Pro/Con: Should Maryland outlaw the death penalty?

Jan. 26, 2006, midnight | By Kiran Bhat Kristi Chakrabarti | 15 years, 2 months ago

Kiran Bhat says YES: Executions are unethical, hypocritical

On Aug. 23, 1993, a man named Ruben Cantu was executed in San Antonio, Texas. Over 12 years later, he has been all but exonerated. According to The Houston Chronicle, a key witness recanted his testimony, a co-defendant accepted sole responsibility for the crime and the district attorney who sought Cantu's execution now wishes he hadn't.

Cantu's story is a somber case study on the death penalty in America today. His example is by no means uncommon: Illinois placed a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000 after a death row inmate was exonerated of the crime that put him there. Since 1970, 120 inmates have been freed from death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-partisan organization that compiles statistics on capital punishment.

Although Maryland puts far fewer defendants to death than Texas or Virginia, Cantu's execution illustrates many of the death penalty's flaws, including the inherent hypocrisy in using such extreme measures in what is supposed to be a system of criminal rehabilitation.

The death penalty is a purely punitive tool, used not to reform criminals so that they may reenter society, but to end their lives altogether. Proponents claim that such a policy deters others from committing the same crimes because those executed are "examples" of the consequences. There are major flaws with this approach.

No prisoner should be condemned to death under the assumption that he cannot be reformed. Even the most depraved of criminals has the potential to turn his life around, and in a fair correctional system, each one ought to be given the opportunity to do so.

What is even worse than this egregious hypocrisy is the continued execution of clearly reformed prisoners. Months before his execution, former gang leader and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Stanley "Tookie" Williams, who maintained his innocence on murder charges and wrote an apology for his role in the creation of the Cripps, was awarded one of President George W. Bush's "Call to Service" awards for his anti-gang activism. Williams was put to death last December in San Quentin, California.

In addition, statistics show that the death penalty is not a successful deterrent against crime. According to the 2004 FBI Uniform Crime Statistics, murder rates are consistently lower in regions of the U.S. with the fewest number of executions since 1976. For example, the murder rate in the south, where 806 executions took place from 1976 to 2004, is 66 per one million people. In the northeast, where only four executions took place, the murder rate is 42 per one million people.

Capital punishment also assumes that the court system is infallible. Even though juries are bound to convict defendants only when the evidence proves guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt," mistakes inevitably happen. The death penalty cannot be reversed in the event of such a mistake. Capital punishment's potential to kill innocent people outweighs any of its benefits.

There is a simple solution to all of the problems associated with the death penalty: Life in prison without parole. Without a looming execution date, even the most immoral prisoners would have the opportunity to reform, while innocents do not have to worry about being wrongfully executed. At the same time, criminals would be isolated and rendered unable to harm society.

Above all, the death penalty is a morally reprehensible concept that ignores fundamental human rights. Capital punishment is the tool of brutal dictatorships and autocracies, and it has no place in the modern American criminal justice system. Among the other nations that employ the death penalty are China, Iran and North Korea, the latter two of which Bush famously named as members of "the Axis of Evil."

Capital punishment is morally bankrupt, hypocritical and irreversible. The blood of Ruben Cantu and other innocent people is already on the hands of leaders in other states. Maryland's legislators and executives must act quickly to avoid making the same mistakes.

Kristi Chakrabarti says NO: Worst crimes merit executions

To opponents of the death penalty, Stanley "Tookie" Williams has demonstrated the justice system's ability to rehabilitate criminals and has shown that life in prison is perhaps a more humane alternative to the death penalty. Though it is the responsibility of the justice system to rehabilitate criminals, individuals who have committed heinous crimes and are beyond reform must be punished to the maximum extent.

The death penalty exists for the purpose of punishing those who have committed acts that are so terrible that no amount of rehabilitation will ever be able to reverse what they have already done. In the case of a quadruple murderer and gang founder like Williams, any rehabilitation is too little too late — too late for himself and for his victims.

Some crimes are so awful that the offenders must be sentenced to death simply as a matter of justice. For instance, in 2004, murderer and rapist Steven Oken was the first person to be put to death in Maryland since Governor Robert Ehrlich lifted the state's moratorium on the death penalty.

There is no possibility of rehabilitation for someone who wantonly rapes and kills another human being in a gruesome fashion and proceeds to brag about the crime to others. Oken is an example of an individual corrupted beyond the possibility of reform. When faced with such heinous acts, the state of Maryland and the justice system have the responsibility to give criminals a correspondingly harsh sentence — the death penalty and not just life in prison.

Opponents of the death penalty argue that innocent people are executed. But wrongful execution is not the fault of the death penalty so much as a commentary on the shortfalls of the legal system. The solution to wrongful executions should be enhancing the judicial system with thorough forensic work, DNA testing, fairer trials and competent legal counsel. Rather than ending the death penalty, the trial and sentencing phases should be made more comprehensive.

Even so, there are numerous safeguards against the execution of innocents. In the 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court suspended all executions until each state enhanced its measures for preventing the execution of innocent people. States that now have the death penalty complied by adding extra precautionary measures. The current system of appeals, which goes through numerous state and federal courts, as well as advancements in both DNA and forensic testing make the execution of an innocent individual highly unlikely and nearly impossible in a properly functioning legal system. Moreover, every execution must be authorized by the governor of the state, yet another check by the state's highest authority to ensure that the scheduled execution is legitimate.

As of October 2005, there are nine people on death row in Maryland. There were about 1,300 "death eligible" cases in Maryland in 2004, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, indicating that the death penalty is used in extreme moderation in Maryland. The death sentence is employed under rare circumstances as a last resort for utterly horrible crimes. Maryland seeks the death penalty very judiciously, and the death sentence is given after a rigorous process that ensures that only those who deserve the punishment are given an execution date. It is also up to the individual prosecutors to decide whether or not to seek the death penalty. In Maryland, public prosecutors are democratically elected, and those prosecutors who sought the death penalty would not be getting reelected if the public did not approve of their decisions regarding the death penalty.

The publicity of Williams's execution has convinced many that his time on death row resulted in repentance and reformation. But to the families of his four victims, no amount of lip service will reverse his terrible actions. His acts of repentance while in prison do not properly account for the hundreds of victims that were affected by the violence from the brutal gang warfare Williams helped initiate. Criminals like Williams should be sufficiently brought to justice, and the ultimate punishment remains the death penalty.

Kiran Bhat. Kiran Bhat is a senior who loves the Washington Redskins, 24, Coldplay, Kanye West, Damien Rice, Outkast and Common (Sense). He aspires to be the next Sanjay Gupta. He will miraculously grow a Guptaesque telegenic face and sculpted body by the age of 30. In … More »

Kristi Chakrabarti. Kristi Chakrabarti is finally a Magnet senior who is obsessed with basketball and is a die-hard Wizards fan. When she is not religiously following the NBA, she enjoys playing tennis and reading. Her favorite TV shows are Friends and ER and her favorite food is … More »

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