Resolved: The United States Should Abolish the Death Penalty

Weekly Debates

And we’re back. The society gathered September tenth in Riggs Library for the first debate of the fall semester. The topic: Resolved: The United States Should Abolish the Death Penalty.

The debate started with keynotes from two of our most beloved seniors, Ms. Abigail Grace of Mississippi (SFS ’16) and Chancellor Michael Whelan of Connecticut (COL ’16). Ms. Grace began the debate by eloquently telling the room how her love of the society was the driving force behind her (almost) perfect attendance record. Ms. Grace set the definition of the death penalty as a punishment in its “most palatable form.” That is to say, we should avoid discussing the killing of enemy combatants, the difficulty in obtaining chemicals for lethal injections, or other such complications with or permutations of the death penalty. Ms. Grace argued the death penalty was unconstitutional, economically inefficient, and morally abhorrent. After a brief existential questioning of death, Ms. Grace argued that the death penalty violates the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. She continued her speech by lamenting the massive amounts of money lost on trials and appeals for those sentenced to death. She closed her keynote by arguing that the flawed nature of humans prevented them from making perfect judgments concerning criminals, and that it is better that we allow criminals escape this imperfect judgment rather than allow the possibility for an innocent to be executed.

Chancellor Whelan began his keynote by wishing this Amanuensis, “Good luck.” He then swiftly lashed out at those who would abolish the death penalty because of the “company we keep.” After demolishing this argument, Chancellor Whelan reminded the society that anarchy is only somewhat held at bay by the eternal glory of the United States military. In this world, a system that maintains order is necessary for the protection of the state and its people. If the United States were to collapse into disorder, the rest of the world might follow. Chancellor Whelan also noted that the Supreme Court of the United States ruled the death penalty constitutional as a counter to Ms. Grace. Mr. Whelan continued his opening by claiming that although the death penalty might be broken, we should not throw it away. Instead, the responsible course of action is to fix it and strive towards a perfect system. Finally, Mr. Whelan appealed to the glorious scholar Immanuel Kant, and repeated his claim that there is no suitable substitute for the death penalty for the crime of murder. In this, death can only be repaid with death.

In response to Chancellor Whelan, Mr. Dineen took to the floor. He informed the society that while Nebraska is far from a liberal bastion, it banned the death penalty. He also reminded Chancellor Whelan that while a majority of people might believe the death penalty is an appropriate punishment, the Catholic Church would argue that a majority vote does not confer moral status to an action. In light of the upcoming anniversary of 9/11, Mr. Naft implored us to consider the difference between killing a terrorist and a murderer. He concluded that if we have unshakable evidence of wrongdoing, there is no reasonable difference.

Mr. Perez-Reyes launched onto the floor by reminding us of how the families of victims have the power to forgive those who commit crimes. His speech implored us to consider the negation’s conception of justice as vengeance, not retribution. Mr. Perez-Reyes appealed to our desire to avoid hypocrisy by saying that if we truly condemn destruction of life, we should not become destroyers of it.

Mr. Eisen shared his story about being born early in order to show how life, especially in its early stages, is extraordinarily fragile. Invoking Hobbes, Mr. Eisen proposed that we should put our lives in the hands of the state in order to keep our lives from becoming “nasty, brutish, and short.” Mr. Schafer took to the floor to remind the society that the social contract is necessary to escape the state of nature, but that the death penalty is beyond the scope of the social contract. He argued that it is impossible to give up one’s right to life to the state, because it is the right from which all other rights flow. No possible benefit given from the state could compensate for the loss of that right. Ms. Burke contended that Jesus made a mistake in protecting an adulterer from stoning because Ms. Burke is descended from that adulterer. In response, Ms. Hu put forth the idea that we could make a system that deters criminals and keeps them away from society that does not involve the death penalty.

Mr. Shaughnessy stunned the floor by asking us who had voted in a previous electing. He informed us voting is a form of participation in the systematic violence that is politics. He claimed that we are uncomfortable with the death penalty because we don’t want to acknowledge the role normal citizens have in legitimizing the violence committed by the state. Mr. Musgrave responded by claiming that as a pro-life man, he had no choice but to affirm the right of a criminal to live out his days in prison. Ms. Landau challenged Ms. Grace by asserting that examining people who represent the state is the wrong way to approach trials that deal with capital punishment. Alternatively, Ms. Landau posits that we should focus on the fact that individuals in our society commit heinous crimes, and that using the death penalty is the only appropriate punishment for these crimes. Mr. Graff replied by claiming that being mentally ill is not a crime, and that the people who commit most awful crimes are mentally disturbed. He argued that the United States has an obligation to ensure that the most vulnerable in the society are not abused by the death penalty.

