The purpose of this article is to invite you the reader to think about your personal attitude to the death penalty, rather than tell you what to think, hence why it asks a lot of questions. Facts and statistics provided are from reliable sources such as the US Bureau of Justice. In a democratic society it is your views as a voter, or future voter, that count and help shape the world we live in.
Capital punishment is the lawful infliction of death as a punishment and has been in use in America since 1608. The Bible prescribes death for murder and many other crimes, including kidnapping and witchcraft. It has been inflicted principally for murder and rape in the last 200 years and there have been over 15,600 executions since 1608, mostly by hanging up to 1900.
As of October 2014, 32 states have the death penalty. The death penalty is also available for Federal and Military crimes. 18 states, plus the District of Columbia. have no capital punishment statutes. In March 2013 Maryland became the latest state to abolish the death penalty. As of October 2014 there are 3,035 inmates on death row, awaiting execution, including 57 women.
There have been a total of 1359 executions from January 1977 to the end of 2013. Lethal injection is now almost universal in the USA. being either the sole method or an option in all of the states that retain the death penalty. Electrocution, hanging, shooting and the gas chamber are still legal alternatives in some states although very rarely used. There was one electrocution in 2010 and one shooting and another electrocution in 2013, in all cases the inmate elected this method. The majority of executions take place in the southern states, 930 out of 1136 to the end of 2008, with Texas having carried out 422.
Is the death penalty ethically acceptable?
No state has an absolute right to put its worst criminals to death although a majority of a state's residents may wish to confer that right on it. Of course all states do kill people, even where they do not have the death penalty. Our police are armed (by the state) and people get killed in shoot outs with them.
Majority opinion is typically in favor of the death penalty, with recent surveys indicating around a 60 – 65% level of support. Opponents believe that it is wrong for the state to kill, per se.
A factor that is conveniently overlooked by anti-death penalty campaigners is that we are all ultimately going to die and in many cases we will know of this in advance and suffer great pain and emotional anguish in the process. This is particularly true of those diagnosed as having terminal cancer. It is apparently socially acceptable to be "sentenced to death" by one's doctor without having committed any crime at all but totally unacceptable to be sentenced to death by a jury having been convicted of first degree murder after due process. Another of the anti-death penalty fallacies is the implication that the alternative to execution is the inmate just walking away and resuming their normal everyday life. This is of course not true – they will typically spend the rest of it behind bars.
So let us examine the merits to both the pro and anti arguments.
Arguments for the death penalty.
- Incapacitation of the criminal.
Execution permanently removes the worst criminals from society and is safer for prison guards, fellow inmates and the rest of us (in the event of an escape) than long term or permanent incarceration. It is self evident that dead criminals cannot commit any further crimes either in prison or after escaping from it. Click here for a list of inmates who have been released or escaped and then murdered again.
Money is not an inexhaustible commodity and the state may very well better spend our tax dollars on the old, the young and the sick rather than the long term imprisonment of murderers, rapists etc.
However in the USA the cost of executing someone over giving them life in prison is often higher. This is because of endless appeals being allowed in most states where the average time spent on death row is over 16 years. It is estimated that a capital case resulting in execution costs $3-4 million, whereas the typical cost of keeping someone in prison is $30-35,000 a year or less than a million dollars for a typical life sentence. However this figure does not include for appeals and the increasing cost of health care as inmates age. The states of Colorado. Kansas. Maryland. Montana and New Hampshire have all considered abolition due to the high cost of capital cases effecting their budget deficits. California will spend an estimated $137 million during 2009 on its 700 capital cases.
Execution is a very real punishment rather than some form of "rehabilitative" treatment, the criminal is made to suffer in proportion to the offence. Whether there is a place in a modern society for the old fashioned principal of "an eye for an eye" is a matter of personal opinion. Retribution is seen by many as a reason for favoring the death penalty. It is also felt by many families of murder victims to be a strong reason for witnessing the execution of their loved one's murderer, in states that allow this, as it provides closure for them. Anti capital punishment campaigners are fond of mis-quoting Ghandi’s saying that "an eye for an eye makes the world go blind". This is nonsense because it wrongly presumes that we all commit murder, whereas only a tiny proportion of people do. Given a population of around 306 million and a homicide rate of around 15,200 per annum less than 0.4% of the population actually commit a homicide in any given year. Or conversely 99.6% of us do not kill.
Does the death penalty deter? It is difficult to be certain whether it does or doesn’t. It is certainly not used as a deterrent by individual states, but rather, purely as a punishment.
