Perhaps one of the most often talked about subjects in terms of law enforcement is capital punishment: willingly killing another individual based on the crimes they have committed.
The concepts behind the death penalty and its appropriateness in modern culture have been explored time and time again. In order to render an opinion on the matter, it is best to explore the death penalty in several different phases. First, a historical background of the death penalty must be used as a focal point, and then modern arguments for and against this punishment must be explored. Only after this can a comprehensive personal view of such a controversial topic emerge, and the question as to whether it is cruel and unusual punishment can be settled.
The death penalty has been used around the world in many different forms and in many different regions of the world. To gain a comprehensive idea about the emergence and use of the death penalty, it is important to explore its use as a form of punishment as well as the type of execution method that was employed. This progression can reveal how the method of execution has affected the perception of the process as a whole. One of the earliest known records of the implementation of the death penalty comes from that of King Hammurabi, man who ruled Babylon in the 18th century B.C (Reggio, 1997). This king is known throughout the world today as the many who enforced the notion of “an eye for an eye”, and the Code of King Hammurabi was one of the first laws every laid down that specifically referred to death as the punishment for over 25 different crimes that occurred throughout his kingdom. While this sentence for a death penalty was often viewed as being fair, it was not just in the sense that it had a case by case method of exploration (Reggio 1997).
Another area of historical import for the consideration of the historical death penalty was found in 16th century B.C. Egypt, where there is the first written record of a death being ordered by the state was carried out. The individual was forced to take their own life, most likely with poison, rather than face the method reserved for non-nobility: an axe ( Reggio, 1997). The concept of the death penalty continued to become more prevalent throughout the world and in the written histories of the world as time went on, and was notoriously implemented under the Draconian Laws of Athens in 700 B.C. During that time, death was the only penalty that was carried out for every crime, no matter how minor (Part I, 2013).
One of the most famous civilizations to appear as throughout the world was that of the Romans, and they had a great deal of laws concerning the death penalty as well as the methods in which they employed it. It was during the 5th century B.C. that the Roman Laws of the Twelve Tables were established, resulting in a more modern form of trial and execution (Part I, 2013). Many of the crimes that were established that could earn an individual a death sentence were if an individual from a lower class killed a person of a higher class or otherwise harmed them. If an upper class individual or someone from a prestigious family murdered someone of equal rank, they were typically exiled, but in rare cases executed by means of beheading (Part I, 2013). However, for those individuals at the bottom of the social order, were typically sentenced to a variety of different forms of execution including crucifixion, fighting against wild animals for a spectacle, burning alive, and beating to death (Hypno, 2013). Crucifixion became well-known for its use in killing Jesus in approximately 29 A.D., and the symbol of him being executed has appeared into the modern day as a reminder for those who took up Christianity.
As the Roman Empire continued to spread, so too did the influence that was had by their methods and reasons for execution. In fact, it was not long before they reached the outer limits of Asia and even up to the Scandinavian areas, but most famously settling in the area of Britain. In particular, it was the Code of Theodosius that made its way to Britain and remained long after the legions had left to defend Rome from outside incursions. This code made over 80 crimes punishable by death (Reggio, 1997). There was a period of turbulence from which to new laws and very few records were available until the ascendance of William the Conqueror in the 1066 A.D. He stated that no people were to be put to death unless it was during a time of war. While this form of punishment was replaced by various types of mutilation, the next appearances of death penalties in the 1500s were remarkably sadistic (Reggio, 1997).
During the reign of King Henry VIII, record numbers of people were being put to death throughout the kingdom of Britain with some estimates as high as 72,000 people under his rule (Part I, 2013). However, it was not simply death that was used as a punishment during this time, torture was often implemented as a means of scaring others from committing the same crime as well as to punish those who were involved in criminal acts. These forms of torture involve beating, having limbs broken on a wheel, sawing a victim in half, and boiling them in oil before they were eventually hanged to death (Part I, 2013). These executions were cruel and unusual simply because the innovations were made to create the greatest sensations of pain before the individual was put to death. During this period of time, hanging still emerged as the predominant way of killing. However, this changed rapidly during the French Revolution, as the process of execution became more standardized and mechanized, to a horrifying degree.
