“The question with which we must deal is not whether a substantial
proportion of American citizens would today, if polled, opine that capital punishment is
barbarously cruel, but whether they would find it to be so in light of all information
presently available.”- Justice Thurgood Marshall
Imagine a man who commits murder once, is given a fifteen-year jail sentence
and is returned to the streets where he kills again. He is imprisoned again only to be
released. This could happen since almost one in ten death row inmates has been
convicted of murder at least once.
That means that some death row inmates have been
given more than one chance to rehabilitate in prison and continue to commit violent
crimes. Should the United States justice system continue to let violent criminals back on
the streets where they are likely to commit murder again? Capital punishment is one of
the oldest forms of punishment in the world. Most societies have considered it a fair
punishment for severe crimes.
It is even mentioned as an appropriate punishment in
the Bible. American colonists used capital punishment before the United States was a
country, and most states use it today. Currently, however, there is a great deal of
controversy surrounding the death penalty. Capital cases are long and expensive, and
there is no proof as to whether capital punishment deters crime. For these reasons total
abolition may be the best way to resolve the capital punishment controversy. If the laws
concerning capital punishment were modified, however, capital punishment could
become much cheaper, and possibly a lot more effective. – Steve Brinker Capital
Since the beginning of man, people have been put to death. Capital
punishment has been used all over the world as a means of punishing people for their
crimes. Here in America, people are usually given a trial for their crime, judged upon by
the jury and judge, and then finally decided upon their final verdict. If the crime is
serious enough, the person is sent to spend time on death row in a maximum-security
prison. The judge then sets a date when the person is to be executed. The person has an
opportunity to appeal, which must be granted by the governor in the state in which the
person is imprisoned. If the person is pardoned, then they will set another date for
execution, or they will spend the rest of their lives on death row. If the pardon is denied,
then the person will be sent to die on the scheduled day.
Now I would like to give you a few examples of famous, and not so famous cases
of people who were sentenced to be executed:
·Thomas More: was executed in the 1700s for being a “traitor” to the Roman Catholic Church in England. According to the laws of his time…. The accused man had no “rights” in the contemporary sense. There was no presumption of innocence, and the prisoner was given no opportunity to call witnesses in his defense… Thomas More was convicted of being contempt, and not following the rules of the church. He was sentenced to death by having his head cut off with an axe. After his death, the flesh was boiled off of his head, it was then impaled upon a pole raised above the London Bridge.
·Julius and Ethel Rosenberg: This is probably one of the most famous cases of espionage in American History. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted for transmitting Atomic Military Secrets to the U.S.S.R., and were labeled Communist Spies. This case was ended with a double death sentence, they were both sent to die in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison.
·George Stinney Jr.: was the youngest person to be legally executed in the United States in the 20th Century. In 1944, George Stinney Jr., a 14 year old black male, was convicted of stabbing two young white females with railroad spikes in the head. Despite his age, he was convicted in less than 90 days after the murders. He was electrocuted in Central Correctional institution in Columbia, S.C.
·Andrew Lavern Smith: On December 18, 1998, a man by the name of Andrew Smith became the 500th execution in the United States since capital punishment became reinstated in 1976. He was lethally injected in Columbia, S.C. He had been convicted for murdering an elderly couple after they refused to let him borrow their car.
·Joshua Phillips: On the local standpoint, Joshua Phillips was convicted for the murder of Maddie Clifton here in Jacksonville. Yet, because of his age, 14 at the time of the murder, he was sentenced to life at Wakulla Correctional Institution, instead of death, which is usually given for pre-meditated murder in the 1st degree. Why was he sentenced to die like George Stinney Jr.? That question is in the open.
These are only a few examples of the thousands of people who have been
executed over time of man. It would be nearly impossible to sit and write all the
cases. I personally believe that capital punishment is a necessity in our society. Without
it, our prisons would be way overcrowded, and who knows? These people could once
again possibly escape back into the public, then we would have to live our lives in fear.
The practice of execution is as old as civilization itself. From ancient Sumeria to modern executions by lethal injection, capital punishment has been practiced by almost every society in the world. Each culture has it’s own rites and rituals, but the feeling of a justified retribution is held by almost every ethnic and civil group in the world. Yet the debate over its efficacy and morality continues unabated to this day.
