Capital Punishment and Euthanasia

Table of Contents
Table of Contents 1
Introduction 2
The Case of Euthanasia 2
The Case of Death Penalty 6
References 11


There has been much ethical and legal debate over the intrinsic differences between various approaches to end-of life. This debate has intensified as advances in medicine have increased longevity but also have prolonged the dying process through life-sustaining procedures and a lot of attention has been paid over the issue of the relationship between euthanasia and human dignity. Human dignity can be described as ???a descriptive and value laden quality encompassing self-determination and the ability to make autonomous choices, and implies a quality of life consistent with the ability to exercise self-determined choices.??? (Biggs, 2001)

The present assignment investigates of euthanasia and death penalty and the ethical issues involved in these subjects.

The Case of Euthanasia

Cicely Saunders, who was born in 1918 in England and was distinguished in 1980 by Queen Elizabeth with the medal of the British Empire and was given high honours for her innovative work in the hospitalizing movement, has always been against euthanasia and its legalization: ???To make voluntary euthanasia lawful would be an irresponsible act, hindering help, pressuring the vulnerable, abrogating our true respect and responsibility to the frail, and old, the disabled and the dying.??? According to Saunders the elder people are not a load to the young ones but an important part of our society and we should take care of them, otherwise human beings will turn out to be egoistic and without morals. The answer would be a better support of the dying process, in order to offer the least harmful possible last moments to the dying person (Rizzo, 1993).

In literature, there are three types of euthanasia: passive euthanasia defined as the withholding or withdrawing of life-sustaining measures, active euthanasia defined as the conscious medical intervention for the termination of the patient??™s life and assisted suicide in which the physician provides a patient with a lethal dose of medication, upon the patients request, which the patient intends to use to end his or her own life (Mason et al, 2003).

There is also the distinction between voluntary euthanasia where the patient expresses clearly his desire to his physician to terminate his life, the non-voluntary euthanasia where the patient is not in the condition of expressing an opinion and somebody else takes the decision to relieve the patient from his suffering by putting an end to his life, and the involuntary euthanasia where the physician decides that the death is to the best interest of his patient and he commits the action against the patient??™s will (Mason et al, 2003).

In the United Kingdom, the first movement towards euthanasia was in 1935 when the world??™s first euthanasia was founded in London, known as the Euthanasia Society of England and it was formed to promote euthanasia. In 1980 the ???World Federation of Right to Die Societies??? was formed in Oxford in England and it comprises 27 groups from 18 nations (Rizzo, 2003).

The law in the United Kingdom favors the preservation of life. Active euthanasia, whether requested by the patient or not, is regarded as murder under common British law and statutes on the grounds that the malice of murder is established by the intent to kill without justification. The same goes for passive euthanasia and no medical, ethical or legal distinction is made between withholding life supports and withdrawing them. According to the Act 2000 cited as the Medical Treatment (Prevention of Euthanasia), ???It is unlawful for any person responsible for the care of a patient to withdraw or withhold from the patient medical treatment or sustenance if his purpose or one of his purposes in doing so is to hasten or otherwise cause the death of the patient???. This bill was dropped. It is clear though that the legislation of euthanasia as adopted in the Netherlands is still unacceptable in the United Kingdom. There is no law in England that permits the termination of life for any reason. On the other hand the right to life is strongly protected by the Human Rights Act 1998, where it is stated that nobody can be deprived of his life intentionally for no reason.

As far as assisted suicide is concerned, the House of Lords Select Committee on Medical Ethics found in 1994 that there were no circumstances in which assisted suicide should be permitted. This court was not persuaded that there was a distinction between assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia. On 9 November 2005, though, the Act 2005 cited as the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill was introduced by Lord Joffe in order to ???enable an adult who has capacity and who is suffering unbearably as a result of a terminal illness to receive medical assistance to die at his own considered and persistent request; and for connected purposes???.

An issue that is raised from a possible legalization of euthanasia is whether it would be incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998, that refers to individual civil rights. This article was created because of the need for protection of each citizen from third parties and this certainly does not deprive the person from making his own decision on personal matters like his own life. So if we refer to voluntary active euthanasia where the person
actively gives his approval to his physician for terminating his life, a potential regulation of voluntary euthanasia comes certainly not in contrast with the Human Rights Act 1998. Prohibiting on the other hand euthanasia is also not in contrary with the Human Rights Act 1998, since a right to die is not included in the mentioned individual rights. It is very difficult to include such a right because it is almost impossible to define what a wrongful life would mean and what the presumptions would be needed in order to claim for right to death (McKay, 1999).

