Death Penalty


Justice/legal systems form part of a crucial and critical aspect of the society charged with the responsibility of arriving at honorable verdicts by providing appropriate, sound and in-depth evidence to support the verdicts. The society entrusts the judiciary with the legal process. This shows the community beliefs in fair, rightful and precise judgment when dealing with controversial cases. Religious principles support rightful judgement and penalties that correspond to the severity of the committed crimes. This, considered payback/justice means that wrongdoers should be appropriately punished according to the harm caused by their criminal activities. The death penalty, however, remains a debatable legal issue in the world. The topic raises mixed feelings even in those countries where the death penalty has been accepted. The death penalty, especially, raises controversies and pain when verdicts made are based on wrong, inappropriate and half baked evidences which leads to unjustified loss of life. Human life is sacred, as such the morals, values and other human rights of criminals should not be violated through wrongful convictions. The society is, therefore, indebted when the wrongful decisions that lead to loss of human life are made. However, it is important to note that, from time immemorial, the different forms of punishments adopted in the society are governed by social, cultural and religious factors.

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Religious principles are against killing. Religious bodies and human rights agencies, are tactively involved in campaigning against the capital penalty. Capital penalty or capital punishment as referred to under legal terms, denotes the death sentence. The main questions raised by these bodies is the authenticity and correctness of capital penalty verdicts. Capital verdicts may have reduced fatal crimes in the society but its influence should be assessed. United States of America is among the countries that have made the death penalty legal. The death penalty is, however, implemented in few states. Policy making bodies as opposed to US citizens did not support legalization of the death penalty. This study, by focusing on wrongful conviction, investigates the death penalty as applied in the world.

Wrongful conviction is described as a mistaken decree emanating from insufficient evidence which supports charges filed against offenders. Under the American law, capital punishment is defined as “the ending of a criminal offender’s life as authorized by the state”. Capital punishment works on the theory of deterrence as it is aimed at preventing or discouraging members of the society from committing criminal acts the are punished by death, by instilling fear of loosing life. This reduces the number of crimes that lead to capital punishments in the society. Fear installed  by capital punishment is categorized as individual deterrence or general deterrence. Under individual deterrence, possible offenders are discouraged from committing crimes while, as general deterrence, capital punishment instill fear in the general society leading to reduced capital crimes. The policy makers assume that the society refrains from committing certain types of crimes by fearing stern punishments. However, shock ripples abound in the society in cases where the law is implemented and an individual suffers from this law. Those against capital punishment argue that the law increases the crime rate in the society. This argument is based on brutalization theory, which argues that individuals challenge the law by engaging in criminal activities (Thomson, 1997).

The authorities are necessary in order to support passing of the laws as justice does not exist in a void but depends on such systems. Societal and political systems are responsible for upholding laws in a bid to ensure effectiveness in reduction of crime in the society. Capital punishment is, therefore, viewed as the best approach in facilitating decrease in crime rate, supported by the belief that criminals should be separated from the society with an aim of avoiding the occurrence of such crimes in the future. By taking an individual’s life  as a punishment for cold blooded crimes the state sends a signal or warning as quoted by judges to individuals with similar intentions.

Importance of the Study

The study evaluates the progress, expectations of the society and consequences it has on the society. This is the best way to appraise the effectiveness of the death penalty. In order to achieve the study purpose, the following research question will be used to guide the study; does the death penalty reduce crime in the USA? How effective is the law? What are the possible reasons for the wrong conviction in death penalty cases?

The US societyexpressed their concern about murderers and other criminals who should receive the death penalty. Review of the published books, periodicals, journals and the internet articles related to the death penalty will assist the researcher to analyze and properly articulate the reality concerning the application and the consequences of the death penalty. The reviewed literature will further act as a ground  report in judging the authenticity of death penalty supporters and critics alike. The legal system by using various forms of laws aims at achieving four key objectives of avoidance, preclusion, rehabilitation and payback to affected individuals (Livingstone, 2010). The most effective method is ensuring that members of the society avoid involving themselves in criminal activities which results in minimal negative occurrences in the society. Supporters of the death penalty, view capital punishment as promoting avoidance while critics view capital punishment as a factor that fosters increase in criminal activities and  is against human rights, therefore, leading to mixed feelings and opinions about the subject.

