Capital punishment is the legal infliction of the death penalty. It is obviously the most severe form of criminal punishment. (Bedau1) Capital punishment is a controversial way of dealing with violent criminals. The main alternative to the death penalty is life in prison.
Capital punishment has been around for thousands of years as a means of eradicating criminals. A giant debate started between supporters and opposers of execution, over the morality and effectiveness of the death penalty. The supporters claim that if you take a life, you should pay with your life or "an eye for an eye". Opposers of the death penalty bring up the chance of sentencing the innocent and how the death penalty is inhumane. The purpose of this paper is to examine the process of capital punishment and the moral viewpoints on the death penalty.
The first evidence of capital punishment is found in Hammurabi's Code, a book of Babylonian law, from 1700BC. The Bible mentions that execution should be used for many crimes. (Bedau) One example of the death penalty in the Bible is "Whoever strikes a man so that he dies, shall be put to death." (Exodus 21:12). The Bible also suggests stoning a woman if she is unmarried and has sexual intercourse; --"wrought folly on Israel by playing the harlot in her father's house" (Deuteronomy 22:21)
England recognized seven major crimes that called for execution by the end of the 15th century. These crimes were: murder, theft (by deceitfully taking someone goods), burglary, rape, and arson. As time went by, more and more crimes were believed to deserve the death penalty and by 1800 more than 200 crimes were recognized as punishable by death. (Bedau).
It was not long before capital punishment met opposition. The Quakers were the first to move against execution. They supported life imprisonment as a more humane justice. Cesare Beccaria wrote On Crimes and Punishment, a book criticizing torture and the death penalty, in 1764. Cesare drove many other philosophers, like Voltaire and Jerry Bentham, to question the validity of using capital punishment. (Bedau).
Contrary to what some may believe, the process of sentencing a defendant is a very arduous and time-taking ordeal. After he has been arrested as the suspect of a crime, the defendant will either be tried in a state or federal court system. The lowest court that a litigant can be sent to is the Court of General jurisdiction (state level) or the US District Courts (federal level). Any time in the trial, the defense may choose to appeal. Even if a suspect is sentenced to a crime the case may be appealed for a variety of reasons. The defendant's lawyer could claim that the defendant's rights were violated when he was arrested, that the defendant received an unfair trial, or new evidence that could prove the defendant's innocence has surfaced. (Guernsey). Next the appeal is taken to the Intermediate Appellate Courts (state) or the US Courts of Appeals (federal) who will decide if the trial court has erred in some way. If the appeal is granted In the state court system the appellate will be sent to the State Supreme Court, or in the federal system, to the Supreme. From the State Supreme Court the case may be appealed again to the Supreme Court. Once the case has reached the supreme court the verdict is final. (Guernsey).
This monotonous appealing process is the reason for the excess of inmates on death row today. An inmate can spend 6-10 years on death row during the appellate process. (Guernsey). In fact only about one in 1900 prisoners (.053%) on death row have served the death penalty. "Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas have carried out about three-quarters of all executions since 1976." (Guernsey).
There has been a controversy over the death penalty ever since the Quakers fought for reform in the 1700's. (Bedau). This conflict has two sides: those in favor of capital punishment, and those who view life without parole (LWOP) as a more humane alternative.
Supporters of the death penalty rationalize executing because if a man takes a life, he should pay for it with his own or "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." They also use verses from the Bible like, "Whosoever sheds a man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed" (Genesis 9:6), and Exodus 21:12 to show that Christianity supports it. They claim that executions deter other criminals from killing in fear of being executed. However, this could never be proven since it would be very difficult to link a drop in murders to knowledge of recent executions.
Those who oppose the death penalty have come up with many reasons that life in prison without parole, or LWOP, is a better means of dealing with violent criminals. One reason is the risk of executing the innocent. (Bedau). This risk is very small considering that since 1900 only 23 people, who were possibly innocent, were executed. Those who oppose the death penalty claim that the number of blacks is disproportionate to that of women and white men. (Bedau ). This has been proven to be true and is the most vital argument of the opposers. Wealth and fame take a pivotal part in the trial of a defendant. Poor defendants are give court-appointed lawyers; however, rich and famous defendants can afford fancy lawyers. (Bedau). One example of this is the OJ Simpson trial. If OJ was a middle to lower class person he would not be able to afford lawyers like Johnny Cochran and would probably have been found guilty.
There are many forms of execution. Some have been labeled barbaric and forbidden nearly everywhere. Currently the only accepted means of execution are: electrocution, the gas chamber, firing squad and lethal injection. (Bedau). The firing squad is only used in Utah upon request. (Guernsey). Montana, New Hampshire and Washington are the only states that allow hangings. The electric chair was introduced in New York in 1890 and is now used in 24 states. (Bedau). The criminal is seated in a chair. Electrodes are attached to the head and a leg. Pulses of 2000 volts are sent through his body for about three minutes or until he appears to be dead. The fact that the electrodes reach 1900°C and the brain reaches the boiling point causes one to doubt the humanity of this practice. (Guernsey). Lethal injection is thought to be the least painful method of execution. The person is strapped down and given a deadly dose of barbiturates via IV. (Bedau). However, this process also has its flaws. "It took technicians 45 minutes of sticking to find a proper vein for the injection"(Guernsey) on Peter Morin. Needles have also been known to fly out in the middle of the injection. The gas chamber was first used in Nevada in 1924. (Bedau). The prisoner is strapped into a chair and cyanide gas is administered through a hole in the floor. Death takes from three to four minutes, but prisoners have been known to go into convulsions or choke to death on the gas. (Guernsey).
After learning about our modern methods of execution, one wonders if these methods are humane. Is being struck with enough electricity to cause the eyeballs pop out of their sockets any better than being beheaded? (Guernsey). Is the death penalty 'cruel and unusual punishment'? We must devise more sane methods of execution which are quick and efficient. Most importantly we must make the appeals process more orderly to cut down on the glut of inmates on death row, and therefore cut down on the money wasted housing prisoners during the appeals process.
- Bedau, Hugo Adam "Capital Punishment" Encarta 96 Encyclopedia (CD-ROM) Microsoft Corporation, 1996.
- The Holy Bible
- Bedau, Hugo A. "Capital Punishment" Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia (CD-ROM) Grolier Electronic Publishing, Inc. 1995.
- Bender, David L., and Bruno Leone. The Death Penalty Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1991.
- Guernsey, JoAnn Bren. Should We Have Capital Punishment?. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Co., 1993.