, Research Paper
A Look at the Death Penalty
In recent years, crime in America has been on the rise; in particular, violent crime. This has led not only to an overcrowding of prisons in our country, but also to an increase in the number of death sentences handed down by the courts. With the increasing number of death sentences issued, one would expect a decrease in the frequency of violent offenses. What then is the problem? Why is violent crime still on the rise? Despite the fact that the number of inmates on death row is climbing, the number of sentences actually carried out in any given year lags far behind. For example, between the years 1973 and 1992, four thousand seven hundred and four convicted murderers were sentenced to die, but only one hundred eighty-eight of them were executed (Stewart, 1994). That is but a mere four percent. In fact, the number one cause of death for inmates on death row is neither the electric chair nor lethal injection, but “natural causes” (Kaplan, 1995). The reason for this disparity is the costly and lengthy appeals process to which every death row inmate is entitled. To remedy this situation, the death penalty should be used more often as a way of curbing violent crimes in America because it will prevent murderers and other criminals from striking again, discourage future crime, and help to promote and maintain a sense of justice and moral order. By examining the history, the methods, and the arguments surrounding capital punishment it is clear that the death penalty is an effective way to deter violent crime in America.
Capital punishment, is defined as “the use of death as a legally sanctioned punishment” (Kronenwetter, 1993). Carried out in many different ways, the death penalty has been prescribed as a punishment for various crimes by nearly every society throughout history. Capital punishment is one of the oldest institutions in America. Americans have implemented capital punishment ever since Daniel Frank of Virginia was put to death in 1622. Since then, more than 18,000 convicted felons have been put to death (Bedau, 1982). Although it almost certainly predates written records, the death penalty first
appeared in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi which dates back to the eighteenth century B.C. This code called for death as punishment for a total of twenty-five different crimes. The oldest known death sentence for a particular individual was carried out was in ancient Egypt and dates back to the sixteenth century B.C. Although many ancient societies punished minor if not petty crimes with death, none were as severe as the Draconian Code which governed Athens during the seventh century B.C. According to this legal code, every illegal act was punished by death. During the fifth century B.C., the Roman Empire also followed suit with a harsh code governing the prescription of the death penalty. Under their code for example, death was the punishment for “publishing insulting songs” and “disturbing the peace of the city at night” (Kronenwetter, 1993). However, unlike the Athenians, Romans used execution as a form of public entertainment. Being the first to do so, they put many unfortunate individuals to death through their infamous gladiatorial games. Other methods of execution practiced during ancient times included stoning, burning, and crucifixion. These forms of execution were also practiced widely in Europe during the Middle Ages, with the addition of beheading as a punishment for those accused of being witches or branded as heretics by the Church (Kronenwetter, 1993). This persecution caused many to flee Europe in order to gain freedom in the “New World.”
Although they found freedom from religious persecution in the “New World,” the colonial settlers brought many European laws with them. In particular, many of the laws were borrowed from England, including their laws that governed the use of capital punishment. At that time, England followed a relatively lax policy toward capital punishment, having only eight crimes punishable by death. Similarly, the colonies followed England’s lenient laws governing the use of the death penalty. Each colony, however, followed its own laws. For example, Pennsylvania, a state with a population of mostly Quakers was the most lenient, prescribing death for only two crimes. In contrast, Virginia was perhaps the harshest of all the colonies, sentencing death for a total of twelve different crimes
(Kronenwetter, 1993). When the United States was established as an independent nation, the Constitution gave both the states and the federal government the right to select punishments for crimes. The death penalty was not excluded as a form of punishment, and was generally accepted by the majority of the population with three notable exceptions.
The first of the three movements surfaced during the mid-nineteenth century. This movement was led by some of the same reformers who opposed slavery, however, it faded during the Civil War. The second movement against the death penalty began around the turn of the century and the third movement occurred during the middle of this century. Each of these three movements resulted in the banning or restriction of the death penalty in at least one state. More recently, the constitutionality of the death penalty was questioned in the 1972 case of Furman v. Georgia. In their decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was “cruel and unusual” punishment, and thus violated the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution (Kronenwetter, 1993). In response, many state legislatures rewrote their laws governing the death penalty, and in 1976, the Supreme Court case Gregg v. Georgia overturned Furman v. Georgia (Kronenwetter, 1993). This, once again, made the death penalty legal, as it remains to this day. Currently, thirty-seven states and the federal government allow the death penalty, with three major and two minor forms of execution employed. The most popular is lethal injection followed by the electric chair and the gas chamber. Also, Utah makes use of shooting and Washington still employs hanging as a method of execution (Kronenwetter, 1993).
Recently, the death penalty has come under fire from critics who question both its effectiveness and its legality. Traditionally, the death penalty has been challenged as a violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution which provides for protection against “cruel and unusual” punishment. The Supreme Court has, however, ruled against this, upholding the legality of the death penalty in the case of Gregg v. Georgia. More recently, the Ninth United States Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that
execution by hanging is not a form of cruel and unusual punishment. Specifically, the majority opinion stated that they “could not conclude that judicial hanging is incompatible with the evolving standards of decency simply because few states continue the practice” (Goldberg, 1994). If hanging is considered constitutional, then the three most common forms of execution, lethal injection, electrocution, and gas chamber, which are indeed more humane, are certainly not “incompatible with the evolving standards of decency.” Therefore, they are not in violation of the Eighth Amendment, making them legal forms of punishment.
