Death Is Different
Those whom we would banish from society or from the human
community itself often speak in too faint a voice to be heard
above society's demand for punishment.
—Justice William Brennan, McCleskey v. Kemp (1987)
The death penalty stands as a symbol of crime and punishment in our society, one onto which many Americans project their fears of criminal victimization, their attitudes about fairness and justice, and their beliefs about the nature of evil and the possibility of moral redemption. Social science researchers know that a person's attitude toward capital punishment is pivotal—it is the one attitude that tells us the most about someone's general beliefs on a broad array of other criminal justice issues.
To political philosophers, however, the death penalty is more than a symbolic statement about crime control. It also expresses something important about the relationship of citizens to the state and the enormous power that some societies have entrusted to government officials. Indeed, near the end of the 17th century John Locke actually defined political power itself as "a right of making laws with penalties of death."1 Throughout history, the death penalty has been at the center of many partisan debates, and, in modern times, it has retained much of its political cache. In fact, capital punishment remained the mainstay of many elected officials who struggled to find an emotional issue with which to excite and galvanize supporters.
Like the violent encounters that give rise to them, capital trials often are dramatic, tragic, and compelling. These human dramas are part of what command the public's attention in death penalty cases—a horrible crime has been committed and the life of the accused hangs in the balance. Even though these dramas touch only a comparatively few persons in a direct or personal way—of the thousands upon thousands of persons who pass through the criminal justice system, very few are tried for capital crimes and fewer still