The Ambiguous Justice of Capital Punishment

With 32 states sanctioning capital punishment, the U.S. spends $2.4 million overall per case for over 1,392 executions since 1976 for a pending death row of nearly 3,000 inmates. With the probability of false accusation, exonerations are made yearly, although at a diminishing rate: Since 1973, over 150 are forgiven and released from a sentence of capital punishment. At parallel to this rate is the rate of death sentencing per year, which has dropped to 30 sentences per year. The public spending on death penalty cases totals up to billions paid by taxpayers' dollars: With the exception of California, which pays over $4 billion annually for death sentence logistics, most states that practice capital punishment pay $400,000 to $4,000,000 yearly. Despite this cost, however, capital punishment is still justified today, with a 65% approval consensus by the general population [1] [2] . Justice is put to test at the implementation and justification of death penalty — the oldest and most severe type of punishment that endures the course of human establishment. Whether authoritarian or libertarian, death penalty is rationalized by industrialized and developing countries alike, from Japan to Saudi Arabia. The philosophical foundation for the death penalty often is rooted from each country's national and cultural values, though across countries with different degrees of industrialization similarities exist: Capital punishment is used for exceptional crime, espionage, terrorism; reasoned by the impossibility or very low possibility of successful rehabilitation of certain criminals; and justified by economic cost-and-benefit decision. Today, Nick Sage and James Dail explore the arguments for and against the use of death penalty in the United States: Is capital punishment a justified method to deliver fair punishments to criminals in our justice system?
Lan PhanEditor


“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” is perhaps Gandhi's most memorable quote. Most people understand and support the sentiment behind this statement. The American criminal justice system, however, does not heed this wisdom. The death penalty is one of the most archaic, uncivilized, and immoral practices of the United States government. Certain states have already abolished capital punishment, and the issue has been thrust into the national spotlight in the 2016 presidential election. If the United States wants to move out of the past and into the future, the death penalty must be abandoned.

The United States is not alone in its use of the death penalty. It shares the top-five list for executions per year with (1) China (2) Iran (3) Pakistan and (4) Saudi Arabia. At (5), the United States comes out on top of countries like Iraq, Sudan, and Somalia [3]. We frequently denounce these other countries for their frequent human rights violations, but we turn a blind eye to our own faults. Capital punishment is inherently immoral. To understand any opinion surrounding the death penalty, one has to have a discussion about justice. It’s a concept that philosophers have debated over the millennia, and I won’t claim that I have the definitive answer in that regard. The prevailing view on justice in modern America is that those who break the law and damage their communities deserve to be punished. This consequently is supposed to mend some of the damage they caused to society. Punishment should thus be based on how much it benefits society. Life in prison achieves the same objective as the death penalty, which is to take criminals off the streets. Unlike the death penalty it allows for wrongly convicted inmates to prove their innocence, and it ultimately costs less to the community (two issues I will elaborate on later). Even if a criminal is a murderer, taking his life won’t reverse his crime or do any additional justice than if you let him die in prison decades later. Blood for blood punishment is barbaric and hypocritical. The government has no business killing its own citizens, regardless of what they may have done in their past.

Most proponents of the death penalty argue that it does not violate the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause in the 8th Amendment. At first glance this may seem logical, but the methods currently used to execute prisoners have proved to be unreliable, inducing unnecessary pain before the prisoner’s death. Lethal injection in particular, which is the modern tool of choice for executions, has resulted in a number of botched deaths. Among the most notorious cases of capital punishment, one executed inmate named Michael Lee Wilson was conscious enough minutes into his execution to cry “I feel my whole body burning” [4]. Wilson’s case was explicitly graphic enough, but sadly many are subjected to this excruciating pain for far longer before they succumb to death. In another case, a prisoner named Joseph Wood was still breathing and writhing in agony nearly two hours into the execution before he could finally die [5]. Though crime is worthy of, and demands punishment, unnecessary torture can never be just. The United States’s continual permission of capital punishment undermines its reputation as the most advanced nation in the history of the world. In all circumstances, taking a life is a cruel, unusual, and irreversible punishment, which defies America’s basic constitutional rights guaranteed to its people. These incidents of botched executions, which may as well be torture, would be judged by most as a human rights violation. Worse still, the legal system’s many imperfections permits capital punishment to entail the prospect of executing someone who is innocent.

