A Question of Ethics: The Death Penalty

Hello! For those of you anxiously waiting for the MasterChef recap, I’m afraid you will have to wait a little bit longer. I will shoot out a quick, condensed version to wrap up this season soon!

I was reading this story on CNN, and it forced me to ponder a question that I’ve been pondering on and off for YEARS: Is the death penalty ethical? Should I support its use or vote for its prohibition? Certain crimes are heinous beyond belief, and I can completely understand, and occasionally feel compelled to join in the chorus of voices calling for capital punishment and closure. There are certain times where I feel like society would truly be better off without certain individuals (and I’m not just talking about the asshole that cut me off on the highway today). People like Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, etc come to mind.

Other times, I think that capital punishment is terminating an individual’s potential to do good in society. I believe that all people, no matter how awful their past may be, have potential to benefit society in positive ways. By putting criminals to death, you are effectively saying that they were beyond redemption. Is it possible that hidden in the mind of an executed criminal is the potential spark that may lead to a cure for cancer, the key to the eradication of AIDS, the breakthrough that might enable the world to efficiently produce enough healthy, safe food to feed our ever growing population? Also, no justice system is ever “perfect”, and occasionally a court may order the execution of an innocent man. Is that a risk we should be willing to take?

These are questions that I honestly don’t know the answer to, and I don’t currently have a well formed opinion on this issue. I would love y’all’s feedback. Tell me why you support or reject the death penalty. Think about it from a spiritual/religious, moral/ethical, economic, psychological, social/societal, logistical, political, legal, etc. perspective. Please keep the discussion civil and respectful, and I look forward to listening to what you guys have to say (and playing the devil’s advocate if I feel like it haha).

About Michael Chen

A contestant on season 3 of FOX's MasterChef! Tune in on June 4 and 5 at 9/8c to watch me compete in the top 100 home cooks in America!
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15 Responses to A Question of Ethics: The Death Penalty

  1. Matt says:

    The death penalty is a wrong and awful thing, no matter how much bad you did. There was individuals in the past that have been wrongfully convicted for crimes and was executed for them, and later on long after the person was executed they caught the right person, or find out with new evidence or science that it wasn’t that person that was killed. Yes the death penalty makes more rooms in prisons, and is less burden on the prison system, but we put murders in prison and death row, well isn’t the person performing he execution as much of a murder as a serial killer, or someone who killed there wife or children?

  2. Andrea says:

    In Colombia, the death penalty was abolished in the 19th century, but sometimes, I wonder whether that was the correct choice.

    I am rather torn by this question, since while I think that “a life for a life” doesn’t work, some people are way beyond redemption. However, my answer’s going to be a no, since I believe in the option of life in prison. That way, even if they don’t feel anything at all regarding their crimes, they’ll have to face a life with all their privileges removed. That is, until they die (either from natural causes or by killing themselves).

  3. I was just thinking about this. I am generally completely against the death penalty… an eye for an eye, we all go blind. But, when the 4 men were sentenced to death for rape and murder in India, I have to admit I felt that a little bit of justice was served. I think it is a slippery slope when we start to rank crimes and label some to merit death. So, while I emotionally felt like those men should be killed, I can’t translate that into a political/ethical position for the death penalty. So I remain resolutely opposed to it.

  4. Robert says:

    I do support it. BUT, only in cases where it is very clear that the person did it. Confessions, DNA and/or security camera footage. Witnesses and other “possibly” did it won’t count. Also we need to get them over quicker. No paying for them to sit around for 10-20 years.

    • Shape says:

      It’s a complicated issue to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone did it. The type of DNA Testing done greatly affects accuracy. DNA testing also doesn’t scan the entire DNA chain.

      The most accurate test requires multiple cells that are fresh, not old crime scene samples. The other DNA test is faster and can use old crime scene evidence, but is less accurate.

      DNA testing kind of works like this. Imagine you have two strings of 100 letters and you want to know if they are exactly the same series of letters, BUT you can only see the first 10 characters in each string.

      If the first 10 letters are different, even by 1 letter, then you can say, “No, they don’t match.” BUT, if the first 10 letters match perfectly, you still cannot say, “Yes, the two strings match” because you cannot see the other 90 characters.

