Welcome to Jimmo.com
  Login or Register
::  Home  ::  Downloads  ::  Your Account  ::  Forums  ::
· Home
· Authors and Articles
· Content
· Downloads
· Feedback
· Groups
· Journal
· Private Messages
· Search
· Statistics
· Stories Archive
· Submit News
· Surveys
· Top 10
· Topics
· Web Links
· Your Account
Who's Online
There are currently, 9 guest(s) and 0 member(s) that are online.

You are an Anonymous user. You can register for free by clicking here
Select Interface Language:

Click here for Masthead/Impressum

Death Penalty Paper

This is a paper I wrote during college at the time when California conducted its first execution in over 25 years (May 1992). Although the case is over a decade old, the issues still apply. Note that this was scanned in from the printed version of my paper, as I could no longer find an electronic copy. Therefore, there may be a number of spelling mistakes.


The issue of capital punishment is more than just statistics and facts. To sanitize the issue just to numbers, figures, graphs and a description would be to avoid completely the heart of what both sides are arguing. This is a very emotional issue. We are dealing not only with the obvious issue of human lives, but the emotional reaction to both sides. Not viewing the issue in this context, as well as the context of the 'raw' issue itself, would not do justice to it.

The proponents of capital punishment argue from the side of justice and the state's obligation to the victim and the victim's family. They insist that such punishment is not only just, but necessary for the protection of society. The opponents argue from the side of humanity. Their position is that a human life is still important, despite what that person did. Because of the arbitrary way in which this sentence is handed out, the opponents also believe that the death penalty is neither fair nor just.

The issue is significant not only because of its complexity and it dealing with the taking of human lives, but also because of the emotional intensity of the issue. Both sides have a panoply of statistics and case studies to support their side. The reason these 'facts' do not lend themselves to persuading people to change their opinion is, because this is really an issue of emotions. The stand people take on this issue is based on their emotions. It is only after they have made a decision that they take the 'facts' of the matter into consideration.

History of the Death Penalty

As early as 1778, there was an effort to eliminate capital punishment for all crimes but murder and treason. From that time until the Furman decision in 1972, many cases involving capital punishment were repeatedly brought before the US Supreme Court, but the constitutionality of the punishment was never questioned (Carrington 163).

This all changed in January 1972 with the Furman decision. There wasn't anything special about the case of William Furman. Convicted of murder in the commission of a felony, Furman was sentence to death. Death penalty opponents argued several cases before the US Supreme Court about the constitutionality of the death penalty. The Furman case received a special place in history merely because this was the lead-off case in the decision of the Supreme Court (Carrington 158).

Although it took six months to give a decision, no single issue was decided. Two justices, Brennan and Marshall, said flat out that the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment and needed to be abolished. However, the remaining justices either supported the states' decisions on capital punishment or felt that current laws were too arbitrary in the way capital punishment was handed out. Capital punishment was put on hold (Carrington 170).

The speed at which some state legislatures passed through new death penalty laws seemed to contradict Justice Marshall's contention that capital punishment was ...morally unacceptable to the people of the United States" (Carrington 171).

The major issue that the states had to deal with was the discretionary way in which capital punishment was dispensed. The decision to make such sentences mandatory in Louisiana and North Carolina was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Georgia, Florida, and Texas decided to create a standard by which capital punishment was dispensed. This was later upheld by the Supreme Court in the Gregg decision (Carrington 177).

These new standards all but eliminated the practice of convicting and sentencing in one step. This new 'bifurcated system' was broken down into two stages (Ulemer 47). During the 'guilt stage' the court decided whether the individual committed the crime. During the 'penalty stage', evidence of aggravation and mitigation was heard. The judge or jury still had some discretion on whether to impose the death penalty or not, but this was limited by the standards described by law. However, the decision to impose capital punishment was now broken down into the two issues of guilt and whether the individual deserves the death penalty.

Four years after the Furman decision was made, the Supreme Court again heard arguments on both sides of the capital punishment debate. One of the main arguments was again that capital punishment was cruel and unusual and that despite the new standards, the system was still arbitrary in its dispensing of death sentences.

