There has been many controversies in the history of the United States, ranging from abortion to gun control, but capital punishment has been one of the most hotly contested issues in recent decades. Capital punishment is the legal infliction of the death penalty on persons convicted of a crime (Cox). It is not intended to inflict any physical pain or any torture; it is only another form of punishment. It is irrevocable because it removes those punished from society permanently, instead of temporarily imprisoning them. The usual alternative to the death penalty is life-long imprisonment.
Capital punishment is a method of retributive punishment as old as civilization itself. The death penalty has been imposed throughout history for many crimes, ranging from blasphemy and treason to petty theft and murder. Many ancient societies accepted the idea that certain crimes deserved capital punishment. Ancient Roman and Mosaic law endorsed the notion of retaliation; they believed in the rule of “an eye for an eye.” Similarly, the ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, and Greeks all executed citizens for a variety of crimes. The most famous people to be executed are Socrates and Jesus. Only in England, during the reigns of King Canute (1016-1035) and William the Conqueror (1066-1087) was the death penalty not used, although the results of interrogation and torture were often fatal (Kronenwetter 12). Later, Britain reinstated the death penalty and brought it to its American colonies.
Although the death was widely accepted throughout the early United States, not everyone approved of it. In the late-eighteen century, opposition to the death penalty gathered enough strength to lead to important restrictions on the use of the death penalty in several northern states, while in the United States, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Rhode Island abandoned the practice altogether (Kronenwetter 15). In 1794, Pennsylvania adopted a law to distinguish the degrees of murder and only used the death penalty for premeditated first-degree murder. Another reform took place in 1846 in Louisiana. This state abolished the mandatory death penalty and authorized the option of sentencing a capital offender to life imprisonment rather than to death. After the 1830s, public executions ceased to be demonstrated but did not completely stop until after 1936.
Throughout history, governments have been extremely inventive in devising ways to execute people. Executions inflicted in the past are now regarded today as ghastly, barbaric, and unthinkable and are forbidden by law almost everywhere. Common historical methods of execution included: stoning, crucifixion, burning, breaking on the wheel, drawing and quartering, peine forte et dure, garroting, beheading or decapitation, shooting and hanging (Kronenwetter 171). These types of punishments today are considered cruel and unusual. In the United States, the death penalty is currently authorized in one of five ways: firing squad, hanging, gas chamber, electrocution, and lethal injection. These methods of execution compared to those of the past are not meant for torture, but meant for punishment for the crime.
For the past decades capital punishment has been one of the most hotly contested political issues in America. This debate is a complicated one. Capital punishment is a legal, practical, philosophical, social, political, and moral question. The notion of deterrence has been at the very center of the practical debate over the question of capital punishment. Most of us assume that we execute murderers primarily because we believe it will discourage others from becoming murderers. Retentionists have long asserted the deterrent power of capital punishment as an obvious fact. The fear of death deters people from committing crimes. Still, abolitionists (people against capital punishment) believe that deterrence is little more than an assumption-and a naive assumption at that.
Abolitionists claim that capital punishment does not deter murderers from killing or killing again. They base most of their argument against deterrence on statistics. States that use it extensively show a higher murder rate than those that have abolished the death penalty. Also, states that have abolished the death penalty and then reinstituted it show no significant change in the murder rate. They say adjacent states with the death penalty and those without show no long term differences in the number of murders that occur in that state. And finally, there has been no record of change in the rate of homicides in a given city or state following a local execution. Any possibly of deterring a would-be murderer from killing has little effect.
Most retentionists (people for capital punishment) argue that none of this statistical evidence proves that capital punishment does not deter potential criminals. There is absolutely no way prove, with any certainty, how many would-be murderers were in fact deterred from killing (Carrington 82). They point out that the murder rate in any given state depends on many things besides whether or not that state has capital punishment. They cite such factors as the proportion of urban residents in the state, the level of economic prosperity, and the social and racial makeup of the population. But a small minority is ready to believe in these statistics and to abandon the deterrence argument. But they defend the death penalty base on other arguments, relying primarily on the need to protect society from killers who are considered high risks for killing again.
Incapacitation is another controversial aspect of the death penalty. Abolitionists say condemning a person to death removes any possibility of rehabilitation. They are confident in the life-sentence presenting the possibility of rehabilitating the convict. But rehabilitation is a myth. The state does not know how rehabilitate people because there are plenty of convict murderers who kill again. The life-sentence is also a myth because overcrowding in the prisons. Early parole has released convicted murderers and they still continue murder. Some escape and murder again, while others have murdered someone in prison. There are countless stories in prisons where a violent inmate kills another for his piece of chicken. Incapacitation is not solely meant as deterrence but is meant to maximize public safety by remove any possibility of a convict murderer to murder again.