Law Related to the Death Penalty

The death sentence was acknowledged by the US legal system in 1976. The country has, however, been rocked by intense debate regarding the legitimacy of punishing human beings by killing them. American citizens are considered the main force that drove the legalization and the incorporation of the death penalty in the American legal system. In fact, carried out polls reflect increased support for this form of punishment. A study carried out by Gallup Poll Institution in 1981 showed that 66 percent of American citizens were concerned about supporting the death penalty (Snell, 2010). This number increased, as results of the poll conducted four years later showed that seventy two percent of US citizens supported the death penalty. The number has been gradually increasing as indicated by another poll conducted ten years later, which indicated 80 percent support for the death penalty (Snell, 2010). This support, however, declined in 2001, as studies carried out at that year indicated a drop in death penalty support to 65 percent (Farrel, 2003). A number of US states are yet to incorporate the death penalty in their legal processes. The process of incorporation of the death sentence into the legal system has faced strong opposition from critics who call for the abolition of such punishments.

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The U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment is one of the laws that have been viewed as contradicting with the capital punishment in America. Being a member of the UN nations, America found itself at roger heads with this UN law. However, ten years after signing the convention (1984) America consented to the agreement. The US argues that since the task of defining torture is left to the state, the law does not contradict with that of the UN as it is dependent on the adopted definition of torture. The UN treaty aimed to make illegal both physical and psychological abuse of individuals in detention. According to the US government there are various crimes punishable by death which include murder related to the smuggling of aliens, destruction of transport media, resulting into death of citizens, civil rights offenses which result to deaths, assassination and/or kidnapping of the President, the Vice President among others (Dieter, 1998).

The major means of executing criminals adopted in the USA involve use of lethal injections, electrocution, gas chambers, hanging and the firing squad. Among the five, the lethal injection is the most commonly used method as it is approved by 35 American states. Snell (2010), a total of 1,137 convicts have been executed through lethal injection. The number of inmates executed through electrocution account about 157 individuals while 11 convicts have been executed by use of the gas chamber. Hanging and the firing squad methods have only been used in three cases.

Research Related to the Death Penalty

Studies carried out by researchers depict an in depth and broad research on death penalty. The first case concerning death penalty was filed in America in 1608, involving a Spanish captain who was condemned to death for bringing a secret spy into America. Since then, over twenty thousand individuals have been executed. According to a study by Lambert, Clarke & Lambert (2004), white American citizens recorded a higher support for the death penalty as opposed to the black community. This result could be attributed to prejudices among the whites against the black community. The study also associated higher numbers of blacks to crime as opposed to whites. This could have made the black community vote against the law. More men support the death penalty as opposed to women, in the USA. Whitehead and Blankenship (2002) established that the older generation favored the death penalty as compared to the younger generation especially graduates. This is attributed to increased access to education enabled by tolerance in higher institutes of learning.

Studies reflecting support of the death penalty have been criticized by researchers as adopting weak  methodologies. For example, a research by Ehrlich in the 1930s and 1960s was widely criticised by other researchers, as it was focused on the whole country without taking into account the differences in the states. Researchers have also studied the influence of religion on the death penalty. Bjarnason (2004) conducted a qualitative study to assess the position of the Catholic church on the death penalty. The study was conducted in the states of Texas, California and Ohio. The study established that, the church followers supported the death penalty as opposed to their leaders who took a strong stand against the penalty.

The numbers of people sentenced to death penalties in the USA vary depending on the state. A study conducted in 2000 by Leibman, Fagan and West, which sought to identify the numbers of death penalties approved in America, established that 4578 death penalty petitions were filed between 1973 and 1955. A total of 3052 petitions was approved after re-evaluation of the cases and establishment of defects in the decisions (Leibman, Fagan & West, 2000).

The study led to the debate of wrong conviction among those charged with the death penalty in the USA. Individuals argued that, the law would be defective if innocent individuals were to suffer from the penalty. The fact that the decision is impossible to overturn further leads to legitimacy issues. As such, the evaluation of the integrity and support of the death penalty is crucial. In a report by Stanford Law Review and Tufts University, over 350 individuals were wrongfully sentenced to death, as re-evaluation of their cases showed that they had been innocent.

There has been doubts on how effectively the death penalty is in reducing crime in the society emanating from a report published in New York Times in 2000. Crime prevention was considered ineffective. Data collected from law enforcement authorities and court cases showed that murder rates were higher in states where the death sentence was practiced as opposed to those states where the death penalty was abolished. This conclusion was based on the country’s murder rate over the same period. These rates increased to 37% in 2001, 37.7% in 2002 and 36.9% in 2003. The study findings were collaborated by another study by Bailey in 2005. Bailey argues that the effect of death penalty and the deterrence theory was clearly revealed by the rate of cases reported.

