An essay assignment for a second-semester freshman composition course (ENG102) written on 24 February 1994 at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
The Necessity of Capital Punishment
by James M. Wallace
A criminal enters a gas station intent on robbery. During the commission of his crime, he mortally wounds the attendant. As the attendant lies helpless, bleeding to death, the criminal rapes and murders the attendant's wife. The criminal then finishes off the attendant to ensure that there are no witnesses. The ensuing police investigation uncovers evidence that the criminal is responsible for this heinous crime. He is arrested, tried, and convicted for first-degree murder and his other crimes. The state in which he committed his crimes does not have the death penalty, so he is sentenced to life imprisonment.
While the criminal is serving his sentence, the state's governor pushes a prison "reform" bill through the state legislature. The governor's goal is to make the prison system more "humane." Part of his new policy is a prison furlough program that allows prisoners to be released for brief periods to visit their families. Through negligence or incompetence, the criminal is unwittingly released on a furlough. He flees the state. During his flight, he abducts and terrorizes a young couple. He brutally beats the young man and rapes the young woman. Fortunately, he is recaptured. He is tried and convicted for his most recent crimes and incarcerated in the new state's prison system. Hopefully, he will remain there.
The criminal is Willie Horton who gained notoriety as a campaign issue during the 1988 presidential election. Willie Horton is a violent, brutal criminal who had irrefutably demonstrated his inability to be a member of society, and yet, the Massachusetts criminal justice system failed to keep him separated from innocent people who would be his victims.
If Massachusetts had the death penalty and had imposed it upon Willie Horton, he would have been either executed or awaiting execution. If he had been executed, there would be no doubt that he would ever commit another crime. If he had been awaiting execution, he would have been segregated from the general prison population with no possibility of being accidently released due to the very high security on death row. In either case, it would have been impossible for him to have victimized yet another couple.
Several years ago in Vancouver, Washington, two young brothers were missing. During the search for them, their bicycles were found in a park where they had been last seen playing. Several days later their bodies were discovered in an overgrown gully. They had been sexually assaulted and brutally beaten to death.
Wesley Alan Dodd was apprehended and was eventually tried and convicted. During the sentencing phase of his trial, Dodd was asked if he thought he would ever commit such crimes in the future. He said that he couldn't and wouldn't guarantee that he wouldn't repeat his horrific crimes if he got the chance. Furthermore, he stated that if he were ever to get out of prison, he considered it highly likely that he would once again rape and kill other young boys. Last year, his death sentence was carried out. He will never victimize another young boy.
Ted Bundy was born and raised in an affluent family in the Seattle area. By all accounts, he was articulate, intelligent, educated, and charming. He was the sort of young man that mothers wanted their daughters to marry. Beneath his facade of civility and culture, he was a brutal, unfeeling monster who made a habit of raping and murdering women. From early adulthood, he left a trail of carnage from Washington state's Puget Sound to southern California to Florida.
He made his first--and last--mistake in Florida. He was arrested, tried, and convicted of raping and murdering several young women in Florida. After he was sentenced to death, he confessed to dozens of murders he had committed across the country. His morbid career ended when he was electrocuted by the state of Florida. He will never rape and murder another woman.
There are those who argue that life imprisonment without parole is an ethically superior punishment to the death penalty. They believe that executing the innocent while attempting to punish the guilty is morally repugnant and that life without parole would eliminate this regrettable outcome entirely. They argue that life imprisonment without parole would eliminate the risk of executing an innocent man and would keep the most heinous murderers separated from the community permanently. They claim that society would be adequately protected from a repetition of these murderer's crimes without the morally troubling use of capital punishment.
Executing an innocent man would be unconscionable, but the risk is so slight that it should not be considered an objection to the death penalty. While innocent men may have been executed in the earlier part of the century due to racism or other prejudices, such an occurrence is very improbable today. Many factors contribute to this.
First, the social climate has changed and is continuing to change such that blatant prejudice is hardly the factor it once was. Second, modern forensic techniques make identifying murderers more certain. Finally, our criminal justice system makes it very difficult to carry out a death sentence. An accused first-degree murderer must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury of twelve voting unanimously. Having rendered a guilty verdict, the jury must deliver a death sentence unanimously, else the convicted will be sentenced to life imprisonment. If a death sentence is delivered, it is automatically appealed for judicial review. In addition, the convicted has the legal right to make his own appeals until they are exhausted. The result of this process is that it takes approximately ten years to carry out a death sentence. If all of the built-in safeguards should fail, the innocence of the wrongfully convicted should be established during the period between sentencing and execution.
If life imprisonment without parole could keep the most heinous murderers separated from the community permanently, then society would be adequately protected from a repetition of their crimes. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The unwitting release of Willie Horton is but one demonstration of this. Life without parole does not eliminate the possibility of a convict escaping from prison by use of his own ingenuity or of a convict being released by a negligent, incompetent, or corrupt prison staff. Also, life without parole does not eliminate the risk of a convicted murderer killing prison staff members.
It is the responsibility of the state to protect the citizenry from the depredations of individuals who have demonstrated an unwillingness to respect others and to obey the law. Such individuals are criminals and must be separated from the community to prevent undue harm to the innocent and the law-abiding.
This is especially true for the most brutal, cold-blooded murderers who have shown by their crimes that they possess a vicious and wanton disregard for innocent human life. By their actions, such individuals have unequivocally demonstrated that they are a threat to other members of society so long as they are alive. In order to insure that society is completely protected from these most dangerous murderers, the only recourse is the finality of capital punishment.