the death penalty


The death penalty has been in man’s society dating back to ancient times. There have been a variety of crimes that have been punishable by the death, anything from selling beer to murder. In modern society the death penalty , otherwise known as “capital punishment”, is still used to enforce the laws of man in many different cultures. As we move into the twenty-first century questions, both old and new, have been raised about this controversial topic. For example, is the death penalty an effective punishment for violent crimes? Or, should society have the right to kill a criminal in the best interest of mankind? Like any other controversial topic, there are many pros and cons but the real question is, which side is right?

The death penalty was enforced in almost every ancient civilization, including the Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Hebrews, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. Many of these civilizations provided cruel and harsh deaths for crimes that may be considered of minor offense today. For example under the code of Hammurabi if someone was caught selling beer , they would be killed (Encyclopedia Americana). If one accidentally sat on the King’s throne they would be sentenced to death under the Persian law (Encyclopedia Americana). In Rome, if a woman stole the keys to her husbands wine cellar she could be executed (Encyclopedia Americana). Although these crimes may seem a bit petty for the death penalty, ancient civilizations also punished the crimes of murder, rape, and treason with death. Not only were the crimes that were punishable by death a bit ridiculous in ancient times, but so were the methods and procedures of carrying out the execution. Nearly every execution was made into a public event. The town or city would gather to the place were the criminal was to be executed and would then watch or, in certain cases such as “stoning” , even participate in the execution. In time in became a ceremony , a part of the civilization’s culture. The methods in which the criminal would be put to death were often gruesome and barbaric. Some of the most common ways were stoning, boiling in oil, drowning, burning alive, and of course the crucifixion which was used in Rome (Encyclopedia Americana).

The ideal of death as being a punishment for committing certain crimes lasted even though the civilizations eventually crumbled. The laws set forth by these great civilizations were adapted and incorporated into many of the European and Asian countries during the medieval period in history. France became famous for their use of the “guillotine”, which was used to behead the prisoner in front of a public crowd. By the 1800’s, England had listed nearly two-hundred crimes as being punishable by death (Encarta Encyclopedia). In a time of absolute rule, an individual’s rights did not usually exist in society. One could be put to death based on accusations alone, whether they were reliable or not, did not matter.

The American Colonies obtained much of the English law, (including its laws on capital punishment), but the crimes that were punishable and the methods of execution that were used differed from colony to colony. For example, Massachusetts listed the following crimes as being punishable by death: witchcraft, murder, assault, adultery, perjury, capital crime, and rebellion. On the other hand, Pennsylvania listed only treason and murder as crimes punishable by death (Encyclopedia Americana). With these examples, one can see the variation of how each colony used the death penalty. This happened quite often due to the fact that there was no constant law that was applied to each and every colony. Each colony had there own set of rules or laws when dealing with the death penalty. Also, in the newly formed colonies, hanging was the preferred method of execution but there were other methods used including burning alive and “drawing and quartering” (Encyclopedia Americana).

Throughout the middle ages in Europe and into the colonial times in America, capital punishment was carried out to the extreme, often without a fair trial, if one at all. The executions were almost always done in the public and were usually barbaric and inhumane. It wasn’t until the 18th century that certain people began to believe that the current death penalty may not be the best solution to violent crimes (Encarta Encyclopedia). At this period in time, otherwise known as the Enlightenment, there were many philosophers and writers who began to go against the “norm” of society, and some questioned the death penalty and its humanity. The questions that were brought up by these people were ones like, is the death penalty inhumane?, is the death penalty necessary?, if so can the system be reformed to the point were the methods of execution are less barbaric and more civilized?

