Monday, July 5, 2010

Capital Punishment: The Debate

Electric chair used at Sing Sing Prison

By Jason Sweet

Capital punishment has been a subject for ethical debate for centuries. The use of the capital punishment in the United States and other countries has been met with much opposition throughout history. There are many individuals that do not believe it is the place of the legal system to take the life of a person convicted of a crime. There are also individuals that think murderers deserve to die. The death penalty debate is an important topic in the world today; however, capital punishment has been around for thousands of years. There are several aspects of capital punishment that have changed throughout history, including the popularity of the death penalty, the type of crimes punishable by death, and the method of execution.

Those individuals in favor of abolishing the death penalty are referred to as abolitionists. The abolitionists refuse to support the use of the death penalty for any crime. They argue that the death penalty is not needed to achieve justice in murder cases. Life in prison without the possibility of parole will suffice in keeping society safe from the criminal. Abolitionists also argue against the death penalty because there is the possibility that innocent people are incarcerated. Another argument against the death penalty is the presence of discrimination in the legal system. For example, poor people have less access to great legal assistance and therefore could be more likely to receive the death penalty. There is an extreme group of abolitionists that believe in the absolute sanctity of human life. This means that killing of any kind or for any reason is morally wrong. This even includes killing in war or in self defense. This extreme viewpoint is often seen as implausible. How can it be morally wrong to kill a terrorist about to blow up a building or an intruder about to murder an entire family? It seems morally right to save the lives of the innocent instead of the murderer. (Mappes, Zembaty, 2007)

Those individuals in favor of retaining the death penalty are referred to as retentionists. There are differences among retentionists regarding the kinds of cases they find acceptable to enforce the death penalty. Arguments for retention of the death penalty usually emphasize either considerations of justice or considerations of social utility. Considerations of justice include the idea that moral order is upset by the commission of an offense and the disorder must be rectified by punishment that is equal or proportional to the offense. Philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is famous for his defense of the law of retaliation, often expressed as “an eye for an eye” [1]. Punishment is to be inflicted in a measure that will equalize the offense; therefore, when the offense is murder, capital punishment is the only equalizer. Social utility refers to utilizing the death penalty as the only effective way to achieve social protection against the continuing threat posed by a criminal. (Mappes, Zembaty, 2007)

The first established death penalty laws have been traced back to Eighteenth Century B.C. in the Code of King Hammurabi of Babylon [2]. This code expressed the use of the death penalty for 25 different crimes. The death penalty was also part of the Hittite Code in Fourteenth Century B.C.[3] The Draconian Code of Athens, Seventh Century B.C., made death the only punishment for all crimes. Most societies today would never accept the same extreme punishment for all crimes. Most cultures would not impose equal punishment for shoplifting as for serial killing. At this time in history, death sentences were carried out by such means as drowning, beating to death, impalement, crucifixion, and burning alive (Intro to Death Penalty, n.d.). The method of execution has changed throughout history and appears to be associated with what is viewed as a “humane” death. A firing squad was used to execute Utah inmate and convicted killer Ronnie Lee Gardner on June 17, 2010 [4]. This was the first execution by firing squad in the United States in 14 years because the U.S mostly imposes lethal injection in capital punishment cases (Utah Firing, 2010). However, a firing squad seems very “humane” when compared to the aforementioned types of executions.

The execution methods and crimes punishable by death have changed throughout history. In the Tenth Century A.D., hanging was the most common method of execution in Britain. However, in Eleventh Century A.D., William the Conqueror would not allow criminals to be hanged or otherwise executed for any crime, with the exception of war time. Capital punishment laws changed with changing rulers. During the reign of Henry VIII, Sixteenth Century, it is estimated that 72,000 people were executed. Some common methods of execution at that time were boiling, beheading, burning at the stake, and drawing and quartering. Executions were carried out for capital offenses like marrying a Jew, treason, and simply not confessing to a crime. Again, these methods of execution seem very heinous compared to methods used today. By the 1700’s, there were 222 crimes punishable by death, including crimes like stealing or cutting down a tree. This resulted in juries not convicting defendants of minor offenses because the punishment was unconscionably severe. This lead to Britain’s reform of the death penalty, which reduced the number of crime punishable by death for over 100 of the 222 crimes from 1823 to 1837 (Intro to Death Penalty, n.d.).

