The death penalty is a controversial topic in America. Some think that it is a just punishment, but some argue that it is cruel and unusual. Arguments in favor of capital punishment say that it should be used at the discretion of the judge and jury, but where do we draw the line? What crimes do we think are large enough to be punishable by death? As of right now, 27 states allow the death penalty, but different states have different rules and regulations. Most states who still have the death penalty only establish it for murder or treason. However, in some states like Montana or Georgia, you can receive the death penalty for rape or armed robbery. While it may not be common for someone to receive the punishment for crimes where no one was harmed, it is still allowed by law.
There have been 1,492 executions since the year of 1976. 55% (830) of those deaths are white, while 34% (511) are black and 8.5% (127) are hispanic. Studies done have also shown evidence of discrimination in the court process.One study conducted in 2014 concluded that jurors in Washington are three times more likely to recommend the death penalty for a black defendant opposed to a white defendant for a similar crime. Another study looking at discrimination between the accuser and the victim showed that 96% of states where studies have been conducted, there was a pattern of either race-of-victim or race-of-defendant discrimination. The number of innocent people sentenced to death is also relatively high for what would is at stake. Since 1973, more than 160 people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence.(deathpenaltyinfo.org) It is also true that the death penalty costs much more than it would for a sentence of life in prison. Enforcing the death penalty costs Florida $51 million a year more than what it would cost to punish all murder cases with life in prison without parole. Based on the 44 executions Florida has carried out since 1976, that amounts to a cost of nearly $24 million for each execution. (Palm Beach Post, January 4, 2000).
The death penalty has been around for thousands of years, as far as the fourteenth century. It is one of the most primitive forms of punishment. In previous times, the penalty was carried out in an array of different ways such as hanging, beheading, drowning, stoning and crucifiction, to name a few. The first death penalty to take place in America was that of Captain George Kendall who was accused of being a spy for Spain. America took the death penalty from British law and the writings of philosophers Voltaire and Bentham. Colonists adopted some of Britain’s laws, but they all varied from colony to colony. In 1612, Virginia adopted the Divine, Moral and Martial Laws which allowed capital punishment for minor crimes such as stealing grapes or trading with Natives. In 1665 New York enacted The Duke’s Laws which made denying one’s God also punishable by death. However, as America started to progress, intellectuals began reading the writings of Cesare Beccaria -an Italian criminologist- who argued that there was no justification for the states taking a life. This gave abolitionists an authoritative voice to stand behind when calling for reform.
The first attempt at reform from the government was at the hand of Thomas Jefferson. He introduced a bill that aimed to change virginia’s laws regarding the penalty. He proposed that capital punishment should only be used in extreme cases such as murder or treason. However, the bill didn’t pass and was defeated by a single vote. Not much was seen of the reform movement until the mid 1800s. In 1838 Tennessee and Alabama introduced discretionary death penalty statutes which made the death penalty a choice punishment rather than a mandatory one. The death penalty was no longer required for any and all crimes. The statutes eventually led to the abolition of all mandatory capital punishment laws around the US. By 1917, six states had completely outlawed capital punishment. During the time, this was seen as great reform, but it was short lived.
As America entered World War ?, citizens were in a state of panic and fear as the paranoia grew around communism and anti government regimes. Because of this, all progress was lost and the six abolitionist states reinstated the penalty. As time went on, use of the penalty increased and reached an all time high in the 20’s and 30’s as Americans endured prohibition and the great depression. There were more executions in the 1930s than any decade in american history, an average of 167 per year (DeathPenaltyInfo.org). In 1927, Nevada sought a more human way to execute prisoners. Cyanide gas had been used during the holocaust, so Nevada implemented it for capital punishment executions in order to replace electrocution.
However, the sixties came along and brought along with it new cultural and political trends. It was known as the “Cultural Decade”. Because of this, the American people began to disagree with capital punishment. This brought up questions of legality with regard to the constitution. Before this time, it was commonly understood that the fifth, eighth and fourteenth amendments protected the death penalty. Some tried to argued that the death penalty could be considered cruel and unusual under the eighth amendment which states “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” In 1958, there was a court case called Trop v. Dulles. In this case the supreme court found “The eighth amendment contained an evolving standard of decency that marked the progress of a maturing society…” basically stating that the United States had progressed to a point where the death penalty no longer met the standards of our society. Other court rulings regarding the death penalty include that of Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Mexico and Delaware. Rhode Island held that the state’s statute imposing a mandatory death sentence for an inmate who killed a fellow prisoner was unconstitutional. Connecticut and New Mexico voted to abolish capital punishment, while this legislation was effective, it did not apply to those already on death row awaiting the penalty. Delaware also moved to abolish the death penalty in 2016, pardoning those 13 prisoners who were currently on death row giving them life in prison without parole. In 2002, the Supreme Court held in Atkins v. Virginia that it is unconstitutional to execute defendants with “mental retardation” and different associations have endorsed resolutions calling for an exemption of the severely mentally ill.
While some states have found capital punishment unconstitutional, the death penalty continues to be given for crimes of murder and treason. Today, there are many controversies surrounding capital punishment. Some current issues include religious discrimination, accusations of racist jurors and questionable practices by Idaho officials. A court case was opened on behalf of death row inmate Dominique Ray when he was refused access to a muslim religious adviser. In most cases, the state issues a christian chaplain to be present with the inmate throughout the execution. Because of this, other religious advisers are prohibited from being present in the chamber. Los Angeles Times deputy editorial page editor Jon Healey wrote: “If you need a rabbi, an imam or other non-Christian spiritual advisor to accompany you into the death chamber in Alabama, God help you. Because the U.S. Supreme Court won’t.” When Ray requested that his Imam be present in the chamber, the state denied his request on January, 3rd because they claimed that the christian chaplain was only allowed due to the fact that he was a trained member of the staff.
Another issue at the moment includes the request of Keith Tharpe and Julius Jones to have the Supreme Court grant them new trials after it was made known that some of the jurors used racial slurs to describe people of color. Chief Justice John Roberts declared for the Court that “the law punishes people for what they do, not who they are,” and overturned a death sentence imposed after a psychologist testified that he posed a greater risk of future dangerousness because he is black. Lastly, Idaho officials are under fire for accusations of questionable practices and records of false statements. Testimonies at trials regarding the case revealed that IDOC has implemented secret efforts to extend fraudulent record keeping practices. “So, the first set would be a lower amount to not represent the total of what was being spent, and the second one had a little higher amount just to show due diligence — that there was work being done to capture all the amounts,” the official said. According to the official, “the third was the actual set of books that would actually represent the expenses.”(deathpenaltyinfo.org)
The death penalty is still a frequently used punishment in some states, but our society may be progressing to a point where it is no longer acceptable to execute a prisoner for crimes committed. There are many issues that have presented themselves over time such as racism in jurors, cost, morality, religious discrimination, and the overall perception of execution with regard to the public.
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