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Death Penalty

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The first established death penalty laws date as far back as the Eighteenth Century B.C. in the Code of King Hammaurabi of Babylon, which codified the death penalty for twenty-five different crimes. The death penalty was also part of the Fourteenth Century B.C.’s Hittite Code; in the Seventh Century B.C.’s Draconian Code of Athens, which made death the only punishment for all crimes; and in the Fifth Century B.C.’s Roman Law of the Twelve Tablets. Death sentences were carried out by such means as crucifixion, drowning, beating to death, burning alive, and impalement.

In the Tenth Century A.D., hanging became the usual method of execution in Britain. In the following century, William the Conqueror would not allow persons to be hanged or otherwise executed for any crime, except in times of war. This trend would not last, for in the Sixteenth Century, under the reign of Henry VIII, as many as 72,000 people are estimated to have been executed. Some common methods of execution at that time were boiling, burning at the stake, hanging, beheading, and drawing and quartering. Executions were carried out for such capital offenses as marrying a Jew, not confessing to a crime, and treason (Bedau 3).

The number of capital crimes in Britain continued to rise throughout the next two centuries. By the 1700s, 222 crimes were punishable by death in Britain, including stealing, cutting down a tree, and robbing a rabbit warren. Because of the severity of the death penalty, many juries would not convict defendants if the offense were not serious. This lead to reforms of Britain’s death penalty. From 1823 to 1837, the death penalty was eliminated for over 100 of the 222 crimes punishable by death (Bender and Leone 16).

Britain influenced America’s use of the death penalty more than any other country. When European settlers came to the new world, they brought the practice of capital punishment. The first recorded execution in the new colonies was that of Captain George Kendall in the Jamestown colony of Virginia in 1608. Kendall was executed for being a spy for Spain. In 1612, Virginia Governor, Sir Thomas Dale, enacted the Divine, Moral and Martial Laws, which provided the death penalty for even minor offenses such as stealing grapes, killing chickens, and trading with Indians.

Laws regarding the death penalty varied from colony to colony. The Massachusetts Bay Colony held its first execution in 1630, even though the Capital Laws of New England did not go into effect until years later. The New York Colony instituted the Duke’s Laws of 1665. Under these laws, offenses such as striking one’s mother or father, or denying the “true God”, were punishable by death (Bender and Leone 17).

In the early to mid-Nineteenth Century, the abolitionist movement gained momentum in the northeast. In the early part of the century, many states reduced the number of their capital crimes and built state penitentiaries. In 1834, Pennsylvania became the first state to move executions away from the public eye and carrying them out in correctional facilities.

In 1846, Michigan became the first state to abolish the death penalty for all crimes except treason. Later, Rhode Island and Wisconsin abolished the death penalty for all crimes. By the end of the century, the world would see the countries of Venezuela, Portugal, Netherlands, Costa Rica, Brazil, and Ecuador follow suit (Bedau 6).

Although some U.S. states began abolishing the death penalty, most states held on to capital punishment. Some states made more crimes capital offenses, especially for offenses committed by slaves. In 1838, in an effort to make the death penalty more palatable to the public, some states began passing laws against mandatory death sentencing, instead, enacting discretionary death penalty statutes. This introduction of sentencing discretion in the capital process was perceived as a victory for abolitionists because prior to the enactment of these statutes, all states mandated the death penalty for anyone convicted of a capital crime, regardless of circumstances. With the exception of a small number of rarely committed crimes in a few jurisdictions, all mandatory capital punishment laws had been abolished by 1963 (Bender and Leone 20).

During the Civil War, opposition to the death penalty waned, as more attention was given to the anti-slavery movement. After the war, new developments in the means of executions emerged. The electric chair was introduced at the end of the century. New York built the first electric chair in 1888, and in 1890 executed William Kemmler. Soon, other states adopted this execution method (Bedau 8).

Although some states abolished the death penalty in the mid-Nineteenth Century, it was actually the first half of the Twentieth Century that marked the beginning of the “Progressive Period” of reform in the United States. From 1907 to 1917, six states completely outlawed the death penalty and three limited it to the rarely committed crimes of treason and first-degree murder of a law enforcement official. However, this reform was short-lived. There was a frenzied atmosphere in the U.S., as citizens began to panic about the threat of revolution in the wake of the Russian Revolution. In addition, the U.S. had just entered World War I and there were intense class conflicts as socialists mounted the first serious challenge to capitalism. As a result, five of the six abolitionist states reinstated their death penalty by 1920 (Bender and Leone 24).

