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Essay/Term paper: Capital punishment

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Politics

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Capital Punishment

There is one question that has always brought about controversy. Should
capital punishment be used as a way of disciplining criminals? Over the past
twenty years, there has been an enormous increase in violent crimes. It seems
logical that a person is less likely to commit a given act if by doing so he
will suffer swift and certain punishment of a horrible kind. As most Americans
agree, death is the only appropriate punishment for such crimes.
In ancient times' executions were not uncommon. Even the Bible teaches
capital punishment. It states, "Who so sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his
blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man" (Bible). In ancient times a
set of laws were written which specified many crimes punishable by capital
punishment. These laws were the Code of Hammurabi. Some of the punishable
crimes mentioned included adultery, robbery witchcraft, and murder. During the
Middle Ages, the Church assumed the responsibility of administering punishments.
During the late 1700's the death penalty steadily grew in acceptance. Over
200 crimes were punishable by death at the beginning of the 1800's. There were
just as many methods used to execute wrong-doers as there were crimes. Some of
the techniques used included beheading, stoning, drowning, hanging, crucifying,
and burying people alive. Also used were many nontraditional forms of
execution. One type of execution utilized elephants to crush the criminal's
head on a stone block.
As times changed, so did the death penalty. Laws aimed at abolishing
the death penalty began to evolve at the turn of the century. Even with the
changes made, the effectiveness of capital punishment stayed right on track.
The crimes punishable by death became more specific, while some were eradicated
completely. For example, there are different types of capital murder that have
been specifically defined, but vary from one jurisdiction to another. These
include murder carried out during the commission of another felony, murder of a
peace officer, corrections employee, or firefighter engaged in the performance
of official duties, murder by an inmate serving a life sentence, and murder for
hire (Contract Murder). Other crimes worthy of death include espionage by a
member of the Armed Forces (communication of information to a foreign
government), tampering where death results by a witness, and death resulting
from aircraft hijacking. While hangings and firing squads remained in use,
many forms of execution were done away with. Methods such as electrocution,
lethal gas, and lethal injection soon replaced the annulled ones. As with
almost everything, there were exceptions made. Some states the prohibited the
execution of anyone mentally retarded. In 1901, Colorado made it a law that
capital punishment would not be used if the accused was convicted only on
circumstantial evidence.
The American public has long been favorably disposed toward capital
punishment for convicted murderers, and that support continues to grow. In a
1981 Gallup Poll, two-thirds of Americans voiced general approval of the death
penalty. That support rose to 72 percent in 1985, to 76 percent in 1991, and
to 80 percent in 1994 (Moore, 1994:5). Although these poll results need to be
interpreted with extreme caution, it is clear that there are few issues on
which more Americans agree: in at least some circumstances, death is seen as a
justifiable punishment for the worst sorts of criminal homicides.
On the other hand, much of the public and political support for capital
punishment rests on its presumed value as a general deterrent: we need the
death penalty to encourage potential murderers to avoid engaging in criminal
homicide. Unlike the issue of retribution, empirical studies can answer
questions about the death penalty's general deterrent effects.
To supporters of capital punishment, the statistics are pleasing. In the
past seventy years there have been 4,002 executions carried out in the United
States. Approximately three-fifths of the executions were in the South. A ten
year interim began in 1967. The states as well as many advocates waited
anxiously as the Supreme Court resolved the issue of the constitution versus
capital punishment. There have been 143 executions since its end in Utah.
Statistics show that criminals convicted of murder make up 87% of the those
After the Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building, a poll was taken
which asked the question, "Do you think the persons responsible for the bombing
should receive the death penalty if caught?" The CNN USA Today Poll reported
that 86% of the people replied YES (CNN USA Today Poll, 1994). These findings
have stayed constant with previous polls. The statistics for Texas are quite
interesting. Currently, Texas holds the second highest number of executions.
Of some 4000 deaths in the USA, 334 have been in Texas.
Whether or not the threat or use of the death penalty is, has been, or
could be a deterrent to homicide is an empirical question that cannot be
answered on the basis of gut feelings or on moral or political grounds. It is
a question that scores of researchers, dating back to a young Edwin Sutherland
(Sutherland, 1925), have examined.
Some research has asked the general public whether the death penalty
acts as a deterrent to murder. Such a question is regularly asked to national
samples in Gallup Polls (Gallup, 1985; 1986; 1991). In the mid-1980's, just
over 60 percent of the respondents in Gallup polls said they believed the death
penalty was a deterrent. Furthermore, these polls show that the deterrence
idea is important to death penalty justification. In 1986, 70 percent of the
respondents supported the death penalty, but only a bare majority -- 53 percent—
supported it when the alternative was life without parole. Gallup further
asked if the respondents would still support the death penalty "if new evidence
proved that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent to murder." Support
for capital punishment then dropped to 43 percent (Gallup Report, 1986).
There are many examples of cases from which to choose from. Without a
doubt, the most famous execution was the crucifixion of Jesus Christ! Another
well-known case was the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. They were put to
death in 1953 after being accused and convicted of spying. On December 7, 1982,
Charlie Brooks was the first man to die by lethal injection. Along with being
the first person to be executed since 1962, Margie Velma Barfield was the first
woman killed by lethal injection. The execution of the first man in the
electric chair, William Kemmler, on August 6, 1890, attracted almost as much
attention as the presidential election.


Moore, David W. 1994 Majority advocates death penalty for teenage killers. The
Gallup Poll Monthly 348 (Sept.): 2-6.

Sutherland, Edwin H. 1925 Murder and the death penalty. Journal of Criminal Law
and Criminology 15:522-36.

Gallup Report 1985 Support for the death penalty highest in half-century.
Gallup Report 232-233 (Jan./Feb.): 3-10.

1986 The death penalty. Gallup Report 244-245 (Jan.-Feb.): 10-16. 1991 Death
penalty support remains strong. Gallup Report 309 (June): 40-45.


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