6 May 2009
Abolishing the Death Penalty
The death penalty is ineffective in purpose and cost, dehumanizing to society, and several prisoners on death row have been proven innocent before they have been put to death. In the United States, there are no set regulations on what qualifies someone for the death penalty, and what doesn’t. Why is one murder considered worse than another? New advances of DNA testing have exonerated several innocent people who were put on death row (“Ending Capital Punishment: Close Death Row”). Capital punishment is also cruel and dehumanizing. In addition to that, it is extremely costly. Trials and appeals cost the state unnecessary money. Its ineffectiveness is shown through states such as Texas and Oklahoma. In these states, though the death penalty is legal, crime rates are higher than most states with life in prison as the highest punishment (“Saving Lives and Money”). In Dead Man Walking, by Sister Helen Prejean, both the cases of Pat Sonnier and Robert Willie, are used to prove the death penalty to be arbitrary, capricious, and ineffective. Pat Sonnier’s case proves that, without money to afford an attorney, the accused is much more likely to receive the death penalty. Robert Willie’s case shows the emotional expenses of death penalty cases take on the victims’ families. The death penalty lowers the moral standards of society, and should not be resorted to when other options are available.
In Dead Man Walking, Millard Farmer finds several ways in which Pat Sonnier’s court-appointed defense attorney went wrong. First, Pat’s lawyer excused eight jurors without an excuse, when the limit is only six. Farmer also pointed out that the prosecutor in Pat’s case told the jury that Pat was not capable of returning to the real world without killing again, and the only way to deal with him was to give him the death penalty. If Pat’s defense attorney had objected, that statement would have been dismissed, since there was no evidence to back it up. Yet, it was too late for any of these issues or concerns to be brought up (Prejean 47). The damage was already done. Sister Helen Prejean began to understand the importance of defense attorneys during Pat’s case: I had always thought that the lengthy appeals process virtually assured fair review of these cases. Now I’m learning just how much depends on the skills of defense attorneys. There’s now not a doubt in my mind that if Millard had been Pat’s defense attorney, Pat wouldn’t now be facing the electric chair. (Prejean 48)
Since Pat Sonnier was poverty-stricken and could not afford his own lawyer, he was subject to a probable death sentence.
Although the criminal’s death sentence in Sister Helen Prejean’s next case, the case of Robert Willie, was supported by the victim’s family, their opinion was partial. This case truly shows insight into what the victim’s families go through. Vernon Harvey, the father of Faith, the victim, cries as he recollects the days spent searching for his daughter, and ultimately finding her murdered (Prejean 136). In accordance with supporting the verdict, Harvey says, “The electric chair is too good for Robert Willie” (Prejean 136). The grief the Harvey family feels for their daughter Faith pushes them into a pro-death penalty mindset. Yet, what the family feels is just anger. Killing Robert Willie will not bring back their daughter. In the words of Prejean, “Even if Robert Willie is destroyed, the aching void can never be filled” (142). Though he committed a horrible crime, he did not deserve the electric chair, the remorse that Robert ends up showing before he is killed should be justice enough (Prejean 145). Today’s society should not resort back to the “eye for an eye” theory. In the famous words of Gandhi, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” It is understandable what the Harvey family was feeling, but the death penalty was not the answer. Robert Willie was still human, and the guilt that he showed proves it.
Victims’ families are now front and center in Connecticut, where a bill abolishing the death penalty is on the table. Though opponents of the bill believe that the victims’ families deserve closure, the bill’s followers think that the drawn out process of receiving the death penalty is not quite the finality the families deserve. The appeals that take place are lengthy, and proponents of the bill say that life in prison without parole will bring families looking for closure a much quicker assurance. Not only does the bill bring up the issue of the victims’ families, but also how capital punishment is degrading to society. Senator Mary Ann Hadley says that when the death penalty is implemented, “We don’t just kill a person, we debase ourselves” (Lender). Capital punishment is a shot to the moral responsibilities of society.
With the possibility that an innocent person may be sentenced to death, New Jersey is also considering removing the death penalty. There are several cases in which innocent people have been put on death row, and then have been found innocent before they were killed. DNA testing has exonerated several people from death row (“Ending Capital Punishment: Close Death Row”). Though there has been no evidence yet that an innocent person has been put to death in the United States, with this many people being exonerated after receiving the death penalty, the chance is there that an innocent person could be killed.
The flaws in the judicial system of the United States are easily recognizable. While working on Robert Willie’s case, Sister Prejean sees the reality, that an innocent person really could receive the death penalty:
It has been a sobering discovery for me to see just how flawed and at times chaotic the system of justice is. Examining capital cases, Bedau and Radelet found numerous instances of overzealous prosecution, mistaken or perjured testimony, co-defendants who testify against the other to receive a more lenient sentence for themselves, faulty police work, coerced confessions, suppressed exculpatory evidence, inept defense counsel, racial bias, community pressure for a conviction, and at times, blatant politics. (Prejean 220)
The actuality of the situation is exactly how Prejean puts it. The United States’ judicial system is not faultless, and definitely not perfect. Mistakes are bound to happen. Is an innocent life really worth that mistake?
There is little proof that capital punishment discourages crime. Texas and Oklahoma are good examples of its ineffectiveness. Although these two states have the death penalty in place, they actually still have higher crime rates than most states that only offer life in prison as their maximum penalty (“Saving Lives and Money”). The death sentence does not seem to scare criminals more than a life in prison verdict would. In that way, capital punishment’s purpose of deterring crime is truly unsuccessful.
Capital punishment is also no help to the current plummeting United States economy. The death penalty is not cost effective in any way. In fact, many states are considering eliminating the death penalty as a unique way to cut costs. In a recent study performed by the Urban Institute, the truly costly punishment was brought to the spotlight. It was found that, on average, death row cases cost nearly two million dollars more than a case where the criminal was sentenced to life in prison. The special holding cells and the around the clock watch of death row inmates cost states an unnecessary amount of money (“Saving Lives and Money”). The death penalty has few reasons to continue to reside in the United States if life sentences are more cost effective.
Capital punishment is futile, illogical, and unpredictable. Poverty stricken defendants, a blemished judicial system, remorseful criminals, innocent lives, undeterred crime rates and a huge strain on the economy prove that the death penalty is nonessential to our society. Sister Helen Prejean uses her book to further establish the death penalty to be ineffective, arbitrary and capricious. Without capital punishment, the United States would no longer be demeaning a human life with every death penalty case. With effective alternatives, such as life imprisonment, the death penalty should not be needed.
“Ending Capital Punishment: Close Death Row.” The Philadelphia Inquirer (PA) (30 Nov. 2007). Newspaper Source. EBSCO. Westfield High School Library, Westfield, MA. 14 Apr. 2009.
Lender, Jon. “Legislative Committee Votes to Abolish Death Penalty.” The Hartford Courant (CT) (01 Apr. 2009). Newspaper Source. EBSCO.Westfield High School Library, Westfield, MA. 15 Apr. 2009.
Prejean, Sister Helen. Dead Man Walking. New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1994.
“Saving Lives and Money.” Economist 390.0 (14 Mar. 2009). MAS Ultra – School Edition. EBSCO. Westfield High School Library, Westfield, MA. 15 Apr. 2009.