In most states, executions are a very rare occurrence. Only a very tiny proportion of murderers are sentenced to death in the first place - about 1.5%. In 2013 just 80 death sentences were handed down in the whole country. Only a small proportion of those sentenced to death are eventually executed, some may have their sentence reduced on appeal, some will die of natural causes awaiting execution. In all states, other than Texas. Oklahoma. Virginia and Delaware. the number of executions as compared to death sentences and murders is infinitesimally small. Texas accounts for 37.6% of all US executions since 1977. With the exception of Oklahoma. Texas and Florida. 51% of the population, who commit 12% of all murders, are virtually exempt from actual execution it would seem, this being the female half of society. Just twelve women have been executed between 1984 and 2010, of whom one was consensual – Christina Riggs in Arkansas. 57 women were on death row nationally at October 2013. For a detailed examination of deterrence see this article.
The U.S. homicide rate which includes murder and non negligent manslaughter, dropped from 24,526 in 1993 to 15,522 in 1999, the lowest since 1966 - during a period of increased use of the death penalty. Four hundred and eleven (68.5%) of the 598 executions to the end of 1999, took place between 1993 and the end of 1999. It should be noted that the distribution of these homicides is very patchy – there being far more in big cities, where 12,227 of them occurred and far fewer in rural areas.
Equally the murder rate for states with the death penalty is often higher than for those without. Texas had a homicide rate of 5.4/100,000 in 2009 while Iowa which has no death penalty had a homicide rate of 1.1/100,000 in the same year. Accepting that America is not a homogenous society, there does seem to be very wide variations in the murder rates of individual states. According to FBI figures there were 15,241 homicides giving a national average of 5.0/100,000 of population.
It is dangerously simplistic to say that the rise in executions in the 1990’s was the only factor in the reduction of homicides. There has been a general trend to a more punitive society (e.g. "Three strikes and your out") over this period and cities such as New York claim great success in reducing crime rates through the use of "zero tolerance" policing policies. But otherwise, that has been reasonable political and economic stability over these years and no obvious major social changes. Improvements in medical techniques have also saved many potential deaths. Here are two case studies of the deterrent effect of capital punishment. Various recent academic studies in the USA have shown that capital punishment is a deterrent. For details of these go to http://www.cjlf.org/deathpenalty/DPDeterrence.htm
The recent economic problems do not seem to have impacted the homicide rate which continues to fall along with the rate of all violent crime.
Case study 1 - Texas .
Texas carries out far more executions than any other state and there is now clear evidence of a deterrent effect. My friend Rob Gallagher (author of the Before the Needles website) has done an analysis of the situation using official FBI homicide figures. Between 1980 and 2000, there were 41,783 murders in Texas .
In 1980 alone, 2,392 people died by homicide giving a rate of 16.88 for every 100,000 of the population. (The US average murder rate in 1980 was 10.22, falling to 5.51 per 100,000 by the year 2000.) Over the same period, Texas had a population increase of 32%, up 6,681, 991 from 14,169,829 to 20,851,820. There were only 1,238 murders in 2000 giving it a rate of 5.94, just slightly higher than the national rate of 5.51/100,000. In the base year (1980) there was one murder for every 5,924 Texans. By the year 2000, this had fallen to one murder for every 16,843 people or 35.2% of the 1980 value. If the 1980 murder rate had been allowed to maintain, there would by interpolation, have been a total of 61,751 murders. On this basis, 19,968 extra people would have potentially been homicide victims, representing 78 lives saved for each one of the 256 executions. The overall U.S. murder rate declined by 54% during the period. Therefore, to achieve a reasonable estimate of actual lives saved, we must multiply 19,968 by 0.54, giving a more realistic figure of 10,783 lives saved or 42 lives per execution. Even if this estimate was off by a factor of 10, (which is highly unlikely), there would still be over 1,000 innocent lives saved or four lives per execution. One can see a drop in the number of murders in 1983, the year after Charlie Brooks became the first person to be executed by lethal injection in America (2,466 in 1982, 2,239 in 1983).