The history of capital punishment begins with the translations of Hammurabi’s Code, the oldest legal document ever discovered. While the precise date of Hammurabi’s Code of Laws is disputed by scholars, it is generally believed to have been written between the second year of his reign, circa 1727 BCE, and the end of his reign, circa 1780 BCE, predating the Hebrew “Ten Commandments” by about 500 years. Perhaps the single most striking feature of Hammurabi’s Code is its commitment to protection of the weak from being brutalized by the strong. He believed that he had been ordained by his gods Anu (God of the Sky) and Bel (The Lord of Heaven and Earth, the God of Destiny) to establish the rule of law and justice over his people. It is believed by many historians, that the practice of execution even predates the code. The laws were merely administered by an assembly of elders and the acts of execution were usually performed by the victim’s family in cases of murder, rape, and other atrocities. The concept of an “eye for an eye ” or post mortem retribution was used as justification. Basically, execution began as an act of revenge.
From there, the death penalty continued to evolve. We find references to execution in the works of Charles Dickens, Voltaire, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The severity of the laws changed over the course of history, providing for other alternatives, but the need for retribution remained. With the expansion of the British Empire to the New World execution in the respect that we think of it today was introduced to North America.
The first recorded incident of a man being put to death in the territory now known as the United States of America was of Daniel Frank, put to death in 1622 in the Colony of Virginia for the crime of theft. Since then the death penalty has almost always been a feature of the criminal justice system, first in the American colonies and then, after independence, in the U.S. It was upheld throughout the birth of the burgeoning nation and continued into the expansion west. During the Civil War, most death sentences were provided for deserters and traitors. As the United States continued to grow, many western territories, with the lack of dedicated police forces, looked to vigilante groups to provide justice to criminals. This usually resulted in the accused being hung, without trial or jury.
The United States did not begin to keep regular statistics on the death penalty until 1930. From 1930, the first year for which statistics are readily available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, to 1967, 3,859 persons were executed under civil (that is, nonmilitary) jurisdiction in the United States. The vast majority of those executed were men; 32 women were executed from 1930 to 1967. Three out of five executions during that period took place in the southern U.S. The state of Georgia had the highest number
of executions during the period, totaling 366 — more than nine percent of the national total. Texas followed with 297 executions; New York with 329; California with 292; and North Caroline with 263. Most executions — 3,334 of 3,859 — were for the crime of murder; 455 prisoners (12%) — ninety percent of them black — were executed for rape; 70 prisoners were executed for other offenses.
By the end of the 1960s, all but 10 states had laws authorizing capital punishment, but strong pressure by forces opposed to the death penalty resulted in an unofficial moratorium on executions for several years, with the last execution during this period taking place in 1967. Prior to this, an average of 130 executions per year occurred. Legal challenges to the death penalty culminated in a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 153 (1972), which struck down federal and state capital punishment laws permitting wide discretion in the application of the death penalty. The majority ruled that they constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the due process guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment. Only two of the justices concurring in the decision declared capital punishment to be unconstitutional in all instances, however; other concurrences focused on the abitrariness of the application of capital punishment, including the appearance of racial bias against black defendants. In all, nine separate opinions — five invalidating existing laws and four arguing for their retention — were written by the nine Supreme Court justices spelling out their different views on what constituted the “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. More than 600 death row inmates who had been sentenced to death between 1967 and 1972 had their death sentences lifted as a result of Furman, but the numbers quickly began to build up again as states enacted revised legislation tailored to satisfy the Supreme Court’s objections to arbitrary imposition of death sentences. The first execution under the new death penalty laws took place on January 17, 1977, when convicted murdered Gary Gilmore was executed by firing squad in Utah. Gilmore’s was the first execution in the United States since 1967. Since the 1976 Gregg decision upholding the constitutionality of Georgia’s death penalty law, numerous states have reinstated capital punishment in their statutes. The most recent state to enact a death penalty law was New York in 1995. As of January 1998, 38 states and the federal government have capital punishment laws in effect. Alaska, eleven other states Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin — and the District of Columbia do not have a death penalty.
Racial Disparities in Capital Sentencing
One argument that opponents of capital punishment make is that it is meted out
unfairly. They argue two main points: 1) that minorities, especially blacks, are
substantially over-represented on death row and 2) the murders of minorities are not
considered capital cases with even comparable frequency to the murders of whites. In
this section I will address each of these points beginning with the first.
