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1.06.06
Society and Community:
Death Penalty Debate
More on This Story:
Debating the Death Penalty

American support for the death penalty may be softening, but according to a recent Gallup poll, a clear majority still supports the practice. The debate over the death penalty contains many elements: deterrence, the definition of "cruel and unusual" punishment, religious belief and flaws in the system. When outgoing Republican Illinois Governor George Ryan commuted the sentences of all the state's death row inmates, he faced praise and ire. He had halted executions three years ago, after courts found that 13 death row inmates had been wrongly convicted, since Illinois resumed capital punishment in 1977. On January 5, 2006, the a committee of the New Jersey legislature voted to suspend the state's death penalty for a year in order to study the fairness of its application. The insecurity of some convictions, like those profiled on NOW's "Final Judgment," has even entered into prime time culture. ABC just rolled out "In Justice," a crime drama that will "focus on cases of justice run amok, cases in which an innocent person has been wrongly convicted of a crime."

Read excerpts from the debate, learn more about the history and law of the death penalty in the U.S. and use the links below for more information. Discuss your thoughts on the topic.

For the Death PenaltyAgainst the Death Penalty
"The Fifth Amendment provides that '[n]o persons shall be held to answer for a capital...crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury...nor be deprived of life...without the due process of law.' This clearly permits the death penalty to be imposed, and establishes beyond doubt that the death penalty is not one of the 'cruel and unusual punishments' prohibited by the Eighth Amendment."

- Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, from an opinion concurring in the Supreme Court's decision denying review in a Texas death penalty case, Callins v. Collins, Feb. 22, 1994.

"Twenty years have passed since this court declared that the death penalty must be imposed fairly and with reasonable consistency or not at all, and despite the effort of the states and courts to devise legal formulas and procedural rules to meet this...challenge, the death penalty remains fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination...and mistake..."

- Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, from an opinion dissenting from the Supreme Court's decision denying review in a Texas death penalty case, Callins v. Collins, Feb. 22, 1994.

"We threaten punishments in order to deter crime. We impose them not only to make the threats credible but also as retribution (justice) for the crimes that were not deterred...By committing the crime, the criminal volunteered to assume the risk of receiving a legal punishment that he could have avoided by not committing the crime...Execution of those who have committed heinous murders may deter only one murder per year. If it does, it seems quite warranted. Its is also the only fitting retribution for murder I can think of."

- Ernest van den Haag. "The Ultimate Punishment: A Defense," HARVARD LAW REVIEW, 1986

"Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, the Supreme Court has tried to make clear that it is to be applied carefully and evenhandedly. Nevertheless, cases of incompetent lawyering, suppression of evidence, local prejudice and other affronts to justice keep appearing. The result is evident in the numbers who narrowly escaped execution: While 972 people have been put to death since the 1970s, at least 119 have been taken off death row because of evidence they were wrongly convicted or sentenced...Abolishing the death penalty and using life without parole instead can't fix all the injustices exposed in courts across the nation. But at least no one would be executed as a result"

- Death penalty debate finally produces useful result, USA TODAY editorial, June 21, 2005

"I come to this debate with the belief that, (as some have said) appeals of criminal cases should not take 8 or 9 years and 3 trips to the Supreme Court to finalize whether a person was properly convicted or not. Unnecessary, extended delays repeatedly harm victims and their families -- and these delays should not be tolerated."

- Senator John Cornyn testimony on "Habeas Reform: The Streamlined Procedures Act," November 16, 2005

"Let us remember that wrongful convictions do occur, and many innocent people have been sentenced to death. Let us remember what Justice O'Connor has told us: The death penalty system is so flawed in America today that we have probably already executed an innocent person. And let us not pass ill-conceived, unnecessary legislation that would only make an unacceptable situation far worse."

- Senator Patrick Leahy, testimony on "Habeas Reform: The Streamlined Procedures Act," November 16, 2005

More on the debate over capital punishment in America today

Amnesty International
International statistics and information on capital punishment in practice and law. The human rights organization refers to the death penalty as "the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment."

Clark Country Prosecuting Attorney
1000 plus death penalty links from the Clark County Prosecutor of Indiana. The site includes a statement by the prosecutor: "The inevitability of a mistake should not serve as grounds to eliminate the death penalty any more than the risk of having a fatal wreck should make automobiles illegal. At the same time, we should never ignore the risks of allowing the inmate to kill again."

The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation
The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation was established in 1982 as a nonprofit, public interest law organization "dedicated to restoring a balance between the rights of crime victims and the criminally accused."

Death Penalty Concerns Don't Translate on Political Stage, FOXNEWS, Jane Roth
A December 15, 2005 analysis of the role of the death penalty opinions in American politics.

Death Penalty Information Center
The Death Penalty Information Center is a non-profit organization (anti-death penalty) serving the media and the public with analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment.

FRONTLINE: "The Execution"
Extensive site with many death penalty resources designed to accompany a documentary on the capital punishment process.

GALLUP POLL: Public Divided Between Death Penalty and Life Imprisonment Without Parole
Results and analysis of a 2004 poll on American attitudes toward the death penalty.

The Innocence Project
The Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, founded by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld in 1992, is a non-profit legal clinic and criminal justice resource center. The Project work to exonerate the wrongfully convicted through postconviction DNA testing; and develop and implement reforms to prevent wrongful convictions. This Project only handles cases where postconviction DNA testing can yield conclusive proof of innocence.

Pro-death Penalty.com
This site is being developed as a resource for those searching the internet for pro-death penalty information and resources. The site contains a wealth of information, editorials, and links to other sites.

Supreme Court Strikes Down Death Penalty For Minors, ONINE NEWSHOUR
Coverage from March 1, 2005 of the 5-4 decision striking down laws in 19 states that allowed convicts who were 16 or 17 at the time of their crimes to be tried as adults and sentenced to death.

University of Alaska, Anchorage, Justice Center
The site was established by the Justice Center at University of Alaska Anchorage as an educational resource. It contains a wealth of information and links covering death penalty history, debate, and statistics.

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