During the French Revolution a new invention was created to deal with the rising amounts of people that had to be executed for their role in keeping the lower classes underfoot. It was the guillotine, a device that cut an individual’s head off quickly and without the inaccuracies of an axe. This period of time was known as the Reign of Terror, when officials oversaw the execution of 40,000 individuals in as little as two years (Lynn, 2007). This represented an interesting turning point in executions because there was a means of streamlining the process that led to a horrifying pace and ability to kill. On the other hand, it was beneficial in the end because there was a greater focus on carrying out the act than there was on making the individual suffer. In a way, it was the ultimate way of ensuring a quick, painless death to the person that was sentenced to die. At the same time that these executions were occurring, the nation of the United States was being developed across the Atlantic Ocean.
Much like the Roman forerunners had done for the British them, the people living in the United States were ultimately influenced by the British laws regarding executions. There were still a variety of crimes that a person could be executed for during the colonial days, but there was also a great upsurge in the number of people who felt as though executions were being used without just cause in many cases. Beccaria’s work On Crimes and Punishment established “that there was no justification for the state’s taking of a life” ( Part I, 2013). This work alone influenced nations like Austria to stop implementing the death penalty, and even inspired Thomas Jefferson to bring up a bill that “capital punishment be used only for the crimes of murder and treason” (Part I, 2013). Even though this bill was defeated, it served as a means of education and inspiration for future states that wanted to try to do the same. In 1794, Pennsylvania used the same ideas passed on by Jefferson and Beccaria before him to forgo the death penalty in all cases except capital murder. During this time, the only prescribed methods of execution were hanging and firing squad, which were noted for being a fast and humane means of achieving death in an individual.
Although the United States was in the process of changing the determinant factors for what crimes had to be committed to warrant a death sentence, the methods took a step towards becoming more brutal before they got better. In the 1880s, the electric chair was developed to kill an individual as it was seen as a way of allowing execution to remain a public spectacle while using modern technology to achieve death (Part I, 2013). This development was followed up by the construction of the first gas chambers in the United States in 1924, and the subsequent failure of the abolition groups to achieve their goal of removing the death penalty as an option in the United States. In the 1930s, propelled by criminologists and new execution technology, the rate of executions in the United States reached its peak of killing 167 people in a single year (Part I, 2013).
Following World War II there was a decline in the sentiment of killing people in the United States for crimes, and the United Nations proclaimed that human beings have a right to life in 1948, effectively abolishing executions throughout Western Europe (Part I, 2013). During this time, several constitutional challenges emerged against the death penalty in the United States, resulting in a restriction on the types of execution that could be used. With the development of the lethal injection, the electric chair, gas chamber, firing squad, and hanging were infrequently used. Prompted by the Supreme Court of Georgia, the state banned execution as an act that was invariably cruel and unusual in 1972, on the grounds that the deprivation of life was contrary to the law and the constitution.
During the 1970s and 1980s, there were many states that did away with the death penalty and then brought it back for a variety of reasons such as not being able to scare their criminals with any other threat than life in prison. Ultimately, it is a concept that has still divided the country, with several states having banned the death penalty altogether, and some advocating for its use. However, as it stands, the only crime that is punishable by death in a de facto sense is murder with aggravating factors or through premeditation. Moreover, there are strict limits on the forms of execution that are still available in the United States, with lethal injection being the most common, and some states holding onto gas alternatives, and even fewer using electricity, but typically as an alternative for not possessing the lethal injection concoction (Part I, 2013). All things considered, the face of execution has changed a great deal in recent years. It has led to a schism in public opinion as well as policy in the United States. That is why it is important to evaluate each of the arguments to gain a fuller understanding about the impact of these laws.