A recent study of executions and homicides in Texas by criminologist Raymond Teske at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville and Duke University sociologists Kenneth Land and Hui Zheng concluded that a monthly decline of between 0.5 to 2.5 homicides in Texas follows each execution. “Evidence exists of modest, short-term reductions in the numbers of homicides in Texas in the month of or after executions,” according to the study published by the American Society of Criminology. It is interesting to note the steady drop in Texas ’s homicide rate over the 20 years 1990 to 2009. In 1990 there were 2,389 homicides recorded and the state population stood at just under 17 million inhabitants. By 2009 the population had risen to just under 25 million but the number of homicides had decreased to 1,328, the lowest figure since 1970 when the population was just over 11 million. If one corrects the 1990 figure to the 2009 population there would have been 3,513 homicides, so the actual reduction is even more impressive. Please remember too, that these are real people who were murdered, not merely statistics, so any appreciable reduction in the homicide rate saves not only lives but also a great deal of misery. Because the population of Texas perceive execution as a very real outcome if they are convicted of first degree murder, the message seems to be getting through.
Case study 2 - California .
A total of 196 people (192 men and four women) were put to death in California between December 1938 and April 1967 (one man was hanged in this period and the rest executed by lethal gas). The death penalty was ruled unconstitutional in 1968 and there were no further executions in the state for 14 years.
Between 1950 and 1962, California had an average of 7.85 executions per annum (it gassed 102 murderers) and a murder rate of just 2.4 per 100,000 of the population in 1952. Executions, in San Quentin's gas chamber, were typically carried out within 1 Ѕ -2 years after sentence at that time. As the appeals process became longer and more complex, the number of executions per year fell and the murder rate climbed from 3.9 in 1960 and to 5.4 per 100,000 in 1967. After 1967, when executions ceased, the murder rate climbed rapidly to 14.5 per 100,000 in 1980 (this resulted in 3,411 murders in that year). The murder rate continued to run at an average of 11.76 per annum rising again to 13.1 per 100,000 in 1993.
California carried out its first post Furman execution on April 21, 1992 when Robert Alton Harris was gassed. A further eight men have been put to death up to the end of 2000 (one more by lethal gas and seven by lethal injection). They had spent an average of 16 years on death row. The effect of these executions was to see the murder rate fall back to 6.05 per 100,000 by 1999 (still slightly above the national average of 5.5/100,000). Based on California 's population increase from 23.5 million to 33.9 million over the years 1980-2000, it will be seen that there would have been a potential additional 24,536 murders in these years had the murder rate continued at the 1980 rate.
The current death row population is the largest in America. standing at 701 in May 2010. All these cases are bogged down in the appeals system and it is unlikely that a lot of them will ever be resolved within the natural life span of the prisoner. Presently, the chance of being actually executed in California is effectively nil, whilst legal arguments continue over virtually irrelevant procedural matters that have nothing to do with justice or the guilt or innocence of individual prisoners. However, the number of murders committed each year has fallen from a peak 4,096 in 1993 to 2,079 in 2000. Some 75,000 people have been the victims of willful homicide (first or second degree murder) between 1960 and 2000 in California. It should also be noted that only those convicted of first degree murder with aggravating circumstances can be given the death penalty. These aggravating factors include such things as torturing, kidnapping, raping or robbing their victim.
The concept of deterrence.
Are you deterred by the death penalty? Do you remember the last execution in your state? Do you believe that you would actually be executed if you were found guilty of murder in the first degree? These are a crucial questions for the deterrence argument. A recent survey of a number of death row prisoners in several states showed that few of them actually gave much thought to what would happen to them and most did not expect to get caught in the first place. Do you believe that even if you were caught, convicted and sentenced to death that you would ever actually be put to death? Do you hear/read about executions taking place in the country as a whole and in your state in particular? If so does this information have any effect on you? If you are not aware of executions in your state how can you be deterred by them? I live in Kentucky which has 34 people on death row and has had just three executions since 1977. The last one, that of Marco Alan Chapman in November 2008 was consensual. He had to go to court for the right to have his lawful and well deserved sentence carried out. But yet in the city of Louisville we had over 80 murders in 2008. It is unlikely that any of these will result in a death penalty and even less likely that they will result in an execution. What message does all this send?
Arguments against the death penalty.
There are a number of incontrovertible arguments against the death penalty.
The most important one is the virtual certainty that genuinely innocent people will be executed and that there is no possible way of compensating them for this miscarriage of justice. You may well find claims of 139 "innocent" people having been released from death rows nationwide over the past 30 years or so but this number needs to be treated with great caution. Some of them were freed on legal technicalities and others succeeded at re-trials due to such factors as key witnesses having died. So the incidence of genuine innocence is much rarer than the anti-death penalty lobby and television dramas would have us believe. The individual case details for those “exonerated” from death row can be read at http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/innocence-list-those-freed-death-row and a rebuttal of these claims at http://homicidesurvivors.com/2009/03/04/fact-checking-issues-on-innocence-and-the-death-penalty.aspx.