On July 2, 1976, the Supreme Court handed down the Gregg decision. This decision reaffirmed the constitutionality of the death penalty in that it did not violate the Eighth Amendment's guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment. The individual states could now decide the issue for themselves.

That is exactly what they did. Today, all but fourteen states have the death penalty and sixteen have not used it since at least 1976. Most states that have death penalty use lethal injection. Of these, Idaho and Utah, also use the firing squad and two others, Montana and Deleware, use hanging as well. Of those that do not use lethal injection, eleven use electrocution and five, including California, use lethal gas.

The most recent execution in California, that of Robert Alton Harris on April 21, 1992, may pave the way for a reevaluation of the constitutionality of some of these methods. In last minute appeals, Harris' lawyers contended that execution by lethal gas constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The last set of appeals by Harris' lawyer resulted in several stays, one of which occurred when Harris was already strapped to the death chair and the door to the gas chamber was closed (Leary April 22, 1992; Morain April 22, 1992). As a result of the publicity surrounding this case and the dramatic legal battles that went on, the issue of capital punishment may again find itself before the US Supreme Court.

Today, 2588 people are waiting on America's death row and the population increasing, on the average, by one every other day [Hertzberg]. Of the 2588, more than 10% (330) are in California [Hager 22 April 1993]


Of the crimes that can be committed by one human being upon another, none is so horrible as the crime of murder. Despite the sanctity of human life, the need to punish in kind is paramount in this issue. Potential murders must be made to know that such an act is contrary to all acceptable standards of behavior in our society.

Since the value of human life is not comparable with any other value, the only truly equivalent punishment for murder is the death penalty. No other punishment is proportional to the crime [Primoratz 159]. Punishment is just when it it deserved and it is deserved by the act of the crime [Primoratz 148]. The wrongful taking of a life means that the criminal has forfeited his. It may be challenged that the state does not have the right to take the life of one of its citizens. The state is there to protect rather than destroy. However, in this instance the state is merely protecting the rights of the other members of the society [Primoratz 159]. The killer was aware of the consequences when he pulled the trigger. By doing so he forfeited his rights.

The people of California decided that they were fed up with the rising murder rates and decided that life imprisonment was not a sufficient deterrent. Between 1966 and 1975, the murder rate in the US almost doubled. The number o£ people supporting capital punishment went from almost even with those opposed to it by more than two-to-one [Carrington 60]. In 1978 they took matters into their own hands when they passed an initiative that invalidated the California Supreme Court's decision that the death penalty was unconstitutional. [Uelmer 2] This new law was similar to those in other states in that it established a set of standards that limited when the death penalty could be imposed. Opponents claim that there is no statistical evidence that capital punishment is really a deterrent and this may be true. However, there is also no statistical evidence that capital punishment does not act as a deterrent. One statistic that supports capital punishment is that the number of executions in the United States dropped from 76 in 1955 to 0 in 1975, while the number of murders almost tripled to over 20,000 in 1975.

In 1970 and 1971 the Los Angeles Police Department posed a set of questions to individuals arrested for crimes. Ninety-nine people, unarmed when they were arrested, were asked why they either carried no weapons or carried defective ones. Fifty said that they were deterred by of fear of the death penalty and only ten said that they would kill whether the death penalty was enforced or not [Carrington 92]

In his book Neither Cruel Nor Unusual, Frank Carrington lists thirteen cases between 1961 and 1975 where crimes were committed without weapons or with inoperative ones because of fear of the death penalty. Although these thirteen cases spread out over fifteen years, they strongly support the deterrent effect of capital punishment. If capital punishment prevents one murder, then it has served its purpose. No matter how slight the deterrent effects, abolishing it will remove all deterrence. Another strong argument supporting it is its prevention of recivitism. The murder of one person shows that the murderer is capable of killing. Imposing capital punishment is the only sure way of preventing him from committing that act again. Opponents reject this saying that life imprisonment 'without possibility of parole' would serve the same end. This is a superficial view and not at all realistic after studying individual cases.

