The Morality Test | Teen Ink

The Morality Test

May 31, 2014
By MeriElena GOLD, Kernersville, North Carolina
MeriElena GOLD, Kernersville, North Carolina
16 articles 9 photos 2 comments

Death is universally understood to be the gravest form of punishment. There is no appeal or escape once the proverbial (or literal) axe has fallen. To execute an innocent human being would be a supreme tragedy and a gross misappropriation of justice. However, abolishing the death penalty altogether is not a moral choice either. Fortunately, there is an answer to this capital punishment dilemma. Although the death penalty is severe, it can be applied correctly and justly, when given meticulous consideration.

One of the greatest arguments against the death penalty is the possibility of an innocent being falsely convicted and handed over to the executioner. That opinion does have merit from a historical perspective; investigations with modern techniques have overturned more than one antiquated judicial decision. Capital punishment opponents note that untold scores of the guiltless may have been executed in the past. However, the fear of unsound execution happening in the twenty-first century is misplaced. Granted, Racism and other forms of hate do still exist in our society, but the days of executing a person simply for being a member of a "loathsome" minority are gone, at least in the United States. The law and the pervading attitude of social acceptance have sent prejudice running from the courtroom with its tail between its legs. The potentiality of misguided execution has been similarly dispelled by modern advances in forensic science. The use of DNA evidence has exponentially decreased the chances of erroneous convictions. Genetic evidence may not be present in every case, but the sort of violent crimes that precipitate a capital charge invariably leave DNA behind. DNA testing is extremely accurate—testing only thirteen Short Tandem Repeats (STRs) can identify a person to within one in many millions. STRs are short sequences of DNA code that have a varying number of repetitions in different people. A process called gel electrophoresis reveals the lengths of STRs isolated from a crime scene, and the observed pattern is compared minutely with DNA from suspects. Usually only thirteen STRs are tested, because unless a suspect has an identical twin the odds of two people matching exactly in all thirteen STRs are astronomical. Still, if any doubt remains, science knows of plenty more STRs to test. In summation, the accuracy of DNA evidence is nigh indisputable in a court case. Combined with the myriad other forms of evidence present in a trial, DNA can virtually eliminate the possibility of sentencing the blameless to death.

Some opponents would still protest that even when there is absolute certainty that the accused committed the crime, the death penalty is too inhumane. Again, this contention is based largely upon history. The horror stories of dull blades and slow garroting are certainly distressing. But modern executions are not like those of long ago. In the United States, the method of execution is a specially formulated injection, intended to induce painless unconsciousness and death. Other countries may not have adopted this practice yet, but knowing that years of research went into the lethal injection, it is reasonable to conclude that the death penalty can be applied without suffering.

There are other, less technical concerns that must be addressed as well in any discussion of execution. There is a faction which believes capital punishment is not an effective form of penalization. However, one has to consider the type of criminal that receives a sentence of death. Capital cases involve extreme violence, massive scope, and/or repetition of the same heinous crime, often despite earlier attempts at rehabilitation. In the vast majority of cases, the death penalty is far too severe. Most first degree murders require just a lengthy prison sentence because people can generally be changed by either moral conversion or the deterring effect of a penal institution. So the question regarding capital punishment is: are there people who cannot be reformed? Psychology tells us "yes." In particular, there is an investigative novel called <i>The Psychopath Test</i> that sheds light on the issue, detailing the pathological inability to empathize that makes psychopaths so incredibly dangerous. Additionally, teaching psychopaths not to commit certain acts is nearly impossible, because they are capable of comprehending their self-gratification alone and not the consequences of their behavior. One could conclude that the appropriate sentence for a psychopath would be permanent institutionalization in an insane asylum. There are two problems with this solution. One is a matter of public concern: there is no guarantee that the criminal will never escape. In some instances, the criminally insane have even been purposefully released from insane asylums under the mistaken belief that they had been reformed. The other issue is more personal. Is permanent incarceration really more humane than execution? For a person who cannot ever understand the immorality of their ways, a life in prison or an asylum serves no penal function and is nothing more or less than torture, without purpose. Logically, and ethically, death would be a better way of handling a psychopathic criminal.

Of course, the court would need to be sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that the criminal in question was in fact impossible to rehabilitate, before issuing a capital sentence. There would need to be intense psychological evaluation of the crime, the criminal history, and the criminal him or herself. There would need to be many, many second opinions. The case would likely take years, but any issue so weighty mandates that degree of focused and prolonged attention.

Under these circumstances, very few cases would end with an execution, and this is as it should be. The death penalty is too serious for the average crime. But there will always be a handful of instances in which the death penalty is appropriate—instances in which guilt can be assured with modern evidence gathering, in which a painless death can be promised, and in which the failure of any other punishment can be certain.

The author's comments:
I wrote this essay for a local writing competition in which we were asked to write a persuasive essay arguing for or against capital punishment.

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