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Capital punishment has existed all throughout the history of mankind and has existed long before the creation of court systems. As civilizations progressed, they incorporated capital punishment into their legal codes. One of the first examples of the establishment of capital punishment into the justice system was Hammurabi s Code. Hammurabi was king of Babylonia around 1750 BC.
He came up with the idea of an eye for an eye. Passages from the Bible further encouraged the practice of capital punishment. The English penal code used the Bible as a reference for every crime that they deemed punishable by death. In England fifty-five crimes were punishable by death and the English legal code was nicknamed the bloody code. England annually executed between seven hundred and eight hundred criminals in the beginning of the 18 th century. The English legal code for capital punishment was used as the source for the legal system in the United States.
Most of the laws and court structures in the United States are based on the old English system. As capital punishment became integrated into the legal system of most countries, the execution and brutality of the death penalty created a great deal of opposition. One of the first and most prominent opponents of the death penalty was Cesare Beccarie. Many of Beccarie s beliefs about the death penalty are still used today as reasons for abolishing capital punishment.
Beccarie was very influential and started a wave of opposition to the death penalty and his ideas on this subject had a profound impact on many people, one in particular was Benjamin Rush. Benjamin Rush is credited as being the father of the modern anti-capital punishment movement in the United States. As one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, his criticism of capital punishment caused much restructuring of the death penalty. In 1794, Pennsylvania had reduced the number of crimes punishable by death to one, first-degree murder. In 1846, Michigan became the first state to abolish the death penalty.
Shortly thereafter, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Iowa, Maine, and Colorado also abolished the death penalty in their states. A majority of those states, however, quickly reinstated the death penalty due to public concern that arose after it was abolished. The other states, so far not mentioned, had not abolished but had greatly reduced the number of offenses punishable by death. Tennessee, Alabama, and Louisiana were the first states to make capital punishment a discretionary sentence.
By the end of the 19 th century, many other states followed their lead. During the Civil Rights movement in the 1950 s and 1960 s, race had become a new focal point for the rising opposition to the death penalty. It became very apparent that a major determinant in the use of the death penalty was due to the race of the offender. This was followed by a Supreme Court decision in 1972 in the case of Furman v Georgia that the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment and that the death penalty had been arbitrarily imposed in a five to four decision. (Hook and Kahn 25) This case put a temporary halt on executions until 1976.
After this temporary halt, crime statistics throughout all of the United States rose rapidly. In 1976, the Supreme Court stated that the new statues proposed for the reinstatement of capital punishment were constitutional and were not discriminatory. Since Furman vs. Georgia, there have been numerous other Supreme Court cases with a general trend of upholding the death penalty and lessening the process of appeals.
The very existence of capital punishment has spurned many heated debates for centuries. From the early Christian church to modern day opposition groups, there has been a constant difference of opinion on capital punishment. Proponents of capital punishment claim that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to crime and that the usage of the death penalty saves many innocent lives. Those in opposition to capital punishment claim that it does little to deter crime, it discriminates against minorities and the poor, the possibility of executing the innocent exists, its high costs and that it desensitizes us to violence. Conflicting studies and different interpretations of the Bible and Constitution has only prolonged the debate over capital punishment. One of the main arguments for the usage of the death penalty is that it acts as a deterrent to crime.
Following the Supreme Court decision in Furman v Georgia, after which there was a temporary halt on executions, a study was done comparing the number of executions to the number of murders before capital punishment was ruled unconstitutional. In 1964 there were fifteen executions with 9, 250 murders occurring nationwide. In 1969 there were no executions with the number of murders at 14, 590. In 1975 when capital punishment was outlawed the number of murders rose to 20, 510.
