The Death Penalty V. Human Rights Essay

In the contemporary world, capital punishment faces considerable opposition. Corporal punishment has been deemed to be a very severe form of punishment. Consequently, most of the countries in the world have discontinued this barbaric and unnecessary mode of punishment. Capital punishment has been discontinued in almost ninety countries; nevertheless, an almost equal number still practice it. A major adherent to capital punishment is the US. On an average, seventy – five persons are executed every year in the US.

The first ever reported execution in the US dates back to 1607. In December of that year, Captain George Kendall was shot dead by firing squad in Jamestown, USA. He was executed on charges of creating discord and fostering mutiny. The second reported execution was that of Daniel Frank in the year 1622 in the Colony of Virginia on charges of theft. Thereafter the death penalty had become common in the criminal justice system of the United States.

Imposing death penalty on minors aged below eighteen years and its legality had been discussed in the case of Sanford v Kentucky. The jury in that case rejected the basic assumption that the death penalty could not be imposed on minors and juveniles, in conformity with the 8th Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishments against juveniles. However, it was held that juvenile criminals, who were sixteen years or older, could be executed. The Court held that the death penalty could not be deemed to be cruel and unusual punishment. It also maintained that the founders of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution did not consider the death penalty to be cruel and unusual punishment. Justice Scalia based his ruling on the changing standards of decency. Taking this decision as a precedent, most states in the US had imposed the death penalty on juvenile delinquents who were sixteen years of age. Justice Brenan opposed this decision and argued that such juvenile executions were in the breach of evolving standards of humanity in the US.

In Furman v Georgia the jury ruled that the death penalty was a form of cruel and unusual form of punishment. They also argued that it should be withdrawn from legislation.

The supporters of capital punishment have come up with two principal justifications for its continuance. First, the death penalty is essential for the safety of citizens; and secondly, there have been attempts to eliminate some of the more barbaric practices involved in such punishment. To this end, executions are being conducted in places, where the general public is not granted access. Moreover, governments have supplanted the conventional methods of causing death, like hanging, with neoteric methods like employing electrocution and lethal fumes. Pojman recommended the death penalty for the most serious crimes, as it was morally justified, according to him.

Opponents to the death penalty contend that it is inhumane; whereas as its adherents contend that is essential retaliation for appalling felonies. The supporters of corporal punishment have opined that this kind of punishment forestalls crime in an extremely efficacious way. According to those who oppose the death penalty, capital punishment violates human. However, those who support the death penalty, contend that such punishment is one of the principal strategies of the criminal justice. Due to these diverging points of view, there has been extreme disagreement regarding the death penalty.

Critics of the death penalty have opposed it as a barbarous act. It is quite evident that the death penalty entails a number of inhumane procedures. Furthermore, capital punishment has been imposed not only for the heinous offenses but also for many less serious crimes.

In the year 2007 there were forty – two executions in the US, of these twenty – six were held in Texas, three each in Alabama and Oklahoma, two each in Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee, and one each in South Dakota, Georgia, South Carolina and Arizona. Twenty – eight white people and fourteen black people were executed in 2007. All of them were male criminals. Of these forty – one were executed through lethal injection and one criminal was executed through electrocution. As of the year 2006, thirty – eight States and the Federal Government had laws that imposed capital punishment.

At present criminals charged with capital crimes are awaiting the death penalty in thirty – eight states of the US. The District of Columbia and twelve other states have rescinded the death penalty. In 2004, the statutes of New York and Kansas that impose the death penalty have been annulled by declaring them as unconstitutional. The government prosecutors in the thirty – eight states, which still have death penalty statutes, are claiming that executions would serve as a deterrent.

The Federal legislation imposes the death penalty for homicide, murder through shoot outs in drug dealings, breach of civil rights that lead to murder, child abuse and murder and murder related rape. Other crimes such as espionage, treason and drug trafficking on large scale can also attract the death penalty.

