Capital Punishment or as commonly known; the death penalty, has existed since before the founding of the United States. The name Capital Punishment borrows from the Latin name capitalis which used to “mean concerning the head” and thus this form of punishment initially used to be carried out by cutting off the head using a guillotine or some other means of severing depending on the cultural context. However there is much debate surrounding Capital Punishment as a form of criminal punishment because since the beginning of civilization, punishment of crime has always been deterrent and meant to change the criminal (Banner, 2002). But the inception of the death penalty brings with it the problem of no second chance for the criminal and also other ethical issues surrounding the matter such as the fact that human beings can change their ways. This paper examines the history and other factors regarding Capital punishment with the aim of enlightening the masses.
History of Capital Punishment
Capital Punishment is as old as civilization and thus it is difficult to pin point exactly which culture or society of the world pioneered it as every society has carried it out in one way or another. However, in the United States the history of capital punishment is heavily rooted in the British laws which in turn originated in the ancient laws that involved killing for personal retribution. The first recorded incidents of capital punishment as a legal form of punishment in the ancient world was in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi written in 1700 BC that lists some crimes as punishable by death (Henderson, 2000). In the United States, the initial crimes in 1612 that were punishable by death were rather unfair and included stealing grapes trading with Indians and killing chickens. However, as the British colonies developed, so did the laws and the crimes punishable by death narrowed down to murder and other related crimes. However, they were punishable by death because it was believed that humans were intrinsically brutal and depraved and this had nothing to do with their environment (The Death Penalty Information Centre, 2010)
At the turn of the 20th century, incidences of capital punishment were on the decline as the definition of crime and its causes changed to that of being influenced by the environment and not a product of mere human depravity. There was also scientific evidence linking some of the crime to genetics and thus more blame was shifted from the criminals who were also perceived as victims of some sort leading to the further decline of Capital Punishment. But the first World War changed this trend as the Russian Revolution led to the need and reinstatement of capital punishment (The Death Penalty Information Centre, 2010). Since then, the debate regarding its abolishment has continued to rage till now with a heightened debate being experienced during the Civil Rights Movement age and occasional uproars being experienced to the present time.
The debate regarding Capital Punishment
The debate surrounding capital punishment in light of whether or not it should be abolished ranks in the same level of other major debates such as abortion. As voices from both the Civil Rights group and the religious movements bombard the walls of the criminal justice offices, the debate continues to rage. The main argument is that the government has no right over human life while the other arguments include the claim that crime is supposed to be not only eliminative of the behavior but corrective towards the criminal (The Death Penalty Information Center, 2010). In other words, it is supposed to make the criminal better and not get rid of him. The argument stands that the justice system should live up to its title of a correctional system and not a murdering house. There have been specific cases that have continued to reinforce the argument for the abolishment of capital punishment such as the case of Stanley Tookie Williams.
Opposition of the Justification for death penalty
The above case is just one of the many similar cases that the jury, apparently, thought warranted a death penalty. Yet, a specific case still haunts the consciences of many pro-death-penalty advocates because of the apparent changes that the accused underwent while awaiting execution. Stanley Tookie Williams (Nov 29, 2005) who was responsible for the creation of the Crips gang in California in the seventies is a case worth examining and re-examining. Though he was charged with the murder of three people, these crimes fade out in the light of his achievement during his 10 year sentence as he awaited the death penalty (Delfino, & Day, 2007). In those ten years, he authored eight children’s books all with the aim of stopping a violent gang life in young people. He also became the recipient of five Nobel peace prize nominations and a commendation letter from President George W Bush for his work and finally, a movie was made to portray his life called, “Redemption.” Though he was later executed by lethal injection in December 2005, the debate concerning the justification of his death still rages on to date as some people claim that his life was a success story and did not deserve the sentence.
As can be seen from the example above, it appears that the greatest conflict in the death penalty debate is not over whether it should be abolished or not but whether it is justified especially when cases like that of Williams continue to go against all logic and defy this justification (Delfino, & Day, 2007). There are several reasons that have been brought forth to justify the death penalty throughout the history of this penalty. This paper focuses on just a few of the pros that prove that the death sentence is an essential part of our justice system and is here to stay if justice is to prevail in future. Starting with the William’s case, he later self-confessed to all his crimes and claimed redemption and full conversion. His words were further backed up by his unusually good works and achievements in the few years preceding his death. There was absolutely no doubt that Williams had learnt his lesson and was a changed person, something that crime punishment is supposed to achieve in the first place, yet despite posing no threat to society, the sentence was still carried out. This is not justice by the very definition of the word but a blind following of the law.
