Capital Punishment Essay, Research Paper
Capital punishment is punishment by death for committing a crime. Since
the early 1800’s most executions have resulted from convictions for murder. The
death penalty has also been imposed for such serious crimes as armed robbery,
kidnapping, rape, and treason. There is a lot of conflict between people about
whether or not capital punishment is effective in discouraging crime.
In the early 1990’s, 36 states of the United States had laws that permitted
the death penalty. These laws were greatly influenced by a 1972 decision of the
Supreme Court of the United States which had banned the death penalty as it was
then imposed, describing the carrying out of the death penalty as cruel and
unusual punishment. But the court left open the possibility that the death
penalty might be imposed for certain crimes and if it was applied according to
After this decision was made, new capital punishment laws were made to
satisfy the Supreme Court’s requirements. These laws limit the death penalty to
murder and to other specified crimes that result in a person’s death. These
crimes include armed robbery, hijacking, and kidnapping.
Many countries, including most European and Latin-American nations, have
abolished the death penalty since 1900 – including Canada, which did so in 1976.
In the early 1990’s, the United States was the only Western industrialized
nation where executions still took place.
Capital punishment was common among all ancient civilizations. It was used
for a variety of offenses that today aren’t crimes at all, like stealing the
keys to someone’s wine cellar.
There were many different methods of executions, and they all had a
barbaric quality. Some of the more vicious methods were stoning, impaling,
boiling in oil, burned alive, and being stretched on the rack.
One of the most notorious ways of executions was being beheaded by a
guillotine. This machine, invented by Joseph Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814),
became the official instrument of execution in France during the French
Revolution. It dropped a huge knife that cut off the victim’s head. It was
regarded as quick and merciful. The guillotine was used until 1981, when
capital punishment was abolished in France.
The death penalty was a popular method of punishment in England.
Imprisonment was hardly ever used. In the 15th century there were eight capital
crimes: treason , petty treason, murder, larceny, robbery, burglary, rape, and
arson. Other crimes were soon added to the list, so that by the year 1780 there
Executions were common enough to require gallows in every district of
London. Bodies were sometimes left hanging as a warning to other would-be
criminals. If the hangman were so inclined, he might give the convicted brandy
to dull his senses or pull on his legs so he would die quicker.
It was estimated that between the years 1805 and 1810, 3,000 death
sentences were handed out. At this time, however, the laws were not strictly
enforced. A large number of criminals were never executed because of royal
pardon or the “benefit of clergy”.
The benefit of clergy was originally designed to give lighter sentences to
clergymen. Gradually this benefit was extended to all who could read, since the
only proof that a person was ordained was literacy. All that was required was
the ability to read one particular verse from Psalm 51 of the bible, known as
the “neck verse”. This name was given to it because it had the ability to save
one’s neck. Most offenders learned this verse by heart. It wasn’t long before
this benefit became meaningless.
As a result, executions in this century averaged only 70 per year.
In the year 1819, the number of capital crimes was reduced to 220,
including shoplifting items above five shillings, cutting down trees in a park,
or shooting a rabbit.
Many capital crime offenders were pardoned on the condition that they
agreed to be transported to the american colonies in North America. American
colonies at that time also used capital punishment. The number of capital
crimes varied from one jurisdiction to another. The Massachusetts colony was
noted for executing people for the suspicion of witchcraft.
All executions in England were public until the mid-1800s. Great crowds
came to view them. It was believed that pickpockets were busy among the
spectators. In 1868, public opinion turned against the idea of executions as
spectacles, and it was decided that they should be carried out in private. At
this time the number of capital crimes were reduced drastically. By 1861, there
were only four: murder, treason, arson, and piracy with violence.
From the 1930s to the mid-1950s, people campaigned for the abolition of
capital punishment. Following a number of controversial executions, a statute
was put into effect in 1957 that restricted the death penalty to murder. All
other offenses were punished by imprisonment.
After objections to this new law, an act was passed in 1965 abolishing the
death in its entirety. This act remains today in England.
In the United States the existence of the death penalty is a matter of
state law. Although it was never used as much as England in the 18th century,
between 150 and 200 persons were executed each year in the decade before World
War II. After the war, the number of executions declined to 50 per year.
Doubts about whether the death penalty was constitutional during the 1960s led
to a series of Supreme Court decisions. In 1976 it was decided that laws making
the death penalty automatic were unconstitutional. This led to different
statutes in different states. This meant that an offence that required the
death penalty in one state, might not be necessary in another.
Arguments Against The Death Penalty
Many people oppose the death penalty, mainly because they consider it cruel.
There is also the risk of executing innocent people who were mistakenly
convicted. There have been cases where people have been executed and evidence
found after their death proved their innocence.
For example, Roger Coleman’s volunteer attorneys uncovered evidence of his
innocence after his conviction for murder. However, his appeal based on this
newly discovered evidence was filed three days late, and because of this error,
made by his attorneys, the Virginia state courts and the federal appeals courts
refused to hear the new evidence. Roger Coleman was executed on May 22,1992.
Another example is the case of Leonel Torres Herrera, who was convicted and
sentenced to death for the 1982 murders of two police officers. Some years
after his conviction, an attorney who had represented Herrera’s brother came
forward with evidence that Herrera’s brother, Raul, who had died in 1984, had
confessed to the murders. In addition, Raul’s son, who was nine years old at
the time of the killings, gave a sworn statement that he was an eye-witness to
the crime and saw his father commit the murders. Because Texas law says that
any new evidence must be presented within 30 days of the conviction, Herrera’s
motion was denied. Leonel Herrera was executed on May 12, 1993.