The fact that anyone would need to endure such an execution is repulsive enough, but the idea of killing someone for a crime they did not commit is beyond comprehension. And yet it happens in frightening numbers. One study examining capital punishment made a conservative estimate that 4% of those with death sentences are most likely innocent [6]. One of the most notorious examples is that of Carlos DeLuna, who was charged with murder and put to death in Texas in 1989, but later was confirmed innocent [7]. Though DeLuna’s life was unjustly taken away from him, he received no retribution whatsoever. Upon executing innocent people for the false crimes, the judicial system is as guilty as someone who murders another out of cold blood, and yet is not subject to punishment. Perhaps the only way to give justice to DeLuna and the countless others wrongfully executed is by giving those still on death row a chance to prove their innocence, rather than cutting their lives short. Similarly, there are many mentally ill on death row who have difficulty adequately defending themselves in court, and often were not in control of their actions when they committed the crime [8]. Abolishing the death penalty is not nearly enough to right the wrongs done to these men, but at this point it is all we can do. The moral argument should be enough for anyone who considers themselves human to see the fault in capital punishment, but if for some reason the torturous killing of innocent Americans doesn’t phase you let’s get into the “practical” side of this argument.

"The fact that anyone would need to endure such an execution is repulsive enough, but the idea of killing someone for a crime they did not commit is beyond comprehension."

It is disgusting that we even need to bring economics into this issue at all, but it only strengthens the argument against the death penalty. Don’t be fooled by the criminal justice establishment who will try to convince you that it’s cheaper to kill prisoners, rather than keeping them locked up for life. It’s not. Death penalty cases can cost anywhere from US$450,000 to $1,000,000 more than a life sentence. Not only so, death penalty cases can take years to reach a definitive verdict due to a lengthy—and expensive—appeal process. Public defenders, whose salaries come directly out of the wallets of taxpayers, spend an estimated 44 times more time on a death penalty case than a life sentence case [9]. While the appeal process goes on, convicted criminals on death row still need to be kept in prison, where they are housed at a cost twice as expensive than that for life sentence inmates [10]. There are many incidents where death row inmates are actually stuck in the appeal process for so long they end up dying naturally before they can be executed. In these cases the government is basically throwing away money to try and execute someone who will live out a life sentence before they can be executed. In California, the annual cost tied with the death penalty is 137 million dollars, versus only 11.5 million dollars for life sentences [11]. May as well pay less, right?

Morally repulsive, unjust, and economically invalid, the death penalty has no beneficial purpose in the United States. The time has come to hold ourselves to standards that are actually respectable, not simply holding on to capital punishment just because historically we always have.

Nick Sage


Mr. Sage consistently tries to persuade his readers by appealing to their sense of goodness and by using a few specific examples to try and illustrate a broader trend. I don’t blame him. He is forced to do this, because there is no inherent evidence to suggest that the death penalty is an ineffectual policy. All evidence points to the contrary (with one exception being the cost factor, which I will address shortly). He begins by crafting his argument around the justice of executing people for wrongdoing, but what he gets wrong is that he believes that this is the death penalty’s sole purpose. Its other purpose is to be a preventative measure, and the studies that I cited in my preliminary argument demonstrate that it does a wonderful job in this regard. When Mr. Sage claims that the abolition of the death penalty will relieve communities of a massive cost, he is thinking purely in monetary terms. If the death penalty was to be abolished, then any deterrent effect would vanish with it, endangering law-abiding citizens. Any moral government should prioritize the safety and well-being of its citizens first and foremost. Can a price really be put on their lives?

