Column | Feb. 3

Outside the Bubble: An inappropriate punishment

Last week, news broke that the Department of Justice would seek the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who, along with his deceased brother, was allegedly responsible for the bombings during the Boston Marathon last year, taking the lives of three people. According to Attorney General Eric Holder, “[t]he nature of the conduct at issue and the resultant harm compel this decision.”

Although the crimes he is charged with undoubtedly “betrayed his allegiance to the United States” and inflicted extreme pain upon all those affected, the United States should not try to seek the death penalty because it is an inappropriate punishment for even the most heinous of crimes.

For years, the issue of the constitutionality of the death penalty has been hotly contested. It was even held unconstitutional between 1972 and 1976 as a result of Furman v. Georgia, which claimed that the “harsh, freakish and arbitrary” nature of sentencing clearly made it unconstitutional.

The question of whether capital punishment constitutes something like cruel and unusual punishment appears to be a difficult one. The main concerns of the past, such as in Furman, were ones over its accuracy — caused by fears that its imposition was arbitrary in the sense that not all who were accused of murder received the death penalty, and often decisions were decided on the basis of race or class. However, what if the evidence is clearer? What about cases such as Tsarnaev’s in which we can prove with almost little to no doubt that the suspect is responsible?

It was this logic that compelled the Supreme Court to restore capital punishment’s constitutionality only four years later in Gregg v. Georgia, requiring that there simply be “objective standards to guide, regularize and make rationally reviewable the process for imposing the sentence of death.” Some of the resultant standards are the proportionality of the crime committed to the punishment, the methods of execution and the limitations on using it against certain groups like juvenile and mentally retarded criminals.

Still, even in a case where one’s guilt is much more determinable, capital punishment is still excessive. The justice system serves multiple functions in society. One of its main purposes is to remove threats from society. By using retributive justice to punish wrongdoers, we constrain those victims who may view the government’s supposed ineffectiveness as justification to otherwise rely on vigilante justice.

In the case of capital punishment, we clearly do not aim to rehabilitate, and the goal of removing one from society can be achieved without taking a person’s life. In light of this, we seem to only be able to justify the taking of a life either on the basis of retribution or deterrence.

When we choose retribution, we resort to a Hammurabi-esque “eye for an eye” mentality. Granted, any punishment will be somewhat retributive, as ignoring it may lead to an even greater desire for it, but it is the government’s job to try to limit this vengeance as much as possible. When we deal with crimes that involve the death penalty, which can only be done if the accused is charged with taking the life of another, it is easy to be swept up by emotion. However, the justice system is not meant to please the will of the majority, but rather to apply a punishment that will do its best to incapacitate those who may do us harm.

That being said, if it can be proven that capital punishment serves as an effective deterrent and reduces the incentive for others to kill or murder, it may be somewhat justified. Yet, even this is questionable. To serve as an effective deterrent, as Jeffrey Fagan, professor of law and public health at Columbia Law School, argues, “Execution would have to occur with sufficient frequency and with widespread knowledge among would-be murderers to create a credible threat considering the types of murders that might be eligible for execution.”

The problem is that many are misinformed. With issues such as racial and class disparities and the long periods of time spent on death row by prisoners before actually being killed, it would appear that capital punishment fails miserably at serving as a deterrent.

In fact, one only has to look at the contrast between states that do and do not allow the death penalty post-Gregg. In the 1980s, states that permitted it had an annual rate of 7.5 criminal homicides per 100,000; states that removed the practice had a rate of 7.4. In deterrence, we should seek the least severe punishment that achieves our aims. We can remove threats like Tsarnaev from society through less barbaric means.

In light of its failure as a deterrent and our expectations of being in society, it appears that capital punishment is an improper punishment, even for the worst of crimes. Although it is tempting to wish for the death of those who bring us great harm, the state should be better at remaining objective than the individual. Otherwise we will devolve into barbarism — letting our emotions blind us from doling out fair and rational punishments.

Benjamin Dinovelli is a sophomore from Mystic, Conn. He can be reached at bjd5@princeton.edu.

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