Cruel and Unusual?
The Eight Amendment of the United States says, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” The anti-federalists who wrote this amendment did not have the death penalty in mind. Executing and individual for a crime committed was a widely excepted practice. But now, over 200 years later most of the western world has abolished the death penalty—the United States has not. In 1972, when the United States Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in Furman v. Georgia [408 U.S. 238]1, the court ruled that the nation’s death penalty, in its current form, violated the Constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.. But with the Gregg v. Georgia [428 U.S. 153] 1 decision in 1976, the Court reopened the path for executions, accepting new death penalty laws that supposedly eliminated arbitrariness, racial bias and class discrimination. However, can a western country that claims to be a democracy still have the death penalty?
In general, the people of the United States are in favor of the death penalty. Sixty-three percent of people are in favor, however that number drops to less than half when if life without parole was guaranteed.2 Socrates would most likely be in favor of the death penalty in the United States. He might or might not agree with it personally, but the death penalty is the will of the people and when a person is sentenced to death, he or she has a trial by jury. However, the death penalty is not an issue that affects most people on a day-to-day basis. When people choose to be in favor of the death penalty, they use their emotions to decide. People believe in retribution and that criminals should get what they deserve—an eye for an eye. Politicians usually do not try to change things that people are largely in favor for. Besides, people believe that there are more pressing issues that the government should work on.
The death penalty became a hot issue during the 2000 presidential election. Texas leads the nation in executions and George W. Bush had to defend this practice. However, nobody saw Al Gore condemning Bush. Why?, because he believes in it too, so he just kept his mouth shut and let the press get on Bush’s case. Many object to the death penalty on moral and religious grounds. Also, many are put to death and then later it is discovered that they were innocent. Plus there is something wrong with the idea of killing people to demonstrate that killing is wrong.
Even if one agrees with the death penalty, there is evidence to prove that there are serious flaws in the system. There are more minorities and men on death row. Over two-thirds of all capital convictions and sentences are reversed because of serious error during trial or sentencing.3 The most common errors are incompetent defense lawyers and prosecutorial suppression of evidence. 3 Rawl’s would say that there is no veil of ignorance when it comes to sentencing people to death. Minorities do not get a fair shot and often when an African-American male is accused of kill a Caucasian person, he is many more times likely to be sentenced to death. 1
There really is no reason for the death penalty to exist in the United States. Looking at the issue from a fiscal conservative’s point of view, it is not more cost effective to kill a person than to keep them alive in jail. In a report from the Judicial Conference of the United States on the costs of the federal death penalty, it was reported that the defense costs were about four times higher in cases where death was sought than in comparable cases where death was not sought. Moreover, the prosecution costs in death cases were 67 percent higher than the defense costs. 1
Governor Ryan of Illinois declared a moratorium in his state after 13 people were released from death row because of innocence. Ryan wanted assurances that the system worked before resuming executions. At the very least, this issue has to be looked at more closely to narrow the margin of error. There is something to be said for the fact that the United States is third in the number of execution they have per year. If this issue is not reexamined by the Supreme Court, under the veil of ignorance, justice will not prevail.