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The Pros and Cons of Capital PunishmentResearch Proposal

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¶ … Capital Punishment Should Be Abolished in the United States

You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' -- Matthew 5:38

Thou shalt not kill. -- Exodus 20:13

The epigraphs above make it clear that even the Holy Bible has vastly different things to say about the death penalty depending on the context. As an ultimate and irreversible punishment, though, it is important for Americans today to fully understand the implications of the imposition of the death penalty, including most especially its effectiveness as a deterrent to crime as well as the potential for innocent people being executed (Mannes & Ingaglio, 2015). In fact, some researchers have suggested that as many as one in 25 prisoners on death row is innocent, while others argue that although the figures could be even higher, it is impossible to know for certain just how many innocent people have been executed mistakenly in the past and how many more death row inmates will have to die unjustly before the practice is abolished nationwide. To determine the facts, this paper reviews the relevant literature concerning capital punishment concerning these issues to explain that the practice should be completely abolished in the United States, including an examination of the rationale in support of its use over time. Finally, a summary of the research and important findings concerning capital punishment, its history in the U.S. and its effectiveness as a deterrent to crime are presented in the paper's conclusion.

Review and Analysis

As the ultimate punishment, it is little wonder that the appropriateness of the death penalty has been the subject of debate since it has first been used. In this regard, Lulliano (2015) emphasizes that, "The death penalty is the worst punishment society can inflict upon one of its members. It is the most powerful act of reprobation -- the ultimate sign of condemnation for a fellow human" (p. 1377). Indeed, the debate over the appropriateness of capital punishment in the United States is certainly not new. In fact, as early as 1612, Virginia's governor "enacted the Divine, Moral and Martial Laws, which provided the death penalty for even minor offenses such as stealing grapes, killing chickens, and trading with Indians" (History of the death penalty, 2015, para. 2).

While these may seem like trivial offenses undeserving of the death penalty to observers in the 21st century, these early settlers of the American wilderness were faced with a wide array of threats to their survival, including starvation if their food sources were plundered. Likewise, Native Americans represented another threat to their survival, making the death penalty seem far more appropriate to that day and age. These types of threats to survival, though, have long since vanished from the American landscape, and the types of crimes that are now regarded as capital offenses have been drastically narrowed over the years (History of the death penalty, 2015) until the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the issue in the mid- and late 20th century (Huffman, 2008).

As early as 1958, the U.S. Supreme Court was considering the constitutionality of the death penalty for capital crimes. In this regard, Baik (2012) reports that, "There are many arguments for and against capital punishment in the United States but the most notable standard for determining the constitutionality of capital punishment was noted by Chief Justice Warren in Trop v. Dulles [in] 1958" (p. 80). In this case, Warren argued that the meaning of "cruel and unusual" punishment should be settled by the "evolving standards of decency" and accordingly, the U.S. Supreme Court has responded to domestic and international pressures in capital punishment cases

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court holding in the seminal case, Furman v. Georgia, set the stage for the modern debate over the appropriateness of capital punishment in a modern society. In the Furman case, the Court held that "unfettered capital sentencing discretion [was] unconstitutional" and "by failing to provide safeguards against arbitrary sentencing decisions, capital punishment statutes like Georgia's violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments" (Huffman, 2008, p. 1140). The impact of the Court's Furman ruling was profound, immediate and ubiquitous, and essentially voided all death penalty statutes throughout the United States in 1972, beginning a moratorium on capital punishment that would last for 4 years (Huffman, 2008).

In 1976, the moratorium ended with the Court's holding in Gregg v. Georgia based on revisions in Georgia's capital sentencing regimen (Huffman, 2008). In this regard, Huffman reports that, "Specifically, the Court found that the Georgia statute satisfied the constitutional mandate identified in Furman: to withstand Eighth Amendment scrutiny, a capital punishment statute must provide 'clear and objective' standards for determining death-eligibility" (2008, p. 1140). It is noteworthy that in Gregg, the classification of capital punishment as being cruel and unusual punishment was categorically rejected by the Court, making this the first time the Court had specifically held that capital punishment "does not invariably violate the Constitution" (cited in Huffman, 2008, p. 1141). As a direct result of this holding by the Court, dozens of states have reinstated capital punishments since 1972 by developing death penalty statutes that conformed to the criteria set forth in Furman and Gregg as well as subsequent cases (Huffman, 2008).