Carrington in "Neither Cruel Nor Unusual", lists several cases where a convicted murderers killed others in prison or outside when their commuted death sentences made them eligible for parole. In addition, the national average for 'life sentence' is twelve years (Carrington 106) and in California it is possible to be paroled after seven years (Uelmer 10).

Opponents of capital punishment are quick to point out the apparent contradiction in the statement that capital punishment shows our belief in the sanctity of human life. How can the state intentionally take a life when it is so valuable? It is the very fact that human life is important that the state is obligated to impose this kind of punishment. By not imposing it, we have shown that only the life of the murderer is sacred. You cannot take a stance for the sanctity of human life, when the killer has no regard for it, except perhaps his own.

The description of capital punishment as being state sanctioned murder is unsupported when comparing it to other punishments. When a person is convicted of kidnapping or robbery, no mention is made of the criminals right to freedom. It is accepted that the state has the right and authority to deprive this person of his freedom. This punishment in the form of deprivation of freedom is not called "state sanctioned kidnapping," so why is capital punishment considered "state sanctioned murder"? Murder is the wrongful taking of a human life. Since the issue here is the right to life, the very denial of that right by the killer acknowledges his forfeiture of that right.

This attempt to show that the life of the killer himself should be respected is just one example of how the opponents of capital punishment have turned the killer into a victim. We see on TV and read in the newspapers about the rights of the killer, but we forget the right of the real victims (Kidwell 125). Under the auspices of freedom of the press, KQED in San Francisco, filed a lawsuit in May 1991 to televise the scheduled execution of Robert Harris televised (Smolowe, June 3, 1991). This was just the beginning of a media event that would go all the way through Harris' execution a year later. In the days before the execution, articles about the appeals and Harris' clemency trial filled local newspapers. The issue of the San Francisco Chronicle published immediately after the execution even went as far as printing a 'play-by-play' [Kearsley April 22, 1992] of the events on that day. Harris became an anti-hero as well as a rallying point for the opponents.

Why is this significant? Because the execution of Robert Harris became such media event, it drowned out the severity of the crime for which he was being punished. It will be sometime before we forget the name of Robert Harris. This is ironic because we not only forget his victims, few of us ever even knew who they were.

In preparation for this paper, I asked over twenty people to name the two victims of Robert Harris. The best any one of them could do is to say that the victims were two teenaged boys. Not one of them remembered the names of John Mayeski and Michael Baker.

When the case came to court, their existence was reduced to a description of how their life ended. They were no longer thought of as people, but rather as evidence for the state. They were referred to not as the 'victim' but rather as the 'deceased'. Even the name of the case itself does not mention of the killer's victims [Kidwell 125].

If even one case justifies the existence of capital punishment, then there is a valid reason for it. Robert Harris was a cold-blooded killer who had no regard for human life. He saw nothing important in the exitance of Michael Baker and John Mayeski other than the fact they had a car. He decided that they should die so that he could have a getaway car for a bank robbery. He made the conscious decision to take their life. Justice tells us that Robert Harris should pay for that crime with his own life.


The French revolutionary leader, Pierre Vergniau said, "When justice has spoken, humanity must have its turn." Justice tells us that Robert Harris got what he deserved. Now we must let humanity have its turn.

The issue here is not one of guilt, but rather of the humanity of taking life, any life. Robert Harris admitted killing the two boys [Clancy 98] and by all rights he deserves to die. However, killing someone, anyone, in cold blood is wrong. The inhumanity of murder lies at very heart of the Judeo-Christian faith. The intentional taking of a life, for whatever reason, is immoral. The state's imposition of a punishment for the crime of murder is no less violent than the original killer's act. Except for the cold-hearted determination in which the state ends that person's life, there is no difference.