The other reason why the death penalty is not justifiable and is usually an issue that is improperly approached is the focus of the constitution. There seems to be greater attention paid to the methods of carrying out the sentence than whether the sentence itself is justified or not. When the focus becomes whether the punishment should be in the form of execution or lethal injection, we lose the point and it no longer is an ethical issue (Dow, and Dow, 2002). For instance, the Supreme Court nullified many death sentences in 1972 under the reason that the form of punishment was cruel and unusual. However, this decision was reversed when new methods of execution that were less cruel were invented such as the lethal injection. This warrants the need for a fresh definition of the issue at hand, that is, whether the death (in whatever form and by whatever too) is justified and necessary or not (Dow, and Dow, 2002).
The strongest reason so far as to why many people still oppose the death penalty is the religious, ethical and moral implications surrounding the penalty. For instance, killing, be most basic definition of the word is considered a sin and a breaking of the Mosaic Law that clearly states that “thou shalt not kill”. This is a heavy issue since the right to give and take life is considered divine under any circumstances, thus the argument stands that it is unreasonable to break one law for the sake of fulfilling another one (Delfino, & Day, 2007). It is also viewed that although execution may be effective in removing killers from the society, it also brutalizes the society itself and may end up increasing the murder rate. But the final reason why the opponents of the death penalty find it unjustified to murder prisoners is when it is weighed against the cost of imprisoning them for life and picked as the cheaper option. This option demeans the value of human life as a budget commodity and ends up making the death penalty less of a punishment and more of a budget decision, thus degrading the value of human life and infringing on human rights.
The future of Capital Punishment
There are several justifications for the death penalty that have stood the test of time. The first one is the fact that it ensures the murderers who have been convicted will never kill again as most of the convicted felons are usually serial killers who have formed a habit of killing throughout many years and breaking from the habit is not guaranteed. The problem comes when there is the alternative of jailing the same convicts under a life sentence which will also prevent the murders. However, there are many other factors surrounding a life sentence as history has shown that many people end up being pardoned for other reasons such as good behaviors or presidential pardons (Dolan, 2005). Secondly, justice is not just about applying punitive actions to extract adequate reparations, but it is meant to maintain civil order. In other words, the punishment is not meant to just change the person who committed the crime but to ensure that the rest of the population will learn the lesson and thus reduce such crimes. The death penalty, in this case, serves to protect law abiding citizens against other criminals who may have the intention of carrying out similar crimes.
Thirdly, there has not been found a more adequate compensation for the victims of some heinous crimes such as murder and rape, thus severe consequences must be applied by the society in order to regain the trust of the victims that they failed to protect during the perpetrations of these crimes. Also, the religious arguments against the death penalty are rather weak and one sided as the same religious books that dictate their viewpoints also advocates the execution of murderers and other criminals depicted within the same book and thus, it is seen that there is a particular type of killing that can be carried out by the government as punishment and is justified even by these religious and moral laws (The Death Penalty Information Center, 2010). Finally, the argument against the death penalty that is based on the cruelty of the execution process no longer stands as there have been invented more subtle and less cruel ways of carrying out the sentences such as the lethal injection. Thus, although the debate has currently shifted from the cruelty of the sentences to the ethical basis of the sentence, it still stands that the death sentence is necessary for not only justice to prevail, but for some crimes to be accorded the weight they deserve.
In the end, it is the American citizens who must determine whether or not capital punishment should be continued. It is the society that owes the victims of crimes like murder and rape a debt from our failure to safeguard them while criminals must pay the debt owed to our society for the instability they created. There is no form of punishment that by the very standards of crime and punishment equals murder except the death of the murderer. Even though many may try to argue against this verdict based on moral or ethical grounds, it helps to revisit the origin of the death penalty now and then, lest we belittle the seriousness of some crimes.
Banner, S. (2002). The Death Penalty: An American History. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Henderson, H. (2000). Capital Punishment. Rev. ed. New York, NY: Facts on File.
The Death Penalty Information Center. (2010). Introduction to the Death Penalty. Retrieved November 26, 2010, from http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/part-i-history-death-penalty
Dolan, M. (2005). Telling His Story to Save His Life. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 26, 2010, from http://articles.latimes.com/2005/nov/29/local/me-tookie29.
Delfino, M., & Day, M. (2007). Death Penalty USA 2005 – 2006. MoBeta Publishing, Tampa, Florida; and Death Penalty USA 2003 – 2004 (2008).Tampa, Florida: MoBeta Publishing.
Dow, R., & Dow, M. (2002). Machinery of Death: The Reality of America’s Death Penalty Regime. New York: Routledge.