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Is the Death Penalty Too Cruel for Killers?

Most killers have experienced horrific abuse and neglect as children, causing impaired judgment as adults. Many of the children that fall under this category of abuse and neglect grow up to become murderers, violent offenders, rapists, and even arsonists.  This is not to say that committing murder is acceptable for people with psychological wounds, however, the question arises: should capital punishment for killers who have been subjected to extreme torment and abuse as children be reconsidered?


The past circumstances of these murderers and violent offenders are not so much important as the consequences that ensue from their crimes. Thirty states such as Texas, Missouri, and Florida still retain the ultimate punishment for these killers - the death penalty. Their childhood traumas and past circumstances are completely void even though an abusive and neglectful childhood greatly affects the competence of people as they grow older. The more trauma and distress experienced during childhood, the greater the risk for violent tendencies and aggressive behavior to surface.


Substance abuse and childhood trauma 

People that have experienced childhood trauma and negative experiences more often than not become involved with substance abuse and alcoholism. Substance abuse and alcoholism are linked to violence and aggressive behavior. David Lisak and Sara Beszterczey, clinical psychologists, examine the past of forty-three death row inmates in “The Cycle of Violence: The Life Histories of 43 Death Row Inmates.” 


Lisak and Beszterczey expound that “Large-scale, random community samples, studies of clinical populations, and research with special populations have all demonstrated that individuals who are traumatized in childhood are at a substantially increased risk for substance abuse later in life. Substance abuse has been associated with an increased risk of violent behavior in numerous epidemiological and experimental studies.” The effects of neglect and abuse run deeper than simply having violent tendencies. 


Studies have shown that many violent criminals have consumed high levels of alcohol right before they commit their crimes. Once the systematic use of substances and alcohol begins, a person’s judgment becomes significantly impaired and they are unable to easily withdraw from the usage. These factors all contribute to the slow and gradual decrease in a person’s ability to make rational decisions. 


Criminals who have a history of abusing drugs and alcohol also coincidentally have a history of suffering through physical, emotional, and/or mental abuse as children. The death penalty does not pay attention to the environment that killers have grown up in even though the environment is a crucial component in how a person interacts and socializes with others in the world.


The effects of emotional trauma 

The emotional aftereffects of abuse and neglect during childhood leads to many problems during adulthood. Traumatizing childhood past experiences and memories can have haunting effects on children as they grow older. Sometimes these early disturbing experiences manifest themselves in unfortunate ways. 


Robert Nozick, an American philosopher who studied the philosophy of the mind, explained in his work “Emotions” that “Emotions typically involve not only a psychological feeling but also physiological changes...Hence, they provide an especially close integration of the mind and the body” (533).  Emotions are powerful motivators; a person holding onto feelings of confusion and rage will use these emotions to fuel their actions. Children who grow up in disheveled and uninhabitable environments are sure to bear volatile emotions and will implode mentally sooner or later. 


 A person who has endured years of atrocious abuse and has been unable to express his or her feelings and emotions will become mentally unstable. Such is the case with David Earl Miller who has been on death row for the past thirty-six years. 


As a child, David Earl Miller had been horrendously abused by his stepfather, sexually abused when he was five by three different people including his alcoholic mother, and beaten and sexually molested by teachers at a reform school. All of these events eventually lead to him attempting to hang himself at the age of 6. As he grew older, he became a drunkard, and eventually, he committed his first and last violent murder landing him on death row. Undoubtedly, any child who lives through such traumatizing events is bound to come out with deep psychological scars as evident in the case of Miller. 


Committing murder is immoral and inadmissible in any way it is looked at, however, the circumstances that lead to murder and the mental instability of the killer need to be taken into account as well before the death penalty is imposed. Child abuse and neglect are severely impactful in regard to a person’s future development of their cognitive and social abilities. Abuse can lead to violent and antisocial tendencies and substance abuse and alcoholism. Murder is murder, and an adequate punishment should be enforced, but perhaps the death penalty is a cruel end for killers who had agonizing and disturbed beginnings. 

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