Department of English

Spring 2012 Edition

Saving Lives One Execution at a Time

Karyn Vincent
Argumentative 1010 1st Place
Professor: Jessica Brown

On a day much like any other, I received a phone call that changed my life forever. My father’s voice was distant and broken as he choked out the words that no father should ever have to say; my brother, his only son, had been murdered. I don’t remember hanging up the phone, or even driving home; in fact, much of that day and the weeks that followed are still a blur. My brother Lee was just 27 years old when a group of five men broke into his house, tied him to a chair, and with their fists, bats, and whatever else lay at their disposal, proceeded to beat and stab him to death. The coroner’s report concluded that despite the 27 stab wounds that were inflicted, the fatal blow was the concrete block they used to crush in his skull. I have only God to thank that Lee’s three-year-old daughter was lucky enough not to be home that fateful night. Of the five men who were responsible for this brutal home invasion, four were sentenced to ten years and were paroled in eight. The man who was foremost responsible for planning the break in, and whose hands ultimately delivered my brother’s death, was only given twenty-five years; he has only three years remaining, and will be released from prison before he is fifty years old. In retrospect, I question that if capital punishment had been a real threat in the minds of these men, would my brother still be alive today? And when the time comes that this man will be released, what will stop him from ever killing again?

It is disheartening to me that capital punishment continues to be one of the most controversial and divisive issues in America today. Supporters, like myself, understand that victims and their families deserve justice, that the death penalty can deter violent crime, and that only the death penalty can guarantee against repeat offenders. Oppositionists, however, persist in arguing that it violates the Eighth Amendment clause of the constitution, seeing it as a cruel and unusual punishment that in fact does not deter violent crime. Furthermore, because of social and economic class, as well as race, the system is far too biased and arbitrary to guarantee a fair outcome for the accused. Throughout this heated moral debate, I have often wondered of those who favor abolition, just how many of them have actually been victimized by violence? How many of them, in reality, have walked through the unrelenting hell of losing someone they love and have come through the other side still believing that the death penalty is cruel and unjust? Unfortunately, I know firsthand how it feels to have violence come knocking at your door and reshape your life around loss. Consequently, I am not so forgiving—nor should I be. This is why I must stand beside those who are in support of retaining and protecting capital punishment, and to those who oppose it, I say that to get rid of the death penalty altogether would not only dishonor the victim and their grief stricken families, but in short, it would be a betrayal of justice.

Recently, I ran across an article published in the New York Times; it was titled “An Indefensible Punishment.” Within it, the author coldly stated that “The death penalty is grotesque and immoral and should be repealed.” Statements such as these fill my heart with an overwhelming sense of sadness and frustration. There is a difference between the unlawful killing of an innocent human being, like my brother, and the execution of a convicted murderer. Since the dawn of time, people from around the world have sought justice through the use of the death penalty. Over the years, several gruesome techniques have been employed to deliver this retribution. From impaling, decapitation, and stoning, to crucifixion, boiling alive, and being drawn and quartered; wherever criminals have existed, executioners have stood ready. Looking back over history, I’d say our nation’s modern day death sentence is far removed from what the above article describes as “grotesque.” Long gone are the days when public hangings and witch burnings were the norm. Now, as our nation continues to modernize, so do our methods of execution. From the development of the electric chair in 1888, to the gas chamber of 1924, Americans have been continuously seeking a more humane way to kill death row inmates. Today lethal injection provides a very quiet and private death, which is considered the most commonly practiced and humane technique. However, it needs to be remembered that it is the murder itself that is grotesque and not the punishment.

The guiding principle of our American Government has always been that the punishment must fit the crime. The United States Supreme Court has said that capital punishment is “an extreme sanction, suitable to the most extreme crimes” (Lowe 42). Is murder not considered to be an extreme crime? In Wesley Lowes’ essay, he points out that “murder can’t be taken seriously if the punishment is not equally as serious” (44). Furthermore, as Edward Koch once said, “It is by exacting the highest penalty for taking human life that we affirm the highest value of human life” (323). This argument may be considered standard by some, but it is ultimately irrefutable. Life is indeed a precious thing, a miracle beyond compare, and it would be immoral not to punish a killer to the fullest extent of the law. It never ceases to amaze me how so many people seem to care more for the individual with a blood stained conscience—their rights, their treatment, and their protection—rather than the victims butchered by their hands.

Troy Anthony Davis was one such killer, convicted of and sentenced to death for the shooting of off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail on August 19, 1989. Several eye witnesses placed Davis at the scene and identified him as the man who, in cold blood, stood over MacPhil and fired twice. In the twenty-two years between his conviction and execution, Davis maintained his innocence, insisting that although he was there, someone else pulled the trigger. After numerous appeals and granting Davis three different stay of executions, the Supreme Court, in effort to avoid a wrongful execution, ordered a federal court in Georgia to give Davis a new evidentiary hearing; at which point his case, yet again, collapsed. Chief Judge William T. Moore, an appointee of President Clinton, meticulously reviewed all of the evidence and described the defenses efforts to prove Davis’s innocence as “largely smoke and mirrors” (Lane Washington Post). Judge Moore, despite public outcry, stood up for what he thought was right and ruled against Davis. The courts upheld their conviction, and on September 21st, 2011, Davis was executed.

