Death Penalty in the U.S Essay

Britain played a great role in influencing America’s death penalty and has been used more than in any other country. When the white settlers from Europe came to the Americas, they came and introduced the act of capital punishment. Captain George Kendall’s execution in the Jamestown colony of Virginia was the first recorded case in 1608.He was executed for his role in spying for Spain. Thus in 1612,Governor Sir Thomas Dale of Virginia enacted the Divine, Moral and Martial Laws, that allowed the death penalty for such small offences as killing chickens, trading with Indians and stealing grapes. Death penalty laws varied in different colonies. The colony of Massachusetts Bay carried its first execution in 1630; however New England’s capital laws had to stay till the following year. The Colony of New York established the Duke’s Laws in the year 1665 which allowed offences such as denying the True God and striking one’s parents punishable by death.

During the colonial times there arose abolitionists movements which had their roots from the works of theorists such as Bentham and Voltaire, Montesquieu, English Quakers such as John Howard and John Bellers.However Cesare Beccaria in 1767 wrote an essay that had a very strong impact all over the world. Beccaria claimed that it was not justified for the state to kill anybody. This gave the abolitionists renewed energy and an authoritative voice which led to the abolition of death sentence in Tuscany and Austria.

Intellectuals from America were also influenced by Beccaria. The very first attempt in the US to reform the death penalty occurred when a bill was introduced by Thomas Jefferson to do a revision on the death penalty laws in Virginia. This bill made a proposal of using the capital punishment only on crimes of treason and murder. It did not sail through and was trounced by only one vote.Dr.Benjamin Rush who was a founder of the Pennsylvania Prison Society and one of the signers of Declaration of Independence was also influenced. Benjamin put forth a challenge that capital punishment would serve as deterrent. He believed and argued that continued application of the death penalty led to an increase in criminal conducts. Benjamin was supported by Benjamin Franklin and the Attorney of Philadelphia William Bradford. Bradford would become the Attorney General of the US later on. Led by Benjamin Rush Pennsylvania would become the first state to make a consideration on degrees of murder on the basis of culpability. Pennsylvania later repealed capital punishment in 1794 for all offences with the exception of first degree murder. The abolitionist movement in the 19th century started gaining moment in the northeast. The earliest part of the 19th century more states built state penitentiaries and drastically reduced capital crimes. The other states followed suit such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Rhode Island.

The current state of death penalty in the US is that it has significantly reduced over the years. Many citizens believed that death penalty would be expanded were president who supported death penalty was elected. The increased fear of terrorism also led many to believe that death penalty would get an expansion if a president who supported capital punishment were to be elected. This however has not changed any bit and for instance in 2006 executions, dropped to an all time low as several states struggled with issues related to the process of lethal injections and wrongful convictions. There was a massive reduction in the number of death sentences and a decline in death row cases. Public support for capital punishment has also reduced. This trend has increased and soon, capital punishment could be a thing of the past.

The history of capital punishment in New York began during the colonial era. New York was the second state with most executions in the period of 1608 to 1972.The first was Virginia. Executions were mostly done by the method of hanging, use of the firing squad, use of the breaking wheel and later on the electric chair after its discovery. Eddie Mays was executed in 1963 and there has not been any execution since, even though there have been death row convicts. The most famous execution of William Kemmler was carried out in 1890 by the use of electric chair, after being convicted of killing his wife by the use of hatchet. Death penalty in New York has on several occasions been abolished and later on reinstated. Governor Pataki George in 1995 signed a legislation to reinstate capital punishment, which was a fulfillment of a campaign promise. This allowed the use of lethal injection. However in 2004, the New York Court of Appeal declared this statute unconstitutional. In the year2007, the only remaining capital sentence got reduced to life. This left New York without viable death penalty statutes and an empty death row. The following year in 2008, Governor Paterson David gave an executive order which removed all equipments for execution from state facilities.

The death penalty may has the following Pros and Cons;

Pro: Morality-Crimes such as torture, rape, treason, murder, kidnapping and larceny are usually very grave and require solid proof for one to be convicted. The death penalty therefore gives honor to human life and dignity since it treats the defendant as a free moral being responsible and for his own destiny; for better or worse .It does not treat the defendant as an animal without sense. Thus on morality issues, death penalty is fair.

Con: Finally the moral issue surrounding death penalty in America has nothing to do with if violent crime convicts should die but has everything to do with whether federal and state governments deserve to execute the death row convicts. The tradition of ethnic discrimination, racial bias and racial apartheid, is quite evident in the capital punishment administration in the US. Death penalties are administered in a justice system that gives preferential treatment when you are wealthy and guilty than when you are innocent and poor. This is quite an immoral condition that begs the reasoning behind rejection of capital punishment on moral conditions not only necessary but defensible for those who are against unequal administration of punishment. Bryan Stevenson, JD.Professor of Law at New York University School of Law.

Pro: On constitutionality, more humane methods of execution have been developed for carrying out death penalties. For instance Kentucky in 2008,started sharing with other states a method it has adopted which she thinks is the most humane ever.This decision by Kentucky to adhere to her protocol can’t be seen as probative of the Wanton’s infliction of pain which is under the 8th amendment. This court has always throughout history, whenever an execution method was challenged as unusual and cruel; the court has always rejected the challenge. Our society has however moved to more humane methods of executing death penalty.Baze V.Rees (US Supreme court, in a decision written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Apr, 16, 2008)

Con: Death as we know it is quite a severe punishment which is unusual in its finality, enormity and pain. Death treats human beings as objects like objects to be discarded or toyed or like nonhumans. Death is therefore inconsistent with the requirement that even the worst criminal is still human and has some human dignity in him/her. Thus capital punishment is a penalty subjecting a person to a fate that is forbidden on the basis of civilized treatment which is a guarantee of the clause (quoting C.J Warren from Trop v Dulles, 356 U.S .86, 101(1958).On that ground alone William argues that death today is an unusual and cruel punishment prohibited by the clause…set the death punishment imposed…as violating the 8th and 14th Amendments.(William J. Brennan,JD.Justice of the US Supreme Court.

