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Capital Punishment In America – A Historical Perspective

By Oppositeofnormal @oppositeonormal

Historically, capital punishment has been a widely debated and extremely controversial topic. Death is the ultimate act in this world. It is a final end to a living, breathing, feeling and thinking person. There has been a great divide between humans over the course of time as to whether mankind has the right to make the decision of whether someone lives or dies based on the targeted individuals conduct within society. The concept and practice of capital punishment has been present since the dawn of time. Although the laws and procedures surrounding this issue have changed and evolved over time, the debate is still heated. Our understanding of the history of capital punishment is an effective tool in understanding the current views on capital punishment.

Capital punishment has been a factor in the human justice system, and a basic feature of human morality likely since the beginning of the human race. Documentation regarding capital punishment has been found as early as 1750 B.C. (Capital Punishment, Encyclopedia).Justice and revenge have always been basic human emotions. When someone causes stress or injury to another, out of fear , anger, or a combination of the two, humans are likely to respond to the slight by seeking justice. Even though by the distribution of justice they may not regain exactly what they lost, they may feel some satisfaction in inflicting loss onto the person that hurt them. This thought process is apparent since the beginnings capital punishment, and is basic human psychology. A secondary thought process involved with this concept is that of correcting bad behavior in society by making an example out of someone. Instilling the fear into people that if they do something greatly outside of the societal accepted norms that they too may be subjected to that type of punishment could be an effective way to control the masses. Capital Punishment is addressed in the Bible quite often. “Whosoever sheds man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed” (King James Bible). The people in this time period, specifically in the European region, individuals were particularly religious and followed the word of God as law. If God would allow that type of retribution to be exacted then the people felt justified in dealing it out. The Bible contains multiple passages relating to the punishable crimes, and methods of punishment with murder being the most commonly addressed. “He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death (King James Bible. Exodus 21:12)”. The times of the bible were very trying times for the humans. As a new and growing entity on the planet, many wars were fought over differences of opinion and belief, and basic life necessities such as food, water and shelter. Most people lived very hard lives and worked hard for what they had. There was very little tolerance for thievery or murder due to the fact that things were so hard to acquire back then, and a missing set of hands just meant more labor for everyone else. Tolerance for interference with day to day survival was extremely low during at this time.History has shown many variances in what is considered punishable as a capital offense. The punishable offenses have fluctuated between extreme (murders, treason, arson, etc.) to mild (adultery, petty theft, etc.). The seriousness of crimes committed played a negotiable part in the decision to sentence someone to death. It's very possible there may have been the mitigating circumstances of the criminals social or economic status just as much as the severity of the crime committed involved in the sentencing decision. “By the end of the 15thcentury, English law recognized seven major crimes as capital offenses: treason (grand and petty), murder, larceny, burglary, rape, and arson” (Capital Punishment, Encyclopedia).In the colonies by“... 1860, no Northern state provided capital punishment for any crime other than murder or treason” (Death Penalty Debates). Over this time period, the growing economics and increased government establishment of the colonies made for a more reasonable view of what should be punishable, eliminating what could be perceived as a petty misuse of power or manipulation. It could be observed that early reasons for such over-exaggerated punishment for petty offenses may have been due to a blood thirsty government in power, a bloodthirsty population and likely due to the climate of the times. During certain time periods, the issue of race has also held influence over the use of the death penalty.Racism was a contributing factor in the controversy over the death penalty's role in early America. During the times of slavery, “blacks, whether slave or free, were threatened with death for many crimes that were punished less severely when committed by whites” (Capital Punishment, Encyclopedia). During this time period, African American people weren't allowed the same privileges as Caucasians and racism was rampant. In the 1930s, the Supreme Courts attention had been drawn to many high profile, racially motivated cases. In Alabama, the Supreme Court stepped in to preside over a case due to the staggering number of defendants and the “racially charged atmosphere” (Death Penalty Controversies). This case involved 9 black men who raped a white woman. Unfortunately, in those times, had it been the opposite case it is likely the charges would have been very mild, if any attention was paid to the crime at all. Before the 1970s when the death penalty for rape was still used in many states, no white men were executed for raping nonwhite women, whereas most black offenders found guilty of raping a white woman were executed” (Capital Punishment, Encyclopedia). The double standard was obviously predominant during those times. The Supreme Courts involvement in death penalty policy increased due to increasing amounts of opposition from many American citizens and advocacy based organizations. Opposition to the death penalty became much more heated and protests were on the increase. “The campaign climaxed on June 29, 1972 with the Supreme Court's decision in Furman v. Georgia, which invalidated all existing death sentences and death penalty statutes” (Death Penalty Controversies). There was a considerable backlash from the public due to this ruling, and “Support for the death penalty increased to 65 percent by 1976” (Death Penalty Debates). After a four year moratorium, the Supreme Court voted 7-2 in 1976 to change the laws on the death penalty. After much uproar from the general public, the Supreme Court mandated new laws on sentencing for capital offenses. One of the new regulations was guided discretion. In guided discretion, the jurors have to follow certain rules to sentence a defendant.The American public did not want juries to have free reign on deciding who lived or died, so jurors were required to follow specific rules in relation to sentencing. Juries persuaded to consider mitigating circumstances affecting the defendants behavior, as in insanity, mental retardation, past history, etc. Jurors were also informed of the available option for life without parole as an alternative to implementing capital punishment. Each individual state was able to decide on whether to adopt the death penalty, it was no longer mandatory. Capital sentencing hearings were also processed separately from general sentencing hearings.As time progressed, laws continued to change in regards to sentencing. “In 1984, the court held that states did not need to ensure that an individual death sentence was proportional to the punishment imposed on others convicted of similar crimes” (Death Penalty Debates). One could initially be appalled by this statement previous to taking into account the factor of mitigating circumstances. Each crime has it's own unique scenario. Would you punish a young teen, or an intellectually impaired individual the same way as an able bodied and minded adult? Many oppositional parties were concerned that innocent people were being charged and put to death for crimes they did not commit. DNA testing became implemented in the late 1980's, and added fuel to the oppositional fire. (Death Penalty Debates).This was a victory for defense lawyers, as it would possibly exonerate their client. DNA testing became widely used by the defending counsel after this allowance. In 1993, Kirk Bloodsworth became the first death row inmate to win release through DNA testing after an analysis of evidence cleared him...” (Death Penalty Debates). It makes one wonderjust how many innocent people have died at the hands of a jury for a crime that they did not commit. Another important change in the death penalty policy occurred in 1986 which excluded jurors opposing capital punishment from capital sentencing trials. (Capital Punishment, Encyclopedia). In a victory for the prosecution,victim impact statements were allowed in capital sentencing trials in 1991. (Death Penalty Debates). Throughout history the modes of execution have changed. Some new methods have been instituted and the more barbaric methods have been removed. The most savage usage of capital punishment still in use in the U.S. today is in Utah in the form of a firing squad. During early history executions ranged from stoning, hanging, beheading (popular in Europe), burning at the stake, and in biblical times, crucifixions. Public executions were commonplace from B.C. until the 1930's. Public executions were often used to show people consequences for their wrongdoings in the hopes that it would curb criminal behavior. “The last public execution, a hanging, was in Kentucky in 1936” (Death Penalty Debates).And, of course, over time, as legislation changed, so did the modes of execution. “...the gas chamber (first adopted in Nevada in 1923), electrocution (introduced by new York State in 1890; the second most common method in the U.S. Today), or lethal injection (introduced in 1977 by Oklahoma; now by far the most common method in the U.S.)” (Capital Punishment, Encyclopedia).