Argument in Favor of the Death Penalty
On one side of the argument are the proponents of the death penalty. There are a variety of social and philosophical means of looking into the death penalty and what it achieves. That is why it is important to first examine the goals of punishment and how death fits into them. In terms of the modern ideals of punishment, there are generally three aims. The first is to gain retribution upon the person who committed a crime. Although this is a fairly egalitarian means of looking at crime, the saying from Hammurabi’s Code holds true, that an eye for an eye would leave the entire world blind (Frieser, 2015). Thus, retribution cannot be valued in a pro-death view of capital punishment.
The second justified form is that of incapacitation, rendering the individual unable of committing another crime that has led to them being executed. For the purposes of this, it is important to note that premeditated murder is the crime that is punished by death. Thus, from a strictly philosophical standpoint, it makes sense that death actually prevents an individual from committing another murderous crime (Frieser, 2015). This is especially effective in the process of stopping repeat offenders, spree killers, or serial killers from taking human life. From this standpoint, argues Frieser, it is conscionable to kill an individual in a dignified manner such as lethal injection to neutralize them as a threat. Moreover, it is far more humane to kill them than to have them deteriorate in prison for the rest of their lives, decade after decade.
Finally, the third justification for such a punishment is that it acts as a deterrent to future crimes. While prison time can serve as a motivator in some social circles in order to gain credibility within a criminal organization, death can act as a deterrent (Frieser, 2015). This operates in the physical sense that it deters that individual from killing again, and also that it can serve as a reminder to citizens. People who see that the end result of a life of crime is death may be less likely to engage in those crimes at all.
Another aspect of the death penalty that is brought up aside from the outright fairness that is brought by the system is whether or not it is cruel and unusual punishment. Cynthia Oberg argues that it is not cruel and unusual punishment in the legal sense or in the humane sense of the term. She explains “the United States Constitution’s 8th Amendment related “cruel and unusual” punishment to methods used in ages past” in reference to boiling in oil, being drawn and quartered, or any other tortuous form of killing (2000). Moreover, the Supreme Court has repeatedly found that the death penalty in and of itself is not cruel and unusual, as found in the case Gregg v Georgia in 1976. However, there are many criticisms of these positions for keeping the death penalty, many of which do not merely evaluate the death penalty in terms of the legal definition of what is considered to be cruel and unusual since death, to them, is inherently unfair.
Argument Against the Death Penalty
One of the first ways that it is possible to have a negative view of the death penalty in the United States is examining the philosophy behind what is considered just. Unlike Hammurabi and the Draconian laws, there is a sentiment that laws and punishments must have a reason behind them beyond motivations for revenge or a supposed balancing of the scales. One of the views that is supported by the pro death penalty groups is that putting people to death acts as a deterrent for other people that are committing crimes. One study that was undertaken by Radlett and LaCock on the topic of deterrence reveals the fact that it is not an efficacious means of justifying what often amounts to murder by the state. This study looked at the areas that have the highest rates of execution for crimes around the United States and compared them with rates of murder in those areas and other areas of the United States. The concept of deterrence would only hold true if the areas with the highest rates of executions were those with the lowest amount of murders. The study found that the southern United States was the area that executed the most people, almost doubling the northeastern areas of the United States (Radlett & LaCock, 2009). However, the south still remained the area with the highest amount of murders occurring in the region, with extremely high rates of murder against police officers as well as regular citizens (Radlett & LaCock, 2009). Studies such as this debunk the possibility of using executions by the state as a means of preventing future people from committing murder. This shows that executions are more about balancing the scales of justice than preventing future crimes, but still fails to evaluate it in terms of it being cruel or unusual punishment.
One of the most fundamental arguments that often arise as a result of exploring the death penalty is whether it is cruel and unusual punishment. Based on the fact that human beings have had their right to life declared by a council that effectively governs global law for billions, depriving life through execution seems as though it would qualify as a cruel punishment. Another aspect of the cruel and unusual perspective against those who commit murders is that the methods of execution are horrifying and often, imperfect. In the United States, there are still laws on the books that allow painful methods of execution such as being shot or electrocuted to death. While there has been uproar over these forms of capital punishment since they are inherently violent and painful, the fact of the matter is that even the methods that are deemed to be the most humane can often fail. One case as recent as July 2014 implemented the lethal injection to kill a man named Joseph Wood. While the injection process went as planned, he “took nearly two gasping, choking hours to die by lethal injection” (Cruel, 2014). This is an affront to the concept that there is a legal protection against laws being cruel and unusual from the standpoint of people against the death penalty, as two hours of torture that could not be abated were allowed to continue and ultimately deemed a success because it did, in fact, result in a corpse.
