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"We are concerned here only with the imposition of capital punishment for the crime of murder, and when a life has been taken deliberately by the offender, we cannot say that the punishment is invariably disproportionate to the crime. It is an extreme sanction suitable to the most extreme of crimes." ~Potter Stewart (www.deathpenaltyinfo.org)
This quote portrays a direct example of the controversy surrounding capital punishment and the death penalty. Capital punishment is basically defined as a sentence given to capital offenders for crimes involving "planned murder, multiple murders, repeated crimes, rape and murder" (http://www.legal-explanations.com) In such crimes, the criminal is considered to be an acute potential threat to society and the public. Capital punishment has quickly become one of America's most heavily debated subjects as the states are given full control over how they choose to use the death penalty.
No two states have exactly the same laws defining the death penalty offense. The general perception is that the death penalty is the right punishment for the "worst" murders, which means in practice the highly visible, often shocking offenses in which extreme violence is used by strangers against innocent victims. They are the crimes that attract public attention and stir public sentiment against the offender. (Nelson and Foster, P. 4)
This essay will explore the history and use of capital punishment, as well as the infinite aspects of the pros and cons, and major court cases. Each of these segments contributes to the overall understanding of the death penalty in America.
To fully understand the death penalty in America, one must travel back to the origins of this new nation. Early capital punishment has shown a direct influence to the colony's mother country of Great Britain. The execution of Captain George Kendall was one of the earliest recorded incidents of capital punishment in the New World. The majority of these methods used for legal killing would be regarded in today's time period as "Cruel and Unusual" and often considered barbaric. Many of the reasons for which the death penalty was originally enacted in the colonies was to avoid major and even the most petty of crimes. "In 1612, Virginia Governor Sir Thomas Dale enacted the Divine, Moral and Martial Laws, which provided the death penalty for even minor offenses such as stealing grapes, killing chickens, and trading with Indians."(www.deathpenaltyinfo.org)
A notable essay entitled On Crime and Punishment, written by Cesare Beccaria in 1767, helped to fuel the abolitionist movement against capital punishment throughout the world. Their prime goal was to completely purge the world of the death penalty and inspire others to join their cause. The death penalty was abolished in both Austria and Tuscany as a result of Beccaria's riveting essay for humanity.
Later on throughout the 19th century, the death penalty began to quickly evolve into seemingly more humane process. "In 1834, Pennsylvania became the first state to move executions away from the public eye and carrying them out in correctional facilities." (www.deathpenaltyinfo.org) A few states in the U.S. abolished the death penalty all together. However, the majority of states held on tight because the power to punish criminals invoked fear into the hearts of the average people. Before the Civil War, capital punishment was a tool used to subdue and control slave revolts and rebellions. In the years following the war, new efficient means of executing individuals emerged. The most innovative of these new killing machines was the electric chair which was invented in 1888 in the state of New York. Two years later in 1890, William Kemmler became the first man to experience the agonizing pain inflicted by thousands of volts of pure electricity.
As the 20th century emerged, society developed a more open minded enthusiasm towards change and reform in order to better the nation.
From 1907 to 1917, six states completely outlawed the death penalty and three limited it to the rarely committed crimes of treason and first degree murder of a law enforcement official. However, this reform was short-lived. There was a frenzied atmosphere in the U.S., as citizens began to panic about the threat of revolution in the wake of the Russian Revolution. In addition, the U.S. had just entered World War I and there were intense class conflicts as socialists mounted the first serious challenge to capitalism. As a result, five of the six abolitionist states reinstated their death penalty by 1920. (www.deathpenaltyinfo.org)
Once the time of reform ended, fresh approaches to thinking pertaining to capital punishment willingly allowed for the invention of cyanide gas to emerge in 1924. The state of Nevada was the first to explore the use of cyanide gas as capital punishment.
The ending of the reforms during the early 20th century allowed for the largest rise of government executions in America's brief history. Throughout the 1930's, America witnessed hundreds of convicted felons on death row be silenced before Democracy's authority. "In the United States, Americans were suffering through Prohibition and the Great Depression. There were more executions in the 1930s than in any other decade in American history, an average of 167 per year." (www.deathpenaltyinfo.org)
There are many people who believe that the death penalty is the only way to truly bring closure to one who has committed abominable crimes against humanity. Conservatives that hail from the extreme limits of the political spectrum tend to favor the death penalty for numerous reasons. In addition, police officers, Judges, and attorneys generally support legal execution. "Americans overwhelmingly approve of capital punishment." (Flanders, P. 18) One of the major pros to capital punishment is that the execution of the offender helps to ease the pain that the victim's family and friends suffer on a daily basis. This execution also ensures that the criminal will not have the opportunity to commit these atrocities to anyone else in the future. Many states are finding the death penalty to be a positive outlet for dealing with America's overcrowded penitentiary system.
