Revenge or Social Justice?

Faculty member teaches death penalty course, encourages dialogue leading to informed opinions.

September 26, 2006

by Valerie Orleans

Stacy Mallicoat, assistant professor of criminal justice, focuses her capital punishment class on this question: “To kill or not to kill?”

She knows that her students have mixed — and strong — opinions on the topic, and that’s fine with her. She wants them to understand the ramifications of capital punishment, and to listen to other opinions respectfully.

Death penalty supporters generally “have two points of view,” she said. “Some believe that capital punishment serves as a deterrent and others believe that it is the ultimate punishment and, therefore, is applicable in cases where the crime is horrific.”

However, Mallicoat points out, no valid research demonstrates that capital punishment has any deterrent effect whatsoever.

“Texas executes more people each year than any other state and California has the largest number of prisoners on death row. Yet their crime rates for murder have not fallen any faster than those states without the death penalty,” she said.

“Philosophically, you have to ask yourself, ‘Do I want to kill others to prove killing is wrong? What is the purpose?’ If it is to deter crime, then that’s not a valid argument,” Mallicoat said, adding that the only nations in the world that execute more people than the United States are China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Europe has abolished the death penalty. And with the exception of Japan and the U.S., most major industrialized nations also have abolished the death penalty.

Perhaps death penalty proponents find retribution — “an eye for an eye” — is important. Such supporters may feel the need to exact vengeance in the name of justice, Mallicoat said.

But, she said, “My question is: What is justice? Is it best served by the taking of another human life?”

Another question applies to whether the death penalty is applied fairly.

“The death penalty is pursued in such a small number of cases that it’s hard to understand how one case compares to others,” Mallicoat said. “The overwhelming numbers of prisoners on death row are poor — they couldn’t afford good attorneys. We hear horror stories of defendants’ attorneys falling asleep during trials or not being adequately prepared.”

Such instances can lead to fatal mistakes as when innocent people are put to death. Death penalty critics also question whether racial discrimination exists since 80 percent of those who are put to death had white victims.

This nation is so divided on the issue that some states allow capital punishment and others prohibit it. 

“Think of Dennis Rader, the BTK (bind, torture, kill) killer and Jeffrey Daimer. Are these not the ‘worst of the worst’ cases? They weren’t eligible for the death penalty because their crimes were committed in states that don’t allow capital punishment,” Mallicoat said.

Then, there’s the case of Gary Ridgway (the Green River Killer who admitted to killing at least 50 women in Washington). The decision was made not to pursue the death penalty in exchange for closure for the victims’ families and a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

Mallicoat said she isn’t convinced that death is the worst punishment.

Take Al-Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui who was sentenced to life in a maximum-security prison for his role in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, for example. His mother reportedly said that the life sentence was worse than execution. ”

“It’s often difficult for us to imagine the horrors of death row,” Mallicoat said. “The few individuals who have been wrongly convicted and later released from death row often have a very difficult time readjusting to society.”

Mallicoat said she simply doesn’t believe a society should condemn somebody to death.

“This is a human rights issue,” she said. “While I can certainly understand the motivations of revenge, I like to think we are evolved enough not to engage in ‘murder by proxy.’ ”

Her opinion aside, she said: “My goal is to generate a conversation about the issue and generate conversations that create more informed opinions.”



Stacy Mallicoat
Stacy Mallicoat