Unlike most industrialized nations that severely restrict or have banned the practice completely, the United States continues to use capital punishment. Despite international pressures, internal protests, and some compelling arguments against this practice, the United States remains the only industrialized democracy still executing prisoners.
Historical Use of Capital Punishment
The death penalty was used widely in the ancient world. In the 18th century BCE, Babylon prescribed the death penalty for 25 crimes. Even the celebrated ancient democracy in Athens relied heavily on capital punishment in its legal code developed in the 7th century BCE. Roman law is well known for its executions, using various methods, including crucifixion. In England, during the reign of King Henry VIII in the 16th century, approximately 72,000 people were executed.
In Britain during the 1700s, there were more than 20 crimes punishable by death, including many trivial property offenses. Because of this severity, juries often refused to convict many of these offenders. Britain ultimately abolished capital punishment in 1971. France joined in abolishing its execution method by guillotine in 1981. Indeed, currently the European Union prohibits its member states from maintaining death penalty legislation.
This European aversion to capital punishment may well have something to do with the millions of Jews executed by the Nazi state in Hitler’s gas chambers. In addition, 200,000 to 300,000 of the disabled were murdered as were nearly 25,000 homosexual men, 226,000 “Gypsies,” up to 200,000 Freemasons, 5 million Russians, 3 million Ukrainians, 1.5 million Belarusians, and 1.8 million non-Jewish Poles. With these staggering figures in mind, one can understand why the new free German state (Federal Republic of Germany) abolished capital punishment in 1949, shortly after the end of the war. As soon as East Germany (the German Democratic Republic) joined the West in 1990, the death penalty was abolished there was well. The remnants of Nazi concentration camps scattered around Germany remind all residents of the horrors of state executions.
Contemporary International Use of the Death Penalty
Amnesty International reported in 2006 that 86 nations had abolished the death penalty for all crimes, while an additional 37 had abolished the death penalty in actual practice. Seventy-three nations still retain the death penalty, but the number actually executing prisoners is much smaller. The list of abolition states (together with their year of abolition) is long and impressive. It includes Iceland (1928), Austria (1968), Sweden and Finland (1972), Poland (1976), Portugal and Denmark (1978), Norway, Luxemburg, and Nicaragua (1979), the Netherlands (1982), Australia (1985), New Zealand (1989), Ireland (1990), Switzerland (1992), Greece (1993), Italy (1994), Spain (1995), and Belgium (1996). Forty countries have abolished capital punishment since 1990, including nations as diverse as Cyprus, Armenia, Serbia, Samoa, Senegal, Canada, Mexico, and Greece.
At the other extreme, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) executed at least 3,400 people in 2004, most by shooting. Indeed, one PRC government representative claimed that nearly 10,000 were executed per year in China. Other leaders include Iran (at least 159 executions), Vietnam (at least 64), and the United States (59 executions). The death penalty is typical of dictatorships such as China, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia.
Contemporary U.S. Death Penalty Debates
Arguments for and against the death penalty revolve around two issues: the constitutionality of such punishment and how effective a deterrent it is.
U.S. Supreme Court decisions have weighed in on this issue. The 1972 Furman v. Georgia decision ruled that existing death penalty laws were unconstitutional as representing cruel and unusual punishment. Yet, in 1976, the Gregg v. Georgia decision determined that there was a constitutional formula allowing states to resume executions. In 1986, Ford v. Wainwright banned executions of the insane. Most recently, in 2005, Roper v. Simmons banned the execution of those who have committed their crimes before the age of 18.
Although the issue is still hotly debated, there is no scientific evidence that the death penalty is a deterrent to murder or that it results in lower homicide rates. Attempts to correlate capital punishment statutes or actual executions to murder rates have been unsuccessful. The United States is the only industrialized democracy using capital punishment and has far higher rates of homicide than any of these nations. Among U.S. states, most that abolished capital punishment have low murder rates, although Alaska and Michigan have relatively high levels of murder. Texas executes far more than any other state and still has a high rate of homicide. In the New York state legislature, the death penalty was debated annually from 1977 through 1995. Arguments primarily revolved around whether the death penalty was a deterrent to murder. Every year there were enough votes to approve the death penalty but not enough to override a gubernatorial veto. A new pro-death penalty governor took office in 1995 and he signed the bill into law.