Not surprisingly, capital punishment, or the death penalty, is reserved for the severest types of crimes today. For instance, according to the definition provided by Black's Law Dictionary (1990), capital punishment is "punishment by death for capital crimes" (p. 209). In this context, capital crimes include "those for which the death penalty, but need not necessarily, be imposed" (p. 209). As the research will show, though, the rationale in support of the use of capital punishment is flawed because the practice is not an effective deterrent to capital crimes. According to the death penalty information center (DPIC), as of July 2015 the U.S. currently has 31 states that allow the use of capital punishment; however, of these, four states are in an imposed moratorium which means that the death penalty will not be used for reasons articulated by the respective governors of these states (States, 2015).

The states that currently allow capital punishment, those that do not, and the four with governor-imposed moratoriums are depicted in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1. State breakdown of capital punishment

Source: DPIC, 2015

As shown in Table 1 below, there are hundreds of people awaiting the execution of their death sentences across the country (updated 1 April 2015 from the Facts section of DPIC, 2015).

Table 1

Current listing of death row prisoners in the U.S.

State

Number of Death Row Prisoners

California

Oklahoma

48

Kansas

10

Florida

Mississippi

48

Utah

9

Texas

South Carolina

44

Washington

9

Alabama

Oregon

36

Virginia

8

Pennsylvania

Arkansas

35

U.S. Military

6

North Carolina

Kentucky

34

South Dakota

3

Ohio

Missouri

33

Colorado

3

Arizona

Delaware

17

Montana

2

Georgia

85

Indiana

14

New Mexico

2

Louisiana

85

Connecticut

12

Wyoming

1

Nevada

78

Idaho

11

New Hampshire

1

Tennessee

73

Nebraska

11

TOTAL

3,002

Source: DPIC, 2015

As can be readily seen from the state-by-state breakdown of death row inmates in Table 1 above, thousands of condemned prisoners languish on death row across the country, and 1,413 others have been put to death since 1976 (DPIC, 2015). It is also noteworthy that states vary in what types of crime that qualify for the death penalty, with "first-degree murder," "capital murder," and "intentional murder" being common among states that allow capital punishment, but other crimes that qualify for the death penalty in some states are less severe, including the following set forth in Table 2 below.

Table 2

Capital crimes other than murder by state

State

Capital Crime(s)

California

Sabotage; train wrecking causing death; treason; perjury causing execution of an innocent person; fatal assault by a prisoner serving a life sentence

Florida

Capital drug trafficking; capital sexual battery

Idaho

First-degree kidnapping; perjury resulting in the execution of an innocent person

Kentucky

Capital kidnapping

Montana

Aggravated kidnapping; aggravated sexual intercourse without consent

Wyoming

Sexual abuse of a minor, arson, robbery, burglary, escape, resisting arrest, kidnapping, or abuse of a minor under 16 years old

Source: The Bureau of Justice Statistics, Capital punishment 2014

Certainly, none of the foregoing crimes can be regarded as minor or trivial, but the fact that there is such a high degree of variance in the definition of capital crimes across the country should be a source of concern for criminal justice authorities searching for optimal approaches to reducing crime rates. According to a survey of former and current presidents of the country's top academic criminological societies, though, the overwhelming majority (88%) of these experts rejected the notion that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to capital murder (Radelet & Lacock, 2009).

Perhaps the biggest gun in the capital punishment supporters' arsenal is the irrefutable fact that once they are executed, condemned prisoners can never reoffend and is therefore an… [END OF PREVIEW]

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