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Capital punishment -- the death penalty

Basic reasons that people give to
support or oppose the death penalty

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Common reasons in support of capital punishment

bullet The Bible: The Bible requires the death penalty for a wide variety of crimes, including practicing evil sorcery, adultery, some form of homosexual behavior, doing work on Saturday, women (but not men) who are non-virgins when they marry, people who try to persuade others to change their religion from the only approved state religion, murder, etc. It even calls for some criminals (e.g. prostitutes who are the daughters of priests) to be tortured to death by being burned alive. The vast majority of  Christians, with the exception of those in the Reconstructionist movement, feel that many of these grounds for the death penalty no longer apply to Christian societies. However, Bible passages are still used to promote the retention of capital punishment for murderers. A very few conservative Christians support the policy of six predominately Muslim states and advocate that sexually active homosexuals also be executed.

bullet Justice/Vengeance: Many people feel that killing convicted murderers will satisfy their need for justice and/or vengeance. They feel that certain crimes are so heinous that executing the criminal is the only reasonable response. This belief even extends to some Christians where their need for vengeance overrules their ability to forgive, even though the concepts of forgiveness and mercy are expressed in 106 passages of the Christian Scriptures (a.k.a. New Testament).

bullet Deterrence: Many people feel that the death penalty will deter criminals from killing. This does not seem to be confirmed by an analysis of the available data or by the opinions of leading criminologists. However, it feels intuitively correct for many people. 1 to 6

bullet Respecting the value of human life: "It is by exacting the highest penalty for the taking of human life that we affirm the highest value of human life." (Edward Koch). Critics often ridicule this position by asking why the state is systematically killing people in order to demonstrate that killing people is the ultimate evil.

bullet Cost: Once a convicted murder is executed and buried, there are no further maintenance costs to the state. This appears to be invalid; the cost to the state paying for multiple appeals is generally much greater than the cost of imprisoning an inmate.

bullet Public safety: Once a convicted murderer is executed, there is zero chance that he will break out of jail and kill or injure another person.

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Common reasons against capital punishment

bullet The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament): Some Christians feel that they are no longer bound by the legal codes of the Hebrew Scriptures, and that the death penalty is no longer required. Over the years since the Bible was written, society became more tolerant. We eliminated the death penalty for pre-marital sex, adultery, practicing a different religion, engaging in prostitution, homosexual behavior, blasphemy, rebellion by teenagers, etc. We should eliminate it for murder as well.

bullet The Christian Scriptures (New Testament): Abolitionists often quote Jesus' treatment of the adulteress in the Gospel of John as support for their position. She had been sentenced to death by stoning, but Jesus used a cleaver ploy to gain her freedom. He suggested that the accuser who was without sin cast the first stone. None were free of sin and thus none could start the execution. However, many theologians believe that this story, John 8:7, was probably not written by the author(s) of the Gospel of John).

bulletThe beliefs of the early Christian church: Some theologians believe that the early church was closer to Jesus' teachings than are the present-day churches. They were unalterably opposed to the death penalty. Early Christians would not take a person to court if there were any possibility that they could be executed if found guilty.

bulletPlaying God: Executing a person kills him before the time of their natural death. Some Christians believe that God places people on Earth for a purpose. If we kill them prematurely, then we may be thwarting God's will.

bulletEffect on society: Some feel that permitting premeditated murder is totally unacceptable, even if committed by the state. Capital punishment lowers the value of human life as seen by the general population and brutalizes society. It is based on a need for revenge. A Quaker group suggests that It "violates our belief in the human capacity for change....[It] powerfully reinforces the idea that killing can be a proper way of responding to those who have wronged us. We do not believe that reinforcement of that idea can lead to healthier and safer communities." 7

bulletLack of Deterrence: The death penalty has not been shown to be effective in the reduction of the homicide rate. There are some indications that executions actually increase the murder rate. 1 to 6

bullet Cost: The costs to the state of funding almost endless appeals by convicted murderers would more than pay for their permanent incarceration.

bullet Value of human life: Human life has intrinsic value, even if a person has murdered another individual. The death penalty denies the sacredness of human life. Live is so precious that nobody should ever be killed or murdered, even by the state.

