Monday, October 20, 2008

Capital Punishment

This week, in the applied ethics class, we’re talking about the morality of the death penalty. Here is one of those times when my responsibilities as an educator run up against my instincts as an activist.

I believe it’s incumbent upon me to present an even-handed rendering of the arguments on either side of the discussion; however, I feel pretty strongly that capital punishment is unjust, arguably in theory, but without a doubt as it is practiced in the contemporary world, notably here in the good old US of A, especially in the Lone Star state, Texas.

We’ll examine the standard retributivist arguments in favor of capital punishment, the ones which argue that individuals who commit heinous crimes deserve to be—or even are required on grounds of human dignity to be—punished, and explore the so-called common-sense deterrence position, the one that says even if the death penalty doesn’t stop other criminals from committing murders, it at least prevents the person who’s put to death from ever doing anything bad again and I’ll do my best to represent the views of “retentionists” as fairly as I can.

But at the same time, I’ll not be able to refrain from thinking about how arbitrarily and unjustly the death penalty has historically—and continues to be—applied and how, as far as I can tell, neither justice nor deontology implies that a country’s capital punishment needs to be death.

We’ll look at some particular cases that may open some eyes; granted, some of the recent executions of murderers in the US have been for pretty awful crimes, but at the same times, there are cases like this one in Georgia that seem contentious enough to raise serious questions about whether or not our government ought to be in the business of killing people.

If I weren’t a teacher and reasonably concerned about even-handedness, I’d get on a soapbox and speak my mind; for now, though, I’ll just try to open students’.


Blogger dudleysharp said...

I hope you will let me present one version of the pro death penalty side. to you and your students.

Moral?ethical considerations

I support the death penalty because it is a just and deserved sanction and, secondarily, it saves more innocent lives.

The foundation for death penalty support is the same as it is for all sanctions, that it is a just and appropriate sanction for some crimes.

The moral difference between those who oppose or support capital punishment is that one finds it morally wrong, the other morally correct, respectively.

In addition, many of us find that the death penalty is a greater protector of innocent lives.

Do we execute because we value life? Societies imprison criminals because we value freedom so much. A sanction is only a sanction when we take away that which is valued.

There are some excellent moral/ethical writings supportive of the death penalty. Here are a few. I hope you have the chance to read them.

(1) John Stuart Mill, speech on the death penalty

(2)"The Death Penalty", by Romano Amerio, a faithful Catholic Vatican insider, scholar, professor at the Academy of Lugano, consultant to the Preparatory Commission of Vatican II, and a peritus (expert theologian) at the Council.

titled "Amerio on capital punishment ", Chapter XXVI, 187. The death penalty, from the book Iota Unum, May 25, 2007

(3) Immanuel Kant, "The Right of Punishing", inclusive of the death penalty

(4) "Capital Punishment: A Catholic Perspective",
by Br. Augustine (Emmanuel Valenza)

(5) "Defending Capital Punishment" by William Gairdner

(6) "Capital Punishment: The Case for Justice", Prof. J. Budziszewski, First Things, August / September 2004 found

(7) Just Violence: An Aristotelian Justification of Capital Punishment

(8) "Christian Scholars: Support for the Death Penalty",

(9) Chapter V:The Sanctity of Life, "Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics" By John Murray

NOTE: Religious positions in favor of capital punishment are neither necessary not needed to justify that sanction. However, the biblical and theological record is very supportive of the death penalty.

Many of the current religious campaigns against the death penalty reflect a fairly standard anti death penalty message, routed in secular arguments. When they do address religious issues, they often neglect solid theological foundations, choosing, instead, select biblical sound bites which do not impact the solid basis of death penalty support.

Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
e-mail, 713-622-5491,
Houston, Texas

Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS , VOA and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O'Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.

A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.

8:07 AM  
Blogger dudleysharp said...

The Death Penalty in the US: A Review
Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters, contact info below
NOTE: Detailed review of any of the below topics, or others, is available upon request
In this brief format, the reality of the death penalty in the United States, is presented, with the hope that the media, public policy makers and others will make an effort to present a balanced view on this sanction.

