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Pros and Cons of the Death Penalty (Capital Punishment)


Death Penalty Executions - Red States v Blue States
The death penalty, also known as capital punishment, is the lawful imposition of death as punishment for a crime. In 2004 four (China, Iran, Vietnam and the US) accounted for 97 percent of all global executions. On average, every 9-10 days a government in the United States executes a prisoner.

The chart at the right shows 1997-2004 executions broken down by red and blue states. Red state executions per million population are an order of magnitude greater than blue state executions (46.4 v 4.5). Blacks are executed at a rate significantly disproportionate to their share of overall population.

Based on 2000 data, Texas ranked 13th in the country in violent crime and 17th in murders per 100,000 citizens. However, Texas leads the nation in death penalty convictions and executions.

Since the 1976 Supreme Court decision that re-instated the death penalty in the United States, the governments of the United States had executed 1,136, as of December 2008. The 1,000th execution, North Carolina's Kenneth Boyd, occurred in December 2005. There were 42 executions in 2007. (pdf)

More than 3,300 prisoners were serving death-row sentences in the US in December 2008. Nationwide, juries are delivering fewer death sentences: since the late 1990s, they have dropped 50 percent. The violent crime rate has also dropped dramatically since the mid-90s, reaching the lowest level ever recorded in 2005.

Although most Americans support capital punishment under some circumstances, according to Gallup support for capital punishment has dropped dramatically from a high of 80 percent in 1994 to about 60 percent today.

It is Eighth Amendment, the constitutional clause that prohibits "cruel and unusual" punishment, that is at the center of the debate about capital punishment in America.

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In 2007, the Death Penalty Information Center released a report, “A Crisis of Confidence: Americans’ Doubts About the Death Penalty.” (pdf)

The Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty should reflect the "conscience of the community," and that its application should be measured against society's "evolving standards of decency. This latest report suggests that 60 percent of Americans do not believe that the death penalty is a deterrent to murder. Moreover, almost 40 percent believe that their moral beliefs would disqualify them from serving on a capital case.

And when asked whether they prefer the death penalty or life in prison without parole as punishment for murder, the respondents were split: 47 percent death penalty, 43 percent prison, 10 percent unsure. Interestingly, 75 percent believe that a "higher degree of proof" is required in a capital case than in a "prison as punishment" case. (poll margin of error +/- ~3%)

In addition, since 1973 more than 120 people have had their death row convictions overturned. DNA testing has resulted in 200 non-capital cases to be overturned since 1989. Mistakes like these shake public confidence in the capital punishment system. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that almost 60 percent of those polled -- including almost 60 percent of the southerners -- in this study believe that the United States should impose a moratorium on the death penalty.

An ad hoc moratorium is almost in place. After the 1,000th execution in December 2005, there were almost no executions in 2006 or the first five months of 2007.


Executions as a form of punishment date to at least the 18th century BC. In America, Captain George Kendall was executed in 1608 in the Jamestown Colony of Virginia; he was accused of being a spy for Spain. In 1612, Virginia death penalty violations included what modern citizens would consider minor violations: stealing grapes, killing chickens and trading with Indians.

In the 1800s, abolitionists took up the cause of capital punishment, relying in part on Cesare Beccaria's 1767 essay, On Crimes and Punishment.

From the 1920s-1940s, criminologists argued that the death penalty was a necessary and preventative social measure. The 1930s, also marked by the Depression, saw more executions than any other decade in our history.

From the 1950s-1960s, public sentiment turned against capital punishment, and the number executed plummeted. In 1958, the Supreme Court ruled in Trop v. Dulles that the Eighth Amendment contained an "evolving standard of decency that marked the progress of a maturing society." And according to Gallup, public support reached an all-time low of 42 percent in 1966.

Two 1968 cases caused the nation to rethink its capital punishment law. In U.S. v. Jackson, the Supreme Court ruled that requiring that the death penalty be imposed only upon recommendation of a jury was unconstitutional because it encouraged defendants to plead guilty to avoid trial. In Witherspoon v. Illinois, the Court ruled on juror selection; having a "reservation" was insufficient cause for dismissal in a capital case.

In June 1972, the Supreme Court (5-4) effectively voided death penalty statutes in 40 states and commuted the sentences of 629 death row inmates. In Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment with sentencing discretion was "cruel and unusual" and thus violated the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

In 1976, the Court ruled that capital punishment itself was constitutional while holding that new death penalty laws in Florida, Georgia and Texas -- which included sentencing guidelines, bifurcated trials, and automatic appellate review -- were constitutional.

A ten-year moratorium on executions that had begun with the Jackson and Witherspoon ended on 17 January 1977 with the execution of Gary Gilmore by firing squad in Utah.
Adapted from Introduction to the Death Penalty
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