Capital Punishment (West's Encyclopedia of American Law)
The lawful infliction of death as a punishment; the death penalty.
Capital punishment continues to be used in the United States despite controversy over its merits and over its effectiveness as a deterrent to serious crime. A sentence of death may be carried out by one of five lawful means: electrocution, hanging, lethal injection, gas chamber, and firing squad. As of 2003, 38 states employed capital punishment as a sentence; 12 stateslaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsinnd the District of Columbia did not.
The first known infliction of the death penalty in the American colonies occurred in Jamestown Colony in 1608. During the period of the Revolutionary War, capital punishment apparently was widely accepted62 documented executions took place in the eighteenth century. At the end of the war, 11 colonies wrote new constitutions, and, although nine of them did not allow CRUEL AND UNUSUAL PUNISHMENT, all authorized capital punishment. In 1790, the First Congress enacted legislation that implemented capital punishment for the crimes of ROBBERY, rape, murder, and forgery of public SECURITIES. The nineteenth century saw a dramatic...
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Capital Punishment (Great American Court Cases)
Capital punishment, also known as the death penalty, is the lawful imposition of death as punishment for crimes. Thirty-eight states, as well as the federal government, recognized capital punishment as of 1998; Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, the District of Columbia, West Virginia, Alaska, and Hawaii did not. Lethal injection, electrocution, lethal gas, hanging, and firing squad were the methods of execution, from most common to least common, respectively. Although federal law authorizes lethal injection, the state law where the crime was committed applies for offenses under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.
The United States stands apart from Western Europe's clear opposition to the death penalty. Nevertheless, the United States is one of 94 countries and territories in the world that use the death penalty. Most Eastern European nations retain the death penalty. Fifty-seven countries prohibit capital punishment for all crimes; 28 recognize capital punishment but do not use it. Another 15 retain it only for exceptional crimes such as crimes committed in violation of military law or certain wartime circumstances. Closer to the United States, Canada abolished the death penalty and Mexico retains it but does not use it.
History of Capital Punishment in the U. S. and the Abolitionist...
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Capital Punishment (Supreme Court Drama)
Capital punishment, also called the death penalty, means killing a person as punishment for a crime. By the end of 1999, thirty-eight states and the federal government allowed the death penalty for criminal homicide, or murder. The District of Columbia and the following states did not allow the death penalty: Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
In 1999 ninety-eight executions occurred in the United States, up from sixty-eight in 1998. Ninety-four were by lethal injection, which kills the criminal with a deadly chemical solution. Three were by electrocution in an electric chair. Just one was with lethal gas, by which the state locks the criminal in a room with deadly gas. The only other methods allowed in the United States, hanging and firing squad, were not used in 1999.
Colonists brought the death penalty to America from England. The first recorded execution in America happened in the Jamestown Colony of Virginia in 1608. Death penalty laws varied widely in the colonies. In 1636, the Massachusetts Bay Colony allowed capital punishment for a long list of crimes that included witchcraft and blasphemy. Pennsylvania, by contrast, initially allowed the death penalty only for treason and murder.
In the wake of the American Revolution in 1776, eleven colonies became states with new constitutions. Nine of the states prohibited cruel and unusual punishment, but all allowed the death penalty. In 1790, the first U.S. Congress passed a law allowing the death penalty for crimes of robbery, rape, murder, and forgery of public securities (notes and bonds for the payment of money). Under most of these laws, the death penalty was an automatic punishment for murder and other serious crimes.
Ever since the United States was established, many Americans have opposed the death penalty. In 1845, the American Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment was formed. In 1847, Michigan became the first state to abolish capital punishment for all crimes except treason. By 1850, nine states had societies working to abolish capital punishment. Reflecting this trend, many states and other countries began to reduce the crimes punishable by death to murder and treason. Nevertheless, nearly 1400 recorded executions took place in the United States in the 1800s.
The movement to abolish capital punishment had both high and low points in the 1900s. On the up side, by the beginning of the century most states had changed their laws. Instead of making the death penalty automatic, new laws allowed juries to choose between death or imprisonment.