There have been many cases where families have found consolation as a result of the death penalty in action. A prime example of this would be the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh's 20-month-old son Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr. The leading suspect Bruno Richard Hauptman was tried and sentenced to death when he was found guilty for this crime. "The incident [led] Congress to pass a federal kidnapping statute, popularly known as the Lindbergh Act, that [made] the crime a capital offence." (Flanders P. 40) At the time, the Lindbergh kidnapping was known as the crime of the century. One can only imagine the satisfaction that was brought to the Lindbergh family through their knowledge that their son's killer was brought to just means.
Those supporting the death penalty also argue that criminals who have been charged with certain repeat felony offenses should be sentenced to death so that they may not continue to pose a threat to society. For example, in one Louisiana state case, a man, Virgil Smith, who was already serving two consecutive life sentences due to six felony convictions, was additionally convicted of a third, unrelated, life sentence for the murder of Chanda Ladner. "The life sentences resulted from his being labeled a career criminal." (http://www.nola.com) If Smith had been sentenced to execution for one of his prior convictions, a senseless murder would have been avoided.
As of 2002, the United States prison system has soared to well over 2 million inmates. It is estimated that close to 1 in every 140 adults living in America is currently behind bars. (http://usgovinfo.about.com) These statistics have caused a rapidly growing nation wide effort to decide the fate of these inmates. Those in favor of the death penalty claim that it is the answer to the overwhelming increase in prison population.
"This especial concern is a natural consequence of the knowledge that execution is the most irremediable and unfathomable of penalties; that death is different." ~ Justice Thurgood Marshall (Nelson & Foster, P.1) Justice Thurgood Marshall is one of many avid opponents towards those in favor of capital punishment. He claimed three main reasons for opposing the death penalty. "As retribution, the death penalty is inappropriate to a civilized society. Innocent people will invariably be executed. The death penalty can not be consistently applied." (Nelson & Foster, P.2)
The first point made in support of banning the death penalty is the aspect of "cruel and unusual" punishment. Cruel and unusual punishment is defined as any "punishment prohibited by the 8th amendment to the U.S. Constitution; includes torture or degradation or punishment too severe for the crime committed." (www.wordnetweb.princeton.edu) Slowly but surely, America is moving farther away from the vicious hangings and tortures that were once widespread throughout our capital punishment system. In present times, America has limited the list to only 5 "human" ways of delivering death. These methods include electrocution, lethal injection, lethal gas, hanging, and the firing squad. The state of Virginia condones electrocution and lethal injection exclusively. (www.clarkprosecutor.org) Americans consider themselves far more civilized in the fact that they are highly developed and live in a post industrialized period. However, it is blatantly evident that their methods of punishment are archaic and would not be considered civilized in most of today's cultured societies.
With today's modern technology, such as DNA testing, courts are more confident than ever that are correctly sentencing the accused. However, one can not merely ignore the fact that technology does not cover the entire spectrum of a conviction. "86 factually innocent individuals have been released from death rows around the country since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed executions to resume in 1976." (Jackson, Jackson, Shapiro, P.54) When dealing with cases involving the death penalty, it is hardly black and white; and the shades of gray are too complex for there not to be any reasonable doubt. The possibility of killing someone who was not guilty is too dire for most to consider. "The execution of a person who can show that he is innocent comes perilously close to simple murder." ~Justice Harry Blackmun (Jackson, Jackson, Shapiro, P. 53)
It is also argued by critics of capital punishment that it is impossible to differentiate specific guidelines in ruling a court case involving the possibility of a death penalty charge. All cases in which the death penalty may be used as punishment are exceedingly unique and require special rulings specific to each. Because of this, there is no way to create a set of rules in deciding one of these cases that would have the ability to be fair, but at the same time specific. Also, the fact that there are separate regulations for state and country adds to the already present confusion.
In 1994, as part of an omnibus crime bill, the federal death penalty was expanded to some 60 different offenses. Among the federal crimes for which people in any state or territory of the U.S. can receive a death sentence are murder of certain government officials, kidnapping resulting in death, murder for hire, fatal drive-by shootings, sexual abuse crimes resulting in death, car jacking resulting in death, and certain crimes not resulting in death, including the running of a large-scale drug enterprise. (www.deathpenaltyinfo.org)
Such vague guidelines in deciding cases involving capital punishment provide little to no help in deciding whether or not to apply the death penalty to the accused.
