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Death Penalty

The death penalty has been an established method of punishment for certain crimes over the centuries. The earliest recorded death sentence allegedly took place in 16th century BC in Egypt. The individual was accused of using magic[1]. Since this time, there has been a disparity between punishment for nobility and slaves. Some opponents assert that the socioeconomic difference in punishment still holds true today in America.

These early punishments were often what present day society would deem as “cruel”. They included crucifixion, drowning, burial alive, beating, and impalement1. The Romans had a particularly brutal sentence for those who committed parricides. The condemned would be placed in a sack with various animals and then submerged in water to the death1.  One of the most infamous executions occurred in Jerusalem with the well documented crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

England, which greatly influenced the American colonies’ philosophy on criminal justice, possessed a long history of punishment by death1. During the Middle Ages, punishment also included torture. It was common for offenders to be hung, burned to death, pressed, drawn and quartered, and even boiled alive1. By the 1700s, Britain had over two hundred twenty crimes which were punishable by death. Interestingly, juries tended to show compassion and did not convict for those crimes deemed less egregious in nature (but, still garnered the death penalty). Social awareness stimulated a reform movement. In the 1800s, exemptions were implemented for approximately one hundred crimes which had previously allowed for the death penalty. “Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, more and more capital punishments were abolished, not only in Britain, but also all across Europe, until today only a few European countries retain the death penalty”1.

There was not uniform or consistent thought process surrounding punishment in Colonial America. As legal codes became more defined by the colonies, patterns of punishment surfaced based on region. “The early northern colonies were more lenient than England for crimes against property but much harsher in punishing crimes against morality. The early southern colonies adopted English law without modifying it very much but also developed a subset of crimes that were punishable only if committed by blacks. Many saw this addition as an American “Bloody Code”[2].

In 1791, the Bill of Rights was ratified and the Eight Amendment prohibited “cruel and unusual punishment”. However, at the time of the Constitution, the meaning meant different things to different people. Even today, its contemporary meaning is widely disputed.

In 21st century America, we define capital punishment as the process of sentencing convicted offenders to death for the most serious crimes (capital crimes) and carrying out that sentence. “The specific offenses and circumstances which determine if a crime (usually murder) is eligible for a death sentence are defined by statute and are prescribed by Congress or any state legislature”[3]. It has had a controversial history in the States and continues to evolve as societal views morph. Capital punishment is legal in thirty-two States in America, as of this date[4]. As of January, 2015, 3,019 inmates were awaiting execution4

The death penalty has never been a black and white issue here in the United States. In the late 1700s, Americans were struggling with the debate over the humanity of it all. The Reformists espoused that man was not inherently evil, but, rather his/her criminal tendencies were either genetically programed or a product of environment. Rehabilitation programs became more openly discussed and implemented. Although, the death penalty remained a common form of punishment, gradually the grisly though of hanging by the neck until death was deemed a more cruel method. In the late 1800s, with the advancement of science and technology, the electric chair was introduced as an acceptable tool for execution in New York, while the gas chamber become the popular method in the Western states5.  

From the late 1800s until the First World War, there was a decline in actual executions in the United States. However, panic generated by class warfare abroad broadened the public support for the use of the death penalty. In fact, many states which had abolished the death penalty during the turn of the century, reinstated it during World War I5. However, by the mid-late 1950s, the Supreme Court was making interpretations about the constitutionality of the punishment. In 1972, the Supreme Court declared via the landmark case Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty was unconstitutional, as it was a “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore a violation of the Eight Amendment5. Four years later, it was reinstated by the Supreme Court. Since that time, 1,408 people have been executed, of which fifteen of the 1,408 were women, and twenty-two were “juveniles” aged 16 and 174. In 2005, the Supreme Court subsequently determined that the execution of juveniles was unconstitutional as well.

The United States is currently ranked fifth in the world for the highest numbers of executions5. Interestingly, the USA is just behind China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia for the prevalence of the imposition of the death penalty[5]. Methods of execution vary regionally based on culture and available technology. In the other countries which still employ execution, it tends to be more common to have swift, public executions as a deterrent. Executable offenses also differ based on culture. Some countries continue to prosecute and persecute women for sorcery, for example.


China is quite secretive about the actual statistics related to those put to death annually at the hands of the government5. As such, researchers have had to report the minimum number of executions they could confirm. However, it is understood that this figure is substantially less than reality. Working with human rights groups and the media, it is estimated that China executed thousands of criminals in 2012 alone, while the rest of the world combined stood at 682 for the same year5.

While there seems to be a downward trend in fewer executions globally, the past few years have seen a sudden increase in executions in Japan, Pakistan and India. This is attributed to the politics of the day and leadership of the Country5. Despite these facts, there is seemingly a global trend to reduce or eliminate the death penalty in most countries. In December 2012, 111 countries voted in favor of a United Nations resolution that would effectively declare a moratorium on executions5.


The main points of the worldwide debate currently surrounding the death penalty are not new but seem to resurface as societies engage in more socially progressive discussions. The questions that remain are whether the punishment is an actual deterrent to crime; whether the death penalty is fairly doled out based on race and class; whether capital punishment is or is not deemed cruel and unusual punishment; and/or whether it is appropriate to continue the imposition of the punishment if even one innocent person is wrongly accused[6]. Learned scholars can make credible arguments in favor or opposition of the death penalty.

Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States, wrote in his Apr. 25, 2012 article "Show Death Penalty the Door” on the website of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution[7]:

"One argument for the death penalty is that it is a strong deterrent to murder and other violent crimes. In fact, evidence shows just the opposite. The homicide rate is at least five times greater in the United States than in any Western European country, all without the death penalty.

Southern states carry out more than 80 percent of the executions but have a higher murder rate than any other region. Texas has by far the most executions, but its homicide rate is twice that of Wisconsin, the first state to abolish the death penalty. Look at similar adjacent states: There are more capital crimes in South Dakota, Connecticut and Virginia (with death sentences) than neighboring North Dakota, Massachusetts and West Virginia (without death penalties). Furthermore, there has never been any evidence that the death penalty reduces capital crimes or that crimes increased when executions stopped..."

Hashem Dezhbakhsh, PhD, Professor of Economics at Emory University, and Joanna Shepherd, PhD, Associate Professor of Law at Emory University, wrote in their July 2003 study "The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: Evidence from a 'Judicial Experiment'" in Economic Inquiry7:

"[There is] strong evidence for the deterrent effect of capital punishment... Each execution results, on average, in eighteen fewer murders with a margin of error of plus or minus ten. Tests show that results are not driven by tougher sentencing laws and are robust to many alternative specifications...

The results are boldly clear: executions deter murders and murder rates increase substantially during moratoriums. The results are consistent across before-and-after comparisons and regressions regardless of the data's aggregation level, the time period, or the specific variable used to measure executions... [E]xecutions provide a large benefit to society by deterring murders..."

Ultimately, as this debate wages on for the foreseeable future, it is essential that society have the most accurate information and awareness of all the issues at play as leadership develops policy. These policies and laws must be not based on emotion, but rather, fact and effectiveness of the punishment in actually deterring crime.