capital punishment for crimes in america

In the spring of 2000, a team of lawyers and criminologists headed by Prof. James Liebman released the first phase of their study on the death penalty as capital punishment in the United States.  The study showed that the American system of capital punishment was “riddled” with unfairness and incompetence, with serious errors erupting with alarming frequency at every stage of the process.  In February of 2002, the second phase was released examining the causes for the frequent mistakes in death penalty cases, and possible solutions to remedy the situation.  Researchers identified three main errors that often lead to erroneous convictions:  incompetent legal counsel, police officers or prosecutors who suppressed evidence and judges who gave jurors the wrong instructions.  The study also suggested that the errors that permeate throughout the system also leave killers at large, exacerbate suffering, waste tax dollars and deprive citizens of the high quality of justice, which they expect and deserve.  !

In conclusion, the study found that “the more often officials use the death penalty, the wider the range of crimes to which it is applied, and the more it is imposed for offenses that are not highly aggravated, the greater the risk of capital convictions and sentences will be seriously flawed.” The article implies that the emergence of new studies, such as Prof. Liebman’s, discredit capital punishment as a flawless and effective system and will lead to a dramatic drop in pro-death penalty supporters, and eventually the reformation of the current capital punishment laws.

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The Flawed System of Capital Punishment in the United States

Capital punishment in the United States has been one of the most controversial issues over the past two and a half decades.  Currently, 38 states enact capital punishment in response to the most “heinous of crimes”.  In previous years, the American public based their views strictly on the deterrent effects and cost-effectiveness of the death penalty.  Public opinion on capital punishment in America over the past 50 years has fluctuated tremendously.  Support was fairly low through the 1950s, and in 1966 only 47% of the American public voiced their support.  Since 1982, about 75% of the population has favored capital punishment, with a slow decline in recent years (Gillespie 1999).  The arguments surrounding the death penalty today, compared to 25 years ago, rely less on issues such as deterrence and cost, and more on grounds of legal fairness and competence, as well as retribution.  The public has been misinformed due to the lack of substantial evidence that discredits capital punishment as an effective deterrent, as well as a competent system inaccurately sentencing criminals.   In light of recent studies and technological innovations that illuminate the incompetence of the court system, if the United States does not reform its current death penalty laws, countless individuals will continue to be stripped of their right to a fair trial, and a dramatic decrease in public support of the death penalty will occur.

In the early 1970’s, the chief argument in favor of the death penalty was its assumed deterrence of crime.  In theory, publicized executions should result in a lower number of homicides, therefore serving as a deterrent to crime.  Today, there are widespread agreements among both criminologists and law enforcement officials that capital punishment has little curbing effect on crime rates.  In a recent survey of 70 current and former presidents of three professional associations of criminologists (the American Society of Criminology, the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, and the Law and Society Association), 85% of the experts agreed that empirical research on deterrence has shown that the death penalty “never has been, is not, and never could be superior to long prison sentences as a deterrent to criminal violence” (Radelet and Borg 2000).  Instead of trying to use the death penalty as a deterrent, the government should focus on what works in preventing crimes, educating from within families, communities, schools and labor markets on the legal system.

With the aid of recent studies and scientific innovations, another prevalent issue that has lead to the decline of pro-death penalty supporters is the ever-increasing number of erroneous convictions in homicide crimes.  Since 1970 there have been more than 87 people released from death row in the United States because of false convictions (Newsweek 2000).  It was also found that the courts, because of serious errors, reversed 68 % of all death sentences reviewed from 1973 to 1995 (New York Times 2002).  It is unconstitutional to continue using the death penalty if we cannot guarantee a fair trial to all individuals, regardless of the “heinous” crimes they may have committed.  Unfortunately, the states and counties that most often use the death penalty, applying it to a wide range of crimes instead of reserving it for the “worst of the worst”, are also the most prone to flawed verdicts (Herbert 2002).    With such a high rate of error surrounding capital punishment in this country, the public may react with a form of general defiance.  The failures of the court system may infuriate members of society to act against the government, and in return, pro-death penalty supporters will be forced to re-consider their rigid stance on the issue.

Today, one of the more relevant issues surrounding capital punishment is retribution.  In this instance, one argues that those who commit the “most heinous of crimes” should be executed simply on the grounds that it is the appropriate punishment (U.S. Senate, 1989).  Retribution frequently provides satisfaction to the family of the victim by ultimately taking the life of the killer.  Unfortunately, retribution is a non-empirical justification and thus makes it impossible to test with empirical data, making the calculation of how much punishment a criminal “deserves” more of a moral issue than of a legal one (Radelet and Borg 2000).

With recent studies and technological advances, the American views towards capital punishment have changed significantly.  While about two-thirds of Americans say they still support the death penalty, nearly 70 percent say capital punishment, in its current form, is flawed and unfair because innocent people are still convicted and ultimately killed (U.S. News and World Report 2001).  Those who once supported the death penalty on the grounds that it served as a deterrent to crime and was a cheaper alternative to life imprisonment, now find themselves questioning the arbitrariness and accuracy of the system.  There is circumstantial evidence proving that the implementation of capital punishment, in its current form, is flawed.  The article alone does not provide enough evidence that the death penalty system is flawed.  It centers on Prof. Lieberman’s findings that “the states that make the most out of the death penalty, applying it to a wide range of crimes instead of reserving it for the most heinous crimes, are also the most prone to flawed verdicts.”  While I do support and agree with this comment, it is initially misleading as it may be interpreted to mean that capital punishment cases, all over the country, are generally flawed.  It is apparent that more errors would be found in areas where more trials are being conducted, therefore making the findings of the study somewhat obvious.  The courts have less time and effort to prepare each death penalty case, therefore increasing its chances for errors.  In order to strongly support the argument, the author should view the death penalty system as a whole and analyze the factors affecting it.  The slight downward trend in death penalty supporters signifies the public’s increasing disapproval of capital punishment and eventually will lead to the reform of death penalty laws.  This country’s foundations lie within the Constitution, and the removal of the innate rights granted to each American citizen would not be tolerated and would be met with general defiance.



Annual Review of Sociology:  Radelet, Michael., Borg, Marian.  “The Changing Nature  of Death Penalty Debates,” Annual Review of Sociology, Annual 2000 p43

Freda Adler, Gerhard O.W. Mueller & William Laufer, CRIMINOLOGY AND THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM.  4th ED (2001)

Gillespie, M. 1999.  “Public Opinion Supports Death Penalty”

Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology:  Bienen, Leigh.  “The Death Penalty in America:  Current Controversies,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology,   Winter 1999 v89 i2 pT

Newsweek:  “The Death Penalty on Trial: Special Report: DNA and other evidence-free    87 people from death row,”  June 12, 2000, p24

The New York Times: Herbert, Bob.  “The Fatal Flaws” February 11, 2002

The New York Times: “Death Penalty Reversed More as Use Rises, Study Finds” February 11, 2002

U.S. News and World Report:  “Of Death’s Dominion,”  June 25, 2001 v130 i25 p14

U.S. Senate.  Committee on the Judiciary.  The Death Penalty.  Hearing, September 19,    1989.  Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1989.


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