The US Supreme court ruled that the death penalty could not be imposed on offenders, whose age was less than nineteen years, at the time of committing the crime. It allowed the states to specify their own conditions to determine the mental capacity of the criminal, wherever deemed necessary. Mentally retarded people are not to be executed. The US Supreme court directed the state courts to abolish such executions. Eighteen states responded to the instructions of the Supreme Court and permitted the judge to determine the mental capacity of the defendants. Nine states have made it mandatory for the defendant to prove his mental retardation. Execution of criminals can be brought about by administering lethal injections. In the year 2003, there were sixty – five executions throughout the US. Of these sixty four were by administering a lethal injection and one was carried out by electrocution.

Based on research studies, the government of New Jersey suspended its executions for a period of one year. These studies had examined the fairness of executions and had estimated the expenditure involved in carrying out executions. They also recommended alternatives to capital punishment. Thus New Jersey became the first state to impose a moratorium on capital punishment. In 2000, the state of Illinois prohibited the execution of inmates by an executive order.

Deterrence and retribution were the main arguments of the proponents of the death penalty. Opponents to the death penalty claimed that there was a risk of executing innocent people, due to the death penalty. By December, 2005, the one thousandth execution had been completed. Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman stated in a press meet on the 2nd of December, 2005 that the death penalty would serve as a deterrent for further crimes and that it should be carried out with utmost fairness and in the speediest manner possible. In order to prevent the execution of the innocent, President Bush had recommended the use of new technologies such as DNA evidence, while imposing death penalties.

In the United States the criminal justice system, frequently, imposes the death penalty. It is generally recommended by the Congress or state legislature for grievous offenses, like murder. The 8th Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits any forms of cruel and unusual punishment. However, the Supreme Court of the US had ruled that the death penalty cannot become a per se violation of the Eighth Amendment. It is not required to conduct a trial by jury, in cases pertaining to inflicting the death penalty, under the 6th Amendment to the Constitution. The practice of inflicting the death penalty is not followed by all the states of the US.

The Supreme Court turned down a state’s imposition of death penalty on the accused in the case of Coker v Georgia. It held that the death penalty could be disproportionate punishment and that it could not be imposed for the rape on an adult woman. While delivering this landmark judgment, the Supreme Court had taken into account the evolving changes in the attitude of the nation with regard to the award of the death penalty for rape crimes.

In Atkins v Virginia, the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty could not be imposed on criminals who were mentally retarded, because such executions would be cruel and unusual punishment. The 8th Amendment to the Constitution disallows such punishments.

The Supreme Court in Roper v Simmons annulled the application of the death penalty to juvenile criminals. Most of the jurors had opined that juveniles were lacking in the development of their character and they were not expected to have mental maturity and a sense of responsibility. Furthermore, teenagers had greater vulnerability to negative influences. Based on this reasoning the Supreme Court invalidated the death penalty for all juvenile criminals. Moreover, it opined that juvenile offenders had a very low level of understanding of the nature of crimes they had committed.

A majority of the developed nations have abolished the death penalty and instead impose life term imprisonment. The US has a long history of capital punishment. The US government used to impose capital punishment for a variety of crimes. Execution had become a routine practice of the administration. The opposition to capital punishment started in the late eighteenth century, when sociologists began to campaign against the death penalty and demanded respect for an individual’s life. They claimed that the government’s practice of execution was inhuman and unjust. This debate is still continuing and has become a controversial issue.

Opponents to the death penalty claim that it is inhuman, harsh and degrading. Proponents claim that it is an essential and important method of punishment, for containing capital offences. Supporters of the death penalty contend that the death penalty would deter individuals from committing terrible crimes. However, opponents to the death penalty claim that the government breaches human rights by executing individuals. Furthermore, the supporters of the death penalty argue that criminal justice provides for capital punishment, which is a legal concept. These opposing viewpoints significantly, complicate the issue of capital punishment.

Initially, most of the legal systems were based on the law of retaliation or lex talionis. Several religions had contended that the death penalty had religious sanction; however, these claims were discredited by a number of authorities in this field. Some of them have established that these claims of fundamentalists, Christians and Mormons were untenable. They have also stated that these religious groups had distorted the religious texts to conform to their beliefs.