When it comes to the question of representation on death row, it is obvious to almost
anyone that blacks are severely over-represented. African-Americans total approximately
12 percent of the population of America, while they make up approximately 39 percent of
those executed over the last 20 years and 42 percent of those awaiting execution on death
row. This over-representation has long been the case and has been addressed by virtually
every legislative body in America as well as by the Supreme Court. In the landmark case
Furman Vs. Georgia in 1972 the Supreme Court overturned existing death penalty
statutes on the grounds that those selected to die were chose primarily on the basis of
race. In this case the Supreme Court issued a temporary moratorium on capital
sentencing. The moratorium ended in 1976 when the Court cleared the way for states to
resume executions provided that the state statutes applied racially neutral standards for
death sentences. This however, has not been the case, as we shall see with the
The second question is whether or not the lives of blacks and whites are looked upon
equally when deciding if a murderer will get the death penalty. Again the answer to the
question is straightforward, no. Out of the total number of cases in which a prisoner has
been executed in the past 20 years, in only 12 percent of the cases was the victim black,
while in 80 percent of the cases the victim was white. This becomes more shocking
when we realize that whites are victims in less than half of the murders committed in
America annually. I offer the state of Georgia as an example, in this state alone over 60
percent of murder victims since 1972 have been black, however of the 22 total executed
in that state during this period of time 20 were charged with the murders of whites, only
two were executed for killing a black person. So while cases in which the murder victim
is black account for more than 60 percent of total murders, only 9 percent of the people
executed in Georgia had a black victim, while in the other 91 percent of cases the victim
was white. The conclusion to be drawn from this is obvious, that a defendant is more
likely to be charged with the death penalty if the victim is white. While it is true that
states like Georgia and Mississippi are notorious for racism (in Mississippi a defendant is
5.5 times more likely to receive a death sentence if the victim is white), these types of
disparities are the case all over America, not only in the south. For example, in Illinois
the odds of a death sentence are 4 times higher if the victim is white, and in Philadelphia
These types of glaring disparities fuel many debates over whether or not capital
punishment should even be administered in America. Many people who oppose the death
penalty do so because the method of sentencing is obviously racially motivated. These
types of problems are not, however, indicative of a problem with America’s system of
capital punishment anywhere near as much as they are indicative of the attitude of
America as a country. There are a number of issues that I will not be addressing in detail
(like the number of innocent African-Americans freed from death row; or the percentage
of executed rapists who were black and charged with raping a white woman) but they all
lead to one conclusion, that in America the lives of whites are more valuable than the
lives of blacks. The problem is not that the idea of capital punishment is, in this respect,
fatally flawed; instead the problem is the attitude of the people administering justice.
In thirty-eight states of the United States it is legal to impose the death penalty. There are currently five different legal methods of executing a prisoner. They are lethal injection, electrocution, gas chamber, hanging, and firing squad(Peacenet).
Lethal injection is legal in twenty-seven states. This method is a series of shots administered to the prisoner to relax, knockout, and then kill them. First, though, the prisoner is given an antihistamine to help against the coughing which the following drugs can bring on. The next shot used is sodium thiopentone which is a very rapid acting anaesthetic. Then, pancuronium bromide is given to relax the respiratory muscles to make the prisoner unconscious. Finally, potassium chloride is administered to stop the heart. It is not this simple though, each drug has to be given with the correct dosage and at specific timed intervals(Abbott, 297). Due to the preciseness needed throughout this method, a man named Fred Leuchter developed an automatic machine to correctly administer the various drug at the appropriate times(Abbott, 298). Many states currently view this machine as the most humane way to kill a prisoner.
The next most commonly found method of execution is by electrocution. It is currently legal in twelve states. In this process the prisoner is strapped to a wooden chair with large leather straps and three electrodes are placed on the body, one to the head and one to each ankle. The electrode placed on the prisoners head is “a leather helmet lined with copper screening and moistened sponge material”(Abbott, 113). This helmet allows for some important wiring to also be connected. It is also necessary to administer the correct amount of voltage to minimize the amount of pain, too little and the prisoner suffers more, but too much and flesh would be grilled and the brain fried. It has been determined that at least two thousand volts AC are needed(Abbott, 113).
The gas chamber is currently only legal in five states. After several tests on animals the founders concluded that the following set-up was best for administering the deadly gas. In an octagonal steel cubicle there are two chairs bolted to the floor. Beneath each chair is a bowl and above it is a cheesecloth bag containing one pound of sodium cyanide crystals or pellets. In another room a mixture of sulfuric acid and distilled water is made. After the prisoner is strapped to the chair and the door locked, the bag of sodium cyanide is lowered into the sulfuric acid mixture. This combination makes hydrocyanic gas killing the prisoner(Abbott,161-164).
