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Since the 1970's, almost all capital sentences in the United States have been imposed for homicide. There has been intense debate among Americans regarding the constitutionality of capital punishment. Critics charge that executions are violations of the “cruel and unusual punishment” provision of the Eighth Amendment; while supporters of the death penalty counter that this clause was not intended to prohibit legal executions. In the 1972 court case of Furman vs. Georgia , the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment was no longer legal. However, in Gregg v. Georgia (1976), the court allowed capital punishments to resume in certain states, and shortly thereafter, Gary Gilmore was executed by a firing squad in Utah. Since the reinstatement of capital punishment in the United States,a separate penalty trial has been required for some capital cases, at which time the jury reviews circumstances that suggest the need for capital punishment. In 1982, Texas became the first state to execute a prisoner using lethal injection; other common methods of execution used in the United States include lethal gas and electrocution. In recent years, the Supreme Court has made it more difficult for death row prisoners to file appeals. Nearly 3 of 4 americans support the death sentence as a form of punishment. The other third has condemned it and their list of claims against it is long. Opponents challenge proponents on issues of deterrence, economics, fallibility, and rehabilitation. Their indifference to capital punishment is founded on constitutional and moral grounds. In societies best interest and for the safety of individuals, capital punishment is a respectable form of retribution for a crime being committed. More information on recent U.S. Supreme Court Death Penalty Cases Since 1990.
The theory "a life for a life" is as old as civilization itself. Capital punishment, the execution of a criminal convicted of a crime, or the legal taking of a life has been in existence for many centuries. The death sentence has been applied since ancient times as punishment for crimes ranging from petty theft to murder. The earliest known recordings on the subject dates as far back as 2000 B.C., but it is clear that capital punishment more or less has existed since the birth of humanity1. A perfect example of this can be found in the Code of Hammurabi. The modern movement for the abolition of capital punishment began in the 18th century with the writings of Montesquieu and Voltaire, as well as Cesare Beccaria's Essay on Crimes and Punishments(1764).
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From the beginning of our Nation, the punishment of death has brought along with it much controversy with the public and individual attitude. During the emerge of the American Revolution, the U.S. Constitution gave states and the Federal Government the right to set their own criminal penalties with the feeling that the individual states could control the sentencing and execution of criminals. In the early days of our Constitution, the only segments that showed that the death penalty existed were two amendments in the Bill of Rights2. These amendments deal with the protection and rights of the accused.
Currently, there are 34 capital crimes deserving the death penalty under federal law: (i. e. treason, espionage, the assassination of the President, etc.) while there are some 30 more under state laws (i. e. aiding a suicide in Arkansas)3. In some states the jury will determine if the death penalty will be imposed and in others, the jury will recommend to the judge, who is not bound to follow the jury's advice. In some states, the death penalty is required4. For more information dealing with state issues on the death penalty: State By State Death Penalty Information
There have been several different methods of execution. The old brutal methods, such as drowning, hangings, stoning, and burning were common. In the Middle Ages, amputations of body parts, which often led to death, were also popular. The public executions drew large crowds and often created a form of entertainment. In the 1900's, attempts were made to make executions more humane, with the invention of electrocution and the gas chamber. Earlier attempts in the 1700's, in France, replaced the old execution methods with the Guillotine.
Under the constitutional Eighth Amendment, the death penalty is used to constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Those against capital punishment continue to cite examples of barbarity. "Death on the gallows is easily bungled. If the drop is too short, there will be a slow and agonizing death by strangulation. If the drop is too long, the head will be torn off."5 However, electrocution doesn’t always work the first time. Accidents do happen and one must remember that they are unintentional. Because of this, most executions are now done by lethal injection. But opponents still find this to be cruel. In the end, appealing to the idea of cruelty by using methods that are more humane will be pointless and catering to their argument which could imply guilt. "The difference between crimes and lawful acts, including punishments, is not physical, but legal; crimes differ from other acts by being unlawful."6
The sacredness of life has been taught for centuries. There are teachings throughout western history. This reverence for life often opposes the death penalty. "Those who base their opposition to the death penalty on moral grounds argue that life is sacred and killing is always wrong, whether it is done by an individual or by the state." 7 It is safe to say that most of us would agree that our lives are precious, and even sacred. Most of us also agree that killing is wrong, "…Murder differs in quality from other crimes and deserves, therefore a punishment that differs in quality from other punishments."8 By not giving criminals the proper quality and means of punishment, we send the wrong message to our society. We ignore the weight of the crime by a mere slap on the hand and a trip through a revolving door. "To refuse to punish any crime with death is to suggest that the negative value of a crime can never exceed the positive value of the life of the person who committed it."9
Life is the most wonderful gift that God gives us. He also gives us the power to do what we wish with that life. We can keep it and guard it or we can take it away. It follows that murder is the worst crime anyone could ever commit. It is a crime that no one can ever make right because once you take a life away you can never give it back. Penalties exacted from criminals are made to fit the crimes committed. The worst crime possible should therefore receive the worst penalty possible.