A low point, however, was in the 1930s and 1940s when between one hundred and two hundred prisoners were executed each year. Executions then declined in the 1950s and 1960s, partly because more prisoners began fighting their sentences in court. This trend led to a series of U.S. Supreme Court cases in the 1970s about whether the death penalty violates the U.S. Constitution.
Cruel and unusual punishment
The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says that the government may not use "cruel and unusual punishments." Death penalty opponents say that this makes capital punishment unlawful. However, supporters argue that the Eighth Amendment only prevents torture and other barbaric punishments. They point out that the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments say that the government may not take a person's life without "due process of law." Due process of law means using fair procedures to give a defendant a fair trial. For death penalty supporters, this means capital punishment is lawful if the government follows fair procedures.
Beginning in 1967, the nation stopped executions so the courts could examine whether the death penalty violated the U.S. Constitution. At that time, no guidelines were in effect to help juries decide between life or death. Studies showed that juries randomly chose the death penalty. For example, in cases that were similar some defendants got the death penalty, while others just went to prison.
Other studies suggested that the death penalty treated whites better than blacks. Blacks were sentenced to death more often than whites. Criminals who killed white people received the death penalty more often than those who killed black people.
In Furman v. Georgia (1972), the defendant argued to the Supreme Court that these random and racial results made the death penalty unconstitutional. With a 5 decision, the Supreme Court agreed. Justice William O. Douglas said that death penalty laws are cruel and unusual when they are unfair to African Americans and to poor, uneducated, and mentally ill people. Justice Douglas said America's laws were unfair because they did not give juries any guidance for choosing between life or death.
States reacted to Furman in two different ways. Some states passed new laws that made the death penalty automatic. In other words, if a defendant was found guilty of murder, he automatically got the death penalty. This was a return to the system that existed in 1776.
Most states passed new laws that created a twohase approach to the death penalty. In the first phase, the jury decided whether the defendant was guilty, just like in a regular trial. In the second phase, the jury heard new evidence to determine if the defendant deserved the death penalty. This new evidence would tell the jury about the defendant's character, childhood, criminal record, and other background information, plus information about the severity of the murder. The jury then had to follow certain guidelines to decide whether to choose the death penalty.
In 1976, the Supreme Court heard a series of cases involving the new laws. In Woodson v. California (1976), the Court said that automatic death penalty laws are unconstitutional because they do not respect human dignity, as they do not consider each defendant's case on its own merits. In Gregg v. Georgia (1976), however, the Court said the new twohase system in most states was constitutional. The twohase system was a good way to make sure defendants facing the death penalty got a fair trial. Justice Potter Stewart specifically said that the death penalty is not a "cruel and unusual" punishment. Rather, it is a severe punishment fit for a severe crime.
One year later, in Coker v. Georgia (1977), the Supreme Court said that the death penalty is an unfair punishment for rape. (Rape is when a person forces someone else to have sexual intercourse.) After Coker, the death penalty in the United States is mostly limited to murder cases.
Death penalty debate
Between 1976 and the end of 1999, there were 598 executions in the United States. As of September 1, 1999, there were 3,625 inmates on death row waiting to be executed.
Studies suggest that seventy-five percent of Americans support the death penalty. Whether America should keep the death penalty, however, is a hotly debated question. Supporters say the death penalty makes the punishment fit the crime. Opponents say that killing murderers does not teach people that killing is wrong. Here are some of the issues that divide Americans in this debate.
Death penalty opponents argue that the system is not entirely accurate. They fear that innocent people are put to death when judges and juries make mistakes, and when the government frames the wrong person. Sometimes after a defendant is convicted, for instance, another person admits to being the real murderer. For instance, in 1999 alone, eight people were released from death row after new evidence suggested they were not guilty. In one of these cases in Illinois, Anthony Porter came within hours of being executed before he was released. Death penalty opponents wonder how many innocent people are not saved in time.
Death penalty supporters say the chance for an innocent person to be executed is small. On the other hand, they say murderers who are allowed to live are likely to kill again. For them, the death penalty is a choice between victims and criminals.
