Choose Life: The Death Penalty is a Major Human Rights Violation By: Kate Bonner

Choose Life: The Death Penalty is a Major Human Rights Violation

By: Kate Bonner

On September 30, 2015, Kelly Gissendaner was the first woman executed in Georgia since World War II  for convincing her boyfriend to murder her husband. [1] Her death and the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in 2014 has caused the resurfacing of conversations and debates over the legality of the death penalty. [2] The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution states, “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishment inflicted.” [3] The death penalty debate usually focuses on whether the concept and the carrying out of the death penalty could be considered cruel and unusual punishment. This blog will focus more generally on the extent to which the death penalty threatens basic human rights.

Punishment has always been seen as a way to discourage potential criminals from unlawful action and in some ways it does. [4] Deterrence is a common component of arguments developed in support of the death penalty. [5] It is logical to believe that people would not kill knowing that their own death might be a result. However, many times due to a lack of education or pure ignorance of the law, people do not even consider that death may be a consequence to their actions. Ultimately, whether the death penalty truly deters crime is inconclusive. [6] The uncertain possibility of a deterrent affect is not enough to allow the detrimental violation of human rights caused by the death penalty.

In preparation for this blog, I met with Richard Jaffe, the Senior Partner of the Birmingham, Alabama law firm of Richard Jaffe and Associates, P.C. [7] Mr. Jaffe has handled 5 federal death penalty cases and he is the only attorney in the nation who has successfully defended three death row inmates at new trials after they had previously been sentenced to death. [8] According to Mr. Jaffe, the ultimate violation caused by the death penalty is that it cheapens human life and it does nothing to further the goals of our civilized society. [9] While our criminal justice system should strive to fit the punishment to the crime, our system should also serve as an example. Allowing our society to take a man’s life without of a clear deterrent effect, seems to be setting the wrong example. We should punish, but taking a human life regardless of the crime seems to take punishment a step too far.

Mr. Jaffe’s biggest concern is with the uncertainty that not only exists with deterrence statistics but also with the uncertain and arbitrary nature of who receives the death penalty. [10] Some people believe the death penalty should be used on the worst of the worst. However, who are the worst of the worst? Is it the serial killer, the mass shooter at a school, the guy who opens fire in a fit of road rage or the woman who convinces her boyfriend to kill her husband? Deciding who deserves the death penalty has proved to be an arbitrary decision to make. Mr. Jaffe states, “the law is not equipped to separate out the worst from the not so bad.” [11] In Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court recognized the arbitrary nature of the death penalty and attempted to apply consistency standards. [12] These standards were overturned in Greg v. Georgia. [13] A level of consistency in the use of the death penalty was unattainable and remains so. There is no logic in figuring out who will receive the death penalty and who will not. The arbitrary nature of death penalty sentencing proves its status as a human rights violation and only strengthens the inconclusive nature of death penalty deterrence. The death penalty cannot deter a crime when it is uncertain whether the crime will receive a death sentence ever time.

Kelly Gissendaner’s execution was scheduled but did not take place twice because of cloudy drugs and bad weather. [14] The mental and emotional turmoil caused by preparing oneself to die and having that delayed should constitute cruel and unusual punishment at its core. However, the one responsible for murder is not the only one affected by the death penalty. Many may defend the assertion that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment for families to have to give up their family members of friends in such a horrific and public way. Gissendaner’s children chose to make a final appeal in front of the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles instead of going to see their mother one last time. [15] From this example, one can see the affect of the death penalty on a family can be absolutely heartbreaking and equally torturous. The death penalty is a corrupt form of punishment that needs to be reconsidered.

The affects of the death penalty reach farther than many would like to acknowledge. While there are people who are so sick and depraved of heart to take the life and even multiple lives of other people, the death penalty does not serve as the appropriate answer. A life sentence costs less than the complications that come with sentencing someone to death. [16] It is time the pros and cons are weighed against one another and we reform this area of our criminal justice system.



[1] Mark Berman, Georgia executes Kelly Gissendaner after Supreme Court denies stay requests, The Washington Post (Sept. 30, 2015),


[2] Id.; Jeffrey E. Stern, The Cruel and Unusual Execution of Clayton Lockett, The Atlantic (June 2015),


[3] U.S. Const. Amend. VIII. § 1.


[4] Max Ehrenfreund, There’s still no evidence that executions deter criminals, The Washington Post (April 30, 2014),


[5] Id.


[6] Id.


[7] Interview with Richard Jaffe, Senior Partner, Jaffe, Handle, Whisonant & Knight, P.C. (Oct. 27, 2015).


[8] Id.


[9] Id.


[10] Id.


[11] Id.


[12] Furman v. Ga., 408 U.S. 238 (1972).


[13] Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976).


[14] Mark Berman, Georgia executes Kelly Gissendaner after Supreme Court denies stay requests, The Washington Post (Sept. 30, 2015),


[15] Holly Yan, Catherine E. Shoichet, & Moni Basu, Georgia Inmate Kelly Gissendaner executed after failed appeals, CNN (Sept. 30, 2015, 4:26 PM),


[16] Interview with Richard Jaffe, Senior Partner, Jaffe, Handle, Whisonant & Knight, P.C. (Oct. 27, 2015).



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