Resolved: The United States should abolish the death penalty

October 5, 2015

Affirmative: Wooyoung Lee

Main points:

  • Expensive for state and defendant
  • Does not deter crime
  • Punishment (as premeditated murder) exceeds crime
  • Racial bias
  • Possibility of innocent execution

Negative: Henry Cao

Main points:

  • Flaws are design flaws
  • Capital punishment is appropriate punishment
  • Does not violate 8th Amendment
  • Does not violate sanctity of life
  • Punishment can be righteous anger
  • Use of jury indicates fair use of capital punishment

General points of discussion

Is it morally permissible for the state to kill a citizen?

Is it better to rehabilitate or restrain criminals?

Would abolition mitigate flaws of the entire criminal justice system?

Initial vote: 21 affirmative, 4 negative, 4 abstain

Final vote: 21 affirmative, 6 negative, 2 abstain

If Political Union participants had a say, capital punishment might be facing its own death. In an issue that is still divisive across the country, a clear majority of attendees expressed support for the affirmative position in this debate. Wooyoung Lee laid out the case against the death penalty with several arguments: it is more expensive than life-without-parole, it does not deter crime (as most killers commit their crime in the heat of the moment and do not weigh the consequences), it exceeds the crime it is meant to punish, it is affected by racial bias, and it carries the possibility of execution of the innocent.

Henry Cao set up his side’s defense with a volley of counterarguments. First, he pointed out that the flaws of capital punishment were design flaws and not inherent to the institution. He then asserted that capital punishment was appropriate for the most egregious of crimes; because of this, the death penalty did not violate the 8th Amendment nor the sanctity of life. In addition, Mr. Cao suggested that punishment should serve not only as a form of deterrence but also as a conduit for the victims’ anger. And the justification provided for this was the involvement of the jury – since it is a sample of the people, rather than a lone judge, who decides a defendant’s crime, the people’s will was being heard.

One point of discussion that quickly surfaced was the possibility of wrongful execution – according to one attendee, 2 to 5% of those executed were actually innocent. Another concern brought up was the method of execution, with lethal injection viewed by some as too risky. In response, others argued that these were flaws that could be fixed; regardless of them, some criminals must be removed from society for safety reasons.

That led to another line of discussion – what is the point of punishment? It is retributive (to mete out punishment for the sake of punishment) or is it rehabilitative (to prepare criminals for a possible return to society)? Some argued that the worst of the criminals had simply forfeited their chance at life and could not be returned to society; terrorists and mass murderers simply had to be put to death because of the extremely heinous nature of their crimes. But many cast doubt on purely retributive punishment and brought up examples of criminals who had found their way again after prison.

Mr. Cao then took the chance to respond to some of the arguments. He suggested that the harshness of the punishment was needed to maintain the seriousness of criminal punishment; otherwise, it would be devalued. And he pointed out that the death penalty is hardly a common fate – even Bernie Madoff, who might have been executed were in China, escaped the death penalty.

Perhaps the argument that created the most direct conflict was the issue of racial discrimination in the system. Many pointed out flaws in the jury system; for example, ex-felons are prevented from serving on juries and thus bias them against black people. But proponents of the death penalty pointed out that racial discrimination and the possibility of wrongful conviction were hardly unique to the death penalty

In response, Mr. Lee (among others) asserted that while such flaws were systematic, capital punishment entrenched them by making them irreversible; a person put to death as a result of racial bias or wrongful conviction cannot be brought back to life, while such a person who is put in jail can have his/her freedom restored.

Alternatives were also discussed – life-without-parole found favor with many for a few reasons. First, it achieves one of the less controversial of capital punishment’s purposes (locking away the most dangerous criminals). Second, some believed that it was actually harsher punishment for a criminal, as it extends the period of punishment.

Mr. Cao closed his side of the debate by repeating that capital punishment was reserved for and appropriate for the worst of crimes, and that popular will (through a jury) should be allowed to exercise any option it wants, including capital punishment. Mr. Lee returned to the moral issues ranging from wrongful conviction to racial bias to the proportionality of the punishment and suggested that such issues were too harmful for a jury to play with. In the end, for all the vigorous debate that was had, the final numbers changed little, and the affirmative side carried the day.