The Death Penalty
Capital punishment is the legal infliction of the death
penalty. It is obviously the most severe form of criminal
punishment. (Bedau). Capital punishment is a controversial
way of dealing with violent criminals. The main alternative
to the death penalty is life in prison. Capital punishment
has been around for thousands of years as a means of
eradicating criminals. A giant debate started between
supporters and opposers of execution, over the morality and
effectiveness of the death penalty. The supporters claim
that if you take a life you should pay with your life or
"an eye for an eye". Opposers of the death penalty bring up
the chance of sentencing the innocent and how the death
penalty is inhumane. The purpose of this paper is to
examine the process of capital punishment and the moral
viewpoints on the death penalty.
The first evidence of capital punishment is from
Hammurabi's code, a book of Babylonian law, from 1700BC.
The Bible mentions that execution should be used for many
crimes. (Bedau). One example of the death penalty in the
bible is "Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be
put to death." (Exodus 21:12). The Bible also suggests
stoning a woman if she is unmarried and has sexual
intercourse and had "wrought folly on Israel by playing the
harlot in her father's house" (Deuteronomy 22:21)
England recognized seven major crimes that called for
execution by the end of the 15th century. These crimes
were: murder, theft (by deceitfully taking someone goods),
burglary, rape, and arson. As time went by more and more
crimes were believed to deserve the death penalty and by
1800 more than 200 crimes were recognized as punishable by
It was not long before capital punishment met opposition.
The Quakers made first movement against execution. They
supported life imprisonment as a more humane justice.
Cesare Beccaria wrote "On Crimes and Punishment", a book
criticizing torture and the death penalty, in 1764. Cesare
drove many other philosophers, like Voltaire and Jerry
Bentham, to question the validity of using capital
Contrary to what some may believe, the process of
sentencing a defendant is a very arduous and time-taking
ordeal. After he has been arrested as the suspect of a
crime, the defendant will either be tried in a state or
federal court system. The lowest court that a litigant can
be sent to is the Court of General jurisdiction (state
level) or the US District Courts (federal level). Any time
in the trial, the defense may choose to appeal. Even if a
suspect is sentenced to a crime, the case may be appealed
for a variety of reasons. The defendant's lawyer could
claim that the defendant's rights were violated when he was
arrested, that the defendant received an unfair trial, or
new evidence that could prove the defendant's innocence has
Next the appeal is taken to the Intermediate Appellate
Courts (state) or the US Courts of Appeals (federal) who
will decide if the trial court has erred in some way. If
the appeal is granted In the state court system the
appellate will be sent to the State Supreme Court, or in
the federal system, to the supreme. From the State Supreme
Court the case may be appealed again to the Supreme Court.
Once the case has reached the supreme court the verdict is
This monotonous appealing process is the reason for the
excess of inmates on death row today. An inmate can spend
6-10 years on death row during the appellate process.
(Guernsey). In fact only about one in 1900 prisoners
(.053%) on death row have served the death penalty.
"Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas have
carried out about three-quarters of all executions since
There has been a controversy over the death penalty ever
since the Quakers fought for reform in the 1700's. (Bedau).
This conflict has two sides: those in favor of capital
punishment, and those who view life without parole (LWOP)
as a more humane alternative.
Supporters of the death penalty rationalize executing
because if a man takes a life he should pay for it with his
own or "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." They also
use verses from the Bible like, "Whosoever sheds a man's
blood, by man shall his blood be shed" (Genesis 9:6), and
Exodus 21:12 to show that Christianity supports it. They
claim that executions deter other criminals from killing in
fear of being executed. However, this could never be proven
since it would be very difficult to link a drop in murders
to knowledge of recent executions.
Those who oppose the death penalty have come up with many
reasons that life in prison without parole, or LWOP, is a
better means of dealing with violent criminals. One reason
is the risk of executing the innocent. (Bedau1) This risk
is very small considering that since 1900 only 23 people,
who were possibly innocent, were executed. Those who oppose
the death penalty claim that the number of blacks is
disproportionate to that of women and white men. (Bedau).
This has been proven to be true and is the most vital
argument of the opposers.
Wealth and fame take a pivotal part in the trial of a
defendant. Poor defendants are give court-appointed
lawyers; however, rich and famous defendants can afford
fancy lawyers. (Bedau). One example of this is the OJ
Simpson trial. If OJ was a regular middle to lower class
person he would not be able to afford lawyers like Johnny
Cochran and would probably have been found guilty.
There are many forms of execution. Some have been labeled
barbaric and forbidden nearly everywhere. Currently the
only accepted means of execution are: electrocution, the
gas chamber, firing squad and lethal injection. (Bedau).
The firing squad is only used it Utah upon request.
(Guernsey, ). Montana, New Hampshire and Washington are the
only states that allow hangings.
The electric chair was introduced in New York in 1890 and
is now used in 24 states. (Bedau). The criminal is seated
in a chair. Electrodes are attached to the head and a leg.
Pulses of 2000 volts are sent through his body for about
three minutes or until he appears to be dead. The fact that
the electrodes reach 1900°C and the brain reaches the
boiling point causes one to doubt the humanity of this
Lethal injection is thought to be the least painful method
of execution. The person is strapped down and a given a
deadly dose of barbiturates via IV. (Bedau). However this
process also has its flaws. "It took technicians 45 minutes
of sticking to find a proper vein for the
injection"(Guernsey) on Peter Morin. Needles have also been
know to fly out in the middle of the injection.
The gas chamber was first used in Nevada in 1924. (Bedau).
The prisoner is strapped into a chair and cyanide gas is
administered through a hole in the floor. Death takes from
three to four minutes, but prisoners have been known to go
into convulsions or choke to death on the gas. (Guernsey).
After learning about our modern methods of execution one
wonders if these methods are humane. Is being struck with
enough electricity to cause the eyeballs to pop out of
their sockets any better than being beheaded? (Guernsey).
Is the death penalty 'cruel and unusual punishment'? We
must devise more sane methods of execution which are quick
and efficient. Most importantly we must make the appeals
process more orderly to cut down on the glut of inmates on
death row, and therefore cut down on the money wasted
housing prisoners during the appeals process.
Bedau, Hugo Adam "Capital Punishment" Encarta 96
Encyclopedia (CD-ROM) Microsoft Corporation, 1996.
Bedau, Hugo A. "Capital Punishment" Grolier Multimedia
Encyclopedia (CD-ROM) Grolier Electronic Publishing, Inc.
Bender, David L., and Bruno Leone. The Death Penalty
Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc.,
Guernsey, JoAnn Bren. Should We Have Capital Punishment?.
Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Co., 1993.
The Holy Bible