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The execution of fellow human beings in the pursuit of justice is as old as human history. What began thousands of years ago as a profound method of retribution involving not only the families of the victims but often the whole town; has grown and shrunk, widened and narrowed, and within the last hundred years gradually been reduced to a small minority of countries still executing their citizens for convicted crimes. It is an issue strife with controversy, and is always surrounded by debate whenever approached.

This paper will address the history of the death penalty, from the far and distant past, though history until we reach the death penalty that we are familiar with today. We will specifically address Capital Punishment within the United States, how our citizens view it and how citizens of other countries view the U.S. We will address Capital Punishment and the law, both within the Federal Legal system and the State legal systems.

Finally, we will conclude with a view into the validity of capital punishment as a useful tool within today’s society, how effective America’s legal system is in meting out accurate justice, and a glimpse into some alternate measures that could be implemented in place of the death penalty.

Stoning was the earliest form of execution with recorded stoning dating back to 3000 – 1000 B.C. There was no formal legal process at the time; therefore early executions by stoning were unceremonious and brutal affairs. A typical stoning would consist of a family member of the harmed party or a witness to the crime placing a hand on the head of the offender in order “to mark them for execution”. At this point, either one of the family members or the witness would cast the first stone. If he could not produce death alone, then the bystanders would hurl them also. As laws began to develop, Jewish law set forth a more involved execution ritual involving two witnesses, but the rudiments remained the same. “When the offender came within four cubits of the place of execution, he was stripped naked, only leaving a covering before, and his hands being bound was led up to the fatal place, which was an eminence twice a man’s height. The first executioner’s of the sentence were the witnesses, who generally pulled off their clothes for the purpose: one of them threw him down with great violence upon his loins: if he rolled upon his breast, he was turned upon his loins again, and if he died by the fall there was an end; but if not, the other witnesses took a great stone and dashed it upon his breast as he lay upon his back; and then, if he was not dispatched, all the people that stood by threw stones at him till he died.” (Johnson 11)

As history progressed more involved methods of execution were devised coupled with different forms of legal proceedings. Hanging by strangulation became a method of choice throughout much of the then “civilized world”. In the Middle Ages, executions became a sort of pageantry, involving the whole town in a form of brutal entertainment.

After being convicted of a crime and sentenced to death (Confessions were usually produced through torture immediately following capture) an elaborate ceremony followed in the town square. The accused would be paraded through the crowd, who were encouraged to heckle and ridicule. The accused was then led up before a nobleman or priest of the King’s courts who would notify him of his crime and pronounce him to be sentenced to death through various forms of mutilation and torture. Some of the more popular procedures were, hang the person, cut them down immediately prior to death, and then disembowel or carve out his intestines and cut him into four pieces (This is commonly known as “to draw and quarter”. Another method was known as “breaking on the wheel” The accused was placed upon a wheel-like platform. The executioner then proceeded to break the arms and legs of the accused with a heavy iron bar. The mangled remains were then turned rapidly, scattering gore about, until the victim was dead. Another popular medieval execution was “sawing the victim in pieces”, in this type, the accused would be strung up by his feet, and then sawed vertically in half, of course while still alive.

For certain crimes, the laws specified exactly what was to be done to the victim, down to the details to be performed on specific body parts. One such example of this follows, “Ye do respectively go to the place from whence ye came; from thence to be drawn upon a sledge to the place of execution, to be there hanged up by the neck, to be cut down while ye are yet alive, to have your hearts and bowels taken out before your faces, and your members cut off and burnt. Your heads severed from your bodies and your bodies disposed into quarters, your heads and bodies respectively disposed of according to the king’s will and pleasure; and the lord have mercy on your souls.” (Johnson 14) Needless to say executions of today are a little less violent than in the past.

Executions progressed throughout history with methods only limited to the imagination of men: Beheadings by Guillotine, Hangings on the Gallows, Firing Squads, Electric Chairs, Gas Chambers, and our most modern form of Capital Punishment, the lethal injection. We could devote an entire book on the history of executions, (which Robert Johnson has done in his book, Death Work) but, we must move on.