This shows that as the number of executions declined the murder rate rose. A study done in 1985 showed that each execution on average deterred eighteen murders. (Baumgart and Mccuen 67) There have been many other studies done which show that capital punishment does not act as a deterrent to crime. A study done by Thorsten Sellin in 1967 showed this by comparing the homicide rates of states that did and did not have the death penalty and also compared the murder rates of states that either abolished or reinstated the death penalty and found no statistical difference in both cases. In 1976 the death penalty was abolished in Canada. The homicide rates after the abolishment of capital punishment showed a slight decrease than the rates before 1976. Similar statistics can be found in France and other countries as well. (Baumgart and Mccuen 59) A recent study done in 1998 for the United Nations failed to provide any evidence showing that capital punishment acts as more of a deterrent than does life imprisonment.
Many psychologists believe that many psychological factors such as the influence from drugs and alcohol and many mental illnesses prevent capital punishment from acting as a deterrent. Drugs and alcohol greatly impair an individual s cognitive abilities and restricts them from making rational decisions. Close to seventy percent of all murders had involved drugs and alcohol. Some mental illnesses also prevent individuals from making rational decisions. The presence of these factors show that capital punishment does little to deter criminals from committing crimes. (Hanks 73) During the civil rights movement, many people began to question the discriminatory practices used in the death penalty.
African Americans comprise forty two percent of the death row population but only make up thirteen percent of the US population. It has been shown statistically that the race of the victim plays a major role in deciding whether or not the death penalty should be used. If the victim is Caucasian, the murderer is much more likely to receive the death penalty than if the victim was from a minority group. Ninety-five percent of the death row prisoner s victims were Caucasian. (Landau 73) One study done by a law professor found that when the victims were Caucasian the murderers were four times more likely to receive the death penalty than if the victim was of African American descent. The death penalty has been sought for African Americans when the victim was Caucasian seventy percent of the time. The death penalty was only sought fourteen percent of the time when the defendant was Caucasian and the victim was African American.
It is widely believed that not only is capital punishment discriminatory against minorities but that it also discriminates against the poor. Ninety percent of death row inmates could not afford their own lawyer. (Hanks 107) The poor are much more likely to receive the death penalty than wealthier defendants who could afford their own attorney. The drawbacks to this are that most court-appointed attorneys are usually overworked, underpaid or cannot afford as good a staff as prosecuting attorneys. There have been some documented cases where court-appointed attorneys have used racial slurs in reference to his client. (Guernsey 21) The vast majority of African Americans in prisons grew up in poverty, which can also attribute to the large number of African Americans on death row. It is clear that there is a large discrepancy in the percentage of African Americans on death row compared to the percentage of African Americans of the total population. Proponents of capital punishment attribute this not to racial discrimination but to the higher murder rate amongst African Americans.
One of the biggest concerns for capital punishment opposers is the possibility of executing the innocent. To date, twenty-three innocent people have been executed. The death penalty is irreversible and little can be done to remedy these tragic injustices. Most of these wrongful executions were due to false testimonies from witnesses, racial discrimination, or faulty police work. The possibility of human error can lead to the death of innocent lives. This harsh, cold reality is one of the most powerful arguments against the death penalty.
Proponents of capital punishment recognize the risk of the innocent being executed. The risks today are so minimal due to technological advances and the process of appeals they state that it is no longer a feasible argument against the death penalty. Technology has advanced to the point where the probability of executing the innocent is almost nonexistent. DNA testing has cleared many accused criminals from previous and present allegations. In the past, most of the defense s argument rested on eyewitness accounts.
Eyewitness accounts are not always the most reliable evidence. Now with new technological advances, especially with DNA testing more of an emphasis is placed on scientific evidence which will result in less human error. A major misconception of capital punishment is that it is cheaper than life imprisonment. In 1988, a study was done in Florida that showed that on average each execution cost 3. 2 million and a forty-year prison sentence cost only 516, 000. A more recent study done in 1992 in Texas showed that each execution cost three times as much as a forty-year sentence. The high cost of the death penalty is mostly due to the lengthy trial and appeal process.
