The death penalty, right or wrong? – the debate rages over the taking of life by the government as punishment for a crime – Special Report
This was it. Guards tied down Joseph O’Dell’s arms with leather belts. They inserted syringes into his arms. Lying helplessly on a platform seconds before the deadly chemicals were to drip into his veins, O’Dell spoke clearly for all to hear: “Governor Allen, you’re killing an innocent man!”
O’Dell, convicted of the brutal 1985 murder of Helen Schartner, claimed that a new kind of DNA testing could prove his innocence. Faxes, letters, and phone calls poured in from around the country asking that O’Dell not be executed and that he receive a new trial. Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa openly denounced the use of the death penalty and asked that O’Dell’s life be spared.
Allen Not Persuaded
All the protests did not stop the execution. The U.S. Supreme Court concluded that O’Dell had received a fair trial. Virginia Governor George Allen, who had the power to pardon O’Dell, concluded that there were no grounds for a pardon. So on July 23, at 9:16 p.m., O’Dell was put to death by lethal injection. From the next room, members of Helen Schartner’s family looked on with relief. Outside the prison, tearful opponents of the death penalty held a candlelight protest.
A Fierce Debate
The drama surrounding O’Dell’s execution is one that has been played out many times around the nation’s prisons in recent years. Thirty-eight states and the federal government now have death penalty laws on the books. Since 1976, 398 people have been executed in the United Sates, and more than 3,000 more now sit on death rows in prisons waiting to be executed.
Opponents of the death penalty argue that the death penalty is unfair, that blacks and poor people are more likely to receive the death penalty than are whites. Opponents also argue that the death penalty is simply wrong — that no civilized country should kill its own citizens, no matter how severe the crime.
Supporters see the death penalty as a way of exacting justice and preventing future crimes. They say criminals convicted of the worst and most violent crimes, such as O’Dell and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, deserve to pay for those crimes with their lives.
“The sooner [Timothy McVeigh] meets his maker, the sooner justice will be served,” says Darlene Welch, whose 4-year-old niece was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. Death penalty advocates say the death penalty provides the ultimate form of justice. It strikes back, they say, for murder victims and their families against killers.
Sandra Miller, whose son, Rusty, was a victim of serial killer William Bonin, disagrees. She had looked forward to Bonin’s death, but found that his execution left her with a hollow feeling — not a feeling that her son’s death had been somehow put right. Death penalty opponents argue that an execution brings no justice because it cannot bring back the life of the murderer’s victim. It only brings more sorrow and another death.
The Value of Life
Bud Welch lost his daughter in the Oklahoma City bombing. While he sympathizes with those who want McVeigh executed, he says, “The only way I can go on is to continue to believe in the [value] of life — even a mass murderer’s.”
That’s another common argument against the death penalty: Killing, even in the name of justice, is wrong. Death penalty opponents say that the death penalty puts society — all of us — on the same level as the convicted killer. As late Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, an opponent of the death penalty, said, “What value do we place on human life when we are so willing to have the state destroy it?”
Death penalty supporters do not agree. They argue that executing a murderer actually protects life by removing that murderer from society, thereby protecting the lives of law-abiding citizens.
The death penalty, supporters say, not only removes known criminals but also deters, or discourages, others from committing violent crimes. They point to a recent drop in crime rates as proof that the death penalty does deter crime.
In the 1700s and early 1800s, executions were often held in city streets or in open squares. (See “Beheading, Burning, and Hanging,” p. 2d.) These public executions were supposed to stop others from committing similar crimes by showing what might happen to a criminal. However, most who came to view executions most often saw them only as rough and violent entertainment.
By the late 1800s, executions were no longer held in public and the death penalty was reserved for only those who had committed the most serious crimes. Throughout that time, the anti-death penalty movement slowly gained strength. Attempts to make the death penalty illegal were finally successful in the 1972 case of William Furman.
Furman had killed a man during a burglary and was sentenced to death. His lawyer, Anthony Amsterdam, took the case to the United States Supreme Court.
After hearing the arguments for and against Furman, the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, struck down all state death penalty laws. The Court concluded that the laws had been enforced unfairly against African Americans like Furman. Therefore, said the Court, state death penalty laws amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment,” banned by the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. Justice Byron White added that he thought the death penalty was used too rarely (in only a few out of thousands of trials) to be a deterrent against crime.
The decision meant that state death penalty laws would have to be rewritten to ensure that the death penalty would be applied more fairly. State legislatures worked diligently to design fairer death penalty laws.
In 1976, their work paid off. In the Gregg v. Georgia case tried that year, the Supreme Court voted 7-2 to allow states to again impose the death penalty.
Even though thirty-eight states and the federal government have death penalty laws (see map), opponents still question whether these laws are applied fairly.
“The death penalty practices that were identified and condemned as unconstitutional in 1972 are very much with us today,” says Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights. Studies of the death penalty have found the following:
* The death penalty is still used more frequently against African Americans than it is against whites charged with the same or similar crimes.
* Since 1973, 65 people sentenced to death were later released when proof of their innocence was found. New procedures, such as the DNA tests that O’Dell asked for, could prove even more to be innocent.
Death penalty supporters say the solution to these problems is not to ban the death penalty, but to use the death penalty more often for vicious, brutal crimes, regardless of factors like race and wealth.
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