Innocence Issues
Death Penalty opponents have proclaimed that 129 inmates have been "released from death row with evidence of their innocence", in the US, since the modern death penalty era began, post Furman v Georgia (1972).
The number is a fraud.
Those opponents have intentionally included both the factually innocent (the "I truly had nothing to do with the murder" cases) and the legally innocent (the "I got off because of legal errors" cases), thereby fraudulently raising the "innocent" numbers. This is easily confirmed by fact checking.
Death penalty opponents claim that 24 such innocence cases are in Florida. The Florida Commission on Capital Cases found that 4 of those 24 MIGHT be innocent -- an 83% error rate in for the claims of death penalty opponents. Other studies show their error rate to be about 70%. The totality of reviews points to an 80% error/fraud rate in these claims, or about 26 cases - a 0.3% actual guilt error rate for the nearly 8000 sentenced to death since 1973. 

The actual innocents were all freed.
It is often claimed that 23 innocents have been executed in the US since 1900.  Nonsense.  Even the authors of that "23 innocents executed" study proclaimed "We agree with our critics, we never proved those (23) executed to be innocent; we never claimed that we had."  While no one would claim that an innocent has never been executed, there is no proof of an innocent executed in the US, at least since 1900.
No one disputes that innocents are found guilty, within all countries.  However, when scrutinizing death penalty opponents claims, we find that when reviewing the accuracy of verdicts and the post conviction thoroughness of discovering those actually innocent incarcerated, that the US death penalty process may be one of the most accurate criminal justice sanctions in the world. 
Under real world scenarios, not executing murderers will always put many more innocents at risk, than will ever be put at risk of execution.

Deterrence Issues
16 recent US studies, inclusive of their defenses,  find a deterrent effect of the death penalty.
All the studies which have not found a deterrent effect of the death penalty have refused to say that it does not deter some.  The studies finding for deterrence state such.  Confusion arises when people think that a simple comparison of murder rates and executions, or the lack thereof, can tell the tale of deterrence.  It cannot. 
Both high and low murder rates are found within death penalty and non death penalty jurisdictions, be it Singapore, South Africa, Sweden or Japan, or the US states of Michigan and Delaware.  Many factors are involved in such evaluations.  Reason and common sense tell us that it would be remarkable to find that the most severe criminal sanction -- execution -- deterred none.  No one is foolish enough to suggest that the potential for negative consequences does not deter the behavior of some.  Therefore, regardless of jurisdiction, having the death penalty will always be an added deterrent to murders, over and above any lesser punishments.

Racial issues
White murderers are twice as likely to be executed in the US as are black murderers and are executed, on average, 12 months more quickly than are black death row inmates.
It is often stated that it is the race of the victim which decides who is prosecuted in death penalty cases.  Although blacks and whites make up about an equal number of murder victims, capital cases are 6 times more likely to involve white victim murders than black victim murders.  This, so the logic goes, is proof that the US only cares about white victims.
Hardly.  Only capital murders, not all murders, are subject to a capital indictment.  Generally, a capital murder is limited to murders plus secondary aggravating factors, such as murders involving burglary, carjacking, rape, and additional murders, such as police murders, serial and multiple murders.  White victims are, overwhelmingly, the victims under those circumstances, in ratios nearly identical to the cases found on death row.
Any other racial combinations of defendants and/or their victims in death penalty cases, is a reflection of the crimes committed and not any racial bias within the system, as confirmed by studies from the Rand Corporation (1991), Smith College (1994), U of Maryland (2002), New Jersey Supreme Court (2003) and by a view of criminal justice statistics, within a framework of the secondary aggravating factors necessary for capital indictments.

Class issues
No one disputes that wealthier defendants can hire better lawyers and, therefore, should have a legal advantage over their poorer counterparts.  The US has executed about 0.15% of all murderers since new death penalty statutes were enacted in 1973.  Is there evidence that wealthier capital murderers are less likely to be executed than their poorer ilk, based upon the proportion of capital murders committed by different those different economic groups? Not to my knowledge.

Arbitrary and capricious
About 10% of all murders within the US might qualify for a death penalty eligible trial.  That would be about 64,000 murders since 1973.  We have sentenced 8000 murderers to death since then, or 13% of those eligible.  I doubt that there is any other crime which receives a higher percentage of maximum sentences, when mandatory sentences are not available.  Based upon that, as well as pre trial, trial, appellate and clemency/commutation realities, the US death penalty is likely the least arbitrary and capricious criminal sanctions in the  US.

