With the crime rate steadily increasing in the United States, there have been talks of reinstating death penalty or capital punishment. This issue has sparked debate among people from different institutions. Capital punishment, however, is not something new.
Historically, capital punishment was already used in ancient Babylonia (which is now called Iraq) as early as the 1700s B.C. and the specifics are written in the Code of Hammurabi, a legal document stating 25 crimes, including adultery but excluding murder, punishable by death (Guernsey 2009). Later on, records of death penalty were also seen in the Hittie Code during the 14th Century BC, Draconian Code of Athens during the 7th Century BC and the Roman Law of the Twelve Tablets in the 5th Century BC (Reggio, n.d.).
Britain had influenced many countries all over the world as they formed colonies out of the islands they discovered. One of the many things they brought with them when they landed on what is now known as the United States is the British Penal system (Fridell 2003). The British Penal system had an existing death penalty for many crimes – major and minor alike. For example, under the rule of Edward I, the escape of an accused murderer caused the death of two gatekeepers for they did not close the gate in time (Reggio, n.d.). At this point of time, there are several ways to execute punishment by death depending on the status of the person who committed the crime as well as the nature of the crime itself. For the upper classes, it was usually beheading. For the lower classes, it varied between men and women. Men were hanged, drawn and quartered while women were burned at stake. Marrying a Jew was also a crime and the offender was punished by burning (Reggio, n.d.).
The British-American colonies, although following the British Penal system, only retained the capital punishment for more serious crimes. The definition of ‘serious crimes’ during that time included rape, treason, murder, and witchcraft. In fact, the first recorded execution in said colonies is the execution of Captain George Kendall during 1608 in the Jamestown colony of Virginia (Fridell 2003). Captain Kendall was accused of treason specifically for plotting to betray the British to the Spanish (Reggio, n.d.).
All over the world, societies were using different forms of capital punishment for crimes as a way to instill fear and discipline among people. However by late 1600s, some societies geared towards more humanitarian approach. In 1682, the scope of the crimes punishable by death in Pennsylvania was reduced to include only pre-mediated murder and treason by order of the Pennsylvania founder William Penn. Penn then replaced the punishment of other crimes from death to bodily harm and imprisonment (Teeters 1955). In 1764, an Italian jurist named Cesare Beccaria published a book titled Essays on Crimes and Punishment which is considered to be the first call for the abolition of the death penalty. Beccaria was so influential that his writings had made philosophers and political leaders take notice of the issue (Kronenwetter, 2001). A renowned Philadelphia citizen, Dr. Benjamin Rush, who was inspired by the writings of Beccaria, proposed that the capital punishment be completely abolished (Reggio, n.d.). In 1796, New York Law reduced the number of capital offences from thirteen to two. This reform was promptly followed by Vermont in 1797 where capital offences were reduced to three, Maryland in 1810 where it was reduced to four, New Hampshire in 1812 where it was reduced to two and Ohio in 1815 where it was also reduced to two (Reggio, n.d.). Some states and colonies however, decided to do the exact opposite. Rhode Island, for example, “restored the death penalty for rape and arson” (Reggio, n.d.) while Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Connecticut and many southern states increased capital offences, especially for slaves. These offences include “sodomy, maiming, robbery, and forgery” (Reggio, n.d.).
The first great reform happened during 1833 to 1853. It started when the public execution became a sort of entertainment which encouraged people to engage in violence and drunkenness during and even after the event, defeating the purpose of the public hanging in the first place. This in turn pushed the lawmakers to switch from public to private hanging, a move that was not taken well by capital punishment abolitionists. In 1845, an official group against capital punishment was founded, named the American Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment (Department of State 2009). A year after, Michigan replaced capital punishment for all crimes – except treason – with life imprisonment, which earned Michigan the title of being the first US state to abolish the death penalty (ed. Barak 2007).