This possibility of error, where an innocent person might be put to death,
disturbs the public more than any other issue posed by capital punishment. This
is the number one concern about the death penalty in our country. Since 1900,
23 people who we know to be innocent have been murdered by the state and 350
people have been found not-guilty while on death row awaiting execution.
Opposers of the death penalty refer to it as “simple murder”. The end result
is the same…one more dead body, one more set of grieving parents, one more
cemetery slot. Every time someone is executed, opposers feel that we as a
society sink to the same level as the common killer.
According to some, the death penalty is viewed as cruel and unusual
punishment. They compare it to a criminal imprisoning his victim for years, and
every day informed him of the date of his death. Furthermore, they feel that
the methods of executing people have all been found excessively cruel. It often
takes ten minutes or more to die in the electric chair, for example.
The question about whether or not the death penalty really deters crime is
another issue. For example, the United States is the only Western nation that
still allows the death penalty, yet it has one of the highest crime rates.
During the 1980’s, death penalty states averaged an annual rate of 7.5 criminal
homicides per 100,000, while abolition states averaged a rate of 7.4 per 100,000.
That means murder was actually more common in states that use the death penalty.
These are some of the negative aspects of the death penalty, but like
everything else, this subject has both negative and positive aspects.
Arguments For The Death Penalty
Many people favor capital punishment. Their reasons are deterrence,
retribution, and prevention.
In what is considered to be proponent’s strongest argument, they state that
the death penalty is a great deterrent against potential offenders, especially
those who are not discouraged by the threat of life imprisonment.
People in favor of capital punishment argue that an execution is the only
sure way to prevent a murderer from committing more murders. If the convicted
is put in prison, there is a risk to the community that the person may escape,
be pardoned, or be paroled. In addition to this is the fact that these
murderers could pose a great danger to prison staff and fellow prisoners.
Proponents further argue that the death penalty is the only fair way of
retribution. The criminal should die because he has committed a horrible crime,
and only his death would satisfy the public. It is also said that there is no
substitute in giving retribution than the death penalty, that “…to deprive the
criminal of the like of which he has proved himself to be unworthy…is the most
appropriate as it is certainly impressive mode in which society can attach to so
great a crime…”.
Criminologists have as of yet failed to produce evidence on many of these
arguments since they involve personal conviction.
Methods Of Execution
Electrocution is a means of killing a person by the use of a strong electric
shock. It is one of the legal methods of executing criminals. A prisoner is
brought into a special room called a death chamber, and strapped into an
electric chair. Metal plates called electrodes are attached to the crown of the
prisoner’s head and to the calf of one leg. An electric current is then passed
from one electrode to another through the prisoner’s body. This literally would
burn you to death internally – and you would feel it, for many long seconds.
Afterward, your body would likely be fouled by urine, feces, and vomited blood.
It will be too hot to touch for several minutes, and the smell of cooked flesh
will permeate the execution chamber.
The first execution by lethal gas in the United States took place in Nevada
in 1924. During World War 2, the Nazis of Germany used huge gas chambers to
kill Jews and other minorities in concentration camps. Today the gas chamber is
a legal means of execution in some states of the United States. The condemned
person is strapped in a chair in an airtight chamber. Glass globes containing
cyanide drop from beneath the chair and break in a crock containing sulfuric
acid. The two chemicals mix and form deadly hydrocyanic acid gas. The person
usually dies within five minutes, and during this time a terrifying sensation of
strangling and sharp pain in the arms, shoulders, back and chest may be
Hanging is also a legal means of execution in some states of the United
States. The condemned person stands on a platform with a noose of rope around
his or her neck. A trap door opens under the person, and the person falls until
jerked to a stop by the rope. The sudden jolt breaks or dislocates the bones of
the neck, causing almost immediate loss of consciousness. Death usually occurs
within a few minutes.
Some people believe that lethal injection is more humane than other means of
execution, such as the electric chair and the gas chamber. Opposers of the
death penalty, however, argue that any method of execution is inhumane. Most
condemned prisoners who have had a choice between lethal injection and other
methods of execution have chosen the injection. This is the most frequently
used method of executing criminals in the United States. A fast-acting
sedative is first injected to put the prisoner to sleep. Two additional drugs
are then injected to stop the prisoner’s breathing and heartbeat. Death usually
occurs within minutes after the injections. Although you may not experience
much physical pain, you will experience the psychological agony of being
strapped to a table while waiting to die.
One other means of execution used in the United States is firing squad. The
only two states which use this method are Utah and Idaho.
While writing this essay, I found a lot of different arguments both for and
against capital punishment. After weighing both sides of the issue, I came to
the conclusion that capital punishment isn’t a good idea. There are too many
risks involved – such as executing an innocent person. Many people feel that if
someone murders another person, then he too deserves to be killed. But
murdering another person won’t bring the other one back, and two wrongs don’t
make a right. I think it would be worse to spend the rest of your life in a
cell than to go through hell for a few minutes but then be over with it forever.
Therefore, I think that a good alternative to receiving the death penalty would
be a life sentence in prison with no chance of parole.