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History and Controversy of the Death Penalty in the US

Kay has been working in the legal defense field for almost a decade, with a degree in political science and background in criminal justice.

Government-authorized execution by electric chair, early 1900s.

Government-authorized execution by electric chair, early 1900s.

Capital Punishment

According to Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus, 'Capital Punishment is the most premeditated of murders' (From Reflections on the Guillotine, 1957). Many people, both in the US and around the world, have debated for and against this idea of the effectiveness of capital punishment.

Capital Punishment From Early America to Modern Times

In the United States, capital punishment has been a form of justice since the country's beginnings. It was used as a form of punishment in the early stages of the nation's development, in the colonies that predated unified states, and into many of the new territories as America expanded its domain.

During these times, when the government was still in its early stages of development and the law was more difficult to enforce, many believed that executions were a fair and effective method that served not only as individual punishment for certain crimes but also as warnings to deter potential future criminals from committing similar acts.

In American society today, however, there has been heated debate as to whether or not the death penalty is still effective or necessary in the modern world. Some states have banned the practice altogether, while others have been attempting to make capital punishment the standard punishment for a wider range of offenses.

Some states have banned the practice altogether.

Some states have banned the practice altogether.

Arguments for Capital Punishment

Advocates of the practice argue that the threat of potential execution deters criminals from committing crimes as much today as it did in the country's beginnings. Its usefulness can most often and efficiently be seen throughout the process of criminal trials; when defendants are threatened with the prospect of execution, prosecutors are more likely to be able to bargain with the suspected criminal for more information, such as the names of other perpetrators involved in the crime, in exchange for a waiver of the death penalty as a punishment.

This practice is most commonly known as a plea bargain, and it is usually regarded as being a fair and effective way to obtain information.

In recent years, the murder rates in states which DO have the death penalty have surpassed the rates in the states which do NOT execute.

In recent years, the murder rates in states which DO have the death penalty have surpassed the rates in the states which do NOT execute.

Proponents of capital punishment also note that the practice will help to lower crime rates and ensure the safety of the general public since it would be guaranteed that these criminals would not offend again.

In the US, public opinion seems to reflect that the American people are not content to let convicted felons receive food, shelter, and other amenities while in prison. This is more prevalent in cases where the crime committed is especially heinous, such as those committed by Charles Manson. Many people believe that criminals should not be supported by the taxpayers and should not live relatively comfortable lives on government money; rather, criminals should be executed to save the government time and money.

Arguments Against Capital Punishment

Many opponents of capital punishment debate whether or not a government has the ethical or logical right to take a human life. Many believe that this practice does not deter criminals from committing crimes, but it compromises the integrity of the government by allowing it the power to take human life.

Currently, America still has, on average, five times as many murders per person in the population as Great Britain, a country that does not use the death penalty as a form of punishment. Political analysts also argue that the death penalty is actually a form of "cruel and unusual punishment" and violates the 8th Amendment to the US Constitution, which prohibits just such actions.

Wrongful Convictions

One of the most prevalent arguments against the death penalty is the idea that an innocent person may be wrongfully executed, and that this would be the greatest miscarriage of justice since there would be no way for the government to remedy the situation.

There are many cases of people who were on death row who were later exonerated of their crimes due to DNA testing, new evidence, or witnesses and accomplices coming forward to set the record straight. Organizations like The Innocence Project work tirelessly to help free people who are on death row for crimes they did not commit.

Lethal injection is usually considered the most humane method of execution.

Lethal injection is usually considered the most humane method of execution.

Methods of Execution

Another compelling argument is the idea that all forms of government execution are very painful. The electric chair is one of the more gruesome execution methods since the practice consists of sending electricity into a person's body until they die, which could take mere seconds or agonizing minutes. It has been known throughout history to malfunction on occasion and leave the prisoner in a half-dead state of agony.

Lethal injection, which is usually considered the most humane method of execution, is a series of shots into a person's bloodstream that initially paralyze and then euthanize the sentenced individual. The first injection renders the convict unconscious, the second paralyzes the nervous system, and the third is an injection of potassium chloride which stops the heart. Many people argue that there can be no "humane" method of execution since all methods, including lethal injection, could inflict serious pain on the individual, particularly if done wrong.

The Current Standing of Capital Punishment

Globally, the U.S. is one of only five industrialized nations to still use the death penalty as a criminal punishment, with an almost equal rate of executions as the other nations, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. Many other nations, particularly those in Europe, abolished the death penalty as a method of punishment as early as the mid-20th century.

Capital punishment in the US is almost exclusively used in cases of murder. The utilization of this penalty varies from state to state, but as of 2010, 37 states still carry the death penalty for certain crimes. The most common method of execution is lethal injection; however, some states still use methods such as the electric chair, the most recent use of which took place in Virginia in 2009.

The debate rages on, but currently, the United States government has expressed that it wishes to continue to allow states the right to decide on the various aspects of capital punishment, such as the method of execution and the degree of the crime. Many view this as inhumane, while others argue that it is a fair exchange of life for a life.

For more information, review your local or state policies on capital punishment or go to the Death Penalty Information Center. If you yourself would like to weigh in on the topic, contact your local representative in Congress.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.