Some states are still willing to prosecute on circumstantial evidence alone which is concerning. Another very genuine concern is that a person convicted of the murder may have actually killed the victim and may admit having done so but does not agree that the killing was first degree murder. Often the only people who know what really happened are the accused and the deceased. It then comes down to the skill of the prosecution and defense attorneys as to whether there will be a conviction for murder in the first or the second degree. It is thus highly probable that people have been convicted of first degree murder when they should really have only been convicted of second degree murder or manslaughter.
A second reason is the abysmal administration of the death penalty in most states. Appeals take for ever to be heard dimming witness memories of events. Attorneys on both sides are “drowning” in a sea of unresolved cases. Unelected groups who have no mandate will try to interfere with a lawful death sentence by going before a sympathetic judge and arguing for a stay. State Governors can take arbitrary decisions, as did the governor of Illinois. George Ryan who commuted the sentences of every inmate on death row there (some 190) in January 2003, without any regard for the crimes these people had been convicted of.
Although racism is claimed in the administration of the death penalty, statistics show that white prisoners are more likely to be sentenced to death on conviction for first degree murder and are also less likely to have their sentences commuted than black defendants. At the end of 2009 the racial mix of condemned inmates was as follows. White = 1,453, Black = 1,351, Latino = 384, Asian = 41, American Indian = 38. Anti death penalty groups cite as racist the disparity between the proportion of black defendants on death row and the proportion of black people in the population. However African Americans are six times more likely to be the victim of homicide than white Americans and seven times more likely to be the perpetrators. There cannot be quotas for homicide convictions, the police have to deal with the situation that they find, irrespective of the ethnic background of the perpetrator. I am willing to believe that there was an element of racism in the application of the death penalty in former times where a black defendant would receive the death penalty, particularly for killing or raping a white victim, but a white person convicted of a similar crime might well not do so. The true definition of racism is where a person is treated differently/more severely based solely upon their ethnic background.
There is no such thing as a totally humane method of putting a person to death, irrespective of what the state may claim (see later). Every form of execution causes the prisoner suffering, some methods perhaps cause less than others. One tends to think of these methods in terms of physical pain while overlooking the mental anguish that the person suffers in the time leading up to the execution. How would you feel knowing that you were going to die tomorrow at a specified minute of a specified hour?
It is claimed that the murder rate has gone up in some states in the months following an execution and it is claimed that there is a brutalizing effect upon society by carrying out executions, although this is hard to prove one way or the other.
The death penalty is the most final of all punishments It removes the individual's humanity and with it any chance of rehabilitation and their giving something back to society. In the case of the worst criminals, this may be acceptable but is more questionable in the case of less awful crimes.
So how do we feel about the death penalty?
Should we only execute people just for the most awful multiple murders as a form of compulsory euthanasia rather than as a punishment, or should we execute all persons convicted of first degree murder?
What about crimes such as violent rape, terrorism and drug trafficking - are these as bad as murder? How should we punish such crimes? (In certain cases, terrorism and drug trafficking can be punished by death under Federal law.)
Should executions be carried out in such a way as to punish the criminal and have maximum deterrent effect on the rest of us (e.g. televised or public executions). Would this be a deterrent or merely become a morbid show for the voyeuristic?
Or should they be little more than a form of euthanasia carried out in such a way as to remove from the criminal all physical and as much emotional suffering as possible?
Does it make any sense to imprison someone for the rest of their life or is it really more cruel than executing them? This is becoming an increasing problem, especially with the rising numbers of teenagers and young people being sentenced to life without parole.
If we do not keep murderers in prison for the rest of their life, will they come out only to commit other dreadful crimes? A significant number do.
What is the cost to society of keeping people in prison? $500 - 600 per week at present for an ordinary prisoner which is around $800,000 - Ј900,000 for a typical sentence of 30 years served in an ordinary prison. The cost is much higher for maximum security prisoners.
These questions need to be thought about carefully and a balanced opinion arrived at.
What does it take to the death penalty ?
