Last updated on: 9/20/2021 | Author:

Should the Death Penalty Be Used for Retribution for Victims and/or Society?

General Reference (not clearly pro or con)

Austin Sarat, Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College, PhD, JD, in an Oct. 18, 2020 article, “When Families of Murder Victims Speak at Death Penalty Trials, Their Anguish May Make Sentencing Less Fair,” available at, stated:

“Throughout most of American history, victims played little role in, and had little influence on, the criminal justice system.

In the 1960s and 1970s, an organized victims’ rights movement began to emerge in response to the perceived pro-defendant tilt of the Supreme Court led by then-Chief Justice Earl Warren. Crime victims pushed for the right to be heard at critical junctures in the prosecution of offenders, especially when sentencing decisions were made.

That push was especially strong in murder cases. In the 1970s and 1980s, several states, including Tennessee, adopted legislation affording murder victims’ families the right to participate in capital cases.

Defendants in some death cases challenged the use of victim impact statements, asserting that the information they contained was irrelevant to sentence determinations and risked inflaming the passions of the jury.

In 1987, the United States Supreme Court took up one of these challenges. In Booth v. Maryland, it considered whether victim impact testimony violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’ The court, in a 5-4 decision, held that it did…

Four years later, following the retirement of two justices who voted against victim impact statements, the Supreme Court used Pervis Payne’s case to reconsider them. This time it found them constitutional in capital cases.”

Oct. 18, 2020

The Death Penalty Information Center, in an undated article, “Victim Impact Evidence,” available at and accessed on Sep. 17, 2021, stated:

“While states vary in precisely the type of statements they allow and which individuals may be permitted to provide them, the U.S. Supreme Court has unambiguously reaffirmed that Booth’s prohibition against victim-impact statements that explicitly ask a jury to impose a death sentence still stands. In a unanimous decision in Bosse v. Oklahoma (2016), the Court made clear that it has never overruled the portion of Booth that prohibited the presentation of testimony from victims’ families offering ‘opinions about the crime, the defendant, and the appropriate punishment,’ and declared that this part of Booth “remain[s] binding precedent until we see fit to reconsider [it].”

Sep. 17, 2021

The Justice Center of the University of Alaska at Anchorage, in its website section titled “The Death Penalty: Specific Issues – Retribution & Justice for Murder Victims” (accessed Aug. 21, 2008), offered the following:

“Death penalty advocates justify capital punishment under the principle of lex talionis, or ‘an eye for an eye’ — the belief that punishment should fit the crime. In particular, people who favor capital punishment argue that murderers should be executed in retribution for their crimes and that such retribution serves justice for murder victims and their survivors. Death penalty opponents emphasize the sacredness of life, arguing that killing is always wrong whether by individual or by the state, and that justice is best served through reconciliation.”

Aug. 21, 2008

PRO (yes)


Charles Stimson, JD, Acting Chief of Staff and Senior Legal Fellow of the Heritage Foundation, in a Dec. 20, 2019 article, “The Death Penalty Is Appropriate,” available at, stated:

“There are, to be sure, heartfelt arguments for people to be against the death penalty, not the least of which are religious, moral, or other reasons and beliefs. There are also valid arguments regarding the historical use of the death penalty against minorities, especially in the South.

Yet a majority of Americans, quite reasonably, support the death penalty in appropriate cases, and believe that, despite its imperfections, it is constitutional…

But for the death penalty to be applied fairly, we must strive to make the criminal justice system work as it was intended. We should all agree that all defendants in capital cases should have competent and zealous lawyers representing them at all stages in the trial and appeals process.

Any remnant of racism in the criminal justice system is wrong, and we should work to eliminate it. Nobody is in favor of racist prosecutors, bad judges or incompetent defense attorneys. If problems arise in particular cases, they should be corrected—and often are.

That said, the death penalty serves three legitimate penological objectives: general deterrence, specific deterrence, and retribution…

The third penological goal, retribution, is an expression of society’s right to make a moral judgment by imposing a punishment on a wrongdoer befitting the crime he has committed. Twenty-nine states, and the people’s representatives in Congress have spoken loudly; the death penalty should be available for the worst of the worst.”

Dec. 20, 2019


Louis P. Pojman, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at West Point Military Academy, in an essay titled “Why the Death Penalty is Morally Permissible,” from Adam Bedaus’ 2004 book titled Debating the Death Penalty: Should America Have Capital Punishment? The Experts on Both Sides Make Their Best Case, wrote:

“People often confuse retribution with revenge… Vengeance signifies inflicting harm on the offender out of anger because of what he has done. Retribution is the rationally supported theory that the criminal deserves a punishment fitting the gravity of his crime…

Retributivism is not based on hatred for the criminal (though a feeling of vengeance may accompany the punishment). Retributivism is the theory that the criminal deserves to be punished and deserves to be punished in proportion to the gravity of his or her crime, whether or not the victim or anyone else desires it. We may all deeply regret having to carry out the punishment, but consider it warranted.

When a society fails to punish criminals in a way thought to be proportionate to the gravity of the crime, the danger arises that the public would take the law into its own hands, resulting in vigilante justice, lynch mobs, and private acts of retribution. The outcome is likely to be an anarchistic, insecure state of injustice.”