The Italian criminologist, economist and jurists named Cesare Beccaria was the first person to put his/her ideals about capital punishment reform onto paper. In his “Essay on Crimes and Punishments”(1764) Beccaria gave what he believed to be the solution to the questions mentioned before. He argued two main points in his essay that became very key points in the reform movement. One, he “argued against the severity’s and abuses of criminal law..”(Encarta Encyclopedia) , Beccaria believed that the punishments that were being handed down to criminals, such as death, were a little to extreme for the crime that was committed, such as adultery. He called for punishments that were more humane toward the prisoner and also supported the abolition of the death penalty all together. His second major point in his writing was that he “advocated education as a means of lessening crime”(Encarta Encyclopedia). His ideal of educating society in order to decrease crime became a very popular philosophy, especially in today’s modern thinking. Through the use of education people will have knowledge to distinguish between right and wrong, which consequently will lead to less crime and less need for the death penalty and other severe punishments. Cesare Beccaria’s essay influenced not only other philosophers and writers, such as Voltaire and Jeremy Bentham, to call for abolition of capital punishment but it also influenced countries around the world and the newly created colonies in America.

Venezuela became the first country to abolish the death penalty in 1853. In 1867 Portugal also abolished the death penalty ( England went from having over 200 crimes listed as being punishable by death during medieval times to having only 15 in 1834, which further decreased to 4 in 1861(Encyclopedia Americana). Today, England along with 80 (46%) other countries have abolished the death penalty altogether due to alternate punishments such as life in prison or rehabilitation of the prisoner ( The United States of America has yet to join this list.

It may be surprising to some, even with all the debate about capital punishment and it’s effectiveness that is currently going on in the U.S., but the United States still remains one of the leading countries in the amount of executions carried out per year. In fact, only China, Iran and Saudi Arabia carried out more executions than the United States in the year of 1999 (Encarta Encyclopedia). In 1999, ninety-eight executions took place in the U.S. As of July 1, 2000 there have currently been 52 executions for this year alone ( This may sound awful to some but, the fact remains that the majority of Americans favor the death penalty in polls year after year. Despite this, the argument still exists, between the people who favor capital punishment (proponents) and the people who do not favor capital punishment (opponents or abolitionists), that has existed in America since the days of the 13 colonies.

On December 15,1791 The Bill Of Rights was adopted to the U.S. Constitution. The purpose of these first ten amendments was to provide and protect the rights of America’s citizens. Amendment number eight, (which many believe was derived from the English Bill of Rights of 1689 which said “Excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted”), became a key amendment in future Supreme Court decisions regarding capital punishment. It stated that ” Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel or unusual punishments inflicted.” ( This amendment was the first time in American history that a limit was put into effect on the methods that one could be executed. For example, a prisoner could no longer be burned alive. In 1794 the state of Pennsylvania carried the 8th amendment a step further when the state legislature distinguished the difference between a first and second degree murder, and stated that only a person guilty of committing a first degree murder could be sentenced to death (Encyclopedia of American Constitution). A first degree murder is a murder that is committed while also committing another capital crime (for example, rape or robbery) as compared to a second degree murder which would simply be the act of murder without committing another capital crime. In 1845 the American Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment was organized and they presented abolition bills to state legislatures. In 1846 Louisiana passed a law within their state that converted the sentencing of the death penalty from being a mandatory punishment for certain crimes to a discretionary (optional) punishment (Encyclopedia of the American Constitution). The other option to capital punishment was life in prison, usually without bail. These two options were presented to the jury at the trial and the decision then rested in their hands.

Michigan became the first state to abolish the death penalty in the U.S. in 1847, but not all states followed their example. In 1972 the Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in regards to the eighth amendment. In the case Furman v. Georgia, a black man named William Furman was found guilty of murdering a white man and was sentenced to death by Georgia law. The Legal Defense Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) asked for an appeal to the Supreme Court on Furman’s behalf. The NAACP lawyers argued that since the sate law of Georgia gave “the jury free rein to impose capital punishment” (Patrick, John) that the jury’s decision could be unfair. The NAACP also argued that it was much more likely for a black man to be put on death row than a white man if the same crime was committed by both men. The Supreme Court decided, (in a 5-4 vote), that the death penalty was unconstitutional because “it led to random and unfair decisions”(Patrick, John) about who should receive the death penalty. Supreme Court Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall said (in separate opinions) that the death penalty was morally wrong and is always a violation of the eighth amendment. The other three justices who voted with Marshall and Brennan simply said that the death penalty was unconstitutional due to the lack of fairness within the state laws, in order for capital punishment to be considered constitutional these laws would have to be revised. For almost four and a half years not a single execution took place in the U.S. due to the decision in this case.

