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A Shameful Punishment:No Criminal Deserves the Death Penalty

Naveen Sunkavally

If the death penalty is supposed to deter violent crime, why has the United States executed more and more people every year since 1981?In 1981, one person was executed, while in 1997, 74 were killed. During this same period, the national murder rate has remained roughly constant. 1998 has witnessed the executions of 13 people, not including the recent execution in Virginia of a 32-year-old man from Paraguay named Angel Breard.

Angel Breard was an alcoholic. He was sexually molested at the age of seven by a soldier, had a failed marriage, and suffered from bouts of depression. At his trial, Breard confessed to murder on the stand. These circumstances do not lessen the severity of his crime - the murder and attempted rape of a Virginia woman in 1992 - but does this sound like a man who deserves to lose his life?

Most of those on death row face similar problems as Breard: alcoholism, depression, or drugs. Most of these crimes are committed at the spur of the moment and are rarely as spectacular or premeditated as crimes are portrayed on television. Moreover, most of those executed are are poor and predominantly of minority groups. These are facts. Can the death penalty possibly deter crimes committed on the spur of the moment by a poor person under the possible influence of harmful substances?And how is it that some people wander around murdering five or six people and get only a life sentence whereas others may receive death sentences for a single murder?

In England in the eighteenth century and nineteenth century, as crowds gathered to watch criminals being hanged for such petty crimes as picking pockets, pickpockets would seize the opportunity to steal from members of the crowd. Apparently, the sight of hanging people, and England's vast assemblage of torture devices and techniques - racks, iron maidens, drawing and quartering, etc. - failed to deter any crime in these cases.

England abolished the death penalty in 1971. France, Canada, South Africa, and all of Western Europe have done the same. If the international trend is towards the gradual extinction of the death penalty, why does the United States, which touts itself as a moral leader in the world, continue to uphold this crude and barbaric form of punishment?

By international law, as expressed in the Vienna Convention of Consular Relations, the United States is required to inform accused foreign nationals of the option of consulting with their nations' consulates for advice. However, none of the six foreign nationals executed in the United States this year, including Breard, were informed of this option. In Breard's case, the World Court and the government of Paraguay pressed for a stay of execution but failed. How can the United States expect other nations to fairly treat U.S. citizens accused of crime abroad given the U.S.'s track record?

If the death penalty does not deter crime, then does it serve as vehicle for retribution? How can one experience any sort of closure in the sight of flames leaping from the head of Pedro Medina, who was executed last year in a Florida electric chair, or in the sight of a man asphyxiating, turning purple, and drooling in a gas chamber? How many other species, besides the tarantula and the human race, actively engage in the killing of others of their species?

The death penalty should not be a matter of what is "deserved," or "warranted," or "justified." Even the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, and all the other great killers, unknown or known, of this century do not "deserve" the death penalty. It is not a matter of retribution. And besides, those enjoying the fruits of retribution are not the victims themselves - the true victims are most likely dead - but family members and friends of the victims who feel the need for some sort of closure.

All of those who support the death penalty are killers themselves, and no guise of safe, painless execution (such as lethal injection) can hide this fact. The death penalty, by killing people twice - once in the long wait through the suffering and the costly appeals, and the another time in the gas chamber or electric chair - is simply inhumane. Putting a man in prison, robbing him of freedom, comfort, the pleasures of life, and any hope of normal life is enough punishment, but robbing him of his mind and playing god goes too far.

In a speech before the Parliament in 1868, John Stuart Mill defended the death penalty as a means to "blot [the criminal] out from the fellowship of mankind and from the catalogue of living" in cases when the criminal shows himself unredeemable and unworthy of life. But society created these individuals, however monstrous they are. To erase them from existence is merely a way to hide society's inner imperfections and problems that need to be cured.

The United States recently demanded that Pol Pot come to America to face a trial. But what kind of country that still supports the death penalty and retains such a skewed perspective on life and death can legitimately make such a demand?

The United States must abolish the death penalty. Killing - arbitrary, costly killing - does not serve as a deterrent or fulfill any moral purpose. Life in prison without parole is a better alternative for violent criminals that not only costs less, but also does not compromise our moral standing. A person, however monstrous, who is serving a life sentence in a well-protected prison has no chance of endangering the lives of others. Abolishing the death penalty would give the United States the shame of being one of the last nations to do so, but it is always better to be last and right than perpetually wrong.