In 1924, the use of cyanide gas was introduced, as Nevada sought a more humane way of executing its inmates. Gee John was the first person executed by lethal gas. The state tried to pump cyanide gas into John’s cell while he slept, but this proved impossible, and the gas chamber was constructed.

From the 1920s to the 1940s, there was a resurgence in the use of the death penalty. This was due, in part, to the writings of criminologists, who argued that the death penalty was a necessary social measure. In the United States, Americans were suffering through Prohibition and the Great Depression. There were more executions in the 1930s than in any other decade in American history, an average of 167 per year.

In the 1950s, public sentiment began to turn away from capital punishment. Many allied nations either abolished or limited the death penalty, and in the U.S., the number of executions dropped dramatically. Whereas there were 1,289 executions in the 1940s, there were 715 in the 1950s, and the number fell even further, to only 191, from 1960 to 1976. In 1966, support for capital punishment reached an all-time low. A Gallup poll showed support for the death penalty at only 42% (Bender and Leone 29).

Execution has been a common punishment throughout the world since the Middle Ages, and was inflicted for a large number of crimes including petty offenses involving property. In England, during the Eighteenth Century, death was the punishment for several hundred specific offenses. Most death sentences also involved torture, such as burning at the stake, breaking on the wheel, and slow strangulation.

Such severe punishment and torture began to die out in the Eighteenth Century when a democratic political philosophy and humanitarian movement grew in strength. The number of offenses punishable by death was reduced in all leading countries. Also, penalties involving torture disappeared with the idea that punishment and death should be swift and humane, whether by guillotine, hanging, the garotte, or the headman’s axe (Bobit).

A trend also began to develop in which life imprisonment was a suitable alternative punishment to death.

Burning at the stake was a popular death sentence and means of torture, used mostly for heretics, witches, and suspicious women. Burning dates back to the Christian era, where in 643, an edict declared it illegal to burn witches.

However, the increased persecution of witches throughout the centuries resulted in millions of women being burned at the stake. The first major witch-hunt occurred in Switzerland in 1427. Throughout the 1500 and 1600’s, witch trials became common throughout Germany, Austria, Switzerland, England, Scotland, and Spain during the Inquisition.

Soon after, witch trials began to decline in parts of Europe, and in England, the death penalty for witches was abolished. The last legal execution by burning at the stake came with the end of the Spanish Inquisition in 1834.

The wheel as a method of torture and execution could be used in a number of ways. A person could be attached to the outer rim of the wheel and then rolled over sharp spikes, or down a hill, to his or her death. Also, the wheel could be laid on its side, like a turntable, with the person tied to it. The wheel would turn, and people would take turns beating the victim with iron bars, breaking bones and eventually death. This method was used throughout Europe, especially during the Middle Ages.

The guillotine became a popular form of execution in France in 1789, when Dr. Joseph Guillotin proposed that all criminals be executed by the same method and that torture should be kept to a minimum. Finally, after many improvements and trials, the blade was perfected, and the first execution by guillotine took place in 1792. It was widely used during the French Revolution, where many of the executions were held publicly outside of the prison of Versailles. The last public execution by guillotine was held in France, in June 1939. The last official use came in 1977 in France, and the device has not officially been used since (“Guillotine” 552).

Hanging was a popular way of both executing and torturing a person, with many devices available to aid in the procedure. The prisoner could simply be hanged with a noose, fracturing the neck. However, if torture was to be inflicted, many methods were available. Often, a person would be drawn and quartered before being hanged. For extremely serious crimes such as high treason, hanging alone was not enough. Therefore, a prisoner would be carved into pieces while still alive before being hanged (“Hanging” 681).

The Garotte was also a popular method of torture, and similar to hanging. A mechanical device such as a rack or a gag would be tightened around the person’s neck, causing slow strangulation, stretching, and obstruction of blood vessels. A device could also be placed in a prisoner’s mouth and kept in place by tying and locking a chain around his or her neck.

Headman’s Axe was a form of execution that was quite popular in Germany and England during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, where decapitation was thought to be the most humane form of capital punishment. An executioner, usually hooded, would chop off the person’s head with an axe or sword. The last beheading took place in 1747, and the axe used is on display at the Tower of London (“Beheading” 50).