Following the Furman v Georgia Supreme Court decision, rigorous standards were placed upon the application of the death penalty. They implemented a lengthy appeal process to make sure that the death penalty was not being arbitrarily imposed. From 1973 to 1995, the appeal process has overturned 1, 530 convictions that were improperly given. (Hanks 123 - 125) The Old Testament has been a source of values for Jewish people for centuries and requires the use of the death penalty for many criminal acts. God spoke Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person s blood be shed. The death penalty was invoked for murder, rape, kidnapping, adultery, fornication by women, incest, male homosexuality, bestiality, idolatry, sorcery, false witness in a capital case, prophecy in the name of other gods, cursing one s parents and rebelliousness on part of a son.
The death penalty was used to provide equal justice for both the victims and offenders. This helped to eliminate blood feuds between families that occasionally arose after criminal acts. The death penalty was in essence used to help limit the level of violence. Blood feuds that arose were very violent with many innocent victims being killed. God intended for a systemic approach to justice and placed strict guidelines on the use of the death penalty. (Hanks 25) The New Testament, unlike the Old Testament, was staunchly against the death penalty. Jesus told his followers to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
He believed that our reaction to those who sin should be of forgiveness and not anger and hate. He also told his followers for if you forgive others their trespasses your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Hanks 41) Through all of his teachings and actions he showed a strong disapproval towards any actions fueled by hate and anger and was vehemently against the institution of the death penalty. Abolitionists believe that because of the inhumane methods and public displays of capital punishment it has desensitized us to violence. They even propose that the death penalty encourages people to become more violent.
Ever since the days of hangings and lynching there have been mass celebrations of executions. Even today there are public displays of enjoyment after a criminal has been executed. Capital punishment has been and is now being used for political purposes. Current candidates are easily swayed by public opinion on the issue of capital punishment. In many foreign countries, capital punishment is used to remove threats to political regimes. Abolitionists believe this haphazard use of the death penalty diminishes the value of human life and justifies acts of hate and bigotry.
There have been many attempts to find viable alternatives to the death penalty. Abolitionists adamantly proclaim that life in prison without parole is more beneficial than the use of capital punishment. There have been many cases where prisoners with a sentence of life imprisonment without parole have still been able to cause bodily harm to others. Some of these convicted murders have killed prison guards and other inmates. Already with a life sentence in jail, these murderers have nothing to lose if they are to commit heinous acts toward other people.
Even though prison sentences without parole may seem as a viable solution, there have been many times in the past where these sentences have been reversed. James Moore, who was convicted of the rape and murder of a fourteen year old, was given a sentence of life without parole in 1962. Due to changes in the sentencing laws in 1982, he is now up for parole every two years. The case of Kenneth Mc Duff is another example of a life sentence without parole that was revoked. The original ruling for Mc Duff was death by the electric chair, but in 1972 his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment without parole.
In 1989, he was released from prison due to overflowing prisons in Texas. In the following years, he was featured as America s Most Wanted criminal after the disappearance of several young women. In 1992, he was sentenced to death and executed in 1998. He was also suspected of at least nine other murders. (Lowe 6 - 7) Before this assignment, I was a firm believer in capital punishment. After reviewing the pros and cons and reading over conflicting studies and statistics, I am still in favor of capital punishment. Both sides make a strong case and back their claims with hard evidence, but I feel the alternatives to capital punishment are inadequate and cannot guarantee public safety.
By removing convicted murderers from the world, we can ensure that the lives of the innocent victims will be spared. There have been many cases where life imprisonment sentences without parole have been reversed and allowed the possibility of convicted murderers to be up for parole. Even though there have been numerous studies and statistics, most of those arguments against capital punishment are no longer feasible. The rigorous appeal process and technological advances such as DNA evidence almost eliminate the possibility of executing innocent victims. Conflicting studies show that it is impossible to determine whether or not capital punishment acts as a deterrent. The religious arguments made are completely subjective with no scientific evidence to back their claims.
Today racism is not nearly as prevalent as a couple of decades ago when it was obvious in the discretionary use of the death penalty. The use of capital punishment shows the value that we as a society place on human life by exacting the most severe penalty we can on murderers. With the ever changing and overflowing penal systems, many convicted murderers might soon be able to walk the streets again. Society will suffer needlessly if we do not use capital punishment to permanently remove murderers who place no value on the sanctity of life.
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