The New York Times article, “An Indefensible Punishment,” refers to this execution as “unconscionable,” regardless that every effort was made and exhausted to prove Davis’s innocence. It doesn’t seem to matter to this outraged author that although Davis’s story was repeatedly cross examined by both sides, it was so full of holes that a jury of his peers (seven black and five white) found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In fact, this particular case has become the fresh blood oppositionists are now using to fuel their arguments and drive forward their cause; the poster child, if you will, of why the death penalty is still racist and arbitrary. Some have even gone as far as to attack the character of the MacPhail family because of their vocal support of the death penalty. Many people believe that Georgia executed an innocent man that day, and think that because he was a poor black man from the south, he was treated unfairly. I, however, believe that the criminal justice system went the extra mile to ensure that the right man was punished for the crime and the reason Davis was unable to prove his innocence was because he, in truth, was guilty as charged. As for the MacPhail family, they are relieved of the heavy burden they have had to carry all these years. They are finally at peace, not because Davis’s execution was a joyful event, but in knowing that at long last the justice they had been waiting for was served.

Although some discrimination still exists, it is not near the issue it has been in the past. Patrick A. Lanagen, senior statistician at the Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics concluded that there was no evidence “that in the places where blacks in the U.S. have most of their contacts with the judicial system, that the system treats them more harshly than whites” (Lowe 27). Also, consider this perspective from Ernest Van Den Haag, a professor of jurisprudence and public policy at Fordham University; he writes:

Discrimination must be abolished by abolishing discrimination—not by abolishing penalties. However, even if…this cannot be done, I do not see any good reason to let any guilty murderer escape his penalty. It does happen in the administration of criminal justice that one person gets away with murder and another is executed. Yet the fact that one gets away with it is no reason to let another one escape. (422)

It is easy to see discrimination, even where it doesn’t exist, when the outcome of a trial, like the case of Troy Davis, is not what we expect. Still, the essential truth remains: murder is murder, it isn’t rich vs. poor, or black vs. white; it has no class or color, and when a verdict is reached, it is made based on the facts of the case, not the murderers race. As Edward Koch once stated, “Justice requires that the law be applied equally to all” (323).

In keeping up with our article from the New York Times, the author goes on to attack the lawyers who represent capital cases, referring to them as “poorly suited for the job” and “egregiously incompetent” (Indefensible Punishment). The author also slams the jurors of capital punishment cases, insinuating that they are unable to come to any honest and fair decisions regarding sentencing because they must “consider circumstances” and “weigh competing factors” which leaves them “vulnerable to their biases (I.P.). As a result the article claims “they have made discrimination and arbitration the hallmarks of the death penalty” (I.P.). This implies that all jurors, regardless of the meticulous jury selection process, are all a bunch of racists. If jurors can’t be trusted to make judgments on capital cases, what about non-capital cases? Or any case at all for that matter. I have serious problems with what such statements suggest.

We as human beings are not infallible; we make mistakes, this is without question. Our country’s government, its systems, and its proceedings are all managed by people; therefore, errors will indeed take place. However, like Koch points out “If government functioned only when the possibility of error didn’t exist, government wouldn’t function at all” (322). Capital punishment may not be a perfect system but it shouldn’t be repealed, rather it should be reformed.

One such reformation could be the hit and miss approach within the death penalty. This is the one point where oppositionists and I agree; it is arbitrary. Not only does every state has different laws concerning capital punishment, but the inconsistency of its use makes it far too random for it to be considered a real threat among criminals. Most convicted murderers will never be executed due to the lengthy appeals process, which ranges anywhere between 12 to 25 years. Convicts are more likely to die in prison rather than be executed. However there is a simple solution, as Wesley Lowe writes “For capital punishment to be applied equally to every criminal…it must be mandatory for ALL capital cases” (28). Appeals shouldn’t take more than 2 years from start to finish and only one appeal should be allowed. It should also be the killer’s right to waive the appeals process if he or she so chooses. Not only will this strengthen the deterrent effects of capital punishment, but it will take discrimination out of the equation all together. More importantly though, this reformation of capital punishment will guarantee that no killer will ever have the opportunity to kill again.

As a mother of three young boys, I can only begin to imagine the anguish that my father had to endure identifying the mangled body of his own son. It is an exquisite agony that no parent should ever go through, yet every day someone will receive that dreaded phone call that will inevitably change their life forever. Sadly, murder is an everyday reality, but if capital punishment could prevent even one person from experiencing that horror, then I say that the death penalty is in every way absolutely defensible.

Works Cited
“An Indefensible Punishment.” Editorial. New York Times 25 September 2011: N.p. Web. 5 November 2011.
Koch, Edward. “Death and Justice.” 40 Model Essays a Portable Anthology. Ed. Jane E. Aaron. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005. 319-24. Print.
Lane, Charles. “Troy Davis: Guilty as Charged.” Editorial. The Washington Post 22 September 2011: N.p. Web. 7 December 2011.
Lowe, Wesley. “Wesley Lowe’s Pro Death Penalty Essay.” Tears Are From Heaven, Voices From Hell. Ed. Diane P. Robertson. Lincoln: Writers Club Press, 2002. 14-48. Print.
Van den Haag, Ernest and John P. Conrad. “The Death Penalty: A Debate.” New York: Plenum Press, 1983. Print.