Capital Punishment History of Capital Punishment in the United States

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Capital Punishment

History of Capital Punishment in the United States

Early History

  • European (especially English) settlers influenced our nation’s use of the death penalty
  • First recorded execution: Captain George Kendall Jamestown, Virginia, 1608
  • First woman executed: Jane Champion, 1632
  • Crimes punishable by death: stealing grapes, striking your Mother or Father

Colonial Times

  • Cesare Beccaria's 1767 essay: On Crimes and Punishment
  • Thomas Jefferson’s proposed bill
  • Dr. Benjamin Rush, founder of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, challenged the use of the death penalty
    • brutalization effect: having a death penalty actually increased criminal conduct
  • 1794: Pennsylvania abolishes the death penalty for all offenses except first degree murder

19th Century

  • 1846: Michigan abolishes death penalty for all crimes except treason
  • Most states retained death penalty rights
  • Some states expanded crimes punishable by death (especially crimes committed by slaves)
  • Introduction of discretionary death penalty statues
  • 1888: New York builds the first electric chair

Early 20th Century

  • 1924: cyanide gas as a more humane form of execution
  • 1920-40s: resurgence in death penalty after a short-lived lull
    • Criminologists wrote that the death penalty was a necessary social measure
    • Prohibition and the Great Depression
    • More executions in the 1930s than in any other decade in American history

Mid-Late 20th Century

  • 1950s: public opinion turns against capital punishment
  • 1940s: 1,289 executions
  • 1950s: 715 executions
  • 1967-1977: voluntary moratorium
  • January 17, 1977: moratorium ends with execution of Gary Gilmore by firing squad
  • Also in 1977: Oklahoma became the first state to adopt lethal injection as a means of execution


  • Prior to the 1960s: Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments were interpreted as allowing the death penalty
  • Early 1960s: suggested that the death penalty was "cruel and unusual" punishment

Other Laws

  • 1994 - President Clinton signs the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act expanding the federal death penalty
  • 1998: Northwestern University National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty
  • 59 prisoners were executed in the USA in 2004, bringing the year end total to 944 executed since the use of the death penalty was resumed in 1977.
  • Over 3,400 prisoners were under sentence of death as of January 1, 2005.
  • 38 of the 50 US states provide for the death penalty in law.
  • The death penalty is also provided under US federal military
  • and civilian law.
  • State Name
  • Texas
  • Virginia
  • Florida
  • Delaware
  • 414
  • 23
  • 388
  • 19
  • Can a defendant get death for a felony in which s/he was not responsible for the murder?
  • Yes
  • No
  • Yes
  • Yes
  • Number of Innocent Persons Freed From Death Row
  • 8
  • 1
  • 21
  • 0
  • Method
  • Injection
  • Choice of Injection or Electrocution
  • Choice of Injection or Electrocution
  • Injection / Choice of Hanging if sentenced before 6/13/86
  • California
  • 648
  • Yes
  • 3
  • Choice of Injection or Gas
  • The Hurricane
  • The song “Hurricane” by Bob Dylan made a huge difference in the life of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.
  • Carter was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of 3 white people who were gunned down at a bar in Paterson, New Jersey on June 16, 1967. Police were looking for 2 black men and pulled over Carter and his friend John Artis. They were sentenced to life in prison.

An innocent man?

  • 8 years into his incarceration, Carter sent Dylan a copy of his autobiography. Dylan visited him in prison, and convinced of his innocence, wrote "Hurricane."
  • Dylan went to Carter's prison in 1975 as a show of support. The visit brought a lot of attention to Carter's case.

Raising attention and money

  • Touring with the Rolling Thunder Revue, which featured Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Roberta Flack, Dylan raised over $100,000 for Carter's defense at a Madison Square Garden concert the day after visiting his prison. A month later, they held another charity concert, Hurricane II, in the Astrodome.

  • Dylan's efforts brought new publicity to Carter's case, getting him a new trial in 1976, where he was again convicted, with prosecutors claiming he killed the men in retaliation for a murder of a black man earlier that night. Carter was not freed until 1984, when his conviction was finally overturned.

Pro Capital Punishment

Public Support

  • Except for a period during the 1950s and 1960s, a majority of Americans have supported capital punishment.
  • Recent support has been high. A 1988 Gallop Poll reported that 79% of Americans supported the death penalty, and that percentage rose to 80% in 1994.
  • Gallup Polls
  • Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?
  • For
  • Against
  • No Opinion
  • 2005 May 2-5
  • 74%
  • 23%
  • 03%
  • 2004 May 2-4
  • 71%
  • 26%
  • 03%
  • 2003 Oct 6-8
  • 64%
  • 32%
  • 04%
  • 2003 May 19-21
  • 70%
  • 28%
  • 02%
  • 2003 May 5-7
  • 74%
  • 24%
  • 02%
  • 2002 October 10
  • 70%
  • 25%
  • 05%
  • 2002 May 6-9
  • 72%
  • 25%
  • 03%
  • 2001 Oct 11-14
  • 68%
  • 26%
  • 06%
  • 2001 May 10-14
  • 65%
  • 27%
  • 08%

Once a Criminal…Always a Criminal

  • Of the 3,452 inmates on Death Row as of January 1, 2004…
    • 65% had a prior felony conviction at the time of the murder
    • 8% had a prior homicide conviction at the time of the murder
    • 8% had criminal charges pending at the time of the murder
    • 27% were on probation or parole at the time of the murder
    • 4.5% were incarcerated or had escaped from incarceration.