Imposing the death penalty does not do the victim and his family any real good. It does not return life to the victim, nor does it compensate the families in anyway. They may feel a certain amount of satisfaction in knowing, or in many cases seeing, that the killer was "bought to justice." However, there is no tangible benefit derived from this act of state sanctioned murder. The mechanisms to ensure that justice is served, such as the length appeals process, tend to aggravate the suffering of the victim's family even more. Linda Herring, the sister of Michael Baker (a victim of Robert Harris), asked, "How can you keep mind off something when somebody brings it up every six months?" [Kramer]

The proponents' viewpoint is that it is the responsibility of the state to protect and look out for the welfare of its citizens. Besides the obvious contradiction regarding the criminal himself, the death penalty impose a great amount of suffering on the families of the condemned man. The undue suffering imposed by the state to carry out its interpretation of justice is both cruel and inhumane. Do not the family of the condemned man have the right to be spared terrible and avoidable agony? Are we to punish them for the crimes of their relatives? Although separation through life imprisonment can be legitimized by society's right to protection, can we justify the suffering the death penalty imposes on the killer's family?

The very nature of this punishment is reason enough to abolish it [Primoratz 157]. Some judicial mistakes can be corrected, execution of an innocent man cannot. What if, like the Supreme Court intends, the number of appeals is limited, speeding up the execution process? What happens in those cases where it takes e little longer to prove a man's innocence and the state has hurriedly executed him? The state contends that the wrongful killing of a person is murder. The state has just comnitted murder.

In his book "Last Rights", Joseph Ingel tells of several men and one woman who were executed for murder. In several instances, there was substantial evidence that the person executed was not the person who committed the crime. In other instances, he describes the severe mental problems the individual had which demonstrated his lack of understanding of his crime or its seriousness. In November 1973, James Adams, a black man, was arrested in Florida for murder based on purely circumstantial evidence. There nothing else tying him to the crime other than some of the victim's belongings found in his car's trunk (which had a defective lock and easily opened without a key). Despite eyewitness testimony stating that Adams was definitely not the man, Adams was convicted, sentenced and later executed [Ingel 185-200].

Another such story involved Willie Darden. Darden was also a black man charged with killing a white man in Florida in 1973. During the trial a witness came to the court house to testify that Darden's car had broken down near her house. On the basis of the time she last saw him, it was impossible for him to have been at the scene of the crime even before the police arrived. She was never called to testify. Other so-called witnesses could not agree on a description of the man, even to the point of if he wore a mustache or not (Darden was clean shaven).

Florida Governor Bob Graham had used the Darden case in many of his public speeches as an example of how the courts were trying to "thwart" the death penalty [Ingel]. If Darden were to be proven innocent this would be embarrassing or even mean political death for many Florida politicians. Willie Darden was executed on March 15, 1988 (Ingel 254-266).

Roger Coleman is now sitting on Virginia's death row awaiting his execution for the 1981 murder-rape of his sister-in-law. Eyewitness testimony left a gap in Colemans alibi of thirty minutes. In that time, he had to wade across a creek, walk up hill over three hundred yards long, rape his victim twice, slit her throat and then escape leaving no traces. At the very least, traces of mud and water from Coleman's trek through the creek should have been found. None were. Coleman's conviction was based on circumstantial evidence as well as the testimony of a jail informant who was released from serving a four-year sentence immediately after his testimony. The informant claimed that Coleman had bragged about the rape and murder and stated the other man had killed her. Even if this testimony was to be believed, Coleman could not be sentenced to death under Virginia 'trigger-man law', which states that only the person who actually committed that murder can be sentenced to death. (Smolowe May 18, 1992)

These are just a few examples of the many cases were either evidence showing person's innocence was ignored or the conviction was based on circumstantial evidence. Even if these men were guilty, the injustice and inequality in the system demand that the death penalty be abolished. If the same threat or danger to society existed or the seriousness of the crime was the same, one might accept the execution of these killers.

