You have already learned about the Supreme Court Ruling on the Juvenile Death Penalty. In this assignment, you will learn about the history of the Death Penalty and the current debate as it relates to adults. The writing assignment instructions are at the bottom of this page.
This purpose of this assignment is to help you understand the use of the death penalty in America. It will provide you with a history of the death penalty and the historical rationales for the use of this punishment. It will review the methods of execution, a world view of the death penalty and financial costs associated with the death penalty. This assignment is not intended to persuade you to assume a particular view (for or against) the punishment. The goal of this assignment was to provide you with a scholarly and balanced view of the death penalty as practiced in America.
Each individual will have a different perspective, based on many variables; religion, political beliefs, ethical and moral beliefs, life experience, knowledge, family views, customs, individual factors like; age, sex, fear of crime, prior victimization, and other factors.
The death penalty is a practice that was brought to America from England. Ironically, England has abolished the death penalty, which I will explain later. The death penalty in America has an interesting history, which I review below. Historically, there have been three primary rationales for capital punishment; Deterrence, Retribution and Repentance.
“The Virginia Gazette observed that capital punishment was a way of ‘Counterbalancing Temptation by Terror'” Banner (2003). During the 18th century the hangings were public and covered in detail by the press. The Gazette went on to say that the executed criminal was “an Example and Warning, to prevent others from those Courses that lead to so fatal and ignominious a conclusion: – and thus those Men whose Lives are no longer of any Use in the World, are made of some Service to it by their Deaths” Banner (2003).
Retribution: “Punishment inflicted on someone as vengeance for a wrong or criminal act.” Retribution comes from the “Latin retributio(n-), from retribut- ‘assigned again.” Thus, it is the act of re-assigning the harm done, to the harm giver. Source:
Crime was seen as an evil caused by an individual’s intentional choice. “Failure to punish the crime would spread the criminals guilt to the entire community.” Banner (2003)
“Capital punishment was also understood in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to facilitate the criminals repentance. It was of paramount importance that one should die in the proper frame of mind, because on that mental state depended, in large part, one’s eternal fate after death.” Banner (2003) The idea was that the impending execution would concentrate the mind, such that you would be brought to Christ and avoid eternal damnation.
Executions in the 1700’s and 1800’s were public events. Hangings caused the largest gatherings in America. During these days, death would come swiftly after the conviction. Any delay after the conviction was simply the time required for the sheriff to build the gallows.
“Until the nineteenth century, hangings were conducted outdoors, often before thousands of spectators, as part of the larger ritual including a procession to the gallows, a sermon, and a speech by the condemned prisoner. Hangings were not macabre spectacles staged for a blood-thirsty crown. A hanging was normally a somber event, like a church service.” Banner (2003)
Over time, repentance assumed a more important role in the journey to the gallows. It became common place to have a period of days or weeks to allow the condemned to visit with preachers, admit guilt and ask for the communities forgiveness. Over time however, religion would play a much smaller role in the execution process. Ironically, today many religious groups now call for the abolition of capital punishment, including the Catholic Church.
By the early 1800’s, states were beginning to abolish the death penalty for many crimes. Prior to this time, the death penalty was a punishment for a great number of crimes including; burglary, robbery, arson, sodomy, bestiality, blasphemy, adultery, incest, murder, attempted murder, poaching deer, stealing small sums of money, smuggling tobacco, and a third conviction for theft. As some states moved away from the death penalty for many crimes, in the south, the death penalty remained for crimes committed by slaves or free blacks.
Beginning in the 1900’s there were repeated attempts to abolish the death penalty, both nationally and by individual states. There are entire books dedicated to describing the detailed history of the death penalty and attempts to abolish it. If I were to provide a highly over-simplified look at the course of abolition in America, it might look something like this;
1) The courts tried to abolish the death penalty, but it was reversed.
2) Some governors tried to abolish the death penalty, but it was reversed.
3) Some states tried to abolish the death penalty by ballot measures, but it was reversed.
In the first paragraph of this article, I stated that the death penalty was brought over from England. Ironically, in 1998 England abolished the death penalty. Because of the way the government and laws are structured in England, the British Parliament abolished capital punishment through law, even though the majority of the population approved of it.
In the US, more than half of Americans approve of the death penalty, and every time someone would attempt to abolish it, one of the legal avenues available in our legal system was utilized to reverse the decision. Legislatures overruled ballot measures, attorneys would use the courts to over-ride decisions made by governors, etc.
Today, the federal government does not prohibit the death penalty for adults and about half the states allow the use of the death penalty.
Death Penalty Methods
In the early days of the death penalty, you could be executed by a wide array of methods; hanging, firing squad, beheading, quartering, burning at the stake, drowning and others. More recent methods include gas chamber, electric chair and lethal injection.
During the 1700-1800’s, hanging was the most common method of execution and everyone in town was invited. Sometimes, school was let out so children could attend the executions. Hangings always made the front page of the papers. Lucky was the preacher who got to say the sermon at the hanging. Never again would he enjoy so great a level of attendance to a sermon. By the early 1900’s, the mood was changing about public executions. The crowds tended to be rowdy, with drunkenness reported, along with a carnival like environment. Upper class American’s began to look at hangings as entertainment only enjoyed by the lower classes. With the advent of America’s new penitentiaries or prisons, the hangings were able to be moved behind the walls of the prison. This limited the number of people who were able to attend hangings, which became exclusive events for the rich and the friends of the sheriff.
