Death Penalty Roundtable Reflection

By Emily Cheesman

The roundtable discussion on the death penalty was significantly one-sided. From the beginning of the discussion, there were at most three pros who offered their perspectives to the largely anti-death penalty panel. In deference to the minority, I will attempt to summarize their arguments first. 

First, there is the question of how we, as a society, define humanity. When criminals commit appalling and barbaric crimes, it can be difficult to view those criminals as part of a humane society. The death penalty may be allowed for certain criminals if the criminal remains remorseless and dangerous to others and if the crime is severe, egregious, and targeted.

Judgment, however, is much more complex. In my opinion, many on the anti-death penalty side appeared to rely on some higher-being as an arbiter for the people. There is an issue with the state “playing God” by choosing who is allowed to live or die, but perhaps these decisions should be made with the assumption that there is no God to punish the evil and reward the good. The anti-death penalty side made the claim that the state should not have the power to take someone’s life. The ensuing discussion of the United States’ counter-insurgency efforts, specifically the assassination of Osama bin Laden, was particularly interesting to me. None of the anti-death penalty individuals chose to respond to this issue but it does point to an important aspect of the topic as a whole. Why is the U.S. assassination of terrorists abroad different from its killing of ostensibly dangerous criminals in the U.S.? (Even more compelling was the assassination of Anwar Al-Awlaki by an Obama-approved drone strike in 2011 – he was an American citizen!)  Our justice system is flawed and there are plenty of statistics to support that, but has not this country killed many innocent civilians abroad as well? 

In dealing with the question of whether or not the state should have the power to take someone’s life, the anti-death penalty side also failed to form an adequate and cohesive solution to what should be done about dangerous criminals. Life in prison was discussed, but some argued that this could be worse than the death penalty, which undermines the moral argument. It also does not solve the issue of incorrect sentencing. 

Finally, the most compelling argument given for the pro-death penalty side was that of empathy for the victim. Giving the perpetrator of a severe crime the death penalty may give the victim and/or their family “peace of mind.” The anti-death penalty side responded that emotion should not be involved in justice; however, it should be noted that bias is implicit in the system because it is imperfect and flawed – just like the human beings who run it. Despite the claims of the anti-death penalty side to remove emotion from the judicial process, many of the individuals on that side pointed to moral arguments, which implicitly require emotion to understand. 

I am not sure we heard all the arguments from the pro-death penalty side during the roundtable, but these are the points that impressed me. I do not support the death penalty based on the fallibility of man and the justice system. Structurally, there are too many wrong convictions that have been proved after executions and the justice system is inherently skewed against minorities. Morally, I believe it is possible for all human beings to change for the better, and I do not think there is a moral way to kill someone. While I hope that the death penalty is abolished soon, I also hope that it is done in a civil manner, with the proper respect given to all major arguments involved. 

Viva Bipartisan!

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