The death penalty in America has been around for centuries and was influenced by capital punishment laws in Britain. These laws were brought over to the new world by European settlers. The first recorded execution in the new colonies was Captain George Kendall in the Jamestown colony of Virginia in 1608. He was executed for being a spy for Spain. The Divine, Moral, and Martial Laws were enacted by Virginia Governor Sir Thomas Dale in 1612. These laws imposed the death penalty for minor crimes such as killing chickens, stealing grapes, or trading with Indians. Laws regarding capital punishment varied from colony to colony just as they varied from ruler to ruler hundreds of years earlier. In 1632, Jane Champion became the first woman executed in the new colonies. In 1767, Cesare Beccaria wrote an essay “On Crimes and Punishment”, which expresses that there is no justification in the state taking a life. This began the era of the abolitionist’s movement (Intro to Death Penalty, n.d.).

There were many milestones in the abolitionist’s movement in America beginning in the early 1800’s, followed by setbacks in the movement. At this period in history, many states began building penitentiaries and reduced their number of capital crimes. In 1838, Tennessee enacted discretionary death penalty statutes. In 1846, Michigan was the first state to abolish the death penalty for all crimes except treason, followed by Rhode Island and Wisconsin. After the civil war there were new developments in executions. The electric chair was introduced at the end of the nineteenth century. The first electric chair was built in New York in 1888 and William Kemmler was the first person electrocuted in 1890 [5]. Between 1907and 1917, nine states abolish or strictly limit the death penalty; however, the abolitionist’s movement loses support between the 1920’s and 1940’s. In 1924, the use of cyanide gas was introduced as an execution method and the 1930’s saw the highest levels of executions in American history. By 1966, support of capital punishment reaches an all time low indicated by Gallup poll showing support for the death penalty at 42% (Intro to Death Penalty, n.d.)

Furman vs. Georgia was a significant case in the history of the death penalty in the United States. This case did not completely abolish the death penalty, but it placed stringent requirements on death penalty statutes. On the night of August 11th, 1967 in Savannah Georgia, a man named William Micke came home from work to his wife and five children. Micke was awakened in the middle of the night to a noise in the kitchen. He found William Henry Furman, a gun wielding 26 year old African American man. Furman fled the house after shooting and killing Micke. The police located Furman within minutes and he was still carrying the gun. Furman was charged with murder. His trial lasted only one day and a guilty verdict was delivered. Furman admitted to breaking into the home, but claimed he accidentally shot Micke when he tripped running out of the house. However, the death penalty statute in Georgia permitted executions even for unintentional killings (Furman-Significance, n.d.).

The Georgia Supreme Court upheld Furman’s conviction and death sentence in April 1969, but in May 1969 Chief Justice W.H. Duckworth stayed the execution so Furman could file a petition with the Supreme Court. Several lawyers handled his appeal instead of the state appointed attorney in his first trial. In January 1972, the case went before the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington D.C. The court was mainly concerned with the legal question of whether the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This amendment states that “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." (Furman-Sentenced, n.d.). In June 1972, the Court voted to overturn Furman’s conviction on the grounds that in his case the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment. However, the justices were divided over the interpretation of the Eighth Amendment and all nine justices filed separate opinions. (Furman-Restricts, n.d.)

Another case that changed capital punishment in the United States was Gregg vs. Georgia. This case involved an armed robbery in which two men were killed. The judge instructed the jury that they could recommend either the death penalty or life in prison for each murder. The death penalty could only be issued under the following conditions: (1) The murder was committed while the offender was engaged in the commission of other capital felonies, (2) that he committed the murder to receive the victims’ money and automobile, or (3) that the murder was “outrageously and wantonly vile, horrible and inhuman" in that it "involved the depravity of the mind of the defendant." The jury ultimately returned the sentence of death. The death sentence was then challenged under the Georgia statute of “cruel and unusual” punishment under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The statute was amended following Furman vs. Georgia. However, in 1976, the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence imposed on Troy Gregg. The decision essentially overturned the moratorium on the death penalty imposed by the Court in its 1972 decision in Furman vs. Georgia (“Lectric Law Library, n.d.)

The death penalty statutes have changed significantly in the United States throughout history and have formed the laws and practices that exist today. As of June 2010, there were 35 states that enforced the death penalty and 15 states that did not. Since 1976, there have been a total of 1,214 executions in the United States with the most popular method of execution being lethal injection (1041), followed by electrocution (157), gas chamber (11), hanging (3), and firing squad (2). In October 2009, there were 3,263 inmates on death row. Since 1976, Texas has had far more executions than any other state with 459 deaths. Since 1973, over 130 people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence. The number of inmates released each year has increased because of new and improving technology such as DNA evidence. A 2009 survey of the country’s top criminological societies found that 88% of these experts did not think that the death penalty is a deterrent in the commission of homicides. A May 2006 Gallup poll found that the overall support of the death penalty was only 65%. (Death Penalty Facts, n.d.)