Mr. Sage expresses concern about the humanity of the death penalty, citing cases that involve lethal injection gone astray. On this matter I completely agree with him. As I mentioned in my preliminary argument, steps should be, and are being, taken in order to ensure that these horrors do not happen again. The death penalty should not cause torture of feelings of anguish. However, the cases that Mr. Sage cited are exceptions to the rule, not the norm. The vast majority of executions by lethal injection have been successful [21]. He uses the same tactic when he discusses the statistic that as many as 4% of the people on death row are innocent. Again, this is horrifying. But what he does not reveal is that since the 1970s, the number of people who were on death row and were either pardoned, or had their convictions overturned, has increased with every decade. Additionally, all cases that were overturned due to DNA evidence occurred in 1993 or later [22]. Furthermore, the average amount of time between sentencing and execution is steadily increasing. The most recent estimate of the average number of months between sentencing and execution is 190 [23]. This lengthy wait time, coupled with DNA evidence, will ensure that in the long run, the number of innocent men being falsely executed will decrease, and the day may arrive when it will be zero.

He also implies that modern lethal injection is unconstitutional on the grounds that it violates the cruel and unusual punishments clause of the 8th amendment. His attempt to make a Constitutional argument is in vain, as the evidence simply is not there. While the Constitution never explicitly uses the term death penalty, it recognizes the existence of crimes that are worthy of capital punishment in the 5th amendment. Disregarding the fact that there are only a few botched lethal injection cases, it is unlikely that the Founding Fathers would have thought that even these few cases of execution gone awry were either cruel or unusual. At the time of the Constitution's ratification, valid methods of execution included bludgeoning to death and burning alive [24].

While there are a few kinks to be worked out, it is clear that the death penalty provides vast benefits to society by providing a deterrent effect. To take it away would lead the way for a new crime wave, and would place hard-working, law-abiding citizens in danger.

James DailStaff Writer


At a current violent crime rate of 386.3 per 100,000, the United States is safer now than at any time since the 1960s. From 1992-2011, violent crimes in the United States decreased every year without failure [12]. It’s a shame that these trends are in danger of being reversed. While capital punishment was not responsible for the decline in violent crime, it has kept violent crime significantly lower than it would be otherwise. Between 2007 and 2015, seven states abolished the death penalty, bringing the current total to nineteen [13]. This is a severe mistake, and it threatens the well-being of peaceful, law-abiding Americans. Capital punishment keeps people safe by providing a strong deterrent against crime.

A common argument against capital punishment is that it is ineffective at deterring crime. Critics argue that spending a lifetime rotting away in prison is a worse fate, and a more effective deterrent, than immediate death. Compared to death row however, life in prison is actually quite pleasant. In Connecticut for example, inmates who were sentenced to life without parole had plentiful free time and were able to frequently interact with other inmates. By contrast, prisoners on death row have a far lower quality of life. They are severely restricted in both free time and interaction with others. They are forced to live in solitary confinement, they have significantly less recreation time, and are forced to eat their meals by themselves [14]. It is quite a lonesome existence. There are also numerous scientific studies that prove the effectiveness of the death penalty as a crime deterrent. According to general deterrence theory, the death penalty saves more lives than it ends by significantly reducing the murder rate, and there are numerous studies proving its accuracy. According to a study conducted by Joanna Shepherd of Emory University and published in Journal of Legal Studies, one execution deters three murders. Though this study alone demonstrates a significant deterrent effect, there has been a plethora of research on the subject, and it was on the low end of the spectrum. According to a study conducted by economist Paul Zimmerman that was published in The Journal of Applied Economics, each execution deterred fourteen murders [15]. As shocking to human intuition as it may seem, the death penalty actually does reduce crime.

One may object that it does not matter if the death penalty reduces crime if it is not just. If we look to precedent, then the Founding Fathers provide us with some guidance on this issue. The fifth amendment begins with the phrase, “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime” [16]. They clearly believed that the death penalty was a valid option, but the question of context remains. While the use of capital punishment in the colonies was expansive under British colonial rule, in 1794, the state of Pennsylvania abolished the death penalty for all crimes except for murder in the first degree. Many other states followed Pennsylvania’s example and severely restricted capital punishment in the succeeding two decades [17]. The Founders and the people of that era were of the belief that capital punishment should be reserved for death. The government guaranteed the rights of the people, but those rights rested on a foundation: the right to life.The government guaranteed the rights of the people, but those rights rested on a foundation: the right to life. For the man who takes away the foundation on which all other fundamental rights rest, the only worthy punishment was death.

