Last November, California voters voted against Proposition 34, a proposition which would have reduced the death penalty in California to a sentence of life in prison without parole. The proposition was voted against by a margin of 52% to 48%. The practice of capital punishment has sparked a long-running controversy throughout the United States. Currently, 35 states permit the death penalty for crimes such as first-degree murder and treason. In 2012, the United States executed 43 prisoners. California has 724 prisoners on death-row, the highest population of death-row inmates out of all the states in the U.S. However, California has not performed an execution since 2006. At Aragon, opinions over the controversy are mixed.
Due Process Flaws
The reason for the overwhelming number of death-row inmates and underwhelming number of executions is the time and money needed to approve the death penalty. Due Process—the legal process prisoners must go through before being executed—has repelled many students away from the idea of capital punishment. Due process consists of a series of supposedly-exhaustive trials and investigations examining the crimes the prisoner has committed. However, concerns about the due process system persist. For instance, there is evidence suggesting that race too often plays a role in capital punishment convictions; the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) reports that “almost 80% of death row defendants have been executed for killing white victims, even though in society as a whole, African Americans account for about half of murder victims.”
Sophomore David Diba says, “The appeals process is just ridiculous, and I feel if there was just a life sentence, everything would be smoother and easier.”
These multitudinous systematic complications and flaws in the legal system can cost both time and money. According to the DPIC, California has spent approximately $4 billion in expenses related to capital punishment proceedings.
Sophomore John Graham says, “When someone is put on death row… there has to be a really intense investigation for every prisoner put to death. There’s a lot of paperwork, and you have to hire lawyers to protect them in court, so that’s our money that the taxpayers pay.” Junior Chelsea Victor says, “I think [the death penalty] is a waste of money and time. The government could be using that money for more important things, like fixing the economy.”
In 1992, The Innocence Project, a non-profit organization, was created to investigate and exonerate people who were wrongfully convicted of a crime. Since its establishment, The Innocence Project has led to the release of 214 people, 16 of which were previously on death row. In addition to the efforts made by The Innocence Project, 108 other prisoners were exonerated from death row between 1977 and 2007 due to newly discovered mistakes with witness testimonies, suspect line-ups, police investigations, and other faulty or misconstrued evidence, demonstrating the many possible pit-falls of the justice system.
Victor says, “There’s probably a bunch of people on death row who don’t deserve to be killed at this point. There’s probably a bunch of people who are innocent.”
Many students recognize a moral argument against capital punishment.
“If people live out their sentence, they have more time to think about what they did wrong,” says Diba. Junior Claire Luong adds, “How is killing a killer solving the problem? I believe in life in prison, not the death penalty.”
Graham concludes, “I feel like that is a really beautiful thing to show mercy to someone who didn’t show mercy.”
Arguments in Favor
Deterrence & Safety
The argument can be made that the mere existence of death row may serve as a deterrent to potential future criminals.
In addition, perhaps due to depressed conditions and less emphasis on rehabilitation in prisons, criminal recidivism—criminal acts that result in rearrest or reconviction after a prisoner’s release—poses a worthy consideration. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that, among 300,000 prisoners released in 15 states in 1983, the rate of recidivism was approximately 63%. By 1995, that estimate had risen to approximately 68%. Many argue that capital punishment serves as insurance against the threat of rising recidivism.
Sophomore Regina Vuna says, “The money is definitely worth it. First of all, we’re not just protecting the innocence of people on death row, but we’re also protecting the people who live in our society.” Vuna continues, “If we’re trying to keep our society safe, I don’t think finances really matter. I think we should be able to invest in something that really protects our community.”
Valid Due Process
Despite the many complications of the justice system, technological improvements in the past 20 years serve as evidence to support greater confidence in the validity of the system and its determinations. DNA testing, for example, is perhaps the most convincing example of reliable prosecution evidence; in many instances, it can effectively assure that capital punishment convictions are based on certainty beyond reasonable doubt. In addition, all death penalty states have DNA access laws, allowing most inmates the right to DNA testing, which can aid in ruling out (or proving) innocence before execution. Furthermore, unreliable techniques such as suspect line-ups have been recognized as unreliable, further supporting the claim that prosecutions are more likely to be accurate now than ever before.
Vuna says, “Nobody should be executed until their crime is proven. I think the reason so many [convicts] have been found innocent in the past is because the death penalty was taken so lightly back then. Random murderers were just put on death row, but I think if we took the time to investigate each case, the death penalty could work.”
Morality & Justice
Moral considerations can support the argument for capital punishment as well. Many believe that the death penalty is simply justice being carried out. Others argue that it can give a sense of closure to the family of the victim.
Vuna says of her experience, “If we have the power to go to war and take other people’s lives and that’s not looked down upon, then why can’t we do it for good? Why can’t we take people’s lives to protect our society?”
In light of many valid arguments on both sides, many Aragon students take a more ambivalent or undetermined stance on capital punishment. Junior Marcy Landes says, “For me it’s really difficult to simply say that the death penalty should be legal or illegal. There’s so many parts to it that make it justified and unjustified. What I’ve gotten out of my English class after talking about the death penalty was that, yes, it does kill people that have committed crimes that are so gruesome that there is no punishment that would rightly fit them except for death. But at the same time, how is it justified to kill another human being?”
Religion can also bring new nuance into consideration. Graham, a member of Aragon’s Christian Club, adds, “I feel like law and justice is very separate from religion. If someone was to go through the death penalty, I would deal with them both spiritually and lawfully, but those two things would be separate from each other.”
However, he concludes, “Although I’m against the death penalty, I do believe one day there will be a system that will allow us to execute people without there being so much controversy.”