The effectiveness of the death penalty in reducing crime in the society was also doubted following a report published in New York Times in 2000. Death penalty as deterrence does not work. The crime rate has risen in 60% of the states that enforced death penalty. The report, which involved collection of data from the law enforcement authorities and cases in the courts indicated that murder rates were higher in states conducting death sentences compared to those with no Death Penalty. This was in reference to the country’s murder rate over the same period. States with Death Penalty recorded a 35% murders cases higher than those with no death penalties. The rate rose to 37% in 2001, 37.7 % in 2002 and 36.9% in 2003. This was also echoed by a study conducted by Bailey  in 2005. According to Bailey, the effect of the death penalty and its deterrence theory would be eminently reflected by the rate of cases reported in the states which adopt death penalty. A comparison of crime rates in different states, however, failed to conclusively provide evidence to support the deterrence theory.

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According to researchers, capital punishments are expensive. A study conducted by Times Magazine which aimed at evaluating the cost of running death penalties in the USA established that Arkansas saved a total of over $1.5 million by declining a petition that championed the death penalty for 15 inmates. In 1977 and 1993, California Sate incurred roughly $1 billion on death penalty related cases and ended up executing only two criminals.

In 2009, 52 inmates were executed in the USA. Texas was leading among the states that executed inmated with a total of 24 cases. This number, however, reduced by seven in 2010. A commonness was noted with regards to the method employed to carry out the executions with 51 of the 52 death punishments authorized in 2009 conducted by lethal injection. The figure went down in 2011 as only 43 inmates were convicted to the death penalty. Texas was again noted as leading in the convicting death punishment cases (Snell, 2010).

Death Penalty in Actual Cases

Various cases have been recorded as wrongfully convicted in the American history. A good example is the case involving “Randy” Steidl who was set free in 2004 after his case was looked into again. His case is a proper manifestation of delayed or denied justice. The investigating body made up and modified evidence to wrongly convict Randy. The poor trial procedures convicted the man in participating in a murder of Dyke and Karen Rhoads in 1987. His case was, however, appealed in 1999 where he was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. The case was finally re-evaluated under the directions of judge Michael McCuskey who further ruled that the evidence presented to the court in 2003 was not substantial since it lacked DNA prove to support the case. This led to the freeing of Randy (Death Penalty Information Center, 2012).

The case involving Ryan Matthews who was convicted to a death sentence in 1999, under the accusations that he was involved in a murder is another good example of wrongful convictions. In the case the plaintiff described the murderer as not being taller than 5’8 feet. Matthews being 6 feet tall was accused but they lacked DNA to prove  Matthew’s guilt. Despite the prosecutor lacking DNA, the judge allowed the case to proceed. Matthews was sentenced to a death penalty. Years later, Mathew’s lawyer presented new evidence which proved his innocence. The DNA test done on the mask, worn by the actual murderer, did not match that of Matthews and as such he was released in 2004 (Death Penalty information Center, 2012).

In another case, Curtis Edward McCarty convicted in Oklahoma in 1986 was found guilty of killing a police officer’s daughter. Part of the evidence provided by the prosecutor included semen and hair. No DNA evidence was presented and the hair had gone missing before the test could be done. After 25 years in jail, a DNA test conducted by using the semen proved that Edward was innocent as his semen did not match with that collected on the crime  scene (Death Penalty information Center, 2012).

The most recent is the case of Damon Thibodeaux, who was on the verge of loosing his life after he was wrongly convicted of raping and murdering his cousin in 1997. After his release Damon said that provided the investigation department with what they wanted  to hear so that he could get through the interrogation process. He said that he had been tortured and forced to accept that he was guilty. His claim was investigated and it was revealed  that the forced him to cooperate with them. In September 28, 2012, the judiciary overturned the verdict and cited lack of conclusive evidence to prove Damon’s guilt (Blackmon, 2012).

Such cases among others show the negative consequences of the death penalty and the harmful effects of the death penalty on the society. Innocent people who are wrongfully convicted may end up suffering death at the hands of the judicial system which would traumatize their families. Under such cases the judicial system would be considered unjust leading to loss of trust in the system, in the rule of law and in justice seeking process.


America is among the countries in which the death penalty is accepted. The decision to impose the death penalty is, however, left to individual states. However, the issue is highly debated by American citizens. The highest number of convicts were sentenced to death penalties as compared to other American states in Texas. Wrong convictions are common as shown by various cases and depict injustice in the legal system. American citizens support the death penalty when imposed on inhuman acts, punishable by death. There is a need to provide convincing and reliable evidence such as DNA tests to reduce wrongful convictions and instill trust in the public with regards to the judicial system.