As noted above, studies in the mid-1900s suggested that the death penalty treated whites better than blacks. Some say that the situation has not improved under the new laws after Furman. While African Americans make up less than fifteen percent of the general population, they made up 42 percent of the death row population in 1997. Although blacks and whites are murder victims in roughly equal numbers, for the ninety-eight people executed in 1999, one hundred and four of their victims were white, while only fifteen were black. Death penalty opponents say that these statistics show that the system treats whites better than blacks, and punishes people who murder whites more severely.
Data also suggests a gender bias in the death penalty system. Although women commit thirteen percent of all murders, they account for only two percent of all death sentences and less than one percent of actual executions. Death penalty opponents also say that poor people are executed more often than wealthy people, and uneducated people more than educated people. As Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas said in Furman when referring to wealthy people, "The Leopolds and Loebs are given prison terms, not sentenced to death."
Death penalty supporters reject this data. They say studies show that people who get the death penalty are the ones who commit the worst murders, such as murder during rape, murder of children, and murder of more than one person.
In McCleskey v. Kemp (1987), the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a racial bias challenge to the death penalty. The Court said that as long as the system is designed to be fair, and as long as a jury does not convict a defendant just because of his race, the death penalty is constitutional. Numerical studies that suggest the system is unfair do not mean that it is.
In the United States, most young people are minors, or juveniles, until they reach the age of eighteen. The Supreme Court, however, has said that people who are sixteen when they commit murder may receive the death penalty. In the 1990s, the United States was one of only six countries to allow juvenile offenders to be executed. The other countries were Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.
Death penalty opponents say that it is barbaric to execute juvenile offenders. They say juveniles are too young to understand what they are doing when they kill another person. Some juvenile murderers are themselves victims of crime, including physical and sexual child abuse. Death penalty opponents say these juveniles need love, caring, and reform to nurture them into responsible adults.
Death penalty supporters argue that a person who is old enough to kill is old enough to die for it. They also say gangs use juveniles for crimes if juveniles cannot get the death penalty. In 1999, just one juvenile offender was executed in the United States.
Death penalty cases spend many years in the court system because defendants appeal their convictions and sentences many times. The average inmate spends eleven years on death row during this process. Because the state often pays expenses for both the prosecution and defense, one estimate says that death penalty cases cost states between two and four million dollars per inmate. By comparison, it costs about one million dollars to keep a criminal in prison for life. Opponents say that death penalty cases are wasting taxpayer dollars.
Death penalty supporters disagree with these numbers. They say inmates on death row are costly and take up valuable space in already overcrowded jails.
In 1996, Congress passed the Anti -Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. The law is designed to speed up death penalty cases so they do not take as long or cost as much. Some fear, however, that quicker executions will cause more mistakes.
Death penalty supporters say that capital punishment prevents murderers from killing again and discourages other people from ever killing. They point to the example of Kenneth McDuff, who was sentenced to death for two murders in 1966. When the Supreme Court temporarily got rid of the death penalty in Furman in 1972, McDuff's sentence was reduced to life in prison. After being released on parole in 1989, McDuff raped, tortured, and murdered at least nine women before being caught again in 1992.
Death penalty opponents argue that capital punishment does not stop criminals from committing murder. They point to studies that show that the murder rate in states without the death penalty is half the murder rate of states with capital punishment. For death penalty opponents, this is evidence that capital punishment increases violence in society by setting a bad example.
Suggestions for further reading
Almonte, Paul. Capital Punishment. New York: Crestwood House, 1991.
"Death Penalty." Issues and Controversies on File. May 1, 1998.
Gottfried, Ted. Capital Punishment: The Death Penalty Debate. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1997.
Nardo, Don. Death Penalty. Lucent Books, 1992.
O'Sullivan, Carol. The Death Penalty: Identifying Propaganda Techniques. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1989.
Steins, Richard. The Death Penalty: Is It Justice? Twenty First Century Books, 1995.
Wawrose, Susan C. The Death Penalty: Seeking Justice in a Civilized Society. Millbrook Press, 2000.
Winters, Paul A., ed. The Death Penalty: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1997.
Wolf, Robert V. Capital Punishment. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1997.