The issue of execution of an innocent person is troubling to both abolitionists and retentionists alike. Some people are frightened of this possibility enough to be convinced that capital punishment should be abolished. This is not true at all. The execution of innocent people is very rare because there are many safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty. There is legal assistance provided and an automatic appeal for persons convicted of capital crimes. Persons under the age of eighteen, pregnant women, new mothers or persons who have become insane can not be sentenced to death. Retentionists argue almost all human activities, ranging trucking to construction, costs the lives of some innocent bystanders. These activities can not be simply abandoned, because the advantages outweigh the losses. Capital punishment saves lives as well as takes them. We must accept the few risks of wrongful deaths for the sake of defending public safety.
Abolitionists say the cost of execution has become increasingly expensive and that life sentence is more economical. A study of the Texas criminal system estimated the cost of appealing capital murder at $2,316,655. This high cost includes $265,640 for the trial; $294,240 for the state appeals; $113,608 for federal appeals (over six years); and $135,875 for death row housing. In contrast, the cost of housing a prisoner in a Texas maximum security prison single cell for 40 years is estimated at $750,000. This is a huge amount of taxpayer money but the public looks at it as an investment in safety since these murders will never kill again. Retentionists argue that these high costs are due to “the lengthy time and the high expense result from innumerable appeals, many over ‘technicalities’ which have little or nothing to do with the question of guilt or innocence, and do little more than jam up the nation’s court system. If these ‘frivolous’ appeals were eliminated, the procedure would neither take so long nor cost so much” (Kronenwetter 29).
The moral issues concerning the legitimacy of the death have been brought by many abolitionists. They think that respect for life forbids the use of the death penalty, while retentionists believe that respect for life requires it. Retentionists says the bible (Genesis 9:6) says, “Whosoever sheds man’s blood, by man may his blood be shed.” This classic argument in favor of the death penalty has usually been interpreted as a proper and moral reason for putting a murderer to death. “Let the punishment fit the crime” is its secondary counterpart (Cox). Both quotes imply that the murderer deserves to die and it was his own fault for putting himself on death row. Supporters of capital punishment say that society has the right to kill in defense of its members, just as an individual has the right to kill in self defense for his or her own personal safety. This analogy is somewhat doubtful, however, as long as the effectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent to violent crimes has yet to be proven.
In the United States, the main objection to capital punishment has been that it was always used unfairly, in at least three major ways. First, females are rarely sentenced to death and executed, even though 20 percent of all murders that have occurred in recent years were committed by women. Second, a disproportionate number of nonwhites are sentenced to death and executed. A black man who kills a white person is 11 times more likely to receive the death penalty than a white man who kills a black person. In Texas in 1991, blacks made up 12 percent of the population, but 48 percent of the prison population and 55.5 percent of those on death row are black (USDBJS). Before the 1970s, when the death penalty for rape was still used in many states, no white men were guilty of raping nonwhite women, whereas most black offenders found guilty of raping a white woman were executed. This data shows how the death penalty can discriminate and be used on certain races rather than equally as punishment for severe crimes. And third, poor and friendless defendants, those who are inexperienced or of court-appointed counsel, are most likely to be sentenced to death and executed. Defenders of the death penalty, however, argue that, because nothing found in the laws of capital punishment causes sexist, racist, or class bias in its use, these kinds of discrimination are not a sufficient reason for abolishing the death penalty on the idea that it discriminates or violates the 8th Amendment of the United States Constitution. Opponents of capital punishment have replied to this by saying that the death penalty is subject to miscarriage of justice and that it would be impossible to administer fairly.
In the 1970s, a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions made the death penalty in the U.S. unconstitutional, if it is mandatory, if it is imposed without providing courts with adequate guidance to make the right decision in the severity of the sentence, or if it is imposed for a crime that does not take or threaten the life of another human being. The death penalty was also confined to crimes of murder, including felony murder. A felony murder is any homicide committed in the course of committing another felony, such as rape or robbery. After the 1972 court ruling that all but a few capital statutes were unconstitutional, thirty-seven states revised and reenacted their death penalty laws. In 1989 the Supreme Court decided that the death penalty could be used on those who were mentally retarded or underage (but 16 years and over) at the time of the killing. A trend that the Supreme Court is following is making a cut back on the appeals that death row inmates could make to the federal courts.
I feel strongly toward using the death penalty as punishment for unspeakable crimes. I feel that it is a deterrent for criminal activity because of its severity and it will never allow a murder to kill again and destroy another family. The death penalty is not a problem if all avenues have been investigated and nothing is questionable. I do, however, feel that restrictions should be put on its uses. Not all crimes deserve the death penalty. Let the punishment fit the crime. If a criminal performs a premeditated heinous murder he should be put to death. It is that simple. If the convicted offender shows no remorse for his actions, then the decision should be even easier. Repeat offenders and people who enjoy killing do not deserve to walk our street. I feel that it is important to send a message to all future “thrill-killers” that taking the life of another human is wrong and if they decide to try it, they must face the consequences-Death.