Christianity and the death penalty
The two most authoritative New Testament scholars, Saints Augustine and Aquinas, provide substantial biblical and theological support for the death penalty. Even the most well known anti death penalty personality in the US, Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, states that "It is abundantly clear that the Bible depicts murder as a capital crime for which death is considered the appropriate punishment, and one is hard pressed to find a biblical 'proof text' in either the Hebrew Testament or the New Testament which unequivocally refutes this.  Even Jesus' admonition 'Let him without sin cast the first stone,' when He was asked the appropriate punishment for an adulteress (John 8:7) -- the Mosaic Law prescribed death -- should be read in its proper context.  This passage is an 'entrapment' story, which sought to show Jesus' wisdom in besting His adversaries.  It is not an ethical pronouncement about capital punishment."  A thorough review of Pope John Paul II's position, reflects a reasoning that should be recommending more executions.

Cost Issues
All studies finding the death penalty to be more expensive than life without parole exclude important factors, such as (1) geriatric care costs, recently found to be $69,0000/yr/inmate, (2) the death penalty cost benefit of providing for plea bargains to a maximum life sentence, a huge cost savings to the state, (3) the death penalty cost benefit of both enhanced deterrence and enhanced incapacitation, at $5 million per innocent life spared, and, furthermore, (4) many of the alleged cost comparison studies are highly deceptive.

Polling data
76% of Americans find that we should impose the death penalty more or that we impose it about right (Gallup, May 2006 - 51% that we should impose it more, 25% that we impose it about right)
71%  find capital punishment morally acceptable - that was the highest percentage answer for all questions (Gallup, April 2006, moral values poll). In May, 2007, the percentage dropped to 66%, still the highest percentage answer, with 27% opposed. (Gallup, 5/29/07)
81% of the American people supported the execution of Timothy McVeigh, with only 16% opposed. "(T)his view appears to be the consensus of all major groups in society, including men, women, whites, nonwhites, "liberals" and "conservatives."  (Gallup 5/2/01).
81% of Connecticut citizens supported the execution of serial rapist/murderer Michael Ross (Jan 2005).
While 81% gave specific case support for Timothy McVeigh's execution, Gallup also showed a 65% support AT THE SAME TIME when asked a general "do you support capital punishment for murderers?" question. (Gallup, 6/10/01).
22% of those supporting McVeigh's execution are, generally, against the death penalty (Gallup 5/02/01). That means that about half of those who say they oppose the death penalty, with the general question,  actually support the death penalty under specific circumstances, just as it is imposed, judicially.
Further supporting the higher rates for specific cases, is this, from the French daily Le Monde December 2006 (1): Percentage of respondents in favor of executing Saddam Hussein:USA: 82%; Great Britain: 69%; France: 58%; Germany: 53%; Spain: 51%; Italy: 46%
Death penalty support is much deeper and much wider than we are often led to believe, with 50% of those who say they, generally, oppose the death penalty actually supporting it under specific circumstances, resulting in 80% death penalty support in the US, as recently as December 2006.
Whatever your feelings are toward the death penalty, a fair accounting of how it is applied should be demanded.
copyright 1998-2008 Dudley Sharp
Permission for distribution of this document, in whole or in part,  is approved with proper attribution.
Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
e-mail,  713-622-5491,
Houston, Texas
Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS , VOA and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O'Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.
A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.
Pro death penalty sites see Death Penalty   (Sweden)

8:08 AM  
Blogger dudleysharp said...

The side of the Georgia case you have, very likely, not sseen.

(1) Summary, Davis v Ga, March 17, 2008

" . . . the majority finds that 'most of the witnesses to the crime who have allegedly recanted have merely stated that they now do not feel able to identify the shooter.' "One of the affidavits 'might actually be read so as to confirm trial testimony that Davis was the shooter.' "

The murder occurred in 1989.


"After an exhaustive review of all available information regarding the Troy Davis case and after considering all possible reasons for granting clemency, the Board has determined that clemency is not warranted."

"The Board has now spent more than a year studying and considering this case. As a part of its proceedings, the Board gave Davis’ attorneys an opportunity to present every witness they desired to support their allegation that there is doubt as to Davis’ guilt. The Board heard each of these witnesses and questioned them closely. In addition, the Board has studied the voluminous trial transcript, the police investigation report and the initial statements of all witnesses. The Board has also had certain physical evidence retested and Davis interviewed."

(3) read the PDF statement released by Chatham County District Attorney Spencer Lawton on the case facts at:

A detailed review of the extraordinary consideration that Davis was given for all of his claims.

(4) Officer Mark Allen MacPhail

8:11 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home