Death Penalty in the United States: History, Theories, and Outcomes Essay

The death penalty program in the United States has declined in prevalence because of increasing international and national calls for its abolition and concerns for its fairness, among other factors. As of 2013, 32 states have retained their capital punishment programs, while eighteen already removed it, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), a national non-profit organization, which provides analysis and information on capital punishment statistics and issues. In June 1972, Furman v. Georgia reduced the support for death penalty, when the Supreme Court held capital punishment to be unconstitutional and voided 40 death penalty statutes. Several more rulings questioned the constitutionality of capital punishment, though many states continue the program. This paper discusses the history and outcomes of death penalty in the U.S. It also uses applicable criminological theories that help explain the different results of capital punishment programs. Despite scholarly evidence and arguments that showed that death penalty does not deter the incidence of violent crimes, majority of Americans continue to support it and other studies prove its deterrence.

History of Death Penalty in the United States

The first death penalty laws can be dated to eighteenth century B.C. in the Code of King Hammurabi of Babylon, which applied the death penalty for twenty-five kinds of crimes. Britain influenced American death penalty because the English brought this program with them to the New World. The first person who was executed through capital punishment was Captain George Kendall in the Jamestown colony of Virginia in 1608 (DPIC, 2013). Kendall was put to death for being a spy for Spain. The abolition movement for death penalty began during the colonial times too. Montesquieu, Voltaire and Bentham wrote against it, although the most prominent opposition came from Cesare Beccaria’s 1767 essay, On Crimes and Punishment (DPIC, 2013). Beccaria argued that no one can justify the state’s execution of human lives.

Throughout the nineteenth century, death penalty witnessed different reforms, aside from abolition in some states. Instead of being applied in all crimes, for instance, it was applied to capital crimes in a number of states. After the Civil War, new means of execution developed. The electric chair was developed and used at the end of the nineteenth century. New York made its first electric chair, which was first used on William Kemmler (DPIC, 2013). Other states followed this technology. The early and middle twentieth century witnessed the ups and downs of the capital punishment program. From 1907 to 1917, six states banned the death penalty, while three reduced it to cases concerning treason and first degree murder of a law enforcement official (DPIC, 2013). These reforms were cut short because of the Russian Revolution and World War I, where five of the six abolitionist states reapplied death penalty in 1920.

The 1960s and the 1970s tested the constitutionality of the capital punishment program. In 1958, the Supreme Court ruled in Trop v. Dulles (356 U.S. 86) that the Eighth Amendment embodied an “evolving standard of decency that marked the progress of a maturing society” (DPIC, 2013). In 1972, Furman v. Georgia, Jackson v. Georgia, and Branch v. Texas led to the Supreme Court asserting that death penalty is arbitrary. In Furman, the Supreme Court created the standard that a punishment would be “cruel and unusual,” if it was too severe for the crime, if it was capricious, if it offended society's sense of justice, or it if was not more effective than a less harsh penalty (DPIC, 2013). At present, the United States numbers of death sentences are gradually falling from 300 in 1998 to 106 in 2009 (DPIC, 2013). Though execution rates are declining, Gallup poll shows that the majority of Americans continue to favor capital punishment. In its 2012 survey, 63% of those surveyed supported death penalty (Saad, 2013). With capital punishment’s public appeal, the fate of death penalty programs remains a highly debatable aspect of the American society and justice system.

Outcomes of Death Penalty and Relevant Criminological Theories

The deterrent effect of death penalty on heinous crimes has been the center of debate for scholars and the public alike for the past few decades. Different theories are proposed to support its effectiveness, while other theories explain why capital punishment is inefficient and ineffective in deterring crime. This section explores these conflicting viewpoints and findings from different studies.

Deterrence Theory

Deterrence theory states that certain interventions can result to decreased criminal activities. Some examples are increasing police visibility and capital punishment. The theory argues that the “severity of punishment is inversely proportional to the level of crime rates” (Siegel, 2009, p.106). Deterrence theory can be used to explain that death penalty deters criminals from committing violent crimes, since their death is the ultimate punishment (Cole & Smith, 2007, p.405). Gary Becker, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 1992, expressed his opinion on the capital punishment debate. He stressed that present empirical evidence was “certainly not decisive” because “we just don’t get enough variation to be confident we have isolated a deterrent effect” (Liptak, 2007). Isolating the deterrent effect of death penalty is challenging because of the human variables involved. However, he underscored: “the evidence of a variety of types — not simply the quantitative evidence — has been enough to convince me that capital punishment does deter and is worth using for the worst sorts of offenses” (Liptak, 2007). When heinous crimes are considered, experts somewhat believe that capital punishment has a deterrent effect on the former.

