The Death Penalty and the Justice System: Why Are We Sentencing Innocent People to Death?

By Stephanie Webb
Published on December 12th, 2020

Should the death penalty be allowed? Should we be given the power to condemn people to death? Is it truly “just” for us to include this as part of our justice system?

To start with, there is the ethical argument for whether sentencing a convicted criminal to death is just as bad as doing what the criminal did originally, typically classified as homicide or manslaughter, and whether that would be a moral contradiction in itself. Sometimes, the death penalty may be seen as the only way “justice” can be served in more serious cases such as the Gabriel Fernandez case.

Gabriel Fernandez was an 8 year old boy from California who was repeatedly abused and tortured over the course of months by his own mother and step-dad. The forms of torture included: shooting him in the face and all over the body with BB guns, burning him with cigarettes, forcing him to eat cat litter and cat faeces as sources of food, forcing him into overly cold or scorching hot baths, binding his feet and hands, repeated beatings, locking him into a tiny cupboard barely big enough for the cat, let alone an 8 year old boy, and keeping him there at night and sometimes during the day as well.

All of this torture reached its peak on the 22nd of May, 2013, when he was beaten over and over until he inevitably died. When he was rushed to the hospital, he was so disfigured and bruised that the doctors were in total disbelief.

Over the course of the trials, both his own biologically mother and his step-dad never showed an ounce of emotion, let alone remorse. Ultimately, the mother was sentenced to life imprisonment and the father was sentenced to death.

Was the death penalty justified in this case or too lenient for a full-grown, 6 foot 2 man, who repeatedly tortured and beat a helpless 8 year old? Should he not deserve to feel at least a fraction of the same pain he inflicted on Gabriel? In fact, wouldn’t the death penalty, a relatively pain-free death, be a lesser evil compared to the magnitude of what he’s done?

But then again, there is always the possibility of a fatal mistake that could result in an innocent person being sentenced to death. An example is Delbert Tibbs, who was sentenced to death for the rape of a sixteen-year-old white girl and the murder of her companion. Delbert, an African American, was wrongly convicted by an all-white jury on the testimony of the female victim whose testimony was uncorroborated and inconsistent with her first description of her assailant. Ultimately, the conviction was overturned by the Florida Supreme Court.

However, for every successful appeal, there are many more cases where innocent people are condemned to death for crimes they have never committed, with their conviction all based on human prejudices and human error.

A study that was released in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences showed that one in 25 people in the US had been sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit. Should we still keep such a punishment when there’s a risk of killing completely innocent citizens?

In addition to the issue of wrongly sentencing someone to death, one needs to consider the economics of capital punishment. According to Death Penalty Information Centre, a non-profit organisation, death penalty consistently costs far more than life sentence mostly because of the legal costs involved in trials and appeals. The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice concludes that the current system with capital punishment costs USD $137 million p.a., twelve times the cost of US$11.5m for a system of lifetime incarceration. It can be argued that such additional expenses could be better spent on rehabilitation and crime prevention.

Given the cost of capital punishment and the risk of sentencing an innocent person, I believe death penalty should be a sentence of the last resort and reserved for cases with irrefutable evidence. In addition, the criteria for sentencing should also be applied consistently. There are cases of death row prisoners whose only crime was accidentally shooting a police officer when they were 18. In contrast, there are serial rapists and killers and barbaric people similar to the parents of 8 year old Gabriel Fernandez, who have been released from prison after a few short years. These inequities do not protect society, nor rehabilitate those who should be given a second chance.

Finally, the wider impacts the two systems have on society should also be taken into account. On one hand, one should consider whether death penalty is an effective deterrent that would lower the overall crime rate. On the other hand, one should also consider whether lifetime criminals released on parole pose a danger to society.

According to the National Institute of Justice in the U.S., around 77% of prisoners who were released were arrested again in the following five years. Even if they are kept in prison, some life prisoners can still wreak havoc in prison and put their inmates and guards in harm’s way. One such example is Thomas Silverstein, a convicted murderer who stabbed another inmate to death and dragged his corpse around the prison. Should we let these dangerous people still live in our society, with a chance they could cause even more damage?

In conclusion, I believe the death penalty should not be completely eradicated. Capital punishment can ensure that dangerous people will not inflict any further harm and it can be a suitable form of retribution. However, it should be reserved only for extreme cases where there is indisputable evidence of the crime committed and that the culprit is considered to pose a significant danger to society.

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