The state of Kentucky has recently had some significant death penalty cases. Marco Allen Chapman pleaded guilty in 2002 to the murders of two children and the attempted murders of another child and their mother. Chapman requested to be sentenced to death because he was haunted by what he had done. It was the first time that anyone has pleaded guilty to the death penalty in Kentucky. He resisted all appeals and was put to death by lethal injection, the first execution in the state in nine years (Ethics Forum, 2008). In 2008, Kentucky was involved in a debate over the constitutionality of lethal injection. Two men on Kentucky’s death row challenged the details of the lethal injections administration. This included the following: the chemicals used the training of the personnel, the adequacy of medical supervision, and the consequences and risk of error. Most states use a similar method as Kentucky but many states have adopted additional safeguards to ensure the inmate in properly anesthetized by the initial drug in the sequence. This drug is and ultra-short acting barbiturate known as sodium thiopental. The argument is that this drug does not properly anesthetize the inmate before the other two drugs are administered, which paralyze the muscles and stop the heart. Ultimately, Kentucky’s method of execution by lethal injection was upheld. (Greenhouse, 2008)

The death penalty has been around for thousands of years; however, the crimes punishable by death and method of execution have changed. The method of executions today are considered by most to be more “humane” that in the past. The most popular method of execution is lethal injection because it is relatively quick and painless with a good success rate. The methods used thousands of years ago were purposely cruel. These include deaths by boiling, impaling, quartering, burning alive, etc. The number of crimes punishable by death is much less today than in the past. In the United States, the death penalty is used mainly in murder cases. Centuries ago, very minor crimes could cost a person their life.

The ethical debate over the death penalty has existed for thousands of years and will continue to exist. The use of capital punishment will always be met by opposition because it involves a very sacred thing, human life. The following are several reasons why people oppose the death penalty: the simple belief in the sanctity of human life, the inability of everyone to get a fair trial, the cost of keeping someone of death row, and the possibility of an innocent person being put to death. There are also people that believe the death penalty should be retained. The following are some of the arguments for keeping the death penalty: The belief that a murderer deserves to die, the only way to be sure that the criminal cannot harm again, and as a deterrent for other people considering a crime. The use of capital punishment has changed significantly throughout history and will change if the future if history repeats itself.

1. Kant was the last influential philosopher of modern Europe in the classic sequence of the theory of knowledge during the Enlightenment beginning with thinkers John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume.

2. King Hammurabi was the sixth king of Babylon from 1792 BC to 1750 BC.

3. The Hittite Law Code, dating from about the 14th century bc, reflects the Hittite’s closed rural economy and feudal aristocracy.

4. Ronnie Lee Gardner (January 16, 1961 – June 18, 2010) was an American who was convicted of robbery and two counts of murder. He was sentenced to death for the second murder, which was committed during a courtroom escape attempt.

5. Kemmler murdered Tillie Ziegler, his common-law wife, with a hatchet on March 29, 1889, and was sentenced to death by electrocution at New York's Auburn Prison.

1. Death Penalty Information Center. (Updated June 10, 2010). Retrieved June 28, 2010.
Retrieved from
2. Furman v. Georgia - Court Severely Restricts Death Penalty. Retrieved June 28, 2010.
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3. Furman v. Georgia – Significance. Retrieved June 28, 2010.
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4. Furman v. Georgia - Furman Sentenced To Death
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5. Mappes, T., & Zembaty, J. (2007). Social Ethics: Morality and Social Policy (7th ed). New York, NY: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. The Death Penalty: Chapter 3.
6. The ‘Lectric Law Library, Gregg v. Georgia. Retrieved June 30, 2010. Retrieved from
7. Death Penalty Information Center, “Introduction to the Death Penalty”. Retrieved June 28,
2010. Retrieved from
8. Utah Firing Squad Execution: Ronnie Lee Gardner Pronounced Dead at 12:17 A.M. June 18,
2010. Retrieved June 29, 2010. Retrieved from
9. Greenhouse, Linda. Justices Uphold Lethal Injection in Kentucky Case. April 17, 2008.

1 comment:

Alice C. Linsley said...

Thanks for an excellent paper, Jason!