Moreover, some of these social scientists have strongly argued that the death penalty cannot be imposed, no matter what the crime. They recommend the employment of imprisonment for long periods; because, such punishment, severely curtails the individual’s freedom and privacy.

Although, it was uncontestable that the general public had to be afforded protection from crime; some of the extant methods of preventing it were unacceptable. This was especially so in the case of the death penalty, which entailed considerable cruelty and violence. The question being posed is not regarding the efficacy of the death penalty as punishment, but whether the death penalty is a better alternative to long term imprisonment.

After the thousandth execution, Amnesty International argued that the death penalty had an adverse psychological effect on the families of the victims, the offenders’ families as well as the personnel who had taken part in the executions. It contended that state sponsored killings should be proscribed immediately. Interestingly in the Gallup Poll conducted in October 2005, it was revealed that nearly sixty – four percent of American public supported the death penalty. The American Bar Association had launched the Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project in September 2001. This project campaigned for abolishing the death penalty and suspending executions throughout the US.

Moreover, there were a number of issues that had not been properly addressed, for example, the racial prejudice in the South saw the award of capital punishment, to a significantly greater number of the minority communities and blacks.

There have been several attempts to reduce the brutality involved in killing convicts, in the US. Some of these were the employment of the electric chair, which was held to be less brutal than hanging. Nevertheless, there was a significant amount of barbarity involved and on occasion, the chair had even caught fire, with the result that the convict had literally been burned to death.

In addition, it entails greater expense to execute a convict than to keep that person in prison. Moreover, the degree of iniquity among murderers shows great variation and the public safety can be assured by placing the murderous felons behind locked doors. A typically specious argument is that one can never be sure as to which criminal would commit a crime again and that the best option would be to execute each and every murderer. This goes against the very grain of morality and is politically unrealizable.

At times the mentally retarded had been treated like persons in full command of all their faculties. Such offenders had been most callously executed, despite their patently obvious mental retardation. For instance, Rickey Ray Rector was executed in the state of Arkansas in the year 1992, although he was mentally challenged. In fact, while partaking of his last meal, he had asked the guards to save the dessert for his next meal.

All the available evidence indicates that execution is far worse than imprisonment. Therefore, its supporters wish to continue with it, whereas its opponents desire to put an end to it, in the US justice system. As such, capital punishment is not a greater deterrent than imprisonment for preventing murders. By executing the murderer, the victim is not restored to life. As the good Lord Jesus had emphatically stated, an eye for an eye, merely leaves everyone blind.

A very important observation by the Amnesty International is that the number of executions had declined all over the world, in the year 2006. In that year, most of the executions had transpired in countries like China, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan and the US. With the exception of Belarus, no country in Europe had imposed the death penalty, in 2006. In Africa, only six nations had executed people in the year 2006. In the continents of South and North America, the United States was the only nation that has been executing criminals, since the year 2003.


Amnesty International USA. September 2007. The Death Penalty V. Human Rights. Why Abolish the Death Penalty? Retrieved on March 7, 2008 from

Atkins v Virginia 536 U.S. 304 (2002)

Carol Walker, 24 February 2006. Death Penalty Subject of Debate in United States. Retrieved 7 March 2008 from

Cornell University Law School. Death Penalty. Retrieved 6 March 2008 from

Coker v Georgia 433 U.S. 584 (1977)

Hugo Adam Bedau. Debating the Death Penalty: Should America Have Capital Punishment? Oxford University Press. 2004.

Pojman.2004.Why the Death Penalty Is Morally Permissable.

Roper v Simmons 543 U.S. 551 (2005)

Rupert Cornwell, February 12, 2003. The Independent. Mentally ill inmate to be ‘made sane’ for execution. Retrieved on March 7, 2008 from

The Outlaw, May 29, 2006. The Legality of the Death Penalty and the Supreme Court. Retrieved 5 March 2008 from

U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Capital Punishment Statistics. Retrieved 7 March 2008 from