Getting the death penalty in any state is no foregone conclusion in any homicide case. Firstly the District Attorney has to charge the defendant with first degree murder and seek the death penalty, not something they do lightly, if only because of the far greater cost of death penalty cases. Secondly the defendant may offer a plea bargain where they will plead guilty in return for the DA not going for the death penalty. If they don’t offer a plea bargain and the case goes to trial, the jury has to find that person
guilty in the 1st degree. In 2002 the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Ring v Arizona that a jury must recommend a death sentence and it not be left up to the trial judge to decide. Therefore after the first phase of the trial, when a defendant is found guilty in a capital murder case there has to be a second penalty phase where the prosecution can put forward aggravating factors and the defense can show mitigating factors. To recommend the death penalty jurors have to be sure that sufficient aggravating factors have been proved. In most states the jury has to unanimously agree on the death penalty and if just one juror objects to it then it cannot be given. Juries can and often do decide to go for life without parole instead, if they don’t feel that the aggravating factors are sufficient or if they are outweighed by mitigating factors. In 2009 just 106 death sentences were handed down nationwide, a very tiny number as compared to the number of homicides. This is down from 295 in 1993.
If the jury does decide to award the death penalty, the defendant has an automatic right of appeal at State and Federal levels. They are able to file a writ of habeas corpus in the Federal Appeal Court. where they bring forward newly discovered evidence or can claim incompetent legal representation or jury misconduct. The appeals process in some states can take 25 years to exhaust.
The alternatives to the death penalty .
What are the realistic alternatives to the death penalty?
Any punishment must be fair, just, adequate and most of all, enforceable. Society still views murder as a particularly heinous crime which should justify the most severe punishment. Life imprisonment without parole is increasingly being used as an alternative to the death penalty. Imprisonment, while expensive and largely pointless, except as means of removing criminals from society for a given period, is at least enforceable upon anyone who commits a crime.
Improving detection rates is a very good deterrent to crime. Just look at how people observe speed limits when they see a police car sitting on the side of the freeway and yet break the speed limit as soon as the risk is passed. Cold case units have been set up by many police departments which help reinforce the view that murder does matter and will not just be forgotten about. DNA profiling plays a big part in securing convictions. Should everyone's DNA profile be data-based at birth (not beyond the wit of modern computer systems) thus making detection of many murders and sex crimes much easier? If this was done and a suitable sentence of imprisonment passed involving a sensible regime combining both punishment and treatment, it would, I am sure, considerably reduce the incidence of the most serious and most feared crimes.
It is estimated that Texas spent $530 million on 239 executions to the end of 2000 and will need to spend in excess of a billion dollars more (at today's prices) to process and perhaps eventually execute the other prisoners currently on death row there. These are vast sums of money. What thought has been given to investing this money into crime prevention? Surely what we all want are fewer murders and fewer victims rather than more executions. A murder is a tragedy and the subsequent execution of the culprit can be viewed as another tragedy. There has already been at least one victim and by executing the criminal we are adding another. Those 239 people in Texas had around 350 victims between them so that is nearly 600 deaths in all. Can we as a society find ways of preventing some of these tragedies before they happen? Can we control illegal drugs and gun ownership better? Can we stop kids getting totally out of control? Can we identify those with serious psychological problems before they commit awful crimes and leave a trail of victims? These are surely areas where investment in research and manpower would pay large dividends and would provide hope for the future.
Life on Death Row.
As at October 2014 there were 3,035 inmates on death rows in 35 states including 60 sentenced to death for Federal offenses and 6 on Military death row. (When Connecticut. Maryland and New Mexico abolished the death penalty they did not make it retro-active and there are still inmates on death row in these states.)
Most inmates under sentence to death are housed in the Segregation Wing of a Maximum Security Prison - i.e. Death Row. Their world consists of a single occupancy 6’ x 9’ cell where they are confined for 23 hours a day, 7 days a week. Some of these cells do not have air conditioning which can make life extremely miserable, especially in southern states where the temperature can exceed 100 degrees for weeks at a time in summer.
Some states, e.g. Texas. don’t allow TV sets in the cells and prisoners there have to earn the right to have a radio. Other states allow inmates to purchase small black and white televisions for their cells. Most don’t allow Cable TV and those that do limit viewing to educational or religious programming.
Typically prisoners are strip searched and handcuffed before going to and from their one daily hour of solitary exercise in a concrete run surrounded by a chain link fence topped with razor wire. They are searched and handcuffed when escorted to the shower room three times a week and at any other time when they are out of their cell. Non-contact visitation is, almost without exception, all that is allowed Death Row inmates. It is usually possible for them to communicate with other condemned inmates.
