Student Perspective: The death penalty

We asked college students to share their thoughts on the death penalty. Their perspectives are below.

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The death penalty is always a hot topic and prominent political debate in class. Some argue that the death penalty is a fitting punishment for certain crimes, like in the case of premeditated murder. Others argue that it’s cruel and unusual punishment, and no crime justifies the state taking such an action. 

My perspective on the death penalty has shifted over time. In the beginning of my collegiate career, my opinion on the death penalty was mainly informed by an “eye for an eye” mentality where people should be punished in direct proportion to their crime. However, as I began learning more about death row and how many innocent people are sentenced to death without any appropriate representation, my justifications for “equal” treatment began to change.

I have come to realize that the system in which we trust, is not always trusting. Innocent victims are too often served life sentences and even put on death row for crimes they didn’t commit. I can’t imagine being in the shoes as an innocent person stuck in such an extremely unfortunate situation, with the world and system against you.

Death row is not a cheap sentence either, and the thought of it costing nearly $90,000 of tax payer money per year for the average inmate on death row is alarming. If we are going to pay that much money, shouldn’t they at least have legitimate and appropriate representation to see whether or not they actually committed the crime they’re being punished for?

I think that capital punishment will eventually be abolished, and we will look back in history and recognize that we were participating in a very “cruel and unusual” time. I believe there are alternative ways to administer justice. Mobilizing prisoner construction groups to help restore and build our infrastructure is one alternative – of many --a and  more productive way to punish someone, instead of having them sit on death row for 50 years.

Unfortunately, given the current state of political progress and discourse, this abolition may not happen for awhile.

- Karanveer Pannu, Rutgers University, '20

 

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Capital punishment in the United States has a long and complex history, dating back to 1608 in Jamestown. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, in total, the United States has conducted over 15,746 executions since 1700. The fact that so many people have been put to death over the years is a scary thought, but even more so when considering the potential rates of wrongful executions.

Between 1973 and 2009, 4,942 individuals sat on death row, while nearly 144 of those in twenty-five states were later exonerated. The National Academy of Sciences found in a 2011 study that “at least 4.1% of people on death row could be wrongly convicted.” The American Civil Liberties Union goes even further to note that on a national scale, “at least one person is exonerated for every 10 that are executed.” Such figures highlight a glaring and tragic truth: thousands are dying at the deliberate direction of the state, many of whom are later discovered to have been entirely innocent.

A common rebuttal argues that while some people are wrongfully executed, the vast majority are individuals who made a deliberate choice to break the law knowing full well the consequences. Firstly, unlike the approximate 10,000 individuals wrongly convicted of a crime every year in the United States, people who are issued a death sentence (and then go on to get executed) have no form of legal recourse once they have been executed – capital punishment is a zero-sum game. And while legal recourse may exist in the interim prior to execution, quality of representation and a lack of resources create serious impediments in the appeals process.

Nearly 85% of death row inmates between 1977 and 2005 did not legally appeal their sentences. How many of these inmates were innocent? How many were guilty? How many were the result of a glaring miscarriage of justice or an overzealous prosecution? Unfortunately, thanks to this lack of proper legal resources, we will never know.

Finally, some would point to those criminals – a small percentage of the population – who have committed truly unthinkable crimes. But even then, is it permissible to willfully take the life of another human being? To argue yes is to perpetuate a culture of violence and retribution that is contrary to our fundamental values as a democratic society. No crime gives the state license to perpetrate the same offense.

Where do we derive the authority to take someone’s life? How can we reconcile our role as keepers of justice when we stoop to the level of the offender? Pope Francis in an international convention for death penalty abolitionists in Rome proclaimed that “the commandment ‘Thou shall not kill’ has absolute value and concerns both the innocent and the guilty.” Even criminals “maintain the inviolable right to life.”

Indeed, respect for life is not an exclusively Christian, or even theistic, phenomenon. No statistics or empirical studies can ever quantify the magnitude of a human life, even when that life may be perceived as worthless or unworthy of living.

- Vincenzo Guido, Cornell University '20

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