Over half the countries in the world consider capital punishment to be such a cruel and inhumane punishment that they no longer implement it. Of the countries that make up the other half, most are dictatorships with low
standards of human rights. The United States is an exception to this statistic.
While the United States has a very high standard of human rights in most cases, it still supports the use of capital punishment. One thousand prisoners have been executed by the United States government since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. While the death penalty has always been well supported by the American people, its support has consistently decreased over the years. Support of the death penalty today is at an all time low. In the past ten years, the number of people who support the death penalty dropped from eighty percent to sixty-four percent. When asked if they support the death penalty, sixty four percent of Americans said yes. However, when asked to factor in life in prison as an alternative punishment, support of the death penalty dropped below forty percent.
Most people who support capital punishment do so under the assumption that the correct person is being executed. Capital punishment leaves no room for error; therefore most people assume no errors are made. However, in an imperfect world you cannot rule out error. As a matter of fact errors, in this system are not uncommon. In the past twenty five years, seventy-four people have been proven innocent and freed from death row. Numbers show that for every seven executions, one prisoner on death row is found innocent. While no one has officially been declared innocent after execution, mostly due to the fact that most don’t peruse someone’s innocence after they are gone, many credible claims have been raised. Most claims of innocence after execution are very serious. In an article written by the Huston chronicle on November 21 2005 an already executed man’s innocence proclaimed. Ruben Cantu, who was executed in Texas in 1993, both the eyewitness and co-defendant in his prosecution came forward to say they lied. The eyewitness claims Cantu was not there, and he only testified that he was because he was pressured by the authorities and was afraid. Cantu’s co-defendant has signed a sworn affidavit stating that he allowed Cantu to be prosecuted and sentenced for a crime for which he was not present. (Huston Chronicle) Ruben Cantu’s case is just one of a handful of similar cases. While the number of innocent people mistaken for guilty may seem small compared to the number of guilty people actually punished, we have to ask how many is too many. Gerald Kogan, former chief justice of Florida Supreme Court, says “If one innocent person is executed along the way, then we can no longer justify capital punishment.” (U.S. News)
Punishment of criminals is supposed to serve two main purposes. First is to protect society from the same criminal repeating its crime, and to act as a deterrent for other prospective criminals. The other purpose is to reform the criminal. Capital punishment fails in most cases. It does prevent the criminal from committing their crime again. However, it is proven that most heinous crimes worthy of the death penalty are personal and committed in the heat of the moment and are very unlikely to be repeated be the same person. While you may think that capital punishment would scare away other criminals from crime, that is not the case. If you compare crime rates of murder and other heinous crimes worthy of the death penalty of a country that uses the death penalty to one that does not, you will see there is little to no difference. The reason for this is that most murders are acts of passion in the moment, when people cannot reason or consider consequence. Also, people who plan to kill do not plan to be caught, and truly believe they won’t be caught. Therefore, they have no reason to fear capital punishment. Capital punishment eliminates the possibility to reform a criminal. The government is supposed to consider it their duty to try to reform criminals. We have the capabilities to reform prisoners, and we can be very successful with average criminals. However, programs to reform are not offered to those on death row. If a criminal on death row is reformed, they do so on their own. By ending a criminal’s life, we close the door on opportunity to help that person better themselves and become a good person. When criminals in jail take the steps offered to them to reform and do a good job, they are rewarded. Many times their time served is reduced. However, while most criminals on death row are not offered help to reform, many do. Many prisoners on death row reform themselves into decent, remorseful people. However, no matter how reformed they may be, it is not taken into consideration for their punishment, and they are still executed.
Capital punishment is not only about the convicted or even the victim of the capital crime. It is not just about the families or the parties involved, on the contrary it is about every man woman and child in the United States. When the Federal Government executed Timothy McVeigh it did so in the name of the people. The use of the death penalty diminishes us as human beings. A great poet once said “No man is an island entire of itself, any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”-James Holmes. It becomes more diminishing when a man is killed on our behalf. Personally I am repulsed that the Government feels it should take the life of another human being and then do so in my name. “The increasing reliance on the death penalty diminishes all of us, it increases disrespect for human life, and offers the tragic illusion that we can teach that killing is wrong by killing.” (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.)
The United Nations has made many strides toward abolishing the death penalty in all nations. To date only seventy eight countries and territories have retained the right to use the death penalty. In 1948 the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It defines in detail the rights and freedoms of individuals, and declares that “everyone has a right to life.” (UN Chronicle) Since it’s ratification in December 1948 118 member states have abolished the death penalty. A Declaration is considered a non- binding treaty, however a Covenant is legally binding. In 1966 The UN adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or the ICCPR. This strongly encourages Member States to abolish the death penalty. However it allowed the sentence of death only in the most serious crimes. It also allows for a monitoring body of the Covenant by the Human Rights Committee. In 1989 a second optional protocol was adopted to the Covenant. It was adopted because many Member States felt that “abolition of the death penalty contributes to the enhancement of human dignity and progressive development of human rights.” (UN Chronicle) It allows for the death penalty only during war time and only with justifiable reason. All parties must submit reports to the Human Rights Committee to show steps taken towards the goal. This protocol says that no person under the age of eighteen or child offender can be sentenced to death ever. This protocol has been ratified by 192 countries, and is considered to be the most universally accepted human rights instrument in history. Only two countries (that are member states of the UN) have not signed it, Somalia and the United States. Despite international effort to ban capitol punishment against children it is still being applied to child offenders, although it is clearly banned under the Convention on the Rights of Children. Since 1990 eight countries has executed thirty six child offenders. China, Pakistan, and Yemen have risen to eighteen years minimum age for application of the death penalty. However Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and the United States have not outlawed such executions. Of the thirty six known execution of child offenders nineteen (over half) have taken place in the United States.
Capital punishment is in no way error proof, and has resulted in the deaths of several innocent people, along with wrongful time served by many. The support of the death penalty by the American people continues to drop as more people are further educated about it. Furthermore, capital punishment is virtually ineffective at preventing crime, and therefore serves no purpose other than vengeance. Vengeance is a product of hate, it serves no good purpose. It should not be considered a good enough reason to take another person’s life. The United States is considered to have a very high standard of human rights. However on the issue of capital punishment the United States is grouped with countries whose average standard of human rights would out rage every citizen of the United States. The rest of the civilized world is moving forward at a quick pace on the issue of human rights. We soon need to step up and catch up or we will be left behind.
U.S News “The Wrong Man on Death Row” November 11 1998.
Associated Press “Va. Killer may become 1000th prisoner executed since 1977” Brooks, Bradley November 25 2005.
Huston Chronicle “Investigative Series Reveals Texas May Have Executed an Innocent Man.” November 21 2005.
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops/ Social Development and World Peace “101 Reasons to Abandon the Death Penalty.” April 18 2002.
UN Chronicles “Capital Punishment: Where the World Stands.”