It is clear that in many states e.g. California. the death penalty is in turmoil. There is a huge "log jam" of cases that, for various reasons, are not being resolved either way. California has a staggering 702 men and women on death row (as of May 2010) and has carried out just 13 executions since 1977. And yet all of these people can potentially be put to death and that thought can never be far from their minds. As it is, with bottle necks in the courts and the difficulty of finding sufficient trained lawyers to handle capital cases, most of these prisoners are more likely to die of old age.
"Life without parole" versus the death penalty.
Many opponents of the death penalty put forward life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP) as a viable alternative to execution for the worst offenders and surveys have shown that LWOP enjoys considerable support amongst those who would otherwise favor the death penalty. If the sentence is enforced in full it is a sentence of no hope inflicted on mainly younger people who have a great many years to live in prison (the average age at arrest for homicide is 29 years old) and who will often be quickly forgotten by their friends and relatives on the outside and become totally isolated. As at the end of 2009 there are over 46,000 people including some 2,300 juveniles are currently serving LWOP sentences nation-wide. Of these, Pennsylvania has the most with 345 juveniles serving life without parole. 79 prisoners in 18 states are serving sentences of life without parole for crimes committed when they were 13 or 14.
In other words it is a living death but one that spares jurors and prison staff from being involved in an execution. It has been argued that imposing this sentence is an easy way out for juries who then don’t have to have it on their individual consciences that they sent a person to death row and possible eventual execution. It is also clear that life without parole sentences are being passed on many prisoners who would not have got a death sentence in the first place. The Federal Government was the first to eliminate parole under the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984. State legislators followed suit until by 2005, 49 states and the District of Columbia had LWOP statutes. Alaska is the only state now without an LWOP statute. But by using LWOP to this extent are we not just storing up thousands and thousands of problems for future generations to resolve? Soaring health care costs for ageing inmates is a major problem in many states. In Kentucky with a relatively small prison population it is estimated that it will cost the state $20 million in 2010 for inmate health care.
LWOP cannot prevent or deter offenders from killing prison staff or other inmates (299 homicides occurred in state prisons between 2001 and 2006) or taking hostages to further an escape bid, because they have nothing to lose by so doing.
However good the security of a prison, someone will always try to escape and occasionally will be successful. If you have endless time to plan an escape and everything to gain from doing so, there is a very strong incentive.
We have no guarantee that future state administrations will not release offenders who were imprisoned years previously, on the recommendations of various professionals who are against any form of punishment in the first place. Twenty or 30 years later, it is very difficult to remember the awfulness of an individual's crime and easy to claim that they have reformed.
Juveniles and the death penalty.
Firstly let us be quite clear, despite what some of the anti-capital punishment lobby imply America does not execute children. Since the resumption of executions in 1977, 22 young men aged under 18 at the time of the crime have been put to death in seven states of whom 21 were aged 17 and one 16. These are Texas with 13, Virginia with three, Oklahoma with two and Georgia. Louisiana. Missouri and South Carolina with one each. Click here for a list of these. A total of 73 juveniles were sentenced to death in the same period.
The Supreme Court judgment given in Roper v Simmons in March 2005 effectively ended the juvenile death penalty in the USA. as it was held to violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Christopher Simmons was 17 when he committed a brutal murder in Missouri. It had previously been held in the 1988 case of Thompson v Oklahoma that the execution of those under 16 years of age violated the Eighth Amendment. It is thought that 17 year old Thomas Graunger was the first juvenile to be put to death when he was hanged for buggery/sodomy in Massachusetts in 1674. A further 158 teenagers would be executed up to 1959 when Leonard Shockey was gassed in Maryland. There were no juvenile executions between 1960 and 1967.
The Numbers Game "death versus deterrence".
If we are, however, really serious in our desire to reduce crime through harsher punishments alone, we must be prepared to execute every criminal who commits a capital crime, irrespective of their sex, age (above the minimum) alleged mental state or background. Defenses to capital charges must be limited by statute to those which are reasonable. Appeals must be similarly limited and there can be no stays. We must carry out executions without delay and with sufficient publicity to get the message across to other criminally minded people.
For the death penalty to really reduce the incidence of the most serious crimes, everyone of us must realize that we personally will, without doubt, be executed if we commit particular crimes and that there can be absolutely no hope of commutation.
"Mad or Bad".