J. Budziszewski, PhD, Professor of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, in an Aug./Sep. 2004 article titled “Capital Punishment: The Case for Justice,” wrote:

“Society is justly ordered when each person receives what is due to him. Crime disturbs this just order, for the criminal takes from people their lives, peace, liberties, and worldly goods in order to give himself undeserved benefits. Deserved punishment protects society morally by restoring this just order, making the wrongdoer pay a price equivalent to the harm he has done. This is retribution, not to be confused with revenge, which is guided by a different motive. In retribution the spur is the virtue of indignation, which answers injury with injury for public good…

Retribution is the primary purpose of just punishment as such. The reasons for saying so are threefold. First, just punishment is not something which might or might not requite evil; requital is simply what it is. Second, without just punishment evil cannot be requited. Third, just punishment requires no warrant beyond requiting evil, for the restoration of justice is good in itself… For these reasons, rehabilitation, protection, and deterrence have a lesser status in punishment than retribution: they are secondary.”

Aug./Sep. 2004


Charles E. Rice, JSD, Professor Emeritus at Ave Maria School of Law at the University of Notre Dame, in a June 22, 1987 The New American article titled “Retribution is an Obligation,” offered the following:

“The three purposes of criminal punishment are rehabilitation, deterrence, and retribution. While civic rehabilitation is irrelevant with respect to the death penalty, that penalty does in fact deter homicide in some cases. The basic justification for capital punishment, however, is retribution…

Anger is the sentiment aroused by the sight of injustice, and is therefore, intimately allied with justice — and civil society requires justice… anger is satisfied when retribution is exacted, yes, but that righteous anger is also rewarded when retribution is exacted. And that righteous anger should be rewarded, for its basis is the sentiment that to murder is wrong.

The common good requires that the punishment fit the crime, whether that crime be a theft of a bicycle or an ax murder. As an exercise in retribution, punishment serves to right the balance of justice that is disturbed by the crime, provided that the punishment is appropriate.”

June 22, 1987

CON (no)


Peniel Ibe, policy engagement coordinator at the American Friends Service Committee’s Office of Public Policy and Advocacy, in a Jan, 14, 2021 article, “It’s Time to Stop Federal Executions and Repeal the Death Penalty,” available at, stated:

“Years of study by criminologists researching whether the death penalty deters crime has demonstrated that we need to look elsewhere to reduce the level of homicide. As a society, we cannot continue allow state-sanctioned murder. We must stop responding to harms committed with punishment and retribution–and instead center restorative justice and healing. That means focusing on the needs of victims of violence and their loved ones as they rebuild their lives as well as fostering reparations and reconciliatory processes within the community at large.”

Jan, 14, 2021


Jordan Ryan, a JD candidate at Duke University School of Law class of 2021, in a 2020 article, “Revenge and the Death Penalty,” published in Duke Journal of Constitutional Law & Public Policy Sidebar and available at, stated

“Protecting the rights of crime victims and their families does not necessarily require an overblown reliance on the passionate testimony of a victim or his or her family. Looking out for the rights of victims also does not necessarily require that penalties be imposed for the express purpose of causing the victim to suffer out of revenge for the suffering the offender caused. We must heed the words of Justice Gorsuch that a prisoner condemned to death is not guaranteed a painless death, perhaps because of the pain he inflicted. Nonetheless, we similarly should never forget the profound observation of Justice Brennan that as a society, “we have no desire to kill criminals simply to get even with them.’ Revenge simply has no legitimate role to play in our criminal justice system.”



Raymond A. Schroth, SJ, Jesuit Priest and Community Professor of the Humanities at St. Peter’s College, in a Sep. 5, 2008 email response to, wrote:

“Retribution is just another word for revenge,  and the desire for revenge is one of the lowest human emotions — perhaps sometimes understandable, but not really a rational response to a critical situation. For a Christian,  this is an urge to use  violence for one’s own purposes, and urge which should be resisted. To kill the person who has killed someone close to you is simply to continue the cycle of violence  which ultimately destroys the  avenger as well as the offender.

That this  execution somehow give ‘closure’ to a tragedy is a myth. Expressing one’s violence simply reinforces the desire to express it. Just as expressing anger simply makes us more angry. It does not drain away. It contaminates the otherwise good will  which any human being needs to progress in love and understanding.”

Sep. 5, 2008


Amnesty International, in a Sep. 2007 document retrieved from its website titled “The Death Penalty v. Human Rights, Why Abolish the Death Penalty?,” offered the following:

“When the arguments of deterrence and incapacitation fall away, one is left with a more deep-seated justification for the death penalty: that of just retribution for the particular crime committed. According to this argument, certain people deserve to be killed as repayment for the evil done: there are crimes so offensive that killing the offender is the only just response.

It is an emotionally powerful argument. It is also one which, if valid, would invalidate the basis for human rights. If a person who commits a terrible act can ‘deserve’ the cruelty of death, why cannot others, for similar reasons, ‘deserve’ to be tortured or imprisoned without trial or simply shot on sight? Central to fundamental human rights is that they are inalienable. They may not be taken away even if a person has committed the most atrocious of crimes. Human rights apply to the worst of us as well as to the best of us, which is why they protect all of us.

What the argument for retribution boils down to, is often no more than a desire for vengeance masked as a principle of justice. The desire for vengeance can be understood and acknowledged but the exercise of vengeance must be resisted. The history of the endeavour to establish the rule of law is a history of the progressive restriction of personal vengeance in public policy and legal codes.”

Sep. 2007


The Lancet, a British peer-reviewed medical journal, in an Apr. 16, 2005 editorial titled “Medical Collusion in the Death Penalty: An American Atrocity,” offered the following:

“What justification can there be for capital punishment at all? The two main arguments for the death penalty are deterrence and retribution. Few experts believe that the threat of capital punishment is an effective deterrent. That leaves retribution. But to justify capital punishment, the retribution must be meted out fairly, and that is clearly not the case. In only 1% of murders do prosecutors seek the death penalty. Whether you receive the death penalty depends not on what you have done, but where you committed your crime, what colour your skin is, and how much money you have.”

Apr. 16, 2005