Hangings weren’t without controversy. Occasionally the gallows drop would be too far and the condemned individuals head would pop off and the body would fall to the ground with a thud. Even more likely, the gallows drop would be too short and the condemned individuals neck would not break and they would hang there for minutes choking, sometimes 15 or 20 minutes, with gurgling noises accompanied by violent convulsions as their body slowly died in distress. All of this occurred in front of a horrified audience.
With the advent of electricity, a new form of execution was established which was referred to as Electrocution. At first, electrocution looked like a neat and tidy fix for the failures prone to hangings. It was sold as more humane and always instantaneous. However in practice, electrocution had its own set of failures. Sometimes the condemned remained alive after the electrocution. Sometimes the condemned would be burnt with fire, smoke, and electric bolts emanating from the helmet that transferred the electricity into the condemned individual.
With the advent of the electric chair, the number of people who could attend executions was again diminished because the electric chairs had to be indoors in a room dedicated for its use. This also created a market for specialized executioners, who understood electricity.
The next advance in the technology of execution was the Gas Chamber. The condemned would be placed in a sealed room and exposed to poison gas. This wasn’t without it’s own set of problems. The gas was difficult to administer and challenging to provide safe viewing for the spectators.
Following the gas chamber, was the advent of Lethal Injection, which is now the most common method of execution. The typical method of lethal injection is for a series of drugs to be administered in a set sequence. First the condemned is rendered unconscious, then subsequent drugs paralyze the lungs and heart causing death, which is verified through the use of a heart monitor. Even this method, has seen a few problems with the condemned gasping and convulsing on the table for minutes on a few occasions. Executions have also had interruptions due to clogged veins or other technical issues.
Another look at Deterrence:
Scientific studies have generally found that the practice of capital punishment does not deter capital crime. Some studies find the opposite, that the practice of capital punishment may increase capital crimes like murder. Studies like these have given rise to what is known as the Brutalization Hypothesis, which simply states that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between executions and an increase in the homicide rate. The idea is that executions are not a deterrent, but increase homicide rates due to diminishing societies respect for life.
Another look at Repentance:
Religion had a strong influence on society during the 1700’s and 1800’s. As that influence waned and as executions became less accessible, the church’s role in executions faded significantly. Today, it would be rare to hear someone acknowledge that repentance was ever a goal of execution. The real irony is that many churches now oppose the death penalty, even the Catholic Church, who supported of the death penalty for centuries. The Catholic Church reversed it’s position with the publishing of Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae or Gospel of Life in 1995. In spite of many in the religious community opposing the death penalty, many advocates will argue that the bible encourages it.
Today, if we look at the historical rationales for capital punishment, only one remains: Retribution.
Another look at Retribution
In a recent Zoom interview with District Court Judge Mark Blechman, the judge stated that when he sentences someone to prison, the purpose of the sentence is retribution or punishment for violating the law. In our society, we believe that criminals deserve to be punished and that punishment should be proportional to the gravity of the crime. In this line of thinking, capital punishment is the most extreme punishment reserved for the most extreme crimes. One of the early philosophers who argued for proportional punishment was the Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria (1764). He was advocating for proportional punishment at a time when the punishment for most crimes was death. Beccaria also spoke out against the death penalty, “Is it not absurd, that the laws, which detest and punish homicide, should, in order to prevent murder, publicly commit murder themselves?”
Changing Tides for Capital Punishment
Over 70% of countries in the world have abolished the death penalty. The trend is that the number of countries that use of the death penalty is decreasing Just over 50 countries still practice the death penalty, including America. In this group are countries like China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. Some people predict that the death penalty in America will eventually be abolished. A review of the abolition literature for the last century makes it clear that there has been a majority will to retain capital punishment in the face of highly motivated abolitionist public leaders and organizations. However, the number of executions have dwindled due to political and legal challenges in the last twenty years.
In 2005, in the case of Roper V. Simmons, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty imposed on those who had committed their crimes under 18 years of age was considered cruel and unusual punishment. One of the justifications for this ruling was that we were the only country in the world that still officially sanctioned executing juveniles.
Capital Punishment may one day simply come down to dollars and cents decision. Keeping people on Death Row is very expensive. The legal challenges allowed by our laws are very expensive. Government audits and reports have shown that the cost of death penalty case through execution is two to three times as expensive as a life in prison case and lifetime incarceration. The additional cost of death penalty cases varies from state to state, but is roughly between $500,000 and $2 million dollars per death penalty inmate executed. The primary cause of the increased cost of the death penalty is due to the exhaustive legal processes. There have been attempts to reduce these costs by overhauls limiting appeals, setting strict timelines for the state and increasing the number of death penalty qualified lawyers, however, civil liberties have continued to sustain a lengthy and expensive process.
Look at the data below. Considering the number of reported homicides compared to the number of actual executions, you can see that they death penalty process is not very effective.
Data: Average Annual Estimate for the decade of the 1990’s.
22,000 Criminal homicides reported.
15,000 Arrests reported for persons charged with criminal homicide.
13,500 Number of homicide cases actually prosecuted.
10,000 Number of homicide convictions.
2-4,000 Death-eligible defendants.
300 Number sentenced to death.
55 Number actually executed.
Source: Debating the Death Penalty; Oxford (PP. 26-27)
Write three distinct paragraphs about the three most important things you learned about Capital Punishment from this article. The three paragraphs combined must total 200 words.