The case of Jodi Arias shines a light on how states justify the death penalty. The most common used to justify it is as state-sanctioned justice–or revenge.
In a Phoenix courtroom, Jodi Arias begged the jurors that found her guilty of first-degree murder for killing her boyfriend to recommend that she be sentenced to life imprisonment rather than facing the death penalty. She told a local reporter in an interview that she would rather be executed than spend the rest of her life in jail. Apparently she changed her mind.
There are three classic reasons for punishment for crimes. The first is application of the biblical of an eye-for-an-eye. If you steal, you should have your life stolen by spending years or the rest of your life in jail. If you take someone’s life, your own should be sacrificed.
Another classic argument is that an inmate can be rehabilitated. Arias wants to rehabilitate herself in prison. While serving time, she could donate her hair to make wigs for cancer victims, promote prison recycling programs and design T-shorts to raise money for victims of domestic abuse.
But rehabilitation, once a popular concept among psychologists and others in the 1950s and 1960s has been very effectively discredited, because inmates just never seemed to get rehabilitated. Arias still would like to keep the rehabilitation principle—and herself—alive.
Another theory has it that putting people in jail keeps them out of the population. But prisons are so overcrowded in much of the country that convicts don’t stay off the streets for long. Credit for time served makes the convict eligible for parole. And states have been expanding the amount of credit. Someone sentenced to sixty years in jail might only spend five of it in the joint before being eligible for parole.
Adoption of the death penalty would support the first theory. The majority of states in the US (32) have the death penalty. 18 do not. The biblical injunction would seem to be the most applicable, since the death is most often available only for crimes of murder.
But not all murders. Usually it can be used only in cases of first-degree murder. That is the kind of killing that is premeditation is the kind in which the murderer plans to kill someone. Accidental murder is usually classed as manslaughter. Even a murder committed in the “heat of passion,” for example, in a domestic dispute, is not intentional murder but manslaughter. Manslaughter will get you in jail, but not on death row. In cases of motor vehicle homicide, the convicted person can even get probation and not have to go to jail. Unless, of course, she planned to run her husband over.
Another reason one can be executed is by conviction for felony murder, for example, when a person is killed by a perpetrator who is committing a robbery. It’s bad enough that a perp rips off a convenience store, but killing the clerk is going too far.
Some people can kill and be acquitted for what jury believes is a good reason, as in the case of Menendez brothers, who killed their father because he abused them. Even though he wasn’t abusing them when they shot him.
The other reality is that persons accused of murder and other crimes can get plea bargains with prosecutors, and “plead down” to a lesser crime. This is less likely in murder case, but it is not unheard of. Of course, the accused must start off with a not guilty plea if he wants to get a trial. But a lot can happen between the arraignment and the trial. Prosecutors want people to pay for their crimes, but trials are risky. A jury might let the accused walk. This may be because the evidence is not as effective as the prosecution hopes. “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit.”
In any criminal case, there must be a determination of guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt. “A good defense attorney can put enough reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors that they cannot agree to a finding of murder. And this is more of an issue when dealing with the possibility that a murder in the first degree might end up on death row. Even life imprisonment makes many jurors uneasy.
The question can be asked: why is the death penalty used at all? Some proponents are shy about using the biblical argument, asserting that when a person is put to death, the procedure is so intense and horrific that this discourages others from committing murders. Fear of death has a common-sense aspect. Execution could theoretically have the effect of deterring potential perpetrators from doing the deed. But gang members accused of murder often explain that killing is a reality in a wartime situation. And urban life is a perpetual war. Killing also demonstrates the worthiness of a candidate to be welcomes into the gang.
The method of execution is also a factor. Formerly, when states used hanging or the electric chair, the process was considered so horrific that people might be dissuaded from killing. But the extreme nature of the method was also used by opponents of the death penalty as evidence of its barbarity as a form punishment. Few people would be able to witness a hanging or electrocution. But the argument pro and con has been lessened, because both hanging and electrocution have been abolished in favor of a humane and more sanitized version of lethal injection of anesthetic agents and muscle relaxants that cause paralysis of the muscles, and cardiac arrest. The offender is rendering the offender unconscious in a few seconds.
Another question that can be asked is whether the death penalty could conceivably expand to take in other kinds of crimes. In Louisiana, the death penalty has been upheld in a child rape case.
An unimaginable but still possible application of murder charges against a woman who gets an abortion. U. S. Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade (1973), held that the right to have an abortion is protected by the U.S. Constitution.
There is a loophole in this, however. The Court established that the fetus must be able to live outside the womb to acquire the rights of a citizen. The figure the Court decided on was 24 weeks. Then in Casey v. Planned Parenthood, the viability mark was 22 weeks. The figure seems arbitrary, certain groups argue. But the fact that the Court picked an age for a fetus to acquire status as a citizen leaves open the option of states to ban abortions in cases of fetuses that have not reached the 22 week stage.
Furthermore, the Supreme Court has the ability to nullify past decisions. Powerful religious institutions hold that human life begins at conception. And a conservative Court could renege on its prior rulings on constitutionality and determine that life does begin at conception.
The most common argument against the death penalty is that it is discriminatorily and disproportionately applied and used against the poor, minorities and members of racial, ethnic and religious communities. This is borne out by the statistics of prison populations throughout the country.
But poverty and bad influences don’t count for much in considering the rationale often expressed by politicians and police officials. The death penalty is grounded on the sacrosanct grounds that it is just. For some opponents of the death penalty, this is a code word for revenge against the murdered on behalf of the victim and the victim’s family. This may be behind the trial of Arias, or so she maintains. She has described the five-month trial as a witch hunt. Key witnesses for the penalty phase have gotten death threats.
In the end, revenge is such a deep-seated emotion in human beings, that pleas of mercy by the convicted that they now realize the heinousness of their actions and their resolution to change their lives, may not be of much help in front of a jury of law-abiding citizens.
By: Tom Ukinski