Another defense for the death penalty being cruel and unusual punishment can be based on the fact that it takes a significant amount of time for people to be put to death even after they have been convicted. In California alone, 900 people have been sentence to death since 1978, but only 13 of them have actually been put to death due to appeals that are built into the system (Cruel, 2014). These prisoners are forced to wait for their date of death to approach. This was examined in the sense of “Awaiting execution for decades “with complete uncertainty as to when, or even whether, it will ever come,” and that “no rational jury or legislature could ever impose.” (Cruel, 2014). Opponents of the laws have stated that this waiting is cruel in the sense that it bodes poorly for mental health, since many of the prisoners are on lockdown for up to 23 hours a day, facts that are alarming about the cruel nature of the institution of the death penalty.
Personal Viewpoint and Conclusions
There are many significant considerations that must be examined when considering whether or not the death penalty in the United States is just or fair. In my personal opinion, killing an individual who has murdered others or murdered in the course of other crimes could be beyond the realm of rehabilitation, and have forfeited their ability to act in society. Killing these people removes them from society and gives some satisfaction to the families of those who have been murdered. Yet, that is not what the justice system is supposed to be about. It is punishing these individuals in a way that is neither cruel nor unusual, preventing society from sinking to a lower point by allowing for terrible acts to befall or be carried out against people who commit murders. Looking at the supposed benefits and ways that the death penalty is not cruel and unusual, it is difficult to get past the idea that these individuals are going to be murdered by the state, the manifestation of our representation as a whole, an act that seems to seem cruel by definition. Moreover, these murder cases are considered a spectacle at times, with 24 hour coverage and media being allowed to witness the individual as they are being jabbed with a needle. I believe that it is a naïve way of examination to view capital punishment as separate from murder, and in that regard it is cruel and unusual because it deprives the individual of life, the same life that is supposed to be safeguarded in an enlightened society. Still, there are further complications to the matter which only bolster this negative view of the death penalty such as the reports of innocent people being executed as a result of poor representation or faulty evidence.
The death of a single innocent person renders the system cold and inherently incapable of being just. Yet, there is one final concern that has arisen as a result of this negative evaluation of cruel and unusual punishments: the life sentence. Locking people away from society and putting them in a place of constant stress, threats, and ultimately death is not greatly different from an outright death in terms of its inherent unfairness. This leads me to question if there is any punishment that can be considered just and fair; a punishment that could not be considered cruel. If there is no way to pursue justice without cruelty, then perhaps death as an immediate end to suffering could be considered in lieu of having the impartial, fair system that seems to be desired by all.
Cruel and unusual. (2014, July 26). Retrieved April 24, 2015, from
Frieser, J. (2015). Capital Punishment. Retrieved April 23, 2015, from https://www.utm.edu/staff/jfieser/class/160/7-cap-pun.htm
Hypno, C. (2013, August 1). Ancient Roman Executions: How and Why the Romans Executed People. Retrieved April 23, 2015.
Lynn, M. (2007). Executions, the Guillotine and the French Revolution. Retrieved April 23, 2015, from http://www.ultimatehistoryproject.com/executions-the- guillotine-and-the- french-revolution.html
Oberg, C. (2000). The death penalty- true cause for justice. Retrieved from: http://web.gccaz.edu/~mdinchak/death_penalty1.htm
Part I: History of the Death Penalty. (2013). Retrieved April 23, 2015, from http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/part-i-history-death-penalty
Radlett, M., & Lacock, T. (2009). Do executions lower homicide rates?: the views of leading criminologists. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 99(2), 489-508.
Reggio, M. (1997). History of the Death Penalty. Retrieved April 23, 2015, from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/execution/readings/history. html