In 1976 Georgia revised their state laws so that they could once again use the death penalty as a means of punishment. In the Furman vs. Georgia case of 1972, the Supreme Court decided that the death penalty was not fair because a single jury not only decided the defendants guilt or innocence but they also decided whether the defendant would be sentenced to death or to life in prison (Patrick, John). The new Georgia law, which was brought in font of the Supreme Court in the case Gregg vs. Georgia in 1976 for review, changed this system of a “one phase procedure” to a “two phase procedure”(Patrick, John). What this means is that a person that who would be put on trial for 1st degree murder would now go through two trials, and consequently, two juries. The first jury would decide the defendants guilt or innocence. If the defendant was found guilty by the first trial than he would than have a second trial with a jury who’s job is to decide only if the crime that was committed deserves a sentence of death or a sentence of life in prison. At the Gregg vs. Georgia trial, the state of Georgia argued that the new system of laws fixed the problem that was presented in the Furman vs. Georgia case of 1972. Now, there would no longer be unfair decisions and sentences being passed down to a defendant because, instead of one jury having the power to determine guilt or innocence and also give a sentence of either death or life in prison, the powers would now be split up into two separate juries at two separate trials. The Supreme Court decided that “a person may, under certain conditions, be deprived of life, as long as due process of law is observed under the 5th amendment.” ( This decision reversed the decision handed down in Furman vs. Georgia in 1972 and declared that the death penalty was now constitutional by the due-process of the new Georgia law. Shortly after this many states re-wrote their laws and made them similar, if not, identical to the Georgia law and also began using the death penalty again. On the other hand, some states never revised their laws and continued to not use the death penalty. Instead these states resorted to other ways of punishment, mainly life in prison but also such things as therapy and rehabilitation. Today there are thirteen states who have abolished the death penalty, they include: Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Alaska, Hawaii, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, The District of Columbia, and of course Michigan (

After the Gregg vs. Georgia in 1976 , the Supreme Court continued to hand down decisions that had a great effect on the death penalty and its usage in America. For example, in the Coker vs. Georgia case of 1977, the Supreme Court ruled that a person could no longer be sentenced to death for committing the crime of rape ( The Court felt that the punishment did not equal the severity of the crime and therefore had violated the 8th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. After this case there were pretty much only two crimes left that could be punishable by death, the first was first degree murder, and the second was treason, at the federal level, in a time of war. In the case of Ford vs. Wainwright in 1986 the Supreme Court ruled that a person who had been declared mentally insane by a number of doctors could not be sentenced to death, hence the plea for insanity ( Instead of being sentenced to death, the person would be subject to either life in prison or prolonged mental treatment from a hospital of some sort. In the case of McCleskey vs. Kemp in 1987 the Supreme Court upheld its decision of the 1976 case of Gregg vs. Georgia and said that the Georgia law had not made an unfair decision due to the race of the defendant and that the “two phase procedure” did not fail ( Throughout the 1990s the Supreme Court has continued to rule in favor of the death penalty as long as the defendant has been given the proper due-process of law, guaranteed to them under the 5th amendment, and as long as the punishment is not cruel or unusual, guaranteed to them under the 8th amendment. How does the Supreme Court determine if a punishment is “cruel and unusual” ? What types of execution methods are considered to not be “cruel and unusual”? There is no real answer to these questions. In fact the answers handed down by the Supreme Court are merely opinions. For example, one justice may believe that electrocution is an acceptable means of execution while another justice may believe that no execution is acceptable, that they are all morally wrong. The fact is that there are still 37 states who use the death penalty, and for that to be true there has to be an accepted method or methods (

