Capital punishment is the legal infliction of the death
penalty. It is obviously the most severe form of criminal
punishment. (Bedau1) 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 found in
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; --"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 were the first to move 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
surfaced. (Guernsey). 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 final. (Guernsey).
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. (Bedau). 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 middle to
lower class person he would not be able to afford lawyers
like Johnny Cochran and would probably have been found
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 in 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 practice.
(Guernsey). Lethal injection is thought to be the least
painful method of execution. The person is strapped down
and 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 known 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 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.
The Holy Bible
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.