Surprisingly enough hanging and firing squad each are still legal in two states. Hanging has been performed in several of different ways, too numerous to go into detail of all of them. Basically, the prisoner has a rope placed around the neck and is then has the feet pushed, pulled, or dropped from beneath them. The rope needs to be a specific length for the individual prisoner though; too short and the vertebrae would not break and they would die slowly of suffocation, but too long and the head could literally tear off(Abbott 234-279).
Death by firing squad, like hanging, has been used throughout the ages since the
gun was first invented. The number of people firing, the guns used, and where the bullet
is aimed varies greatly. Some contend that a shot to the head is more effective than a
shot to the chest. The distance between the executioner and the prisoner along with
shooting from the front or the back is debatable (Abbott,130-155). This like any other
method of execution is debatable and has had its fair share of mishaps.
For obvious reasons, the question of state-sponsored executions has raised
passions on both sides of the issue. Whether or not the state has a right to kill its own
citizens, and if so, under what circumstances, is a moral question of the highest order.
Both proponents and opponents of capital punishment have looked to the Bible to
support their views. The Christian church, itself, is far from united on this issue. Some
point to the Old Testament, wherein one finds the Sixth Commandment, “Thou shalt not
kill.” On the surface, this seems a straightforward proscription of the death penalty.
Many dispute this, however, as the word most commonly translated as “kill” is in reality
more accurately translated as “murder”. Their view is that to punish a murderer by taking
his life does not constitute “murder”, and therefore there is not in conflict with the Sixth
Another view states that capital punishment is contrary to the Bible’s teaching of
love for one’s neighbor as we love ourselves. Just as popular is the argument that
vengeance is not the domain of those of us here on Earth, but is reserved only for God.
The New Testament book of Romans 12:17-19 states, “Recompense to no man
evil for evil… Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves… Vengeance is mine; I will
repay.” This argument neatly dovetails with the somewhat oversimplified view that “two
wrongs don’t make a right.” However, Romans 12:17-19 is followed closely by Romans
There is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God… If thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.
This passage clearly establishes the state as an instrument of God, authorized by Him to
carry out His will. Arguably, it also establishes the right of the state to administer capital
punishment to those that “doeth evil”.
Perhaps the most popular Biblical passage used in opposition to the death penalty
is found in John 8:1-11. This is the well-known parable of the condemned adulteress
about to be stoned to death, until Jesus says, “He that is without sin among you, let him
In the absence of clear Biblical direction on this matter, various other moral
arguments have been made both for and against capital punishment. As discussed above,
the racial dimension alone has led many to repudiate the practice. Another commonly
used argument is centered on the possibility of executing the innocent. If a single
innocent citizen is deliberately killed by his own government, the argument goes, then
that government is guilty of pre-meditated murder, and does not have the moral authority
to administer capital punishment. As it happens, since 1900, at least 23 people have been
executed in America who were later found to have been innocent of the crimes for which
they were put to death. In addition, 350 more have been found not guilty while on Death
Still another point raised by those opposed to capital punishment is that the death
penalty contributes to a “culture of violence”. They believe that state-sponsored
execution only serves to further lower the value society places on human life, making
additional crimes and murders only more likely to occur, not less.
Perhaps the strongest arguments in favor of capital punishment, as well as those
most popular among the general citizenry, are those centered around the principle of
retribution. Some crimes are so heinous, it is believed, that only through the extreme
punishment of execution can justice be served. This case of execution-as-retribution can
be classified as lex talionis, a term from the Greek meaning “punishment in kind”. The
alternative form of retributive punishment is known as lex salica, or “punishment through
payment or atonement”. This belief in retribution for the most heinous of crimes is
shared by a majority of Americans, including this author, but by no means all.
Capital punishment has been an instrument of government authority since it was
first written into Hammurabi’s Code nearly four thousand years ago, if not before. In
today’s modern, more “enlightened” times, many find the practice barbaric, and object on
principle. Others believe the practice is sometimes justified, but object on grounds of
iniquities in its application. Still others believe capital punishment lacks “teeth”, and
would be a more effective deterrent to crime if used less sparingly, and with less of the
Byzantine judicial process currently required. Recent reforms here in Florida reflect the
latter view. In an effort to reduce the time actually spent on Death Row by the
condemned, the State of Florida is altering its law to require that all appeals be complete
within five years of sentencing in the absence of new evidence, and must be submitted
simultaneously, not sequentially. At the same time, other states, such as Illinois, have
imposed a moratorium on executions. It is an issue few are in total agreement about.
Most Americans, however, agree that in the most heinous, horrific cases, the condemned
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