If the death penalty has been declared legal, and thereby humane, then the federal and state governments must employ it to its fullest as a means of deterring previous murderers from recommitting their crimes. Since most of the prisoners on death row are there for murder, executing them would ensure that they would never kill again whether guards and inmates while still in prison, or innocent citizens if they were to escape. This applies particularly to criminals such as Westley Allen Dodd who was executed in Washington state in 1993 for the rape and murder of three young boys. He claimed that he would kill a guard if necessary to escape from prison, and that the only way to stop him would be to kill him. Although rare, there are inmates on death row that would also go to similar lengths in order to escape. These obsessive murders, like Dodd, who know no alternative to killing, need to be executed to protect both prison guards and society. This view, while shared by many, is perhaps best illustrated through the words of Judge Alfred J. Talley of New York who explained “if I as an individual have the right to kill in self defense, why has not the state, which is nothing more than an aggregation of individuals, the same right to defend itself against unjust aggression and unjust attack” (Kronenwetter, 1993)?
In addition to preventing murderers from repeating their crimes, the death penalty also serves to discourage other potential murderers. This is, in fact, the most common argument used by proponents of
capital punishment. Opponents, on the other hand, claim that it does not deter crime. They claim that most murders are not premeditated; that they are committed “in the heat of the moment.” Although this
is true, there are the professional hitmen who kill for money, husbands and wives who kill their spouses for the insurance money, and the other murderers that plan their acts. It is these people, even if they are
in the minority, who would be deterred by a more liberally and frequently used death penalty. Preventing these premeditated murders would not only reduce the total number of senseless killings, but would also go a long way toward curbing violent crime in the United States. Illinois state attorney Robert E. Crowe states it best saying that “it is the finality of the death penalty which instills fear in the heart of every murderer and it is this fear of punishment which protects society” (Kronenwetter, 1993). If the United States demonstrates that it is serious about using the death penalty through an increased number of executions, then potential murderers will know their fate before killing. As Conrad and van den Haag once said, “The [amount of dangerous criminals] would be smaller if there were frequent and severe punishment.” (1983) They will know that if caught and convicted, they will certainly face a sure death. In the manner, if the death penalty was handed down to those convicted of other harsh crimes such as rape, criminals of premeditated crimes would be forced to reconsider their actions and this, in turn, would prevent many crimes. Although I am not advocating a reversion to the Draconian Code which governed ancient Athens, I feel that if the death penalty was both consistently used on murderers and extended to include more crimes, then this would help to deter many of the violent crimes committed in America.
Finally, the death penalty needs to be used more frequently in order to promote and maintain a sense of justice and moral order in the United States. The state and federal governments have an obligation to their citizens to uphold justice through whatever means necessary, and this may, in some cases, call for capital punishment. The death penalty, generally regarded as the ultimate punishment,
must be used with greater frequency in order to uphold justice. Because death is reserved as punishment for only the worst criminals, usually murderers, it is only fitting that they receive a punishment accordingly. As the clich‚ goes “let the punishment fit the crime.” These few individuals who choose to break the law in such a blatant and horrendous fashion deserve not only to be executed, but also to serve as an example that moral order will prevail through whatever means necessary. The judicial system should not be afraid to wield its most potent and powerful punishment in order to retain the confidence of the public.
The federal and state governments of the United States, realizing the profound effect that a more liberal and frequent policy regarding the death penalty could have upon the level of crime in this country, must make use of this powerful tool. Capital punishment serves as means of curtailing violent crimes, preventing murderers from acting again, and restoring justice and moral order nationwide. Not only will an increased use of the death penalty cause ex-convicts to think twice before committing violent crimes for a second time, but it will also deter future crime. Individuals will be well aware of the stiff sentence they face if apprehended. In so doing, the more extensive use of the death penalty would create a safer and more just society with a greater sense of moral security. In looking back to previous societies that relied upon the death penalty, such as ancient Athens and the Roman Empire, one realizes the effectiveness of this sentence and its usefulness as a tool for deterring crime. Although there is no punishment that can entirely eliminate violent crime, a more effective use of the death penalty would significantly help. It is not mere coincidence that nearly every major society in recorded history has used capital punishment in one form or another. The United States must allow history to repeat itself and through more severe use of the death penalty, prevent violent crimes within society.
Bedau, Hugo Adam. The Death Penalty in America. New York: Oxford University Press;
Conrad, John P. and Ernest van den Haag. The Death Penalty: A Debate. New York: Plenum Press, 1983.
Goldberg, Stephanie. “Death Penalty.” ABA Journal 73 (1994): 103.
Kaplan, David. “Anger and Ambivalence.” Newsweek,7 August 1995, 24-29.
Kronenwetter, Michael. Capital Punishment. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO Inc., 1993.
Stewart, David. “Dealing With Death.” ABA Journal 80 (1994): 50-53.