The truth of the matter is otherwise. Although blacks represent only 12% of the population in 1986 (Statistical Abstract 125j, 43% of those arrested for murder, 40% of those sentenced to death and 50% of those executed were black. (Statistical Abstract 340,342; Information Please 842) Studies by Hugo Bedau, considered by many as the most knowledgeable expert on capital punishment in the US, showed that there is no careful winnowing of the good from the bad. His studies show that those executed are still "losers in an arbitrary lottery" (Dicks 162). Bedau goes on to say, "A system like this does not enhance respect for human life; it cheapens and degrades it. However heinous murder and other crimes are, the system of capital punishment does not compensate for or erase those crimes. It only tends to add new injury of its own to the catalogue of our inhumanity to each other." (Dicks 163) Bedau also found 23 cases in this century alone where person was executed and was later proven innocent.

The obvious injustice of executing an innocent man should be sufficient to abolish the death penalty. However, the injustice served in other cases is equally appalling. Most states have age limits under which a person cannot be held accountable for his actions. Since children do not have the same concepts of right and wrong as adults, should they be guilty of murder, it is assumed that they should not be sentenced to death. Unfortunately, the injustice of our criminal system limits this protection only to chronological age. A person with the social maturity of ten-year-old and IQ bordering on mentally retarded can be executed in our society (MacPherson).

Such was the case of Morris Mason, executed in Virginia in 1985. Mason was tested to have an IQ of 66 (the average is 100) (MacPherson) and was diagnosed as schizophrenic (Ingel 247). Mason was not able to grasp the finality of his execution, let alone the seriousness of his crime. The right to choose his last meal was a source of extreme excitement to Mason after years of being fed in his cell. So much so that he asked, "Does this mean I get to order anything I want for breakfast?" (Mason's execution was scheduled for 11PM) [Ingles 247] He even asked friends what he should wear to his funeral (MacPherson).

Mason's case is not unique. Jerome Bowden, who was tested to have an IQ of about 60 was executed in Georgia. Earl Washington, Jr. sitting on death row in Virginia cannot define the word 'evidence' and has the social maturity of ten-year-old (MacPherson). Robert Swayer on Louisiana's death row was tested to have an IQ of 68.

How could someone of Mason's obvious disability be aware enough of the situation to wave a jury trial? How could someone with Washington's lack of understanding of basic legal concepts be aware of the seriousness of the crime he committed. How can such a person be held accountable for his actions to the extent that he is executed? Do they really know right from wrong? [MacPherson] Aside from the obvious injustice in executing a person of child-like mentality, there is the issue of other type of emotional of psychological problems that could lead a person to murder. Robert Harris was beaten regularly as a child, suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome [Chiang and Leary April, 16 1992) and diagnosed as schizophrenic (Morain April 21, 1992). The three next likely candidates for California's gas chamber all suffered abuse as children and one was also diagnosed as schizophrenic [O'Niell April 22 1992].

Although abuse as a child or mental problems do not justify murder, we need to look at their effects on the people involved. Were these people driven to these horrible crimes? Could they have been prevented if society cared enough? What would have the outcome been had society kept Edgar Hendricks (the man most likely to die next) from turning to prostitution to survive? We will never know the answer to that question, but we can answer the question of whether or not society has the right to execute them after failing so miserably to help them. Is this our attempt to hide the truth of our failure?

Despite the attempts of the states to come up with a standard by which capital cases are tried and punishment handed down, there is still a great deal of arbitraryness in the way sentences are passed. Why should Robert Harris, the killer of two boys be executed when Angelo Bruno (the famous hillside strangler) get; life imprisonment for killing nine women? US Supreme Court Justice William Brennan called it little more than a lottery system" [Holding April 20, 1992).

The state is there for the protection of all members of the society. We cannot justify the wrongful execution of someone, even if we attempt to defend it with the statement that the needs of the society as a whole outweighs the needs of the individual. The society may want the execution or even feel it is necessary, but to actually need an execution is a level of barbarism that we left behind us two thousand years ago. If we allow ourselves to be motivated by vengeance and hate, our society will never survive.


