The Downfall of Death Row Prisoners: Murder or the Corrupt Legal System?

Megan Moutsatsos, Queens University. 

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The legal system serves two primary functions: protection and punishment. Those legally punished are often criminals with punishments having varying degrees of severity that pertain to the crime committed. Many countries have contrasting views on what counts as serious crimes — adultery, for example, can get you arrested in Saudi Arabia, whereas it is not even listed in Canada’s Criminal Code  — but murder is a severe crime almost anywhere.

So, how should murderers be punished? Many argue they should be faced with capital punishment, or the death penalty. 

Capital punishment stretches far back in history.  Back in eighteenth century B.C., for instance, the Code of Hammurabi in Babylon legalized the death penalty for 25 different crimes. Death sentences were carried out by burning, impalement, and beatings, among other barbaric methods. Additionally,  King Henry VIII of Britain enacted executions in the 1500’s . During his reign, he killed about 72,000 people by boiling, burning, and beheading, both for severe crimes like murder and for ones as simple as a marriage to a Jewish person.

While capital punishment is far less frequent in the present, it nonetheless exists. According to Amnesty International, of the 195 countries in the world, 142 of them have abolished the death penalty. In 2017, four countries (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, and Iran) accounted for 84% of recorded executions. Additionally, although China ensures their statistics are kept a state secret, it is estimated they have sentenced thousands to their deaths over the years. According to the Washington Post, 54% of Americans are in favour of the death penalty for those convicted of murder.

Considering the severity of capital punishment and its brutal past, why is it still supported? One can argue the “eye for an eye” mentality is enough to tamper with the moral compass that would usually deter people from desiring another’s death. While the “why” is an important question, perhaps what is more important is the debate of whether the death penalty is humane, and whether it should be legal in nations.

For those who support capital punishment, humaneness of the act hinges on the nature of the crime. For example, should someone who stole a bunch of grapes be sentenced to die? Most would vehemently say no as the act would be cruel and inhumane in this situation. However, should a man who was believed to have brutally murdered a child be sentenced to die? Most would wholeheartedly say yes as the act would be humane, or at least more so humane, because the man was clearly evil and deserved his fate. 

We must ask: what if the man was actually innocent? What if the evidence was tampered and he had been framed? What if he was racially profiled by the jury? What if he had a serious mental illness that had severely impacted his judgment? These are all examples that highlight how certain factors, often the result of a skewed legal system, can lead to the execution of an innocent person (or, if not innocent, a person who deserved medical treatment or rehabilitation) rather than loss of life. 

The 13 Texas death warrants in 2019 emphasize the power of a skewed legal system. Eight of the prisoners on death row exhibited significant emotional vulnerabilities, either due to brain damage or mental illness. They still await death, despite the American Psychiatric Association and the American Bar Association calling for a ban on the death penalty for those with mental disabilities due to their lack of moral culpability. Additionally, four prisoners on death row stated their attorneys did not provide them with adequate representation, or that they had a judge who was racially/religiously biased. Rodney Reed, a black man convicted of murder by an all-white jury, was among them. Due to the outburst of celebrities such as Beyoncé and Rihanna, petitions that have garnered over two million signatures, as well as evidence and witness statements that point towards Reed’s innocence, Reed was granted an indefinite stay of execution. Had the Texas court proceeded with Reed’s execution, an innocent man would have lost his life due to the forces of the corrupt legal system and racial bias. 

Overall, the consequences of capital punishment are simply not worth the risk.  Capital punishment takes the lives of innocents, often through a skewed legal system. A study concluded that 4% of prisoners on death row in America are innocent. While the percentage appears small, the stakes are insurmountable: 4% of Americans are awaiting their deaths for a crime they did not commit. Individuals around the world similarly face wrongful executions. Even if all the evidence incriminates one person, who is to say there has not been an error? While those in favour of capital punishment would likely support the execution of an individual who deliberately—maliciously—murdered a young child, it is simply too difficult, if not impossible to prove one’s utmost guilt. In every legal situation, there can be skewed evidence; a biased, racist jury; a weak attorney.

Perhaps if there was a magical serum that could force prisoners to confess their guilt or innocence, capital punishment might be an effective, even just, way to punish society’s evil. However, until the invention of this fantasy serum, capital punishment should be illegal. Killing is irreversible, and taking an innocent life or a life that does not deserve death would be an act as inhumane, as unforgivable, as a murder potentially committed by a prisoner sitting on death row. 

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