Are criminals, particularly murderers as we are discussing the death penalty, evil or sick? This is another very important issue as it would hardly seem reasonable to punish people who are genuinely insane but more reasonable to use effective punishment against those who are intentionally evil. As usual, as a society, we have very confused views on this issue. There are those who seem to believe that there is no such thing as evil, while the majority of us do not accept that every convicted murderer should be let off, i.e. excused any responsibility for their actions due to some alleged mental or emotional condition. Those with a criminology masters degree delve deep into analyzing what environmental factors, as opposed to genetic predisposition, which contribute to criminal behavior.
The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 on June 20, 2002 in the case of Atkins v Virginia that the execution of mentally retarded criminals violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. A person with an IQ of less than 70 is deemed to be mentally retarded and cannot be sentenced to death.
Will we ever find an answer to the "mad or bad" question and then be able to find effective treatment for those who turn out to be "mad"? Should we worry about the alleged mental state of our worst criminals? These are the people who are least likely to benefit from imprisonment or care in institutions and are most likely to re-offend. It could, therefore, be argued that killing these people would be a very good thing.
The death penalty and the media.
The media's attitude to executions varies widely depending on the age and sex of the criminal, the type of crime and frequency/rarity of execution. A reasonably attractive woman, Karla Faye Tucker. convicted of a brutal double murder, receiving a lethal injection got tremendous media attention worldwide. A man being hanged in Washington or Delaware. or shot by a Utah firing squad makes international news. ( Westley Allan Dodd, Billy Bailey, John Taylor and Ronnie Lee Gardner). Electrocutions make more news nowadays because of the rarity of them.
Men being executed in Texas for "ordinary" murders hardly rate a mention outside Texas. However in the late 70's and early 80's when executions were rare nationally, every one attracted a great deal of media interest. Now one might get a mention of an execution in another state on the news ticker at the bottom of the screen on television news shows but a lot of people will be unaware of executions outside their own state. Marco Alan Chapman receiving a lethal injection in Kentucky in 2008 was front page news locally, because executions here are a very rare event (3 in 30 years) and he had fought for the right to die. But were you aware of this execution, was it in your media? Click here for a listing of executions in the USA during 2014. How many of them were you aware of?
Executions used to attract pro and anti-capital punishment protesters in large numbers but these seem to have dwindled down to just a few in most cases.
Lethal injection is the least interesting (dramatic/sexy?) way of putting a person to death - something that suits the state very well. The less the public interest, the easier the process becomes. Probably the majority of people don't much care either way and would rather watch a ballgame. They may vaguely support capital punishment but do not wish to be or feel involved in an execution.
It would seem that we have “trial by media” in this country. There was constant discussion on national TV of the Jodi Arias who is possibly facing the death penalty for murder in Arizona. Every word, every action, every bit of body language is picked over and analyzed. Is this likely to lead to a fair trial? One could also site the O J Simpson murder trial as another instance and perhaps there are similar ones in your state.
Is the death penalty a “cruel and unusual” punishment?
The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the imposition of "cruel and unusual punishments" and the "infliction of unnecessary pain in the execution of the death sentence". The Constitution and the 8th Amendment to it were never intended to provide criminals with a pain free death. The original constitution specified death by hanging which in 1787 was always painful and usually meant death by strangulation. The concept of a drop sufficient to break the prisoner’s neck and render them instantly unconscious had not been invented and would not be for almost a century. Hanging, carried out in public, was seen as the best available form of execution and the most practical way of executing criminals at the time.
What the 8th Amendment of 1791 did do was to prohibit cruel and unusual punishments such as burning at the stake, hanging drawing and quartering, pressing to death and breaking on the wheel. Burning and pressing had been used under British rule. Breaking on the wheel had occurred in Louisiana under French colonial rule. These forms of execution were hideously painful and degrading and also applied on an arbitrary basis, usually to slaves. The whole point of the amendment was to outlaw the purposeful infliction of needless pain and suffering upon the criminal.
In Wilkerson v. Utah. in 1878, the Supreme Court determined that death by firing squad was not cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Shooting continues to be available in Utah and was last used in 2010. Shooting must be painful at least for a few seconds and Ronnie Lee Gardner appeared to suffer initially when he was executed by firing squad in Utah earlier this year.
In 1890 New York state introduced the electric chair which similarly survived legal challenges and remains as an option in several states. It is impossible to know what pain a person being electrocuted actually suffers. The electric chair was last used in 2013.