The United States is a fairly young country compared to many established in the world today and our legal system although young is used a basis for other legal system adaptations throughout the world. Having broke away from England and basing much of our law on the English system, it is not surprising that we brought over Capital Punishment and have had it within our legal system ever since (minus a short reprieve from 1967 to 1977).

The first recorded execution within the United States was in 1622 in the colony of Virginia, with Daniel Frank being put to death for theft. His method of execution was not stated. Although it is a known fact that the death penalty has been part of American history since before our independence, statistics were not collected until 1930 on a regular basis. From 1930 until 1967 (the year a moratorium was placed on executions) 3859 people were executed under civil jurisdiction within the U.S. Three out of every five executions that took place during that period occurred within the Southern states. Georgia had the highest total with 366 executions, followed closely by New York with 329, Texas with 297, California with 292, and North Carolina with 263. Out of those 3859 executions 3334 were for murder, 455 were for rape, and 70 were for other offenses. The United States Civilian legal system was not alone in laying out justice in the form of the death penalty. During the same period, the U.S. Army executed 160 people. 106 were for murder (21 of which also involved rape), 53 for rape, and one for desertion.

At the same time, across the Atlantic, Europe was taking the stance of abolishing the death penalty as cruel and unjust. In 1965, England abolished the death penalty under the 1965 Murder Act. Other countries across Europe were following suit if they had not already done so. The pressure from the European countries on the United States to abolish the death penalty continues to this day. Amnesty International is the largest advocate for a worldwide abolition of the death penalty and has garnered much support. Amnesty International is backed by the United Nations who has become a staunch ally to their cause. As time progresses and more and more countries abolish the death penalty, many foreigners, especially Europeans view the United States as hypocrites. The U.S. has always declared itself as a strong supporter of human rights yet most European nations view capital punishment as a violation of human rights. One such group, Death Penalty Focus, go so far as to blatantly declare the United States as “keeping company with notorious human rights abusing countries such as Iraq, Iran, and China as major advocates and users of capital punishment.”

Within the United States, public support for the death penalty remains fairly high in regard to cases involving atrocious acts of murder, yet support drops off rapidly when the offender is a minor or mentally retarded. Also, when Americans are presented with alternatives to the death penalty, a greater majority prefers life without parole to those who still favor the death penalty. Hart Research performed an interesting poll in 1995; polling police chiefs across the United States and asking them to list the most effective methods for deterring violent crime. Many answers were given in various ratios, from reducing drug abuse to better gun control but only 1% of those polled listed the death penalty as a major deterrent of violent crime.

Legal challenges to the death penalty culminated in the Supreme Court Decision Furman vs. Georgia, 408 U.S. 153 which ruled the death penalty statutes unconstitutional because under these statutes the death penalty was being applied in an “arbitrary, capricious and discriminatory manner” contrary to the eighth amendment and the due process guarantees of the Fourteenth amendment. Two of the justices (Justices Brennan and Marshall) presiding at the time declared capital punishment to be unconstitutional in all instances.

The decision of Furman vs. Georgia created waves across the entire country. More than 600 death row inmates who had been sentenced to death between 1967 and 1972 had their death sentences lifted as a result of the decision. States quickly moved to revise legislation tailored to satisfy the Supreme Court’s objections to “arbitrary imposition” of death sentences.

In 1976 three cases were brought before the Supreme Court regarding the same matter. The three cases were Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976), Jurek v. Texas, 428 U.S. 262 (1976) and Proffitt v. Florida, 428 U.S. 242 (1976). All three of these cases dealt with guided discretion and afforded sentencing courts the discretion to impose death sentences for specified crimes and provided for two-stage (bifurcated) trials. These “bifurcated” trials involved, in the first stage, the determination of the defendant’s guilt or innocence and, in the second, determination of the sentence after “consideration of aggravating and mitigating circumstances.” In Georgia and Texas the final sentencing decision rested with the jury and in Florida with the judge.