Pro: Deterrence-Death penalty is more likely to scare people from committing murder. People are so afraid of dying. Thus nothing will deter a potential criminal more than the possibility of death. Life in prison is not feared as such and thus most murderers prefer it than facing death. It is therefore clear that a life sentence is usually less deterrent than a capital offence sentence. And all murderers must be executed every time they are convicted since their execution will protect the many citizens from murder.(Ernest Van Den Haag,PhD.Late professor of Jurisprudence at Fodham University.”For the Death Penalty,”NY Times Oct 17 1983.

Con: There isn’t any credible evidence that capital punishment deters any crime effectively than other forms of imprisonment such as life sentences. States that administer death penalties have not recorded lower crime rates than states without such laws. States that have done away with capital penalties have not shown any substantial changes in murder rates or crimes. Clearly the death penalty has no proven deterrent effect. Claims such as execution deters specific number of murder rates have been vehemently discredited by researchers in social science. American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).The Death Penalty: Questions and Answers,, Apr.9, 2007

Pro: Retribution-Society is in justly, orderly manner when every person gets whats due for him/her. Criminals usually disturb this order, since criminals take people’s liberties, peace, wordly goods and lives so as to give themselves unmerited benefits. A deserved punishment will protect the society morally by the restoration of this just order, making the offender to pay an equivalent price for the crime s/he has commited.This however should not be confused with avenging. The motive for retribution is the indignation virtue, which gives an answers injury with injury for the good of the general public. Retribution is thus a primary purpose of punishing justly.Deterrence; protection and rehabilitation have a less status in terms of punishment than retribution. J Budziszewski, PhD Professor of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas Austin, Capital punishment: The Case for Justice. Orthodox 2004.

Con: Retribution is just a synonym of revenge and the desire to retaliate is a very low human emotion. It is not a rational response at all to a critical issue. To execute somebody who has killed a close person to you is just an act that perpetuates the cycle of violence which finally kills the avenger as well. The notion of execution giving “closure” to a crime committed is simply a myth. Just as an expression of anger makes us angrier, expression of one’s violent nature simply makes reinforcement or a desire to express it. This whole thing just makes a contamination of an otherwise good intention which any person needs to make progress in understanding and love. (Raymond A.Schroth, SJ-Jesuit Priest and Community Professor of the Humanities at St.Peter’s College. Thus it is fair that criminals get a fair dose of the medicine that they offer to others. This will prevent other would-be offenders from committing the same offence. Despite all the arguments against death penalty, it is imperative that criminals when caught should pay the full price of their sins. Death penalty is the only way to curb hardcore offenders.

In 2006, the American Bar Association identified an emerging trend about issue of the death penalty. This led to a unanimous passing of a resolution asking for an exemption of the death penalty for individuals whose may have committed crime due to severe illness of the mind. The American Psychiatric Association, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the American Psychological Association had earlier on endorsed an almost similar resolution. Thus the report that supported the resolution of ABA stated that those to be exempted from the death penalty are no more culpable than the juvenile offenders and mentally retarded.

This issue has elicited interest after the US Supreme Court after its acceptance of Scott Panetti from Texas and who is a case of severe mental illness.Panetti was on death row and scheduled for execution, however date was delayed to enable time for examination of his mental soundness. Therefore the dramatic decrease in the administration of capital punishment since the beginning of the 21st century has left everyone surprised. Given the several executions in 1990s the steady flow of more cases in the justice system and the strong political climate that saw the election of a president supporting death penalty in 2000 it would be ok to expect an increase in the number of death penalties. In addition tom that, the catastrophic events of 11th Sept 2001, could have solidified America’s utilization of an expanding and broad capital punishment. However unexpected turn of events took place. And according to the Gallup Poll of 2013, only 60% are in favor as compared to 80% of the population in 1994.

The change of opinion can be attributed to the continued opposition that has been going on for years. This change has been due to the issue of innocence. Since the year 1973, there has been an exoneration and freeing of over 123 people from the death row. Almost half of the above exonerations have taken place over the past one decade and many other people have also been released via the new DNA evidence, all this also in the last ten years. Such issues have caught the attention of political and religious leaders, former sympathizers of capital punishment and Supreme Court Judges. The issue of innocence has also established itself firmly in popular culture via books by authors like Scott Turow and John Grisham, and in television programs and movies.

This issue of innocence is quite important since its effect is felt when reforms are made and also when those innocent go scotfree.The effect of this issue is so serious since we are not supposed to execute innocent people and at the same time, we are drawn into the question of whether death penalty is really the best way to punish the respective offenders. When prisoners like Peter Antony who was released from Illinois death row, in the year 1999,simply due to the work of investigative journalism students, is exonerated, questions such as “how did it happen?” arise. There may be varied answers but similar consistent themes come out of these particular justice miscarriages such as; ineffective counsel, faulty identifications and witnesses, false confessions and withheld evidence. This has resulted into innocence cases sparking a serious series of various reforms that has an effect on every capital punishment prosecution and several non-death cases as well.

The other reason for decline in use and support of death penalty in America is an aspect of international trend that’s moving away from death penalty. More and more countries have abolished death penalty and Americans are fully aware of this. There have been intense debates at the Supreme Court and most of the judges are willing to make consideration of parallel developments in other countries. Americans and their judges travel abroad regularly and get to hear of what others have to say about death penalty in US. While not all that decisive, these developments carry a lot of weight in a country that considers herself greatest human rights defender.