The capital punishment was far from being abolished despite many people clamoring for a more humane execution for criminals. When death by electrocution was proposed in 1890, it became the preferred method of execution in the United States for the people believed the refined method was efficient and more humane than previous methods (Guernsey 2009).
After several more death penalty done to common people as well as high-profile personalities were exposed in books and films, the movement against capital punishment began anew during 1955. Two years after, Hawaii and Alaska ended capital punishment. In 1963, treason in Michigan was no longer punishable by death. Other states such as Oregon (1964), Iowa (1965), New York (1965), West Virginia (1965), Vermont (1965), and New Mexico (1969) ended the death penalty.
In 1972, the Supreme Court decided that the death penalty was unstructured because it was as random as ‘being struck by lightning’. To remedy this particular problem, many states made certain provisions to death penalty. For example death penalty was only mandatory for murder if the murder was accompanied by circumstances such as rape, arson, or kidnapping (The Legal, Political, and Social Implications of the Death Penalty 2007).
In 1976, the Supreme Court again changed the system from a fixed rule to the decision of the majority wherein the only time the death penalty is enacted is when all twelve jurors voted unanimously for it.
There are several social aspects of capital punishment but perhaps the most basic aspect that needs to be considered is that of the cost it takes for death penalty to be executed.
In North Carolina, for example, an additional $2.2 million is spent per case with death penalty while in Florida, the cost amounts to an additional $24 million per case. A study in California revealed that every year, taxpayers are paying $114 million for the death penalty system, not including the millions more spent in court to prosecute capital cases (Tempest 2005).
In Texas, an execution costs three times more than the cost of solitary life imprisonment. The exact cost is $2.3 million per case. Simply put, cases that deal with death penalty cost more money on both the side of the accused and the state if the expenditures on trial level, on direct appeal and in collateral review proceedings are combined (The Legal, Political, and Social Implications of the Death Penalty 2007).
The cost of the capital punishment should be considered as a social aspect because the money spent came from the taxpayers and it is important that it is used wisely. For example, if it is proven that the money spent in capital punishment is excessive then it would mean that that several dollars less from the other programs that may help the society more.
Another social implication that comes up when death penalty is whether or not a person’s race makes him more likely to receive a death penalty.
There are several writings published in defense or in argument of the relationship between race and death penalty. For the sake of fairness, this paper will write down both sides.
According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 50 percent of the people in the federal death row are made up of African Americans despite the fact that the race only accounts for 13 percent of the United States’ population. NAACP further argued that two out of three of the people executed during the modern era under capital punishment were from racial minorities. A data from 2001 to 2006 provided by the US Department of Justice also supported NAACP’s claim by stating that during the years mentioned, 48 percent of the defendants in capital cases were African Americans (NAACP Remains Steadfast in Ending Death Penalty & Fighting Injustice in America's Justice System 2007).
On the other hand, Roger Clegg (2001), General Counsel at the Center for Equal Opportunity, argues that the reason why the number of blacks and Hispanics charged with capital crimes is not proportional with their number in a given society is not so much because of biases but because they are simply committing these crimes out of proportion to their numbers. This reasoning is further supported by an article of John C. McAdams, PhD (1998), Associate Professor of Political Science at Marquette University which states that three-quarters of the interracial murders involved blacks killing white and only a few of the opposite.
Perhaps the more pressing and also the hardest to resolve aspect of the issue of capital punishment is that of the considerations regarding morality and ethics.
Just like with the social aspect, this paper will list the arguments of both sides regarding the morality of capital punishment.
For those who argue that death penalty is immoral, the issue is not whether a person deserves to die or not but a question of whether the state has the right to kill that person. Ultimately, every time the government subjects a person to death, it goes against its principles of valuing human life and human dignity (The American Civil Liberties Union 2007).
On the other hand, those who argue that death penalty is immoral quotes Immanuel Kant in saying that what is immoral is for a society to not “demand a life of somebody who has taken somebody else’s life” (Kozinski, 2002). Kozinski further said that society has a right to take a life of someone who has done a “heinous evil”.
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