As Mr. Graff sat down, the floor was opened to non-members. Mr. Robert Kem (COL ’18) claimed that contrary to what the affirmation had been claiming, the death penalty was constitutional, and a vital part of the American justice system. He cited the need for a grand jury’s indictment in order to be tried for the death penalty as evidence of mechanisms to protect the innocent. Ms. Anneke Von Seeger (COL ’17) argued that the Constitution was created by the elite, and therefore does not necessarily represent the voice of the American people. She also argued that a study in Texas showed that as people were humanized throughout their trials, they were less likely to be convicted of the death penalty. For her, this bias was enough to advocate for abolishing the death penalty.

Ms. Katheryn Li (COL ’19) asked us to consider if we could kill the terrorists who carried out the attacks on 9/11. She admonished the affirmation for their apparent unwillingness to pull the trigger on these terrorists, and claimed that abolishing the death penalty would mean an end to the righteous killing of criminals. Mr. Ricardo Mondolfi (SFS ’19) told the society that he has no sympathy for criminals, but that he was disturbed by the staggering inefficiency in the execution of criminals. Mr. Hunter Estes (SFS ’19) countered by claiming that carrying out proper justice is worth a few extra dollars. He argued that violent criminals are still a threat to other criminals and guards in prison, and that it might be crueler to lock someone away in solitary confinement for the rest of their life than to just kill them. Ms. Lauren Finkenthal (SFS ’19) made her points spring from a utilitarian framework. She pointed out that many fugitives accused of murder escape punishment by fleeing to countries that refuse to extradite criminals that might face the death penalty. She would rather these criminals face justice in the United States than have a death penalty that creates the loophole known as a fugitive’s paradise.

Our sergeant at arms, Ms. Kurek, took the floor back to the keynotes and challenged Ms. Grace’s numerical argument. She rightly noted that Ms. Grace’s figures only included litigation costs and conveniently neglected to report the cost of imprisoning someone for life. She told her story of the Boston Marathon bombing, and made a compelling argument justifying the death penalty as used for terrorists and mass murderers. Mr. Fletcher invoked the spirit of constructivism to posit that if the state is what we make it, then we can ethically create the state to eliminate those who would threaten its existence. He argued that this does not necessarily lead us to the creation of a death penalty, as the ability to create a perfect death penalty to solve this problem suggests the ability to create a perfect alternative.

Ms. Oster argued that a punishment must fit the crime and that no one can actually serve seven life sentences. Mr. Kleinman told the society that he believed the United States should not kill people if it doesn’t have to, and that we should act in a principled manner. Vice-President Willis congratulated the society for staying within the framing, and offered us to consider the fishing pole as a metaphor for the death penalty. He argues that when he goes fishing for hours and doesn’t catch anything, he’s tempted to throw the pole away. However, he won’t throw away the fishing pole for the same reason he won’t advocate for the abolition of the death penalty; there might come a day when both are sorely needed.

Mr. Kim asked us all to take a step beyond logic and consider the possibility that forgiveness, not revenge, is the solution to victims’ pain. He cited a unique program following the Rwandan genocide that allowed victims to confront the perpetrators of the genocide in order to gain closure. He closed by claiming that the death penalty is not a solution to crime, and that state and local governments need to go beyond the death penalty in order to solve the causes of crime. Mr. Weiner argued that it is important to consider the duty the state has to protect its people when discussing the death penalty. He argues that when you make a decision to leave a community by way of violent crime, you should be thought to forfeit your life. After raising his hand on the negation all night, Mr. Marrow finally got the chance to speak on the affirmation.

Chancellor Whelan took to the dais in one last attempt to convince us that killing criminals is ethical. He argued that without retribution, a justice system ceases to have meaning. He argued that closure is not equal to retribution, and that families of victims deserve the closure that only an execution can provide. He ended his closing keynote by talking about the case of Michael Bruce Ross, a murderer who gave up his appeals in order to give his victims closure.

Ms. Grace began her closing by congratulating the floor for a good debate. She then discussed how her mom told her about how she wanted murderers to sit in jail so they could reflect on their crimes for the rest of their lives. In carrying out the death penalty, she argued the United States grants criminals peace of mind instead of justice.

With 76 affirming, 1 abstention, and 24 negating, this resolution was soundly affirmed.

Welcome home everyone; it’s going to be a great year.


Luke Schafer

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