In the United States it is not unusual for prisoners under sentence of death to remain on death row for more than 20 years. A convict may even come within days, hours, or a few minutes of being executed only to have the execution stayed by court decision. Opponents argue that preparing to die, then being temporarily spared, only to die later, represents extreme cruelty. Although U.S. legal authorities may not intend this, the long isolation under sentence of death nonetheless provides for a special torture not found anywhere else in the modern world.
Innocence and Reversal of Sentence
In 2003, Illinois Governor George Ryan commuted the death sentences of all state prisoners on death row. He did this because others awaiting execution had been released after their innocence was determined from DNA analysis. Investigations revealed that some innocent people have been executed in the United States in recent years, due in part to the illegal acts of police and prosecutors in withholding evidence or asking prosecution witnesses to give false statements. The innocent have also been sentenced to death on the basis of the incompetence and dishonesty of some forensic scientists working in state crime laboratories. U.S. legal authorities have yet to realize the political consequences of such error. Once a death sentence is carried out, there is, of course, no way of rectifying the error.
Economic Costs of Capital Punishment
It is generally agreed that the cost of administering the death penalty as punishment for murder is greater than the cost of life in prison without parole. These costs are a consequence of protracted trials, appeals, and increased security expenses for those under sentence of death. An increased guard-to-prisoner ratio is often found on death rows to prevent the embarrassment to government officials of suicides by convicts. In those cases when death-sentenced prisoners attempt suicide, the prison staff makes heroic attempts to save their lives so they can survive to be properly executed as specified by law.
Public Versus Private Executions
During much of the 19th century, most U.S. executions were conducted in public. Hangings often occurred in the county seat in the middle of the day to attract the maximum number of onlookers. The logic was that these ceremonies provided warnings to all would-be felons and thus were significant deterrents. However, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, executions in the United States began to be conducted behind prison walls and typically in the middle of the night to attract as little attention as possible. Further, American courts have ruled that there is no legal right for a prisoner to insist on a public or televised execution. Some argue that if U.S. policymakers took the deterrent effect of executions seriously, executions would be conducted with a maximum amount of publicity rather than in secret.
Racism and the Death Penalty
There is widespread evidence that the death penalty is much more likely to be imposed on those convicted of murder when the victim is white than when the victim is black. This pattern indicates that white life is valued more highly than the lives of black citizens. One counterpoint that is sometimes mentioned is that the courts, prosecutors, and juries should be encouraged to use the death penalty more in cases with black victims rather than abandon executions involving white victims.
Religion and the Death Penalty
Many Christian denominations publicly oppose capital punishment, including the Roman Catholic Church, whose leadership has become especially active since it joined the American anti-abortion wars beginning in the 1970s. The Roman Catholic emphasis on being “pro-life” gives this body little choice but to oppose the death penalty. Many Protestant denominations also oppose capital punishment, including Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and the United Church of Christ. Yet Evangelical, Fundamentalist, and Pentecostal churches support the death penalty, citing the Old Testament as support.
Methods of Modern Execution
During the 19th century most U.S. executions were by hanging. Shooting was also an option used in several states. As technology advanced, electrocution became an option, and in 1888, New York became the first state to use this technique. Lethal gas was introduced in Nevada in 1924. By the late 20th century lethal injection had become the dominant method of execution. Every new method of execution has been justified as a more humane method of killing. Lethal injection is sometimes seen as more humane than other execution techniques because it uses the antiseptic techniques of medicine, including a hospital gurney, drugs, and an intravenous line. Still, it is the object of current litigation as the source of suffering and cruel and unusual punishment.
History of U.S. Capital Punishment
From the beginning of the American colonial experience, the New World has been no stranger to capital punishment and reflected variation from colony to colony. A prime example of enthusiastic execution is found in the killing of those suspected of witchcraft in the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the 1600s. On the other hand, in colonial Maine the death penalty was never very popular.