"For the man who takes away the foundation on which all other fundamental rights rest, the only worthy punishment (is) death."

Despite the objections of those who claim that the death penalty is cruel and immoral, it is actually quite merciful in how it is administered. The primary method of administration in all states is lethal injection, a method that involves no pain except for the mild sting of a shot. The inmate drifts to sleep, only to never wake up again. Other methods are only used if this is not available, and this is rarely the case. There have only been seven executions in the past ten years that were not performed by lethal injection [18]. To put this in perspective, there has been an average of 38.2 executions per year in the same time span [19].

This is not to say that the death penalty is perfectly flawless every time it is administered. Admittedly, there was a case in Oklahoma in which lethal injection was improperly administered, and the inmate suffered as a result. However, any problems with administration are easily fixable through public policy. This could be done by increasing the drug dosage and using pain killers, or by delaying the execution if those administering the execution are not properly trained. Oklahoma is already making use of these steps in order to ensure that a botched execution does not happen again [20]. Capital punishment is a just punishment, an effective deterrent, and merciful. Though no policy has ever worked to perfection, capital punishment achieves proven results. Abandoning it now would only make the United States worse off.

James Dail


Despite his eloquent and very incisive articulations of his favor of death penalty, Mr. Dail echoes the same faulty and outdated arguments that political pundits have voiced for many years. My opponent has overlooked the philosophical foundation of morality regarding citizens' rights to life as well as the modern day complexities surrounding the justice of the death penalty.

First, he cites the most incredible belief that the death penalty, by eliminating those with serious crimes, could prevent thousands of would-be murders from happening. Indeed, Mr. Dail references a few studies that seem to show that the death penalty acts as a deterrent. He fails, however, to address the contradicting results posed by countless other studies that prove the nonexistence of any causal relationship between capital punishment and lower crime rates. Domestic [25] and international [26] research analyses from sources such as the Social Science Research Network have concluded that the effect of capital punishment on crime, if any, is negligible.

The most distressing aspect of Mr. Dail’s argument is his conviction that capital punishment cases end with immediate execution. This could not be further from the truth. The appeal process for death penalty cases can take years and sometimes decades before a final verdict is issued. For this long span of time, the government, on top of providing all the normal prison services, is paying millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money for the appeal process. Mr. Dail should consider how many crimes could be prevented if we allocated all the funds we carelessly dump into death penalty cases to develop our impoverished communities and programs for citizens who are at risk of engaging criminal behaviors.

Mr. Dail claims that executions can be made more effective through “public policy.” I would respectfully challenge this claim. On paper, it seems easy enough to declare “give them more drugs!” [27 Editor’s note: By solely increasing the lethal dosage and replacing current execution drugs with stronger types, the United States should reconsider the ethics behind its selection of drugs as well as its conduct of capital punishment] Even when the European Union decided to ban the export of drugs used in lethal injections to the United States, the U.S. still switched to using questionable experimental drugs for death penalty, which causes extreme agony during executions [28]. Men like Michael Lee Wilson and Joseph Wood were tortured to death. They did not simply fall asleep never to awake, they writhed helplessly for minutes and even hours before dying. I do not believe for a second that a human of morality can view such barbarous behavior as acceptable. Our Founding Fathers may have seen the justice and utility of using the death penalty, but it should be remembered that many of them saw the utility in the legalization of slavery as well. It is the responsibility of our generation to amend the Constitution to adapt to modern-day morals, and not adhere to the misjudgments of our predecessors.

Nick SageStaff Writer

Sources and Notes

[6] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[27] Editor’s note: By solely increasing the lethal dosage and replacing current execution drugs with stronger types, the United States should reconsider the ethics behind its selection of drugs as well as its conduct of death penalty

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