There are currently five means of execution in the United States today, of course they vary from state to state and some are more popular than others. They include: Lethal injection, electrocution, the gas chamber, hanging and the firing squad (Encarta Encyclopedia.). These methods have become the preferred ones in the U.S. because they can get by the eighth amendment because they are relatively quick and painless. Lethal injection (first used in Nevada in 1923) has become more popular than the other methods in recent years, as of right now there are 17 states who use this method. It is said to be the most peaceful way to kill the prisoner. First the prisoner is strapped to a gurney outside of the chamber. Then doctors will hook up a cardiac monitor to the prisoner to determine when he/she is dead. Two intravenous lines are then started , one in each arm. at first the prisoner receives a saline solution from the intravenous lines which will cause him/her no harm. Now the prisoner is fully prepared for his/her execution and is brought into a sealed off chamber with looking glass on one end, for the spectators to watch, and is left alone. Sodium thiopental, a chemical mixture which causes the prisoner to go into an unconscious state of mind, is injected into each arm from an outside room. This is said to be the last thing that the prisoner remembers. Once the prisoner is fully unconscious, the doctors will then inject pancuronium bromide into one arm, (which causes reparation to stop), and then potassium chloride into the other arm, (which causes the heart to stop). The prisoner then dies shortly after, usually within one to three minutes. Electrocution ( adapted in New York 1890) used to be the most common method in United States but due to lethal injection being less gruesome, it is beginning to lose popularity. The prisoner is secured to the “electric chair” by a series of restraints, then he/she is electrocuted with enormous amounts of electricity until his/her death. This process can take as long as 2 – 15 minutes. Witnesses to these executions often report that the prisoner will jump against the restrain straps when the switch is thrown, their body will change color to a purpleish-red, their flesh will swell and sometimes ignite into flames, the prisoner will often urinate or vomit blood, and there is always a smell of burning flesh present in the room. Electrocution is almost never an instant death, in fact it is very common for the prisoner to take as many as five or six breaths after the shock before he or she is pronounced dead. To some this indicates that the prisoner is alive and awake through out the entire execution, but most doctors believe that the prisoner would go into a state of shock after the first 15-20 seconds of electrocution and would not be in a conscious state from then on out. The gas chamber is not that popular in the U.S. anymore because it is said to be dangerous to the executioners as well as the prisoner. The prisoner is put into a chamber and the chamber is then filled with hydrocyanic gas, which enables the hemoglobin in the blood to work and will consequently kill anyone who breaths it. This method is believed to be the quickest way of death because all it takes is a few deep breaths to instantly kill a person. Regardless of this it is still dangerous to the executioners because if they open the door with even a trace of the gas still in the air, they to could die. The firing squad, in which the prisoner is shot to death by five or more people, and hanging, the traditional way of execution in English speaking countries, have both lost most of their popularity and are seldom used in the U.S. today. But, both methods are still perfectly legal to use in the United States(

As we approach the election in November, the candidates for president, George W. Bush and Al Gore, are faced with a very important issue that hey will be expected to deal with during their term of office as the President. The question presented is will the death penalty be abolished by violating the eighth amendment or will it carry on as it is now? As it looks now, neither candidate plans on appointing a judge to the Supreme Court that would help to reverse the Gregg vs. Georgia decision and abolish the death penalty as we know it. In fact both candidates seem to support the ideal of capital punishment, the only difference is that Al Gore would favor more government regulations to the death penalty while George W. Bush would favor to leave the system as it is, or perhaps even favor less regulation ( But why would there be a need to abolish death penalty? Or, why is it important to not abolish the death penalty? Is there advantages or disadvantages to each solution? Of course there is. The arguments that surround this topic are based upon four sub topics, one deterrence, two retribution, three economic reasons, and for protection and well -being of society.

