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Death Penalty Policy Issue

Background information

Death penalty is a controversial policy issue in many American states. There has been overwhelming inquiries of this policy on how best to replace it with relative humane convictions such as a life sentence.  The irregularities and anomalies arising from wrongful convictions are responsible to the upsurge in these inquiries. There are numerous wrongful convictions that have surfaced and boast evidence to support them. The Cameron Todd Willingham case is a proof to this testament showing the direction to which this form of capital punishment might be taking. America has tried to increase integrity, honesty and responsible living standards in their justice and social system. However, this has not yielded positive outcomes as it is not easy to change the individuals in a system especially the character of those working in the criminal justice system.

Significance of the problem

The death penalty has involved executions of numerous innocent persons throughout its establishment, without clearly establishing the criminal’s status. It is worth noting that none of the religions world over supports the death penalty; instead all religions resent this policy and share the view to change it. It is a common belief that societies including America are faith based and numerous policies in the constitution are in line with the most religious views of the people.

Statement of the problem

In contrast, the proponents of this policy share the view that it deters criminal activities punishable by death.  Studies have shown that the death penalty has little or no effect towards crime deterrent.  In reality, the death penalty causes divisions amongst race and other societal evils that help propel criminal elements. Effective change to this policy requires the opponents of this policy to convince congress to effect and pass for the abolishment of this law.

Analysis of alternatives

It is essential to employ alternative punishment such as life imprisonment without parole (LWOP) to mitigate the questionable reactions towards the justice system upon execution of an innocent man. With this in place, it is likely to reduce executions especially of innocent persons and give each suspect whether guilty or innocent ample opportunity to mount their defense. Many other alternatives for the abolishment of capital punishment may be sought either from within or outside from other countries.

Conclusion and recommendations

Abolition of capital punishment alternative humane policies is essential in reforming the criminal justice system in the US. For total abolishment, the congress should ratify this policy and provide the president to sign their proposal on changing this policy. Implementation of this change would pose a challenge as the justice system personnel would be require to be conversant with the new provisions. It would be vital to set monitoring tools, which would measure the new provisions effectiveness. While this would be a relief to those facing the punishment, it is good to note that there are limitations on how fast the criminal justice system will be able to adjust their judgments. 


At 6:30 p.m. on February 17, 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham’s heart stopped. He had been executed by lethal injection for killing his three small children—Amber, Karmon, and Kameron Willingham. Prior to Willingham’s execution, though, evidence began to surface that he had been wrongfully convicted. This evidence did not dissuade Texas from proceeding with Willingham’s execution. After Willingham had been executed, the evidence of wrongful conviction became even more certain. Willingham’s relatives have made efforts to have Willingham posthumously exonerated after the exculpatory evidence coming to light. Their efforts have run straight into legal blockades, however. This is not unusual when dealing with individuals allegedly wrongfully executed. For a variety of reasons, it is extremely difficult to reach a legal determination of wrongful execution, and such a conclusion has never been reached in America’s more than 400-year history of executing criminal defendants. If Willingham’s relatives succeed in exonerating Willingham, however, or if any court reaches the determination that an individual has been wrongfully executed, there seem to be no real remedies available to the wrongfully executed individual or his family. Various immunities may protect potential defendants from liability in survival suits, wrongful death claims, and federal civil rights suits if one could even make out these claims under the applicable statutes. Unlike the instance of wrongful conviction and incarceration, there appear to be no legislative remedies targeting cases of wrongful execution, despite the fact that many would agree that wrongful execution constitutes an even more egregious wrong. This chasm in legislative remedies must be filled in order to make government officials and ordinary citizens face the significance of their death decisions.

The American criminal justice system leaves a lot to be desired. The policy issue on capital punishment has for decades been controversial with the opponents of this policy claiming that it as a vice and infringement on human rights. It is also expensive to conduct capital punishment than to keep the criminal under a life sentence. In the past, a significant number of innocent persons have faced execution in the different states across America with Texas State leading in the tally.  Many countries across the world have abolished capital punishment and replaced with other humane, but deterrent alternatives. Defenders of human rights, religious leaders have often criticized the death penalty, and they have called for its abolishment. The US presents itself as the prime defender of human rights and is quick to point at other countries conducting capital punishment, such as, Iran and China as having little value for human life. A study conducted in 2011, in California indicates that about 4 billion dollars have been spent on capital punishment since 1978. In recent years, California has been spending close to 184 million dollars each year to carry out capital punishment and with increased reduction on reliance of capital punishment the amount would reduce to 1 billion dollars for the next five years. These monies could be spent in helping the victim families while the offender is under a life sentence (Steiker, & Steiker, 2011).

The justification of the death penalty is to deter potential criminal elements in the society not to involve themselves with criminal acts whose sentence is death. The death penalty was a punishment to deter criminal elements in the society in the early days of constitution making. Recent studies show that capital punishment has little effect on deterring potential criminal elements from striking their immoral acts. The number of criminals charged with murder is on the rise in federal courts, which begs the question on the effectiveness of capital punishment.  Capital punishment is still in force, in the United States although it is evident that it has little effect on preventing future crimes and harm to society (Marzilli, 2003). The proponents of capital punishment believe that by taking the life of the offender, he suffers the same or even worse punishment as the one he murdered or the deceased who is not personally present before the court of law (Sarat, 1999).

