The Death Penalty Should Be Abolished

Michael Sweet

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On Dec. 6, 2018, the state of Tennessee executed death row inmate David Earl Miller by electrocution. Miller, who had been on death row since 1981, was convicted of the brutal murder of his girlfriend, Lee Standifer.

Miller killed her “by bludgeoning her with a fireplace poker before stabbing her dead body numerous times,” mmaccording to Nashville Scene.

Much of the country, after reading Miller’s case, would likely deem his death sentence an appropriate punishment for the crime committed. However, if one dives deeper into the case, it is much more complicated than it seems.

Miller’s long history of mental illness was well-documented. He was also a victim of horrendous sexual and physical abuse by his mother and father. Miller’s traumatic past and mental illness clearly influenced his crime. Therefore, the question is: did Miller deserve to be put to death? Does anyone?

The death penalty is a controversial topic in the U.S. to the extent that its legitimacy as a measure of punishment is even argued within conservative cirles, which have historically supported the practice. Even I, who fall on the right side of the political spectrum, believe it should be outlawed.

The death penalty should be abolished because human life is intrinsically valuable. This argument is the most important and, of course, the most controversial due to the diversity of humanity.

Different cultures, religions and philosophies have different views of the value of human life. Therefore, reaching a consensus on this issue can be difficult. 

Even if it were moral to kill someone guilty of a crime, however, the death penalty would still be wrong because the justice system is inherently flawed.

This argument is based on the age-old maxim, “It is better [one hundred] guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer.”

This maxim, popularized by Benjamin Franklin and taught in law schools as Blackstone’s ratio, illustrates the concept that every man is innocent until proven guilty. 

If there is a chance that punishment could be inflicted upon an innocent person, the punishment should not exist.

Blackstone’s ratio applies perfectly to the death penalty, as demonstrated by the following hypothetical scenario. Let’s say a man’s wife and three children were killed in a robbery. The man knows that there were four criminals, who each killed one of his family members. 

He finds and captures a group of five people, four of whom were definitely the murderers. However, he does not know which person is innocent.

Is it logical for him to put all five people to death to seek vengeance? No, because an innocent person would be killed, making the action immoral.

Most would agree that the same conclusion would apply even if there were 24 guilty members and one innocent party. A University of Michigan study examining capital punishment cases from 1973 to 2004 found that at least 4%, or 1 in 25, inmates were wrongly executed during this period. 

As long as this error persists, even those in favor of the death penalty should logically conclude that this margin of error alone is reason for its abolition.

Mental illness has begun to shed its stigma in recent years. According to Mental Health First Aid, almost 50% of the U.S. population has experienced mental health issues. 

However, diagnoses are often inaccurate, and new mental illnesses are being discovered every year. For example, the full effects and scope of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, was just discovered by Dr. Bennet Omalu, forensic pathologist and neuropathologist, in 2002.

This disease, found often in athletes with brain trauma, can cause fits of intense violence.

The human brain is a subject that will be studied forever. Therefore, it is nearly impossible to predict what murder cases may have been influenced by mental illness. 

As long as mental illness remains a mystery, it will be immoral to put anyone to death, as there is always a possibility that the individual is unknowingly suffering from such a condition.

The final argument against the death penalty is the matter of government overreach. The framers of the U.S. Constitution feared that the government would impose its control on citizens. One role of government is to serve as a framework under which the populus operates.

Giving the government the power to kill its citizens is a dangerous precedent, as it opens the door for the expansion of the government’s power in the future.

Of course, I am not advocating for the abolition of the criminal justice system, which would result in chaos. Therefore, the government must have the power to imprison its citizens for crimes. Capital punishment, however, is a step too far.

We, as a nation, have seen the government take advantage of its powers before. Take, for instance, the infamous Trail of Tears, which occurred due to the government’s power of eminent domain. The Japanese internment camps of World War II were considered a measure for “national security.”

I am not saying that the government should not have these powers, per se.

However, there is significant historical evidence to suggest that atrocities committed by the U.S. government are often a result of the powers given to them by the people. 

On this premise, it is very dangerous for the people to give the government the power to kill its citizens based on the standards set by that very government.

The issue of capital punishment is one that has been and will be argued vigorously for years.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once famously said, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.” Whether we wish to admit it or not, these words ring true in the hearts of Americans on both sides of the issue.

The death penalty is an institution rooted in violence and anger. When we realize this, we can transform our justice system from promoting retribution to promoting rehabilitation.

Editor’s note: Information from this column was taken from one of the columnist’s course essays.