The gas chamber was first used in Nevada in 1924 and is still an option in Arizona. It was last used there in 1999 but I doubt it would survive were its use was mandatory rather than optional. It has been outlawed in California since 1994 due to the obvious suffering it causes.
Hanging is still a legal form of execution in Washington state and there have been two hangings there plus one in Delaware since the resumption of executions in 1977.
The concept of evolving standards of decency permitted advances in the execution process to be incorporated into state protocols.
When the death penalty was allowed by the Supreme Court to resume in 1976, Oklahoma decided to make lethal injection its sole method of execution. Texas adopted Oklahoma ’s three drug protocol and all other death penalty states have since followed suit. Nebraska was the last state to do so in 2008 when it switched from the electric chair. The 34 death penalty states all have lethal injection as the primary method of execution unless the inmate chooses an alternative method, as allowed in some states, thereby waiving the right to claim that it is cruel or unusual. Lethal injection is permitted retro-actively to those inmates sentenced to the previous method in all states.
In the case of Rees v Baze in 2007, Ralph Baze challenged the three drug lethal injection protocol in the state of Kentucky which was found to be constitutional by the US Supreme Court because it did not intentionally cause pain.
Ohio in 2009 pioneered the single drug protocol where a 2 Ѕ times larger dose of sodium thiopental is used and this has been proved to be entirely satisfactory and has obviated any further law suits in that state. Washington state has since carried out one execution by this method and it is now an option in California. There is no possibility of the inmate feeling pain during the procedure.
At the end of 2010 there were at least four lawful methods of execution in the USA. all of which were deemed constitutional and of which three had been used during that year.
Can executions ever be "humane"?
I have never personally believed that any form of execution can cause either an instant or totally pain free death, so which method should a modern "civilized" society use?
Should our worst criminals be given a completely pain free death even if the technology exists to provide one or should a degree of physical suffering be part of the punishment?
Whatever method is selected should have some deterrent value while not deliberately causing a slow or agonizing death.
Obviously one cannot be inside the brain of a person as they are being out to death to know what, if any, pain they are feeling. All we can do is to observe their reaction to the process and carry out an autopsy afterwards. In lethal injection, if the person appears to lapse into unconsciousness within seconds and there is no obvious struggling or movement we conclude that they died a pain free death. It is equally clear that when any form of execution is bungled the inmate often exhibits signs of great suffering. Click the links below for a detailed history and explanation of the way each method actually causes death.
Lethal injection may appear to be the most humane but is a very slow process. If the needle is inserted correctly into a vein it allows the short acting barbiturate to function properly, causing unconsciousness in less than 30 seconds and death in under 10 minutes. The biggest single objection to lethal injection is the length of time required to prepare the prisoner and carry out their sentence which is usually from 20 to 45 minutes depending on the ease of finding a vein to inject into. Throughout this period the person knows that they are being put to death.
All states plus the Federal Government and the US Military mandate lethal injection but some states allow their previous method if the inmate chooses it.
Electrocution can cause a quick death when all goes well, but seems to have a greater number of technical problems than any other method. This may in part be due to the age of the equipment - in some cases, over 90 years old!
The gas chamber seems to possess no obvious advantage to the state as the equipment is expensive to buy and maintain, the preparations are lengthy, adding to the prisoner's agonies and it causes a slow and cruel death even when everything goes to plan. It is also potentially dangerous to the staff and witnesses.
Shooting by firing squad (as in Utah) can cause a quick death (2 – 4 minutes) but there appears to be some initial pain felt by the inmate before they lapse into unconsciousness.
Hanging when done properly causes virtually instant deep unconsciousness and also benefits from requiring simple and thus quick preparation of the inmate. However, too many hangings have been botched in the last 200 years and many people perceive it to be the cruelest method.
The time taken in the actual preparations prior to the execution (e.g. the shaving of the head and legs for electrocution or finding a suitable vein to inject into) must also cause great emotional suffering which again may far outweigh the physical pain which at least has an end.
At the end of the debate we would seem to be left with three options.
1) Maintain the status quo by retaining the death penalty for just a few of the "worst" murderers as a form of retribution for the terrible crimes they have committed and to permanently incapacitate them.
2) Not to have the death penalty and accept a potential rise in the murder rate, while looking for other ways of controlling serious crime.
3) Enforce the death penalty in a really strict format and see a corresponding drop in serious crime while accepting that there will be a lot of human misery caused to the innocent families of criminals and that there will be the occasional, if inevitable, mistakes.
Ultimately the choice is yours!