Some scholars provided empirical support for capital punishment using statistics, economics, and the deterrence theory. Economist Isaac Ehrlich studied U.S murder and execution statistics for the period 1933 to1969, while considering other social factor measures, such as unemployment and per capita income. He created a mathematical model that can relate the murder rate to these variables and execution rates (Lamperti, 2010, p.6). After using multiple regression techniques, findings showed a relatively negative relationship between murder rates and execution rates, which Ehrlich deemed as statistically significant. Ehrlich conjectured that the negative correlation suggested a “tradeoff between executions and murders,” and he approximated that throughout the period 1935 to 1969, “an additional execution per year… may have resulted, on average, in 7 or 8 fewer murders” (Lamperti, 2010, p.6). He qualified the statement when he said: “the expected tradeoffs … mainly serve a methodological purpose” (Lamperti, 2010, p.7). The tradeoffs are based on his model, which may not always be predictive in real life. Ehrlich concluded: “In light of these observations, one cannot reject the hypothesis that punishment, in general, and execution, in particular, exert a unique deterrent effect on potential murderers” (Lamperti, 2010, p.6). He affirmed the role of punishment in deterring people from pursuing criminal activities, specifically violent crimes. This study is not without its methodological and analysis weaknesses, however. Peter Passell and John Taylor changed the time period and the deterrence effect vanished (Lamperti, 2010, p.6). They stressed that the inference is weak because of the inconsistencies in the model.

Two more studies confirmed Ehrlich’s findings. Senior Economist of the Federal Communications Commission Paul R. Zimmewvian (2004) estimated the deterrent effect of capital punishment on state murder rates, using a panel of U.S. state-level data from 1978 to 1997. The innovation of his study lies in the estimation of the prevention effect of state executions through employing a simultaneous equations model, which utilizes a wide range of instrumental variables obtained from the theory of public choice (Zimmewvian, 2004, p.166). The theory is connected to criminal justice system and bureaucratic behavior. When simultaneity was corrected, the model implied that state execution prevents around fourteen murders annually on the average (Zimmewvian, 2004, p.188). The connection between the “announcement effect” of death penalty, not the existence of capital punishment law, and murder incidence is the main mechanism that drives the deterrent impact (Zimmewvian, 2004, p.188). Without actual executions, capital punishment’s deterrence effect is reduced. Despite this finding, Zimmewvian (2004) noted that this does not justify the application of a death penalty program because he is concerned of the fact that death penalty is skewed more to minorities, especially to blacks with white victims (p.190). Another national study provided additional support to Ehrlich. H. Naci Mocan, an economist at Louisiana State University examined the deterrence effect of capital punishment using data from 3,054 counties that ranged twenty years (Liptak, 2007). Mocan stressed that every execution saves five lives, thus, proving that capital punishment has tangible deterrent effects (Liptak, 2007).These studies support Ehrlich in underlining that death penalty is effective, to some extent, in deterring murder.

Brutalization Theory

Other scholars argued that capital punishment studies have mixed results, which meant that there is not enough evidence that death penalty has significant deterrent effects. John Lamperti (2010), Professor of Mathematics at Dartmouth College, stated that brutalization effect can have an opposite impact on violent crimes. Capital punishment can create a brutal atmosphere that influences violent behaviors. Lamperti (2010) explained that “capital punishment can encourage homicide by seeming to legitimize killing of enemies” (Lamperti, 2010, p.8). He mentioned studies in London and New York where homicides increased after highly publicized executions, which contradicted capital punishment’s deterrent impact (Lamperti, 2010, p.8). Lamperti (2010) noted, nonetheless, that the external validity of these studies is not apparent. When death penalty actually increases homicide or murder after publicized executions, this can reduce the deterring effect, while providing support for its brutalization impact.

