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Ultimate Punishment: A Defense

NCJ Number
Harvard Law Review Volume: 99 Issue: 7 Dated: (May 1986) Pages: 1662-1669
E van denHaag
Date Published
8 pages
Capital punishment is our harshest punishment and is irrevocable, but it is justifiable on the grounds of retribution and is wrongly criticized on many other grounds.
Those who oppose the death penalty argue that it is capriciously or discriminatorily distributed among guilty persons. However, guilt and punishment relate to individuals, not to groups, and its distribution is irrelevant to its justice or morality. Concern about execution of innocent persons is also not a decisive argument against the death penalty, because nearly all human activities cost the lives of some innocent bystanders. Deterrence is not a decisive argument for either proponents or opponents of capital punishment. Each side would maintain its position regardless of findings regarding deterrence. Three issues that are incidental to the debate about capital punishment are its monetary cost, the relative suffering of the convicted offender, and the brutalization of those who kill. None of these issues are decisive. We threaten punishments to deter crime. We impose punishments not only to make the threats credible but also as retribution for the crimes that were not deterred. By committing the crime, the criminal has volunteered to assume the risk of receiving a legal punishment that would not be imposed if the crime were not committed. The view of Justice Brennan that the dealth penalty is uncivilized, inhuman, and inconsistent with the sanctity of human life is not clearly explained. It also overlooks the fact that any degradation is self-inflicted by the murderer, who chose to commit the crime. Execution of those who have committed heinous murders is the only fitting retribution. 30 footnotes.


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