The policy makers would amend the constitutionality of this policy to suit the opponents of the death penalty. Some states, for example, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Illinois have abolished capital punishment in recent years. Others like Maryland have set laws to regulate the use of the death penalty, such as, offender’s confession, use of biological and video recording of the offense. Though there has been a decline in numbers of executions in the last decade, the convictions to capital punishment is still high. Policy makers have the obligation to effect policies that protect the rights of every human whether free or incarcerated. Making good proposals to amend and offer practical solutions to the flaws in the death penalty policy, would amount to assent by the president abolishing capital punishment (Sarat, 1999).

It is essential to find alternative ways to punish murder suspects to cater for possibilities of wrongful convictions. This gives opportunity to the innocent convicted offenders to exonerate themselves as well as uphold right to life that religious people and human rights activists, such as, the American government preach. There are a number of alternatives to capital punishment that are on trials in different states across America. They include life sentence without parole (LWOP), reduction of some murder cases to manslaughter which attracts lesser sentence than the death penalty. Life sentence without parole is an option the jurors of murder cases have instead of the death penalty. It guarantees the offender his life, though behind bars for life. It is less expensive to the tax payers and keeps criminal offenders away from the streets for good. It gives time for correction of mistakes where one faces wrongful accusations. For example, California has over 3300 of these sentences made since 1977 with 7 people released upon proving their conviction was wrong. The use of LWOP in Willingham’s case would have allowed for his release as he would have had time to prove his innocence. The advantage of LWOP is that it sets the scenario for abolishing the death penalty (Zalman, 2006).

There are factors that contribute to the determination of whether one would receive a death sentence. Affordability of good lawyers in the federal courts is vital to the determination of the case and the jury’s outcome. The appointed state attorneys face challenges including underpayment, overworking and some of them lack the experience to handling capital cases needed in these murder trials. There are instances where the death penalty causes rifts in the society especially where it involves people of a different race and backgrounds. Reggie Clemons faced the death penalty as an accomplice for the murder of two white women in St. Louis. This happened even though the four judge bench agree the prosecutor was “abusive and boorish” while the interrogation team was brutal during questioning. This form of punishment proves its degrading value to the harmonious bonding in the society (Cole, & Smith, 2010).

Implementing and monitoring the perceived changes in the justice system would be a challenge to the personnel for they have to be conversant with the new legal provisions. Capital punishment should not be dished out randomly for instances that it is murder charges in federal courts. Monitoring might be done through agents employed to oversee the implementation and assessment questionnaires on the effectiveness of the proposed alternative punishment methods. There should be a system in place to monitor how well alternative punishment methods workout, as well as their comparison to the death penalty. It is a process that fully implements new policies especially in abolishing the death penalty, which the convicted inmates would be keenly watching on how their judgments would unfold. The uncertainty over which is the best alternative to punish offenders would challenge the whole justice system. It would have to be better and flawless as compared to the death penalty.  The LWOP is a tested and proven alternative and should be among the front runners in alternatives to be picked (Zalman, 2006).

It is worth noting that proving innocence from a capital case is a challenge to both the attorneys and the offender. Nevertheless, if there is a probability that the accused is innocent, or his case does not amount to capital punishment, then all the rights and resources should be accorded to him to prove his innocence. Some cases are not worth the capital punishment, but rather lesser sentences. These should be the significant prerogative of the criminal justice system to expound on and exploit individual cases to getting their punishment right. There is the need for intensive interrogation of the accused, as well as the plaintiffs and witnesses before presentation for trial. For example, for Willingham case, the fact that there was some doubt on his guilt status and the fact that he did not plead guilty to the crimes leveled against him, there was the need to have a mechanism in place to stall his execution till clearance of all doubt on his innocence (Zalman, 2006).

Conclusion and recommendations

From the above discussed case scenario and the highlighted studies, it is evident that capital punishment policy and the United States criminal justice system have room for flaws. The fact that numerous innocent people face execution without clarity on their proof of guilt shows the numerous flaws in the death penalty policy. The case of Willingham is one of the many scenarios where innocent people fall to these flaws in this policy. This necessitates having an amendment to this policy and look at the possible best fit alternatives to capital punishment to enhance reduction in wrongful execution.  There are alternatives to the death sentence such as the LWOP which has gained success in California and provides for the exoneration of the innocent. It is ironical to claim that the death penalty deters murder crimes in the US. The recent studies have shown increment in the levels of crimes committed since the reintroduction of the death penalty. Proper monitoring and implementation of the alternative punishments should be accorded immense importance to help steer the criminal justice system to successful change from the death penalty. The congress should offer attractive proposals to the government and the president to offer his assent to switching from the death penalty. This is critical for a country that prides itself to uphold and execute justice and not condemn the innocent. This would improve the public perception of the sentences, making the US in line with the other countries on upholding human rights and correcting the flaws in the criminal justice system. The execution of Willingham only serves to speed up the abolition of the death penalty.

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