The most frequently used argument in favor of the death penalty is that it deters, or prevents, a person from committing crimes in fear that they will die. Opponents of the death penalty argue against this theory with some key points. The first is that with today’s means of executions, such as lethal injection, a person is not afraid to die due to the fact that it is relatively quick and painless. They also argue that since the death penalty is not mandatory but rather a discretionary punishment, the person may believe that he/she has a good chance of being sentenced to life in prison instead of the death penalty. Opponents also argue the fact that there is no real increase or decrease in the amount of 1st degree murders within states that use the death penalty and states that have abolished it. Another argument used by Proponents of the death penalty is that is a legal way of getting retribution for the loss of a loved one. Opponents say that this can not possibly be true since the criminal is rarely executed the same way in which they killed their victim. For example if the victim was brutally stabbed to death, his murderer will not be stabbed to death as he was, instead he will have a peaceful death. Proponents say that the term retribution does not mean revenge but instead it is a relief for the public in knowing that the criminal is dead and can never again commit such a horrible crime. The economy has also played a role in the debates about the death penalty. Proponents say that on the average it is four times cheaper to execute the prisoner rather than to let them live in prison for life. When the prisoner is executed, then the tax payers no longer have to support his cost of living in the prisons, for example food and heat. Opponents say that one can not put a price on a human life, that the human life is priceless no matter who it is. They also argue that the death penalty is not exactly a cheap way of dealing with the crime. Usually a person who has been sentenced to death will appeal it several times to a higher court, and the tax payers must usually pay for a public defender to defend the defendant. They also point out that the prisoner is not immediately executed but instead will wait on death row for average of eleven years before being executed. This is also very costly but in the long run it is usually more economically sound to execute the prisoner rather than to let them live in prison for life. Proponents extend yet another argument that states that society must be protected from the prisoner and that executing him/her the well-being of the U.S. citizens will never be put into jeopardy again by the prison because he/she will be dead. Opponents argue that with such advancements in rehabilitation units a once dangerous person could be changed to the point that they could be released back into society (encyclopedia Americana). Along with these arguments are other minor ones such as the execution of mentally retarded people, the execution of juveniles, and the execution of innocent people. State laws determine whether a mentally retarded person can or can not be executed, in most cases they are hospitalized or given life in prison. State laws also determine whether or not juveniles can or can not be executed (Sagarin, Mary). Most states do not allow a person below the age of 18 to be executed, in others the age of 16 or even 14 is considered old enough to be executed. As far as the execution of innocent people is concerned, there was never a way to absolutely prove ones guilt in the court system, so were innocent people executed? Probably, but not often. Very recently scientist have developed a way to prove ones guilt through the use of DNA testing which is a revolutionary technique in the crime labs of America. The process is quite complicated but through the use of it, scientists are able to pronounce the defendants guilt or innocence with a 99.98% assurance (Zonderman, Jon). Everybody has completely different DNA, the difference in the DNA strand is what makes us look and act different from anyone else. The only case that this is not true in is when there are identical twins, in this case the DNA is very similar between the two people. By comparing the DNA found at the seen, (either through blood, hair, or semen), to the defendants DNA scientists in crime labs can determine if the two DNA strands match by using a process called “gel electrophoresis”(Zonderman, Jon). From 1988 to 1995 there have been 8,048 people sentenced to death in the U.S. for “rape-murder”. Through the use of DNA testing 2,012 of these prisoners have been declared innocent and released from death row by the FBI crime lab(Zonderman, Jon).

As one can see the death penalty has evolved from being a custom in ancient civilizations to a major debate across the world going into the twentieth century. Will there eventually be no death penalty? Is it possible for every country in the world to abolish the death penalty and resort to alternate means of punishment for serious capital crimes? In my opinion, yes. But, I do not believe that it will happen in my lifetime due to the simple fact that the death penalty has become a traditional method of punishment in not only the United Stated but in the world in general. In order to take a side in the argument of for or against the death penalty I think that one has to look at it from both sides. Is it right to take another human’s life or should that job be left to higher powers? If someone that I was very close to was murdered in the 1st degree I think that I would quickly become in favor of capital punishment. In a way I want for the person to die. On the other hand if had to witness an execution in person I would probably favor the abolishment of the death penalty. A human life is precious, once it is gone it can not be brought back, one must be careful when deciding who will be sentenced to death and who will not be. I’m not sure what the outcome of this everlasting argument will be, I’m not sure which side will win the debate because I can see not only the need for the death penalty but also the need to abolish it. I do know that when the problem is finally solved it will be very interesting to see what the outcome will be.