Imagine a man sitting in a small, whitewashed room. He is strapped tightly to a gurney, with an IV jutting out of each of his arms. While someone administers a saline solution, his mind races and his heart pounds as he anticipates the first of three drugs that will end his life. He strains to see if his family has come, but fails: the tight leather straps see to that. He can only imagine them standing there, waiting for him to be executed.
This experience, although fictional, is a very real fate for people who die by lethal injection, the most common method of execution for criminals given a death sentence (“Facts”). However, lethal injection is not the only form of execution that is inhumane—rather, all forms of the death penalty are. Worldwide, but especially in the United States, government officials and ordinary citizens alike are examining the suitability of the death penalty, particularly focusing on the weighty ethical and legal questions it raises.
The death penalty is a form of capital punishment that the state of Pennsylvania should cease to use as it violates two principles embodied in the Constitution: the implicit ethical belief that human life is sacred and thus worthy of sustaining, and the explicit legal belief that no citizen should experience “cruel and unusual punishment” as articulated in the Eighth Amendment.
Although the implementation of the death penalty is not a new concept by any means, its continued use in a 21st century democracy has drastically different implications than it did in ancient civilizations ruled largely by dictators. Yet linking these two very different civilizations is the philosophical tenet that human life is sacred, defined for this argument as having inherent meaning. It is this principle that forms the foundation of modern global legal systems and reveals why many U. S. Citizens view crimes such as murder and rape as indisputably heinous actions: they involve a conscious disregard towards, and devaluing of, another person’s life by denying their natural-born right to autonomy.
The occurrence of these atrocious crimes in today’s world often sparks “an eye for an eye” mentality amongst Americans, posing the question: is capital punishment “cruel and unusual punishment”? From a justice’s interpretive standpoint, the phrase “cruel and unusual punishment,” has an elastic rather than concrete definition. In the 1958 case of Trop vs.
Dulles, Chief Justice Warren determined a violation of the Eighth Amendment depends upon “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” (Harrison and Melville 168). Nearly 60 years have passed since this ruling became the legal standard, yet Pennsylvania’s government standards have remained unchanged; in fact, it is the sole death penalty state that has not proposed legislature for the abolishment or clarification of the death penalty in 2017, (“Recent Legislative Activity”) continuing to perpetuate unconstitutional punishment.
Foremost, the death penalty is unconstitutional as it clearly violates the principle held in the Constitution that life is sacred and worth preserving. While the Constitution does not explicitly state that all people have a right to life, it clearly upholds and protects the rights and freedoms granted to each person in the Declaration of Independence. If the Constitution did not adhere to this belief, its existence would be unnecessary; there would be no need to defend the rights and privileges of beings who were ultimately of no value.
The Fifth and Fourteenth amendments also support this view of the Constitution as they protect citizens from the immediate loss of liberty and property, two concepts that have significant worth in America both then and now. The inclusion of life in these protected rights demonstrates that the Constitution holds life to be at least as valuable as liberty and land. In light of the fact that the death penalty violates the Constitutional concepts of the value of human life and cruel and unusual punishment, there are several reasons why one might disagree with this viewpoint.
Undeniably, not all people view human life as having purpose or meaning. For those who hold to this philosophy, there may be no purported reason to spare the lives of criminals who have deliberately chosen to commit a crime. Religious Americans may also oppose the abolition of the death penalty, stating that the execution of a person does not take away the intrinsic meaning associated with their life.
Readings of religious texts such as the Bible could indicate it validates both the sacredness of life, and the use of the death penalty in specific circumstances, such as murder (“Does Christianity”). While all of these arguments may be relevant, the purpose of the Constitution, in particular the Fifth Amendment, was not to encourage the use of capital punishment to support a religious belief, but rather to protect the rights, including the right to life, of citizens who may be subject to it. Yet how can it do so if it too is responsible for the death of its own citizens?
By not executing prisoners, though, the argument also stands that the state of Pennsylvania is sending a message of criminal tolerance: offenders are not receiving the most severe consequences for their appalling actions and victims are not receiving the justice they deserve. Although seemingly not as severe, alternatives to the death penalty such as life imprisonment without parole still make criminals pay for their heinous crimes, as they experience their total loss of freedom and suffer alienation from the rest of society.
Moreover, by opting for life imprisonment over the death penalty, there is no possibility of a wrongful execution—a fate for 1 in 25 executed prisoners according to a study by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that accounts for all execution since 1973 (Levy). In addition to the violation of the sacredness of human life, the death penalty is likewise a clear example of “cruel and unusual punishment. According to a study by Amherst College professor Austin Sarat, out of the studied 1,054 lethal injections performed on criminals in the United States, over seven percent, or roughly 75 criminals, experienced deaths where “the executioners departed from official legal protocol or standard operating procedure—which can result in a prolonged or painful death” (Siegelbaum). One major problem with the death penalty are the complications that arise with its administration.
Karen Harrison and Caroline Melville, both of the University of West England, explain the factors involved in lethal injection alone: “[These] can include the quantity of the drugs to be administered, including its weight and volume, whether or not saline is used, whether individual factors such as age and weight are taken into consideration, whether the prisoner is physically checked for consciousness before the pain-inducing drugs are injected and who actually prepares the lethal concoction” (179).
The very drugs needed to perform the executions are also jeopardizing the integrity of the death penalty as Pharmaceutical companies are refusing to provide drugs for execution purposes, enabling states, such as Ohio in the execution of Dennis McGuire, to test experimental combinations with unknown effects on prisoners as a way to remedy this problem (Crair).
These drugs are proving to be more harmful than beneficial: in 2014 alone, four of the thirty-five total executions performed by lethal injection failed, with one prisoner receiving 15 doses of supposedly lethal drugs and dying nearly after two hours of gasping for breath (Goodwyn). But lethal injection is not the only form of execution that is “cruel and unusual” to prisoners, as NPR correspondent Tim Padgett recalls the “chronic and gruesome malfunctions of [Florida’s] electric chair—including flames shooting from prisoners’ heads…pressured Florida into ditching the chair and adopting lethal injection” (12).
Addressing the matter of cruel and unusual punishment, many would state that the Constitution clearly permits the use of the death penalty, as the Fifth Amendment states that “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law” (Blocher). The Constitution’s specific inclusion of the death penalty as a viable means of capital punishment arguably indicates that it does not constitute a cruel and unusual punishment, especially in light of the concurrent passing of both the Fifth Amendment and the Eighth Amendments.
However, the option of execution does not equate to its required implementation, as Supreme Court Justice Brennan states: “[The Fifth Amendment] does not, after all, declare that the right of the Congress to punish capitally shall be inviolable; it merely requires that when and if death is a possible punishment, the defendant shall enjoy certain procedural safeguards…” (Blocher).
The continued use of the death penalty denies criminals their right to life and subjects them to a death that consists of “cruel and unusual punishment” by denying their Constitutional right to life and exposing them to the possibility of “cruel and unusual punishment. ” Life without parole or life in solitary confinement offer viable alternatives to the death penalty that do not run the risk of wrongful execution or the chance of a painful, degrading death.
The state of Pennsylvania should therefore abolish its practice of executing criminals as it clearly interferes with the Constitutional philosophies of the implied sanctity of life and its right to be preserved, and the explicit language of the Eighth Amendment that bars citizens from experiencing cruel and unusual punishment.