1992 Information Please Almanac, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 45th Edition
Abrahamson, Alan, Victim's Sister Finds a Reason to Forgive", Los Angeles Times, April 22, 1992, pg. Al
Carrington, Frank Neither Cruel Nor Unusual, New Rochel.le, NY, Arlington House, 1978
Chiang, Harriet and Carlsen, Willian, Murderer's death called a 'milestone "' San Fransisco Chronicle, April 22, 1992, pg. A1
Chiang, Harriet and Leary, Kevin, Wilson Listens to Pleas on Clemency for Killer", San Fransisco Chronicle, April 16, 1992, pg, A1
Glancy, Frank, I Cannot Be Destoyed", California Magazine, September 1989
Dicks, Shicley, ed "onerexation of the Condemned, Buffalo, Prometheus Books, 1991
Goldston, Linda, Watching Harris Die", San Jose Mercury, April 22, 1992, pg. lA
Hager, Philip "Experts See Faster Pace for Appeals", Los Angeles Times, April 22, 1992, pg. A2
Hertzberg, Hendrik "Premeditated Execution", Time, May 18, 1992, pg.49
Holding, Reynolds, "High Court gets a tough on 'Abusive' appeals", San Fransisco Chronicle, April 22, 1992, pg. A1
Ingle, Joseph, Last Rights, Nashvillle, Abingdon Press, 1990
Kearsley, Steve, Harris' Last Appeals", San Fransisco Chronical, April 22, 1992, pg. A8
Kidwell Michael, Handbook of Issues on Our Criminal.Svstems, Georgia Research Associates, 1983
King, Peter, What a Son Should Know About This", Los Angeles Times, Apri.l 22, 1992, pg. 2A
MacPherson, Karen, Should retarded convicts be executed for crimes?" San Fransisco Examiner, May 10, 1992, pg. A4
Morain, Dan and Gorman, Tom, "Harris Dies after Judicial Duel", Los Angeles Times, April 22, 1992, pg. lA
Morain, Dan and Warren, Jennifer, "Another New Appeal in Harris Case", Los Angeles Times, April 21, 1992, pg. Al
Morain, Dan , "From Birth to Death Row Violence Surrounds Harris", Los Angeles Times, April 21, 1992, pg. A18
Horain, Dan, "Witnesses Role - Ordeal Worsened by False Start", Los Angeles Times, April 22, 1992, pg. lA
Horrison, Patt, "Final Legal War Troubling to Both Sides", Los Angeles Times, April 22, 1992, pg. 2A
O'Niell, Ann, "Death row inmates know they're next", San Jose Mercury, April 22 1992, pg. 16A Primoratz, Igor, "Justifying Legal Punishment", New Jersey, 1989
Siegel, Mark PhD,"Capital Punishment' Cruel and Unusual", Texas Research Institute, Plano, Tx, 1986
Smolowe, Jill, The Ultimate Horror Show", Time, June 3, 1991, pg. 59
Smolowe, Jill, "Must This Man Die?", Time, May 18, 1992, pg. 40
Stanley, Moira and Gray, Ian, "A Punishment in Seach of a Crime", New York, Avon Books, 1989
Statistical Abstract of the United States 1991, Us Department of Agriculture, llth Edition
Stawser, Kristine "The Death Penalty in America", San Pransisco Chronicle, April 20, 1992, pg. A14
Szumski, Bonnie, ed, America's Prisons: Opposing Viewpoints, St.Paul, Greenhaven Pres, 1985
Uelmen, Gerald, California Death Penaltv Laws and the Californi.a Supreme Court: A Ten Year Perspective, 1986

Copyright © by Jimmo.com All Rights Reserved.

Published on: 2006-08-04 (13848 reads)

[ Go Back ]

All logos and trademarks in this site are property of their respective owner. The comments are property of their posters, all the rest © 2005 by me.

Distributed by Raven PHP Scripts
PHP-Nuke Copyright © 2004 by Francisco Burzi. This is free software, and you may redistribute it under the GPL. PHP-Nuke comes with absolutely no warranty, for details, see the license.
Page Generation: 2.87 Seconds

:: Chronicles phpbb2 style by Jakob Persson :: PHP-Nuke theme by www.nukemods.com ::