The Bible has always been a source of moral foundations for western civilization. God set forth his word as a guide by which to live our lives by giving Moses the Ten Commandments. These Commandments have stood the test of time specifically the commandment, "Thou shall not kill." But if one takes this commandment in context it clearly means, "Thou shall not murder." Even in the ancient times, God demanded retribution for bloodshed. In Genesis 9:6, God’s word says "whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed."10 This scripture explains that wrong doers must face the consequences of their actions with the government bearing all responsibility in punishing the criminal. In Romans 13 scripture reveals of the government, "He who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted…he (government) does not bear the sword for nothing. He is gods servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer."11 It also shows that if we are not strict and swift in carrying out the punishment, criminals will be compelled to commit more crimes. Ecclesiastes 8:11 teaches us, "When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong."12 For more information on capital punishment and the Bibles view: The Bible and Capital Punishment
There is finally the problem of Innocence and people getting executed. No one will say that this does not happen because it does. It does not occur very often, but even one innocent person who is executed is a terrible tragedy. However, there are most likely people serving a life sentence who are innocent as well. It is true that these people have more time to prove themselves innocent, but this does not always happen. Our system of law is an imperfect one. Bad judgements are made all the time, but they cannot be helped. It is better to run the risk of executing an innocent person then to abolish the death penalty and run the risk of so many more people being murdered by those who get out of jail or kill inside the prisons.
Opponents will continue to argue that capital punishment has failed as a deterrent, economically, statistically, humanely, and morally. In an attempt to summarize their position on the death sentence, they would have us believe that "executions seem to appeal to strange, aberrant impulses and give an outlet to sadistic urges."13 This may be true for some people, even those who oppose the death penalty. However, the bottom line is this. Our legal system has set a standard for individuals in the best interests of society. Whether or not it is being applied diligently, if at all, is debatable. Jurors have been given the chance to decide and their message is clear. Those who are compelled to commit a heinous premeditated murder must be ready to accept the ultimate consequence prescribed by law, death. For the proponent, "punishments, fines, incarcerations, or executions, although often physically identical to the crimes punished, are neither crimes, nor their moral equivalent."14 The death penalty will continue to be a suitable form of punishment for those individuals deserving retrutbution for the crimes in which they commit.
1. Szumski, Bonnie. The Death Penalty: Opposing Viewpoints. St. Paul: Greenhaven
Press, 1986. (25-27)
2. Landau, Elaine. Teens and the Death Penalty. New Jersey: Enslow Publishers, Inc.,
3. Horwitz, Elinor, and Lander. Capital Punishment. USA Philadelphia: J.P.Lippincott
Company, 1973. (25)
4. (Horwitz, 14)
5. Hugo Adam Bedau. "The Case Against the Death Penalty," IRC,
6. Miller, Robert K. The Informed Arguement: a multidisciplinary reader adn guide.
San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986. (79-83)
7. Honeyman, Jennifer C. and Ogloff, James R.P. "Capital Punishment: Arguements for
Life and Death." Reprint from the Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science Vol.28
8. (Honeyman, 87)
9. (Miller, 88-89)
11. (NIV13: 24)
13. (Bedau, 11)
14. (Miller, 83)
- Honeyman, Jennifer C. and Ogloff, James R.P. "Capital Punishment: Arguements for
Life and Death." Reprint from the Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science Vol.28
- Horwitz, Elinor, and Lander. Capital Punishment. USA Philadelphia: J.P.
Lippincott Company, 1973.
- Hugo Adam Bedau. "The Case Against the Death Penalty, "IRC,
- Kaminer, Wendy. Its All The Rage: Crime and Culture. Reading, Mass: Addison
- Kronenwetter, Michael. Capital Punishment: a reference handbook. Santa Barbara:
ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1993.
- Landau, Elaine. Teens and the Death Penalty. New Jersey: Enslow Publishers,
- Miller, Robert K. The Informed Arguement: a multidisciplinary reader adn guide.
San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.
- Szumski, Bonnie. The Death Penalty: Opposing Viewpoints. St. Paul: Greenhaven