One of the most controversial aspects of the American justice system is our use of capital punishment. Critics of the death penalty decry it as barbaric, claim that it lowers the justice system to the level of common criminals and warn against the possibility of an innocent person being wrongfully put to death.
Despite these concerns, the death penalty is still an effective means of deterring crime, and it is a civilized form of punishment.
It is important to note that an individual convicted of a capital offense is not immediately put to death. In fact, while the prosecution may seek the death penalty from the start of the trial, capital punishment is not even considered until after a jury has found, beyond a reasonable doubt, that man or woman on trial is as guilty.
The trial then moves to the sentencing phase, in which either a judge or a new jury decides if the crime committed was malicious enough to warrant the death penalty. Typically, this is reserved only for particularly brutal murders, though a few individuals have been sentenced to death for rape or pedophilia.
Once the death sentence has been handed down, the legal process does not stop. All guilty verdicts that receive the death penalty are automatically appealed. If the appellate court upholds the sentencing, the convict is then able to file appeals on both the state and federal level. And while new evidence, such as DNA, has led to the release of several death-row inmates, many more have remained in prison because the evidence only confirmed their guilt.
It is important to remember that the people being executed are not innocent like their victims who may have been gunned down over five dollars or strangled to death with their own underwear because they resisted: these are individuals who have been convicted beyond a reasonable doubt of committing particularly brutal, heinous crimes, a conviction which has been upheld after numerous appeals and retrials.
Nor is their punishment slow and painful: the vast majority of states mandate lethal injections, where the prisoner is first completely sedated before injected with a mix of lethal chemicals.
Our justice system is not perfect. Having been created and implemented by fallen men, it cannot be. However, this does not mean that innocent people are executed right and left.
Far from it: the United States’ system of capital punishment is designed to ensure that wrongly convicted people are not executed, and that the guilty are put to death in a humane, relatively painless way. That is a far cry from how those criminals’ victims met their fate.