Beginning in the 1980's lethal injection began to displace the gas chamber as the dominant method of execution” (Death Penalty Debates). Lethal injection is possibly the most humane way to execute someone. It is a 3 step process. The first drug is used to sedate the prisoner, the second drug then paralyzes them, and the third drug causes cardiac arrest. Essentially the prisoner just goes to sleep. This is the same approach used for assisted suicide, which is illegal. People suffering from chronic pain, and people that are extremely ill and/or have no more will to live must live in pain daily, yet a defendant who has committed such an atrocious crime worthy of the death penalty gets the “easy” way out. The reason for the judicial systems adoption of this method is clear. Legally they must treat the prisoner according to basic laws of human decency. A far cry from earlier historical applications of execution.

Historically, the statistics for executions have fluctuated. This fluctuation can occur for many reasons. It could most obviously occur due the number of crimes committed, and it also could occur due to the political climate, and the attitudes of the sentencing parties. Another contribution to the fluctuation could be due to public support, or the lack thereof. The number of executions has been on the decline for some time. “1289 in the 1940s to 715 in the 1950s and 191 in the 1960s before the milestone year of 1968, the first with no executions anywhere in the United States” (Death Penalty Debates). The 1980's saw a decrease similar to the reported numbers in the 1960's. “Only 140 persons were executed in the 1980s” (Death Penalty Debates). Although during the 1990s executions“reached a peak of 98 in 1999” (Death Penalty Controversies). Support and opposition for the death penalty has also fluctuated over the course of time. The most prominent statistics reveal that since the inception of polling on the subject support has been consistently higher in favor of capital punishment than opposition. The introduction of scientific polling on the subject in the 1930's showed strong support for the death penalty at 61%. (Death Penalty Controversies). The highest recorded percentage of support was “80 percent in 1994” (Death Penalty Controversies).The lowest percentage recorded was “ 42 percent in 1966” (Death Penalty Debates). This is likely due to the fact that America was involved in the war in Vietnam, and Lyndon B. Johnson had just renewed and reinforced American military support during that year. This was a time of great conflict in the U.S., and American citizens were tired of the violence, so it is only logical that support for capital punishment would decrease during this time. Historically, capital punishment has been an often debated issue, and the variances on policy and procedure have fluctuated often with the political and economic climate, and accepted social conduct of the times. Justice has been served for many crimes, potentially exceeding what could be considered deserved punishment in the shadow of the severity of the crime and potentially not serving what could be considered sufficient reparation. Capital punishment has been a feature of the justice system in America since it's establishment as well as a fixture in human society since it's earliest documented reference in 1750 B.C.. Opposition and support has fluctuated, although support has always been in the forefront. The current policies and beliefs held on capital punishment have been shaped by history.

Works Cited"Capital Punishment." Encyclopedia. Issues & Controversies in American History. Facts On File News Services, n.d. Web. 27 Aug. 2011. <>.Jost, K. (2005, September 23). Death penalty controversies. CQ Researcher, 15, 785-808. Retrieved from (2010, November 19). Death penalty debates. CQ Researcher, 20, 965-988. Retrieved from The Holy Bible, King James Version. New York: American Bible Society: 1999;, 2000. 28 Aug. 2011.

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