Today, with a greater interest in humanitarianism, capital punishment has become less gruesome than the beheadings and torture that were commonplace centuries before. Lethal injection, electrocution, and lethal gas have become the preferred methods of execution in the United States, mostly because these methods appear to be less offensive to the public, and more humane for the prisoner.

Death by lethal injection involves the continuous intravenous injection of a lethal quantity of three different drugs. The prisoner is secured on a gurney with lined ankle and wrist restraints. A cardiac monitor and a stethoscope are attached, and two saline intravenous lines are started, one in each arm. The inmate is then covered with a sheet. The saline intravenous lines are turned off, and Sodium Thiopental is injected, causing the inmate to fall into a deep sleep. The second chemical agent, Pancuronium Bromide, a muscle relaxer, follows. This causes the inmate to stop breathing due to paralyses of the diaphragm and lungs. Finally, Potassium Chloride is injected, stopping the heart (Vila and Morris 283).

Some say that lethal injection is the most humane form of execution, but many doctors say it can be difficult to administer because many prisoners have scarred veins due to drug use or diabetes. If the veins are hard to reach, minor surgery might be necessary to find a deeper vein.

Thirty-four states use lethal injection as their chosen form of execution. Since 1976, 406 prisoners have died by lethal injection in the United States.

In typical execution using the electric chair, a prisoner is strapped to a specially built chair, his head and body shaved to provide better contact with the moistened copper electrodes that the executioner attaches. Usually three or more executioners push buttons, but only one is connected to the actual electrical source so the real executioner is not known. The jolt varies is power from state to state, and is also determined by the convict’s body weight. The first jolt is followed by several more in a lower voltage. Electrocution produces visibly destructive effects on the body, as the internal organs are burned. The prisoner usually leaps forward against the restraints when the switch is thrown. The body changes color, swells, and may even catch fire. The prisoner may also defecate, urinate, and vomit blood.

Today the electric chair is used in eleven states. Arkansas, Kentucky, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia authorize both lethal injection and electrocution, allowing some inmates to choose the method. Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Nebraska, however, use electrocution as the sole means of execution. Since 1976, 144 people have died by electric chair (Vila and Morris 68).

In an execution using lethal gas, the prisoner is restrained and sealed in an airtight chamber. When given the signal, the executioner opens a valve, allowing hydrochloric acid to flow into a pan. Upon another signal, either potassium cyanide or sodium cyanide crystals are dropped mechanically into the acid, producing hydrocyanic gas.

The hydrocyanic gas destroys the body’s ability to process blood hemoglobin, and unconsciousness can occur within a few seconds if the prisoner takes a deep breath. However, if the prisoner holds his or her breath, death can take much longer, and the prisoner usually goes into wild convulsions. Death usually occurs within six to eighteen minutes. After the pronouncement of death, the chamber is evacuated through carbon and neutralizing filters. Crews wearing gas masks decontaminate the body with a bleach solution, and it is out gassed before being released. If this process were not done, the undertaker or anyone handling the body would be killed.

The use of a gas chamber for execution was inspired by the use of poisonous gas in World War I, as well as the popularity of the gas oven as a means of suicide. Nevada was the first state to sanction the use of the gas chamber, and the first execution by lethal gas took place in February 1924. Since then, it has been a means of carrying out the death sentence 31 times. Five states authorize the use of the gas chamber as an alternative to lethal injection: Arizona, California, Maryland, Missouri, and Wyoming. In most cases, the prisoner is allowed to choose the method of execution, depending on his or her date of sentencing. Eleven people have been executed by lethal gas in the United States since 1976 (Vila and Morris 79).

Firing squad still remains a method of execution in Utah and Idaho, although each allow lethal injection as an alternative method and only Utah allows the inmate to choose this method. For execution by this method, the inmate is typically bound to a chair with leather straps across his waist and head, in front of an oval-shaped canvas wall. The chair is surrounded by sandbags to absorb the inmate’s blood. A black hood is pulled over the inmate’s head. A doctor locates the inmate’s heart with a stethoscope and pins a circular white cloth target over it. Standing in an enclosure 20 feet away, five shooters are armed with .30 caliber rifles loaded with single rounds. One of the shooters is given blank rounds. Each of the shooters aims his rifle through a slot in the canvas and fires at the inmate. The prisoner dies as a result of blood loss caused by rupture of the heart or a large blood vessel, or tearing of the lungs. The person shot loses consciousness when shock causes a fall in the supply of blood to the brain. If the shooters miss the heart, by accident or intention, the prisoner bleeds to death slowly (Vila and Morris