood in full view of his family. Even worse, it is hard to imagine what inhumane feelings could lead someone to pluck a fetus off a woman’s womb, or plan and execute violent acts of terrorism where so many people lose their lives. The thoughts of the criminals who perpetrate such acts are unimaginable, but there is one thing that is clear: these criminals if they are in their right mind, know that what they do can conceivably happen to human beings, even themselves. That is why the state must not think it inconceivable to punish them in the same way they inflict pain upon other human beings.

In 1980, when the debate raged in Massachusetts over whether the death penalty should be abolished, Justice Quirico observed that the courts should respect the decision of the legislature, in which the public’s decisions and views are embodied (Ellsworth). In opinion polls conducted in 2006, 65% of the respondents favored the death sentence responsible for murder convicts, 32 % were against it, and 2% were unsure. Other opinion polls conducted at around the same time indicated that the public did not favor the death penalty for the mentally ill and mentally retarded. Indeed, the results of these opinion polls make sense. They point out that the death sentence is still favored in public opinion and that despicable crimes should be punished. What the abolitionists should concentrate on is ensuring that people who face charges that could land them a death penalty should be given a fair trial; if they are found guilty the death penalty should be administered to them. Only mentally retarded suspects should be excused from the death penalty (Slobogin).

The argument advanced against the death penalty is intriguing. Some people say that the death punishment is a violation of the individual’s right by the state. This begs the question of whether the same argument can be applied against the life sentence, or even against the law. If the state violates the rights of the individual by conferring the death penalty against the criminals, then the state should also not violate the individual’s rights by sending them to prison! Those against the death penalty should realize that once a person commits certain crimes, he/she gives up all the rights, including the right to life. The state, therefore, should not be viewed as violating anyone’s rights. If the public takes such a view, then the same argument could be used to condemn all other forms of punishment exercised by the state because all these punishments seem to violate the rights of the criminals! The state does not, in fact, violate anybody’s rights (Ducat). It simply acts in accordance with the prevailing law and punishes criminals according to the law.

Some offences committed by some individuals are so gross that they deserve even worse than death. Since the death penalty is considered the gravest form of punishment that could be administered to an offender, it is only fair that it is administered to such offenders. Instead of debating about whether or not the death penalty should be abolished, it would be more constructive to debate on what crimes should be punished with death sentence. Equally, it is more acceptable to debate on the circumstances under which a crime was committed, and the culpability of a crime should dictate whether or not the criminal should be sentenced to death.

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