bullet Unfairness: The mentally ill, poor, males, and racial minorities are over-represented among those executed. One pilot study of over 2 dozen convicted criminals on death row found that all had been so seriously abused during childhood that they probably all suffered from brain damage. Women convicted of murder are almost never executed; that is a penalty that is almost entirely reserved for men. A 1986 study in Georgia showed that persons who killed "whites were four times more likely to be sentenced to death than convicted killers of non-whites." 8,9,10 The Texas Civil Rights Project issued a report in 2000-SEP which was critical of the justice system in Texas. They made the following criticisms which could probably apply to most of the states in the U.S. that still execute prisoners:

bulletThe defense lawyers are often incompetent. Judges sometimes appoint friends or political associates. Other times, no competent lawyer is willing to accept the case because of the poor compensation paid.

bulletDistrict attorney are given "unrestricted discretion" in deciding whether to seek the death penalty. Poor people, and members of minority groups are more likely to be targeted because of prejudice and bigotry.

bulletJurors who may support the death penalty, but have reservation about its use, are eliminated from jury duty.

bulletJurors are often not given the option of a life-without-parole sentence in murder cases.

bulletThe appeal process has "burdensome, if not impossible, procedures." The process seems designed to speed cases along rather than grant justice.

bulletThe rules appear to be in flux: the highest appeals court in the state reversed about one out of every three capital sentences prior to 1995. Since 1995, this has reduced to less than 3%.

bulletThe operation of the Board of Pardons and Paroles in Texas is severely flawed. They do not meet as a group to study evidence and discuss a case. Individual members are sent stacks of documents, and make their decisions via telephone or fax. 11

bullet Chance of Error: Many convicted murderers are later found innocent, and have been pardoned. It is impossible to pardon a corpse. In 1987, a study was published by the Stanford Law Review. They found some evidence that suggested that at least 350 people between 1900 and 1985 in America might have been innocent of the crime for which they were convicted, and could have been sentenced to death. 139 actually "were sentenced to death and as many as 23 were executed."

bulletHorror: Some consider capital punishment to be cruel and unusual punishment.
 
bulletSending a person to Hell: Some Christians believe that an individual who dies without being "saved" will go to Hell for eternal punishment. By killing the person before the time when they would have naturally died, we are eliminating any chance that they might have for salvation.

bullet The family of the prisoner is victimized and punished by having their loved one killed by the state. Yet the family is usually innocent of any crime.

bulletLack of jury convictions: Some jury members are reluctant to convict in murder trials because of the possibility of executing an innocent person. Thus, many killers go free and are never punished.

bulletUselessness: Killing a murderer does not bring his victim back to life. It achieves nothing but the death of still another person.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Facts about deterrence and the death penalty," at: http://www.essential.org/
  2. M. Radelet and R. Akers, "Deterrence and the Death Penalty? The Views of the Experts," (1995)
  3. Isaac Ehrlich, "The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment A Matter of Life and Death" American Economic Review, June 1975
  4. Isaac Ehrlich, "Capital Punishment and Deterrence: Some Further Thoughts," Journal of Political Economy, 1977.
  5. Stephen Layson, "Homicide and Deterrence: Another View of the Canadian Time-Series Evidence," Canadian Journal of Economics, February 1983.
  6. Stephen Layson, "Homicide and Deterrence: A Reexamination of the United States Time-Series Evidence," Southern Economic Journal, July 1985.
  7. "Federal death penalty," Friends Committee on National Legislation, at: http://www.fcnl.org/
  8. Alice Wolf, letter to constituents concerning her vote as a state representative for Mass. opposing the death penalty. See: http://alicewolf.org/
  9. R.L. Young,  "Religious Orientation, Race and Support for the Death Penalty," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 31 (1992-MAR), Pages 76-87. Cited in the General Social Survey Data and Information Retrieval System (GSS) at: http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/ 
  10. R.L. Young,  "Religious Orientation, Race and Support for the Death Penalty," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 31 (1992-MAR), Pages 76-87. Cited in the General Social Survey Data and Information Retrieval System (GSS) at: http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/
  11. "The Death Penalty in Texas," the Texas Civil Rights Project, issued 2000-SEP.

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Copyright © 1995 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2012-APR-27

Author: Bruce A Robinson

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