Dancing with Death: An Inquiry Into Retribution and Capital Punishment 

The persistent hum of a fluorescent bulb fails to drown the sound of your heartbeat, your thoughts, the faint weeping of your mother. A warm sensation travels through cold veins, there is no return now. Perhaps a lifetime in supermax would have been worse, but perhaps you should not have slaughtered that girl. Did you? She wanted it. Where are you? The lights become fuzzy and your muscles contract. Helplessly and vigorously you writhe, like a great predator in the captivity of his hunter. Existence becomes pain until you cease to exist, and find liberation from mortal responsibility. The United States government saw to the deprivation of your life, among twenty other lives in 2018, through capital punishment. This permanent mode of retribution and subsequent safety of the general population demands controversy throughout the history of the American criminal justice system. In some cohorts, the life sentence suffices as just repercussion for dangerous inmates.

In others, capital punishment serves as a repulsive deterrent for future offenders. The heated debate over the necessity of execution or lack thereof takes years of statistical studies, special cases, and public opinion into question. Death is not a gentle act, and thus requires due support and justification from those who deliver it. Society asserts that capital punishment is an effective method of deterrence and crime prevention in order to justify their own dark desire for retribution.

From the gallows of Puritan Massachusetts to the execution chamber in Huntsville, Texas, capital punishment holds onto its harrowing place in the American criminal justice system with fervor. The colonists, though more conservative than England, liberally dealt the maximum punishment for violent offenders or repeated offenders of lesser crimes. Murder, rape, witchcraft, and incorrect religious affiliation sent dozens of citizens to death, often with little contention from the masses (Malik 695). Biblical text and other archaic tradition provided enough reasoning to society at the time. People widely accepted the exchange of bloodshed humanity partook in, as it was the way things always were. In the years after the revolution, “America evolved from its predominantly religious beginnings” and citizens began to challenge the nature of criminal execution (Malik 696).

The death penalty now exclusively applied to murders, rapists, and traitors to the nation. Sentiments in opposition to execution gained strength until the abolition of public hanging practices. In the 1880’s a number of states declared hanging as barbaric and thus introduced the electric chair. The electrocution execution of Jesse Tefaro highlights the occurrence of human error in any method of capital punishment. In the case of Tefaro, an improper head sponge was put in place to conduct the electrical charge to the brain, resulting in “six-inch flames [blazing] from his head…and three more rounds of jolts to stop his heart entirely” (Hodgkinson 161). One the electric chair became too violent for the taste of America, death by asphyxiation became the popular route in the chamber. Donald Harding of Arizona was given cyanide tablets to induce suffocation in the Arizona prison.

Witnesses recounted seeing Harding’s “body turn from red to purple…as violent spasms and jerks” lasted nearly seven minutes (Hodgkinson 163). The usage and evolution of this process gradually became focused on the public interest, rather than that of the justice system or the victims it aims to honor. Throughout the twentieth century, new methods of execution leading to the modern chemical injection were developed to make the process “less visually disturbing to onlookers” than the ways of old (Malik 700). Strong sentiments in opposition to the death and violence of the Vietnam War impacted opinion on capital punishment and drove support to an all- time low. Formative events and influential Supreme Court cases such as Furman v. Georgia which suspended all executions for a brief period, disturbed the benumbed United States enough to reevaluate cruel and arbitrary aspects of the matter (Anderson 845). Modern dialogue suggests that this interest in reform stems from a place of guilt in man upon realizing the egoistic nature of vengeance.

Three main proponents of capital punishment are deterrence, retention and retribution. The relationship between deterrence and retribution examines the issues societal justification of the death penalty presents. Deterrence refers to the action of preventing aspiring offenders from committing heinous crimes by ‘making an example’ of inmates on death row. Retired judge and former federal prosecutor James P. Gray comments that premeditated or paid murders are the only circumstances in which lethal injection has the potential to change the killer’s mind. The vast majority of homicides occur in situations that are unplanned, violent, and too quick to weigh the consequences to come (Gray 257). Homicide committed in kidnapping, gang related, or otherwise premeditated scenarios are typically in the hands of a mentally ill individual, an individual who believes they have nothing to lose, or by an individual who feels their reasoning outweighs any risk of penalty. Hubris in the heart of killers creates a sense of invincibility against the law, and it is a deep rot in the psyche that cannot be exterminated by syringe.