Overload Thesis

Overload Theory or thesis asserts that high murder rates actually reduce execution risk. Lisa Stolzenberg and Stewart D'Alessio (2004), both Associate Professors of Criminal Justice at Florida International University, studied the connection between execution rates and murder rates. They used data that can help them correlate execution risk, execution newspaper publicity, and murder incidents in Houston, Texas from January 1990 to December 1994. They hypothesized that high murder incidents can actually overwhelm the criminal justice system, which can lead to lower execution rates. Lower execution rates can reduce the deterrence effect of capital punishment. In their study, Stolzenberg and D'Alessio (2004) learned that during the time period studied, publicized capital punishment events did not reduce murder incidents (p.374). Their findings did not support the brutalization effect, however, because publicized executions did not necessarily increase murder rates too. Moreover, Stolzenberg and D'Alessio (2004) discovered the correlation between murder rates and execution risk because of the time delay in execution decisions. The elaborate appeals process for death penalty cases may reduce execution rates, but a more exact explanation cannot be determined from the model (Stolzenberg & D'Alessio, 2004, p.375). This study showed that with rising murder rates, execution rates can actually decline. Hence, death penalty convictions do not automatically affect actual execution rates.

Public Choice Theory

Public choice theory asserts that when the public demands death penalty for certain crimes, execution rates may increase. Stolzenberg and D'Alessio (2004) found support for the theory in their study. They hypothesized that it is possible that the judiciary is feeling pressure from politicians, who are feeling pressure from voters (Stolzenberg & D'Alessio, 2004, p.374). They mentioned the study of Liebman et al., who studied capital cases from 1973 to 1995, and who expressed findings that: “political pressure tends to impel judges- or to create an environment in which prosecutors and jurors are impelled- to impose death sentences, but then tends to interfere with the state’s capacity to carry out the death sentences imposed” (as cited in Stolzenberg & D'Alessio, 2004, p.374, italics from original text). The study showed that public opinion on death penalty can shape death penalty decisions. The interaction between the public and the media and their agenda-setting effects on politicians, judges, and juries deserves further future study.

Low Execution Incidence Thesis

Another scholar asserted that the execution rates are significantly low nowadays that to attain a correlation relationship between death penalty and murder cannot be attained. John J. Donohue III, a law professor at Yale with a PhD in economics, and Justin Wolfers, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania, expressed their opinions on the results of economic studies on capital punishment in Stanford Law Review in 2005. They maintained that death penalty “is applied so rarely that the number of homicides it can plausibly have caused or deterred cannot reliably be disentangled from the large year-to-year changes in the homicide rate caused by other factors” (Liptak, 2007). Other factors can confound how execution rates affect homicide rates. They concluded: “The existing evidence for deterrence is surprisingly fragile” (Liptak, 2007). They are not convinced that there is a strong correlation between capital punishment and deterrence.


It is hard to say with utmost certainty that death penalty deters crime in general, or murder and homicide specifically, because of the difficulties in separating the impact of death penalty from other macro and micro factors. Using economic models may also not be sufficient in predicting that capital punishment can truly reduce heinous crimes. Nevertheless, I aver that if a person who is executed through capital punishment is actually someone who plans to kill more people in the future, then this is enough reason to continue the capital punishment program. When I consider the future victims of these criminals, wherein they are no longer victims because these felons are executed, I assert that capital punishment has attained its purpose, if not for those who research it, but for those whose lives will be spared.

For those who argue that death penalty may increase crime, their explanations are weak because they connect executions with the actions of people who are already have mindsets for murder. A person who intends to kill another human being does not need to read the news of executions to continue his/her plan. The mindset and motives are already existent and may not require additional prodding.

Clearly, I support the death penalty, provided that it is fair and does not punish innocent people. It is fair if the accused can present their arguments and evidence to a logical and fair jury and judge. It is fair if justice is swift and concerned individuals are objective in their examination. While some might think that the government or any group of people has no right to execute any human being, I argue that a murderer who plans to kill more in the future or have killed someone because of self-serving interest deserves to no longer be part of the society. Taxpayers should not pay for the “accommodations” of this person through lifelong imprisonment without parole. Their death is a sure and swift form of justice for victims and society and will deter them from committing future crimes against the latter.


Capital punishment per se may not reduce murder or homicide rates in ways that statistics can prove, but when it executes felons who are either paid or simply have the mindset for killing, these statistics are not reliable sources of affirmation for the effectiveness of capital punishment. Citizens in states with death penalty, nevertheless, want to ensure the effectiveness and fairness of death penalty in deterring crime, and this can be attained through speedy trials of people who have willfully murdered other human beings for their self-serving interests. Given these circumstances, death penalty is considered just and a crime deterrent. However, criticisms against its efficiency and success should not be overlooked, in order for the program to be enhanced further in serving justice for the public and lawmakers who support it. Thus, the death penalty program must be seen as a work in progress, where it can be fine-tuned more in executing criminals who do not deserve a second chance to life.


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