Stephen Nathanson has shown that the factual and moral beliefs on which the death penalty supports depend are mistaken and hence needs to be abolished. To prove his argument he proceeded in two stages. The first was a consideration of the death penalty in theory whereby advocates argue that it is the best deterrent of murders and thus saves live. According to this argument, the threat of execution is more powerful deterrent than lesser punishments and therefore will lead to fewer deaths from homicide. However, the deterrence argument has been challenged on factual grounds and evidence suggests it is not a better deterrent than life imprisonment. Also advocates argue that it is the only truly just punishment for murder, basically ‘an eye for an eye’. However, there are serious problems with this argument since it focuses on only one aspect of the crime: harm caused to the victim. As such it requires unjust and barbaric punishments, conflicts with many beliefs about punishment and its justification and in many cases provides no real guidance in determining the appropriate punishment. The second stage was death penalty in practice where even though the death penalty is justified in theory it would be unjustified in practice since the legal institutions that impose the death penalty are not reliable leading to execution of innocent people. Also the death penalty is inconsistent with the value of justice since in theory, the death penalty is imposed because of the terribleness of the specific crimes committed but in practice actual death sentences are the result of arbitrary, irrelevant factors like race, socio economic status and quality of legal representation. Moreover it is inconsistent with respect for the value of human life due to the inconsistencies between affirming the value of human life and tolerating the level of legal representation for people who face the possibility of death. According to Nathanson the death penalty is a view about the institution and not the individual murder or murderers but rather the death penalty as a system and hence death penalty should be put to rest to safeguard value for human life and justice.
Nathanson for the Removal of the Death Penalty
The argument advocated by Nathanson for the removal of the death penalty offer some very strong conviction. An unreliable system is prone to abuse by prosecutors, judges and jurors leading to death of innocent people. It has been shown that other factors have been used to determine who gets the death penalty and who doesn’t contrary to the rule of law which stipulates every person should be accorded a fair hearing and fair representation. Evidence has shown that the system is not doing enough or anything to protect the innocent. It should not be the students, journalists, activist et al who should prove if a person is innocent or guilty but rather the system which consist of the judges, jurors, prosecutors et al. Also a Supreme Court judge acknowledged the defects in the system which highlights the degree of complacency. Due to the fact that misconduct in the criminal justice system is a frequent source of error, results of the process are not reliable indicators of guilt or innocence. Moreover court appointed lawyers have no criminal experience, insufficient funding and don’t know special rules and procedures for capital cases. As such Nathanson advocates for life imprisonment since, when one is alive, innocence can still be proven.
Also Nathanson has highlighted what a just system supposed to do namely it must separate the guilty from the innocent and it must be able to sort out the worst murders, those who are supposed to die from those who deserve a lesser punishment. If the system cannot do both of these reliably then the results that it generates is unjust since the system will empower prosecutors to seek death as a punishment, judges and jurors to sentence people to death and prison officials to impose death. Favoring the death sentence leads to authorizing many different people to seek and authorize death as a punishment hence no justice
However, Nathanson argument posses some flaw. He argues that death sentence should not be used as an argument to deter future murders since it has been challenged on factual grounds. In general, countries and states that do not use the death penalty have lower homicide rates than countries which do. In essence this cannot be further from the truth since the level of homicide rates in any country is not determined by the death sentence. There are other factors such as the degree of security in each country, incomes and per capital growth of each country, level of stress among citizens of each country et al. Moreover these countries have people with different cultures, religion, race and beliefs. As such the death penalty should not be used as the only gauge for homicides rates since they can be caused by various factors.
He also assumed that executing family members of murderers would be a greater deterrent value other than the death penalty. Potential murderers who might be prepared to risk their own lives might be deterred by the loss of life to others that they care about. This however, may not be necessary true since some criminals are highly pragmatic and self-centered such that they only watch out for themselves. As such it would not work but may be deterred by the very thought of the death penalty
Nathanson also fails to show how the system can be resolved since these practices and resulting convictions of innocent people are dreadful in connection with any crime and punishment. They are especially horrifying in the case of the death penalty since they can result in the killing of people for crimes of which they are entirely innocent. With the increasing problems faced by innocent, there is still no way to correct the system so as to make it easier to separate the guilty from the innocent. Moreover, life imprisonment is not the solution if one is innocent since it is not morally right for them to rot in jail or spend a decade in jail only for them to be released.