Philosophical aspects of good versus evil action aside, does lethal injection serve as an effective deterrent for murder? Advocates for criminal execution are quick to claim that deterrence rates affirm the fatal practice is “an uniquely effective deterrent to murder” compared to life sentences (Lamperti 1). This common argument stumps the uninformed interlocutor, who ought to know that the statistics are in their corner. Professor John Lamperti of Dartmouth College asserts that after all, “factual evidence can and should [influence]” legislation concerning American lives. (Lamperti 1). Without the ability to carry out a controlled experiment on murder, researchers must take decades of data from the United States Census Bureau and retroactively determine the relationship between providence of the death penalty and its effect on murder rates. States with and without the death penalty in each geographical region were studied from 1920 to 1958 by then renowned sociologist Thorsten Sellin. The data revealed that homicide trends were mostly indistinguishable from any state.

Another study conducted on homicide trends analyzed data from 1973 to 1984, and astoundly suggested that states with the death penalty experienced higher rates of murder than their non-executing counterparts (Lamperti 3-5). As more data is introduced, researchers continue to conclude that capital punishment shows no association or causal relationship to homicide decrease. Such conclusion cannot account for murders that never took place as a result of deterrence, however it can support the claim that any deterrent effect holds an insignificant impact. Such conclusion also challenges the pro-death penalty side further. If capital punishment does not serve as a statistically effective deterrent of murder, what drives its preservation?

The third proponent of execution by lethal injection, retribution, is the most complex of the set. Retribution is the deliverance of punishment as consequence of wrongdoing against an individual or institution. Capital punishment is the highest degree of retribution in the justice system and is thus exclusively enacted on the most animalistic convicts. A violent crimes meets a violent end. Consider the point-and-blame American public and the historical journey from gruesome spectacles to private injection chambers. The process was shaped to become more humane to the general population who imposed the legislation (Radelet 43-46). In this way, Americans find it easier to turn their heads from the moral and ethical implications of the death penalty. If the general population comprehends the cruel reality of capital punishment, it is plausible that precarious arguments like deterrent effectiveness merely acts as a proxy for pure relishment found in revenge.

Two perspectives of retribution arise; that which satisfies the victim’s family and that which satisfies a greater human depravity. In early civilization it was only logistical to impose equivalent pain onto the perpetrator to not defame the deceased. The ancient statues of vengeance upheld one’s family honor and preserved justice. In the present day the argument supporting the death penalty stresses the pain experienced by the victim’s family that will go unresolved without proper retribution. Closure is subjective for each grieving individual, especially for the loved ones of a murder victim. The value of the human life cannot be empirically or monetarily be measured. It is not replaceable or comparable to the life of another human being. Despite the most solid pro-death penalty arguments uttered in the marketplace of ideas today, no noose, no firing squad, no chair, no gas, or no chemical can bring the victim back into the world.

Most inmates on death row spend years in custody awaiting appeals, trials and retrials, all of which are emotionally and financially exhausting for the family on the other side. After years of depressing undulation, not “much satisfaction [arises] when the object of one’s hatred simply goes to sleep…hooked up to a needle” at their end (Gray 257). Many families would recover better knowing that the offender is locked away, left to rot, never to hurt another soul. When a family does not want to pursue the death penalty the legal system encourages follow through for the sake of the victim’s honor. Some may chop it up to a final display of respect, others just become engulfed by the American standard of violence. Is this cathartic? The family must carry the burden of tragedy, the killer is liberated from human law.

How can we, as a nation, strive to be the “champion of human rights if [we are] so at odds” with an issue that potentially brings us to destruction (Gray 258)? The United States criminal justice system views retribution as a display of power for the government and humanity itself. Whether death comes from a jawbone or a freakish curation of pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride, it disturbs the order of nature and man’s place within it. Deterrence in the broader sense can be extended to justify actions that suppress civil progress and violate constitutional rights for societal good. Even though capital punishment is solely perpetuated by the benefits of public safety, criticisms claim that wrongful executions contribute to racial and class bias in the country. Studies discussed in “Age, Period, and Cohort Effects on Death Penalty Attitudes in The United States, 1974-2014” show that the proportion of executed inmates is overwhelmingly African American or Hispanic when compared to the number of white criminals who do not see the chamber or otherwise get off death row.

A country that has the power to exercise judgement of who lives and dies as if no other form of rehabilitation or ramification is feasible influences constituents to indulge in their selfish desires and hold lesser regard for life. People want their pain to matter. They know that nothing will take it away, so they must witness the suffering of another to receive a sense of validity. There is no due justification for rape and murder, why would there be proper reasoning for an ultimate hurrah of violence? It is aestheticization of violence in our culture. It is a self serving need to survive and to be feared. Let the offender rot in prison, burn in hell, or slip into nothingness– lest you find the everlasting stain of blood on your hands as well.