Homicide. Felony murder. Manslaughter.
All of these vile and heinous crimes are punishable by death in the U.S. Many people think of the death penalty as an equally horrific and wrong measure to take against the criminals who commit these crimes.
“At the end of the day it’s very much, for me, a moral thing,” senior Elise McCue said. “I don’t think any human has the right to take away another human life.”
Just for a second, though, take emotions out of the equation and look at the death penalty through a rational lens. Others who oppose capital punishment for fear that an innocent person may be put to death are questioning the adequacy and equity of our justice system, not the punishment itself.
“People who are on death row are meant to be on death row,” senior Johnny Carney said. “It’s not like a majority of people are innocent.”
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 167 people have been exonerated from death row in almost 50 years because extensive investigation has proved them to be innocent. These are people who never should have been convicted in the first place. As tragic as these convictions are, this is not the fault of the death penalty, but rather the process that initially found them guilty.
“That’s an inherent problem regarding the justice system,” senior Jakob Hemmerich said. “But frankly, if there is overwhelming proof, [the death penalty] is definitely something that needs to happen.”
The solution is not with loosening the punishment but strengthening the legal system. Decades ago, a person could have been convicted on eyewitness testimony alone. We can now prove their innocence due to increased forensic capabilities that enable a higher standard for conviction. If that standard is met with every case, then the problem is effectively minimized.
If a felon were to be imprisoned for life, their case would become one in hundreds of thousands of convicts serving the same sentence. Even if a person was innocent, the government wouldn’t have the resources to conduct the proper investigations and appeals that would be necessary to acquit them.
“In comparison, a life sentence seems [harsher],” Carney said. “It’s just sitting in a cell until you eventually just die from natural causes.”
The government is required to provide a defendant facing death penalty with a higher standard of counsel, as well as proper access to scientific testing. Being on time-sensitive death row urged the action that forced further investigation, meaning that if those 167 defendants had instead been given life sentences, the scrutiny that led to their release would not have been given to them, and they would have rotten in prison cells for years.
If, after this due diligence, a person is still found guilty, then the ethical objections that many have to the death penalty must be addressed. The only grounds for capital punishment is when a crime results in the death of another human.
“There are certain cases that I feel require the death penalty,” sophomore Arvind Ramesh said. “[Death row inmates] are really dangerous for the public.”
The death penalty also serves as a deterrent for crimes that a life sentence in prison doesn’t. Though not ideal, being provided with a bed and three meals a day is an acceptable risk for some. The threat of death, on the other hand, may discourage potential felons.
“The death penalty is not only good for carrying out justice after a crime has been committed,” Hemmerich said. “I also think that it is necessary as a preventative measure.”
This isn’t to say that we should condone a legal system driven by the principle of an eye for an eye, but these criminals have intentionally destroyed the lives of others. These are adults who have made the choice to inflict unimaginable pain and suffering on the victims’ families, and the death penalty is the only way to ensure that sufficient justice is served, for a crime that extreme demands punishment of equal magnitude.
“There needs to be an example that needs to be set,” Hemmerich said. “Just like any other punishment, [the death penalty] is a reminder that we as a society will not compromise on our principles and our social order.”