Laws, judicial opinions, regulations and medical policies should evaluate what is in the best interests of the patient by weighing the benefits and burdens of treatments in their impact on the overall condition, quality of life and dignity and not merely on biological existence as the only value. This conclusion was based on an understanding of the analyses of ethicists that, since the 1950s, have proposed such an approach to the ethical dilemmas of withholding and withdrawing treatment in terminal cases. The religious moral traditions have led the way to resolving some issues of withholding and withdrawing treatment in terminal cases, while rejecting assisted suicide and active euthanasia (Daruwala, 2003).

By the 1970s, this ethical evaluation of means and principles of obligations had grown into a wider consensus among prominent Jewish, Catholic and Protestant ethicists and in society at large (Vanderpool, 1995; Weir, 1989). While they are opposed to active euthanasia and assisted suicide, they accept the moral validity of death with dignity in the proper circumstances of a terminal condition. Their definitions are primarily ethical in nature in terms of benefits and burdens to the patient and not technical or medical in the sense of standard practice or experimental. They would accept the death with dignity in the case of a treatment that, while it might remedy specific problems collateral to or caused by the disorder, leaves essentially the terminal condition unchanged. The dying process is merely prolonged.

The moral position states its fundamental principles in terms of duties and the right of dignity in dying. It applies the principle that one is not obliged to use any means to preserve one??™s life. It goes on to state that, in the event of the patient??™s incompetence, the next-of-kin has a primary role in deciding in behalf of the patient in accordance with his or her wishes or best interests. The paramount concerns are the principles governing obligation to preserve life and the intention behind the commission or omission. These principles found their way into judicial rulings, but not always with the clarity one would wish (Brazier, 2003).

The Case of Death Penalty
Few areas of criminal justice have prompted as much controversy and debate as the death penalty (Branharn, 2003). Capital punishment itself is one topic on which many reasonable people disagree, and a ???passionate and extensive debate??? on the issue is ongoing in the legal and greater community in many countries (Minikes, 2002). The growing number of wrongful convictions has complicated even more recent arguments over capital punishment. The Innocence Project (2006) reported that, between 1989 and 2007, 190 people, including some on death row, had been exonerated for crimes of which had been accused and convicted. The overturned convictions had an interesting nexus with mistaken eyewitness identifications, official misconduct, false confessions, deoxyribonucleic aid (DNA), junk science, and incompetent lawyers.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, debate raged about the appropriateness and effectiveness of capital punishment. Philosophers, legal scholars, and church leaders spoke out against the death penalty as an immoral and barbaric practice (Banner, 2002). Many in the public grew discontented with the perceived economic and racial unfairness of the system (Banner, 2002). Several state legislatures responded by eliminating their death penalty statutes and many more amended their laws to curtail its use to specific circumstances. Nevertheless, capital punishment still enjoyed large public support (Bedan, 1997, pg. 7). Abolitionists were unable to maintain majorities in state legislatures and many states that had repealed their statutes reinstated them.

Concerning ethics, the professional code of conduct of some law enforcement officials should be discussed. It is realized that some law enforcement officials are very much in favor of the death penalty and have used their position of power to make certain that the accused becomes eligible for the death penalty. This random selection of who is to receive the death penalty reinforces the argument that there is not equal justice and therefore the death penalty should be eliminated. Because the majority of prosecuting attorneys are elected it would seem that they would be subject to the influence of the electorate. Some prosecutors have used their pro death penalty stand to increase their electability. There are cases in which incompetent attorneys were sometimes assigned to capital cases and some police investigations are conducted with enormous pressure and interference from outside sources. It has also been noticed that politicians may be favoring death penalty sentences so they can increase their changes of being elected. Another area of concern is the selection of juries and testimony so as to the ethnic bias that occurs in the selection of juries .

Sister Helen Prejean is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille and an organizer for those against the death penalty ever since her visit to a death raw immate in Louisiana in 1982. Sister Prejean became famous with her book: Dead Man Walking in a which she described her role as the spiritual advisor to someone who was going to be executed. Since that time she has lectured extensively against the death penalty and in her recent book: The Death of Innocents: An Eye Witness Account of Wrongful Executions, focuses on the death of two men who she believes to be innocent. The conviction of innocent people is a serious ethical issue concerning the case of death penalty. However, the execution of Joseph O??™ Dell as told by Sister Prejean clearly illustrates what is wrong with the system and how prosecutors, who are supposed to be devoted to the truth, will sometimes do whatever is necessary to win their case. Sr. Prejean is an advocate to abolish the death penalty and obviously she has written this book to help that cause, but the story of Joseph O??™ Dell is a tragic and believable tale of how justice did not prevail. Despite facts that showed that Joseph O??™ Dell did not commit the crime for which he was arrested, Albert Alberi and Stephen G. Test, prosecutors assigned to O??™ Dell??™s case in Virginia Beach County, Virginia, asked for the death penalty. The prosecutors convinced the jury that O??™ Dell was a person that should receive a death sentence because he was a danger to society. In Virginia, the sentence for murder could have been life imprisonment without parole; however, the prosecutors didn??™t share that with the jury who voted to give O??™ Dell a death sentence. In this case a jailhouse informant, Stephen Watson, was used to testify. Whenever O??™ Dell, who acted as his own attorney, requested information about Watson??™s criminal record and the current charges against him, there was an objection which the judge upheld (Prejean, 2005).