      A negative proves its not the person, while a positive just say it is still possibly this person. Even the good DNA test has a probability associated with it (99.99%). Plus, there is limited knowledge about the tests when comparing within an ethnic group. Certain ethnic groups could contain more of the same DNA resulting in a higher chance for a false positive if the criminal and accused are of the same ethnic background.

      Confessions can be coerced, so I would not rely on a confession to the police only. It would have to be the accused taking the stand and saying, “Yep, I did it and this is how.” I always fear for the people that are given the advice to plead “Guilty” because the evidence is so great that there is no way out of it and that pleading “Guilty” gives you a better chance of a lessor penalty.

      Fingerprints are not great either and are based on the interpretation of the analyst. Stephan Cowans was sentenced based on witness accounts and an undeniable fingerprint match. After his conviction, years later, DNA testing showed he wasn’t even at the scene of the crime. It’s stories like that one that make me against the Death Penalty. If you killed someone who was innocent, then you can NEVER take that back.

      • Michael Chen says:

        Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Shape!

      • Shape says:

        I forgot to mention that family members have a higher chance of testing as a positive DNA match as well.

        Here’s some more names of wrongfully executed and exonerated people. Thanks to Wikipedia for compiling it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wrongful_execution#United_States
        The Innocence Project is another good one to look at for more information: http://www.innocenceproject.org/ The West Memphis Three case is worth looking into as well.

        Of course, those who have had family and friends murdered may have a different perspective on having a death penalty. I could see that situation causing serious cognitive dissonance between what they believe and a search for revenge and closure, especially in an extremely brutal murder like the linked CNN article.

  5. Jeannette says:

    I believe that the penalty of death for being found guilty of the commission of a heinous crime is right and just. I think that the appeals process needs to be revised to give the perpetrator an ample amount of time to refute the verdict. However, many times an inmate is incarcerated for many years at taxpayer’s expense to go through the process when the evidence is overwhelming. In these instances there is no justice for the victims or society. Penalties exist to discourage unlawful behavior. It seems unlikely that someone who commits a vile act, knowing the consequence of being put to death is a possibility if apprehended, will be rehabilitated. Therefore, justice should be served as swiftly as possible. Of course, any case could have circumstances beyond the control of the villian. Those conditions should be given their deserved consideration.

    To paraphrase your point, “Is it possible that hidden in the mind of a “VICTIM” is the potential spark that may lead to a cure for cancer, the key to the eradication of AIDS, the breakthrough that might enable the world to efficiently produce enough healthy, safe food to feed our ever growing population?” When that innocent person is harmed by the actions of another, their inner spark is also taken away. The key: they are innocent, and they were the punished.

    Do I have the right to pass judgement? Maybe not. But in death that person’s soul will be judged. And not by me.

    • Shape says:

      “Is it possible that hidden in the mind of a “VICTIM”

      Sorry, but two wrongs don’t make a right.

    • Shape says:

      Using the “God will sort them out” argument is not good either, especially for the Atheists. It has always been my opinion that people use religion to justify or cope with killing people. “Well, God will sort them out and they will like on in eternity.”

      What if you don’t believe in a God. At that point Killing someone is taking away, truly, the most valuable thing someone has; Their one and only Life.

  6. Matt says:

    I would like to also remind people that, there has been people who have confessed for a crime they didn’t do because they covered for someone or what not

  7. Jimzy Lui says:

    I think they should make a distinction between those who confess (on the witness stand) and plead guilty to murder and all others. Those who admit to it and with proven evidence should be put to death.

    In regards to people who confess to a crime that they did not do…. If the justice system finds the real culprit, it’s not the system’s fault that they put the wrong person to death as they made an informed decision to do so …which is illegal (perjury) anyway. Anyone who confesses to a crime in the categories that have the death penalty should be informed that if they are in fact covering for another person, their blood will not satisfy the justice system but be for naught when the real culprit is discovered.

    Those who never admit to the crime should not be put to death. They should also be in solitary confinement without visitation rights (other than supervised restricted non-familial legal counsel). They should have minimal accommodations.

    In general, I think it’s a travesty that people in prisons have better living conditions than the homeless (having been homeless in NYC myself). Their accommodations are quite outrageous and take up too many resources which should go to the innocent: free education, free live entertainment, free TV, etc.

