Capital Punishment

In the movie Dead Man Walking, Matthew Poncelet raped and killed two young teenagers under the influence of a narcotic. For his crimes, he is sentenced to death via lethal injection. No questions asked: the punishment must suit the crime. The killer must be killed. He deserves it.

Can we truly learn a lesson from this? Is this the best way to solve crime--elimination? Surely there must be a better, more humane way. For a government to kill a human being just because of wrongdoing can discourage others--not to avoid committing crimes, but to having morals and respect the rights of others.

Governments, idealistically, consist of individuals who act on the behalf of others, so they should represent the morals and values of the governed. "Justice and the States" from Introducing Philosophy (1989) reads, “The virtues of government are ideally the virtues of individuals: Government should be just, temperate, courageous, honest, humane, considerate, and reasonable.” There is nothing humane or reasonable about the death penalty, even if the accused deserves it. In Matthew Poncelet’s case, many people hated him for what terrible things he did, but does he deserve to be killed just because of that?

There can be no lesson taught via the death penalty, as those who really need to be taught would be dead. True, the death sentence makes an effective deterrent. However, a simple stop sign will not be very much help. Man can base his decisions on so many more things than the childish concept of reward and punishment. But death is no punishment. There is nothing learned, as it is simply elimination of the source of the problem. For example, in the movie Dead Man Walking, the victims’ parents seek comfort in Poncelet’s death. However, it does not teach them anything. It simply satisfies their animalistic craving for revenge, for the man who killed their children is dead. Nothing more.

This does not mean, however, that there should be no punishment whatsoever. Imprisonment would be a better solution to the likes of Matthew Poncelet, as they would be kept away from others and thus cause no immediate harm.

Also, there is nothing civilized about capital punishment. Says Jeffrey Reiman in Justice, Civilization and the Death Penalty (1985): “…[R]efusing to execute murders though they deserve it both reflects and continues the taming of the human species that we call civilization.” Simple killing drags mankind back down to our primitive roots and closer to animals. Is this truly the action of civilized man? We can see how much we’ve evolved by looking at simple scriptures like the Bible. In the Old Testament it is written, “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” [Exodus 21:24] This suggests that the only answer to crime was an end to the evil that caused it. However, in the New Testament, we see a more peaceful approach to violence: “Resist not evil; but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” [Matthew 5:39]

Therefore the best deterrent to crime is indeed imprisonment and nothing else. It keeps the criminals away from the general populace, and it partially segregates them. As man is a socio-sexual animal, he can not live very well without human contact. So imprisonment, provided that it is not too severe, almost tames the evil nature in man and does teach him a lesson even though it is based on the idea of reward and punishment. Nonetheless, unlike the death penalty--a quick and easy solution--imprisonment makes him think about his actions and get the chance to correct them.

In the final scene from Dead Man Walking, justice may have been served for the parents, the judicial system and for those who are in favor of the death penalty but still a human being is killed. Why should a man die so that others may sleep better at night?

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Copyright (c) 1998 by Gemma Truman
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After watching the movie Dead Man Walking starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, my Writing for College class was assigned to write an in-class essay the next period. We were also given a small sheet with quotes from both sides of the issue to incorporate into our essays based on the film. As I was also taking Religion XI and reading the Gospel according to Mark, I took some additional quotes from the Bible and put them in.