Also in 1976 two cases came forward to the Supreme Court, which dealt with laws providing for mandatory death penalty for specific crimes, and allowing no judicial or jury discretion beyond the determination of guilt. The Supreme Court declared that the mandatory death penalty was unconstitutional in Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280 (1976), and Roberts vs. Louisiana, 428 U.S 325 (1976). These rulings led directly to the invalidation of mandatory death penalty statutes in 21 states, and resulted in the modification of the sentences of hundreds of offenders from the death penalty to life sentences.

Under the new death penalty laws the first execution since 1967 took place on January 17, 1977. Convicted murderer Gary Gilmore was executed by firing squad in Utah. Although for the first several years following the new death penalty laws, executions stayed low, they began to climb once again in 1984 with 21 people executed and continued to rise rapidly with 74 executions in 1997.

The death penalty was effectively restricted to murder when the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for rape in the 1977 decision of Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S 584 (1977) because applying the death penalty in rape cases was disproportionate to the crime. This resulted in twenty inmates across the country being removed from death rows. Although the courts have accepted that this decision prohibits the imposition of the death penalty for all crimes not resulting in death, several states have left untouched the capital felony statutes which provide it for such offences as kidnapping and rape of a child.

As of 1998, 38 states and the federal government have capital punishment laws. The twelve states who do not have death penalty laws are: Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. The District of Columbia also does not have a capital punishment law.

The push to abolish capital punishment is growing while executions still continue. Some of the statistics on Capital punishment for the year 200 are as follows. (Taken from The U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics) In 2000 85 persons in fourteen states were executed: 40 in Texas, 11 in Oklahoma, 8 in Virginia, 6 in Florida, 5 in Missouri, 4 in Alabama, 3 in Arizona, 2 in Arkansas, and one each in Delaware, Louisiana, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and California. Of those executed 49 were white, 35 were black, and 1 was American Indian. 83 were men and two were women. At the end of 2000, 37 states and the Federal prison System held 3593 prisoners under sentence of death. All had committed murder. Of the 3593 prisoners, nearly 2/3 had prior felony convictions and roughly 1/12 had a prior homicide conviction.

With this many inmates on death row the question continues to arise, “How can we insure that all the individuals we sentence to death row are 100% guilty?” Can we justify a system that executes for heinous and depraved acts of murder if we acknowledge there will be mistakes? Is the death of 100 depraved murderers worth the life of one innocent citizen wrongly convicted?

The Death Penalty Information Center in Washington D.C. stated in 1997 that of the 6000 death sentences imposed between 1973 and 1997, 400 have been innocent. Of those 400, 23 were wrongly executed. These are the injustices that many are claiming must cause the United States to abolish the death penalty. Furthermore, some studies question whether the death penalty actually deters crime. The Thorsten Sellin studies in 1962, 1967, and 1980 conclude that the death penalty was not a deterrent. Others argue that the staggering cost of death penalty cases could better be diverted to the victim’s families or for various prison counseling programs. A 1993 California study revealed that the average death penalty case cost at least 1.25 million dollars.

In conclusion, the arguments for and against capital punishment are limitless and answers may not come in our lifetimes, but one thing is certain; violent and heinous crimes have occurred throughout history and will continue to do so. Until we discover a way to eradicate these violent crimes, there will be a need for a stern and final method of justice. The law works to the best of its ability to insure that the guilty are proven guilty beyond doubt. This paper is not designed to influence ones decisions regarding the death penalty. It is designed to educate people on capital punishment and how it works.

The future may decide that the death penalty is a violation of human rights and cause capital punishment to be abolished. In order for that to happen, there must be a unanimous decision that an alternate means of justice is in place to punish those who seek to break the law by brutally taking the life of a fellow citizen. What that alternative will be, only time will tell.

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