One of the most effective ways to analyze the effects that capital punishment has had on The United States is to look at the court cases in which it is involved throughout America's history. While many cases have affected the nation throughout the years, three seem to have impacted the country in more major ways: Furman V. Georgia (1972), McCleskey V. Kemp (1987), and Penry V. Lynaugh (1989).
The Furman V. Georgia case was given historical background when in 1965 the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF) strove to get the Death Penalty and Capital Punishment declared unconstitutional throughout the United States.
By 1967 a series of legal challenges to death sentences across the nation had succeeded in halting all executions while the courts grappled with the difficult constitutional issues involved. After the Supreme Court ruled against several major challenges to capital punishment in May 1971, many in the abolitionist legal movement worried the moratorium on executions was about to end. (Flanders, P. 61)
In the case of Furman V. Georgia, the accused plead not guilty to his death sentences using the state law for murder as a defense. "LDF lawyersâ€¦represented three of the defendants, [and] presented a progression of interconnected arguments against the death penalty." (Flanders, P. 62). The court decision in regards to this case, was that the "imposition of the death penalty in these cases would constitute cruel and unusual punishment." (Flanders, P. 63) This case affected the nation in that, after its decision was made, the Supreme Court ruled that Capital Punishment was cruel and unusual under national laws and reversed the death sentences of many prisoners on death row.
In the case of McCleskey V. Kemp (1987), a black man, Warren McCleskey, was charged with murdering a white member of the Atlanta Police Department. He was sentenced to death by electric chair by a jury of eleven whites and one black in 1978.
After McCleskey lost two rounds of appeals in state and federal courts, the NAACP LDF took over his case. LDF attorneys filed a new appeal in Federal District Court challenging the constitutionality of Georgia's death penalty law on the grounds that is was administered in a racially discriminatory manner. (Flanders, P. 78)
To support their claim, the LDF attorneys brought up the works of Professor David C. Baldus, who had created a "statistical analysis of over 2,000 murder cases in Georgia in the 1970s." (Flanders, P. 78) Through his studies, Baldus basically found that black defendants were more likely to receive a death penalty sentence than were white defendants. "The disparity was even greater when the study compared the rate at which the death penalty was applied for black defendants who killed white victims as against white defendants who killed black victims." (Flanders, P. 78) When the appeal defended by the LDF attorneys was denied by both the district and circuit court of appeals, they pled to the Supreme Court who agreed to hear the case.
The final decision was evident on April 22, 1987 when the Supreme Court "rejected the basic argument that statistics revealing a seeming disparity in sentencing were grounds for overturning Georgia's death penalty statute under the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection provisions." (Flanders, P. 79) Subsequently McCleskey was executed by way of the electric chair. This ruling meant that not only the death penalty but potentially all crimes could be influenced by racism.
The Penry V. Lynaugh trial was an unprecedented case in that it dealt with the uncomfortable topic of whether or not a mentally retarded person could be sentenced to the death penalty for a crime committed. In 1979, the defendant, Johnny Paul Penry was convicted of the rape and murder of a Texas woman. During his trial, he was seen by a psychologist who testified that Penry was in fact, mentally retarded. "He was evaluated as having the mental age of six-and-one-half. His social maturity, or ability to function in the world, was described as that of a nine or ten-year-old child." (Flanders, P. 83) Though his lawyers suggested an insanity defense, claiming that Penry had the inability to distinguish between right and wrong due to his mental retardation, he was nevertheless sentenced to death by a jury. Since the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals refused the petition that "Penry's sentence violated the Eighth Amendment," (Flanders, P. 84) the Supreme Court agreed that the claim raised significant questions and decided to review his case.
On June 26, 1989 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Penry in the fact that his mental retardation inhibited his ability to make common sense decisions in his case. This ruling, forced the Texas court system, as well as others, to change the way they evaluate cases involving mental retardation. "The Court again stressedâ€¦that a state's capital sentencing process had to provide for inclusion of any mitigating factor relevant to a defendant's background, character, and crime." (Flanders, P. 84)
Capital punishment and the death penalty are surrounded by seas of controversy which adds unnecessary confusion to a simple matter of life and death. Upon researching the history, both the Pros and Cons, and the major court cases of this topic, one finds heightened clarity in the subject matter. The United States government is finding this topic to be an exceedingly difficult subject to assess because both sides of the argument present their ideas and viewpoints in a convincing manner. As a result of this, when considering using the death penalty as a form of punishment, the court uses great discretion and investigates thoroughly before making any decisions involving the defendant. This, in turn, is beneficial to those who have been convicted because they now have their right as an American to a fair trial.