It became obvious that in this case O??™ Dell was fighting a losing battle, but what was even more obvious was the commitment that the prosecutors made to assure that the sentence in this case would be the death penalty, though the facts that they had rushed to judgment. Sr. Prejean said that perhaps prosecutors, in trying to realize their goal found it difficult to remain impartial and quoted Dorothy Day, the catholic advocate for poor people:

We have to build a society in which it is easier to for people to be good. If we ever do find a way to fix the application of the death penalty to make it fair, helping prosecutors to be good and fair-minded servants of justice by being made accountable will need to be a vital part of the fixing (About this Innocence Project, 2005).

In O??™ Dell??™s case, the Judge wrote an opinion that even though the DNA evidence pointed towards O??™ Dell??™s possible innocence, there was still the testimony from Stephen Watson, the jailhouse informer that could not be ignored. Subsequently, O??™ Dell??™s innocence became clearer when Stephen Watson confessed that he had lied about O??™ Dell in order to negate the charges against himself. The issue of not instructing jurors concerning the death penalty versus life imprisonment without parole is crucial in Joseph O??™ Dell??™s case. In June of 1994, the Supreme Court decided the ???Simmons v. South Carolina??? case in which the court decided that Simmons??™ constitutional rights were violated because the court instructed the jury not to consider parole in reaching its verdict. In the Simmons??™ case, Supreme Court Justice Blackmun wrote:

Where a defendant??™s future `dangerousness is an issue, and state law prohibits his release on parole, due process requires that the sentencing jury be informed that the defendant is parole ineligible (Simmons v. South Carolina, 2005).

It becomes apparent that there was a breach of ethics in the O??™ Dell case because the prosecutors led the jury to believe that a death sentence would be the only way to keep Joseph O??™ Dell off the streets.

Sr. Prejean analyzes the situation by saying that the system becomes arbitrary because in capital crime cases it is left up to the prosecutor to decide whether or not they want to go for the death penalty. Trying a death penalty case is very costly and time consuming and prosecutors who choose to go this route have a lot at stake including their reputation. When O??™ Dell??™s case went to the Supreme Court they agreed that he had been denied his constitutional rights under Simmons v. South Carolina; however it did not apply in his case since the sentence occurred in 1986, and the Simmons decision was not until eight years later. There could be no retroactive consideration of his constitutional rights. Barry Scheck, a co-founder of the Innocence Project at the Benjamin Cardoxo School of Law at Yeshiva University handles cases of exoneration for what he considers wrongfully convicted people. He agreed to try and help Joseph O??™ Dell. Scheck wrote to the Governor of Virginia, George Allen, to petition for a stay so that they could do DNA testing to prove that O??™ Dell was an innocent man. Governor Allen turned the request down.

Joseph O??™ Dell was put to death by lethal injection on July 23, 1997and six years later, Sr. Prejean received a communication from Stephen Watson, the man who had lied about O??™ Dell. Watson admitted he lied so that he could get a plea agreement on his own case, but then when he decided to tell the police the truth, they told him that he could spend ten years in jail for perjury if he said he lied. Watson kept quiet. Sr. Prejean??™s tale of an innocent man being put to death diminishes all of us who believe in justice. The justice system is flawed and human beings, while believing they are doing their best, make mistakes. It is apparent that competent legal assistance is crucial when someone is being accused of a capital crime and if the person is indigent, their chances of receiving that help is limited.

From the above, it is obvious that in the justice systems we are facing situations with a strong dependence on the ethical behavior of the prosecutors and judges involved in capital crime cases and unfortunately, in some instances, their bias becomes a detriment to the entire justice system. In this chapter we have presented the ethical aspect of death penalty by documenting instances of ethical misconduct: prosecutors withholding crucial information from juries, and law enforcement officials using tactics that were unsound, if not illegal. Politicians have used the death penalty as a re-election tool and have championed death sentence sentences when they believed it resonated with their constituency. Besides the ethical considerations of law enforcement officials, which we is known as the professional code of conduct, it is also important to consider the human code of conduct.


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