    Those who feel that we are losing world-wide potential by sentencing offenders to death…. What about their victims? What about their future victims? The (potential) ends does not justify the means. There have been debates about the usefulness of the notes from Nazi concentration camps where doctors performed inhumane experiments on their captors. Even if that data could be quite beneficial, its means can never be justified. (Current researchers tried to use that data but can’t even publish their findings correctly due to that data.) We should as best as we can, live within the guidelines of right vs wrong and not cross them.

  8. Gregory Wright says:

    This always opens up a can of worms. My own view on this changes constantly. Sort of. I once thought that the death penalty was a great deterrent. I was always very pro-deterrent. Mostly because I thought that deterrents prevented me from doing all sorts of things that would get me into big trouble. My parents put many deterrents out there. I abided by them, so deterrents work. Sort of. It was pointed out during a heated exchange with a friend that he had similar deterrents. Instead of not doing something that would get him in trouble, he figured out a better way of not getting caught. He then asked, if I would really commit various crimes, or behave in some terrible way if there was no deterrent. Um…no. No, I would not. He then asked, “So what makes you think that the death penalty is a deterrent.?” People seem to be committing crimes that, under law, warrant the death penalty, undeterred by this fact. And studies have shown that states WITH the death penalty have higher homicide rates. HUH? Makes my head spin. So clearly, it is not a deterrent. Neither is prison. So what is the point? Are we seeing model citizens come out of prisons? Are employers welcoming a rehabbed and ready to re-enter society ex con into their companies? Not so much. And the COST to the taxpayers…Jimzey Lui makes a whole bunch of valid points about that. Just think of all the positive good that money could do for the less fortunate. Why, it could even, just maybe, educate some people who might have gone down the wrong path and they could become productive, law-abiding members of society. But that won’t happen. So prison, is really a place for us to get rid of some undesirable folks who commit crimes against the innocent so we are made to feel safer. For a while. Until they are let out and find out they can’t get a job and go back to being a criminal again. So…the death penalty, not a deterrent…what is it? Is it an excuse to save taxpayer dollars on keeping a heinous murderer living on free room and board in our prison system? Is it to make us feel better knowing that sort of person no longer exists and can’t hurt anyone ever again? Is it some form of revenge? Personalize it. Someone commits a horrible atrocity that effects you and your family in the most hideous manner. Your lives are shattered forever. Can you forgive this person? Can you sleep knowing this person is living on taxpayer dollars and might even be one day eligible for parole? Maybe you’ve become homeless and helpless, while this person is watching cable tv, eating three meals a day and working out in the prison weight room becoming stronger and stronger. Is any of that JUSTICE? Can you feel okay sentencing that person to death? Can you flip the switch yourself? Tough questions. Our system is broken. And I don’t know what would truly fix it. So what about the death penalty? I believe there are certain individuals who are beyond redemption, who wouldn’t hesitate to commit more heinous crimes upon innocent citizens and whose very existence and ability to communicate with others inspires more people to commit these atrocities. And the world is better off without them. But it won’t deter the next one.

  9. Deborah says:

    I stopped supporting the death penalty around the time the Innocence Project was clearing their second case.

    I have no objection to the death penalty for some crimes, so long as it’s applied to the actual perpetrator. History has made it clear that our conviction that “someone must pay for this terrible crime” sometimes gets carried away regarding the detail of whether the “someone” is actually guilty. It’s like the ancient idea of a scapegoat, where as long as we punish SOMEONE we consider justice to have been done.

    An NPR story I remember from a ways back: Guy in Texas on death row, convicted of a rape and murder. He was put away on the testimony of a regular police informant plus one of those sorts who’s always in and out of prison on small charges (e.g. bounced checks) who claimed the condemned man had confessed to him in a holding cell. DNA evidence later cleared him. It also implicated someone: the regular police informant.

    There was another guy in prison for a very similar rape and murder. And he, too, had been fingered by that same regular police informant and he, too, was sentenced based on the testimony of that informant plus that of the regular check kiter, to whom he had allegedly confessed while they were both in a holding cell, exactly like that first guy… but in that case there was no DNA evidence, and he was still behind bars.

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