The United States is unique it that it allows its member states choice in use of this most extreme punishment. At this writing, 9 of the 50 states (Michigan, Wisconsin, Maine, Minnesota, North Dakota, Alaska, Hawaii, West Virginia, and Iowa) have abolished laws allowing capital punishment, 5 have had their death penalty laws declared unconstitutional (Vermont, Rhode Island, New York, Kansas, and Massachusetts), and 2 have a moratorium on executions (Illinois and New Jersey).
Michigan and Wisconsin were the first states to abolish capital punishment, in 1847 and 1853 respectively. In 1876, Maine abolished its death penalty, reinstated it in 1883, and finally abolished capital punishment in 1887. In all three states there existed great concern about racial and ethnic discrimination in the application of the death penalty.
Progressive Era Abolition, Lynching, and Reinstatement
The Progressive Era is generally defined as the first 2 decades of the 20th century and was a time when many legislative reforms were initiated. Two states abolished their death penalty laws and have made no changes since that time. Minnesota abolished its death penalty in 1911; North Dakota followed suit in 1915 and, with one of the lowest crime rates in the nation, it has had little motivation to resume executions. In some other states that abolished the death penalty during this era (Colorado, Arizona, Missouri, and Tennessee), post-abolition lynching typically went unpunished until reinstatement of capital punishment as the better of two “bad” alternatives. Political radicals and economic depressions were responsible for reinstatement in Washington, Oregon, Kansas, and South Dakota.
When Alaska and Hawaii joined the union in 1957, both exercised their option to abandon capital punishment. Legislators in both states worried that, if a death penalty were established in law, local ethnic minorities would bear the brunt of such executions, as this had been the pattern prior to statehood.
Iowa abolished the death penalty in 1872, reinstated it in 1878, and then abolished it again in 1965. Iowa has both a low crime rate and a homogeneous population. Like Iowa, West Virginia abolished its death penalty law in 1965 and, with its similarly low crime rates and largely white population, reinstatement is seldom an issue.
Several urban states with large, heterogeneous populations have high homicide rates and many death row prisoners, yet drag their feet when it comes to actual executions. This profile applies to California, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. All three states have hundreds of prisoners awaiting execution, but each state has executed only a few since the Supreme Court found a constitutional formula for capital punishment statutes.
In many Deep South states of the former Confederacy, there has recently emerged some respectability for those opposing capital punishment. In many of these states, calls have recently been made for a moratorium on executions until research can determine if the state’s death penalty laws are being fairly administered. This is significant because the death penalty has been more frequently used in this region than in other parts of the nation. In these regions the Roman Catholic Church and others have become increasingly vocal critics of executions.
In the “Lone Star State,” there is a sizable death row population, but that state has also executed more than a third of all prisoners in the United States since 1977. While other states have been slowing the execution process, Texas moves forward, ever increasing the percentage of American prisoners put to death there. Over the past 30 years, a Hispanic member of the state legislature has regularly introduced death penalty abolition bills that have been routinely ignored. An African American member of the legislature who sponsored such abolition fared worse, getting condemned by the press, the state Bar Association, and the Internal Revenue Service.
Predicted Future of U.S. Capital Punishment
Many social observers predict that the death penalty will be abolished in a few years. There are several grounds for this prediction rather than simple wishful thinking.
- All other Western nations have abolished this practice, putting pressure on the United States to rise to the same standard.
- Numerous states in all sections of the nation have passed or are seriously considering moratorium bills.
- In some states many prisoners are being released from death rows because of serious legal questions about the quality of their trials.
- Amnesty International. 2007. “Facts and Figures on the Death Penalty.” Retrieved March 29, 2017 (https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/56000/act500022007en.pdf).
- Bedau, Hugo Adam, ed. 1964. The Death Penalty in America: An Anthology. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
- Bedau, Hugo Adam, ed. 1997. The Death Penalty in America: Current Controversies. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Death Penalty Information Center. (http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/).
- Galliher, John F., Larry W. Koch, David Patrick Keys, and Teresa J. Guess. 2005. America without the Death Penalty: States Leading the Way. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
- Innocence Project. (https://www.innocenceproject.org/).
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