Philosophical View

  • Utilitarianism-the right action is the one that produces the greatest good.
  • The most common defense of capital punishment is based on Utilitarian ground…
  • Both of these contribute to creating a greater balance of happiness in society, thus supporting the Utilitarian view

John Locke

  • He argues a person forfeits his rights when committing even minor crimes
  • His support for Capital Punishment is based on 2 views:
    • Retributive: Criminal deserves punishment as retribution for his act
    • Utilitarian: Punishment is needed to protect our society by deterring the crime through example

It’s the right way…

  • The death penalty is morally just. When a person commits murder, the only appropriate way for a criminal justice system to respond is to demonstrate the outrage of society. The sacredness of human life must be reinforced. If outrage for each murder is not conveyed, the value of life is cheapened. Therefore, the sanction for murder should be proportionate justice: if one takes a life, one must die too.

What’s more humane?

  • Is the death penalty less humane than life imprisonment?
    • The prisoner suffers by rotting in prison for the rest of his life, while the death penalty is instantaneous in comparison (8 yrs. vs. 30-40 yrs.)
    • Prison is more torturous and degrading than execution, as your freedom is taken and you’re essentially locked-up in a cage (much like an animal)
    • Physical torment (which we all know about)

Cost of Imprisonment

  • New York City's Correction Department spent an average of nearly $59,000 per inmate in the 2003 fiscal year.
  • But when all city expenses are factored in - insurance and pension benefits for correction staff, for instance, as well as more than $150 million for jail medical care - the yearly per-inmate cost is closer to $100,000, according to the city's Independent Budget Office. (As reported by NY Times)
  • $240,000,000,000 per year in New York

The Bargain of the Death Penalty

  • Opponents claim that Life Without Parole should replace the Death Penalty
  • The life without parole alternative to the death penalty keeps criminals in prison on avg. 30-40 yrs. With the national cost of incarceration between 40-50 thousand dollars annually.
  • 35 yrs. X $45,000 = $$$$1,575,000
  • The average time on death row for those executed from 1973-1994 was 8 yrs.
  • 8 yrs. X 45,000 = $360,000
  • Average savings per execution: $1,215,000
  • Put that towards the National Deficit!!!

Options for Execution

    • Murderers who are executed are given an option of how they’d like to be executed (options vary by state), a luxury that wasn’t afforded by their victims
      • Lethal injection (81% since 1976)
      • Electrocution (16%)-9 states
      • Lethal Gas (1.1%)-Only available in Arizona, California, Missouri & Wyoming
      • Hanging (0.3%)-Only available in Delaware, New Hampshire, & Washington
      • Firing Squad (0.2%)-Only available in Idaho & Oklahoma

AMA and Lethal Injection

  • The American Medical Association has decried the participation of doctors in executions as a clear violation of medical ethics. Nonetheless, since all 38 states with the death penalty use lethal injections, doctors are needed -- and doctors do participate.

Bottom Line

  • The Death Penalty Incapacitates The Offender. Capital punishment eliminates the threat of convicted murderers killing again. An example of this possibility is provided by James W. Marquart and Jonathan R. Sorenson, sociologists at Sam Houston State University. They examined the histories of all those re-sentenced after the Supreme Court emptied state death rows with its Furman decision. Seven of those released prisoners committed another murder after leaving prison.
  • The recidivism rate for capital punishment is zero. No executed murderer has ever killed again. You can't say that about those sentenced to prison, even if you are an abolitionist.

Against Capital Punishment

Cons of Capital Punishment

  • It does not deter crime
  • The U.S. has been unable to prevent accidental execution of those wrongly accused and convicted
  • Race plays a central role in who is executed and who is not
  • Often the actual facts of the case are not used to determine if the death penalty is applied

Cons of Capital Punishment

  • Almost every religion condemns the death penalty
  • Most other developed countries have abolished the death penalty
  • Executions are expensive to taxpayers
  • The money saved from executions could go to families of the victims

Cons of Capital Punishment

  • Incompetent counsel is a problem in more than half of all trials that result in the death penalty
  • The alternative (life without parole) is better for all parties (

$2,000,000 Million

  • Estimated cost for CA taxpayers per execution
  • Costs more ($90,000) to house inmates on death row than in the general prison population (

1993 Study by UC Berkeley Professor

  • Capital punishment trials are different than other trials
    • Juries are prepared differently
    • Dual trial for defendant
    • Automatic appeal if convicted

More Reasons to Abolish Capital Punishment

  • Purported to be for protection of society and deterrent to future criminals
  • Cannot reform criminals because their lives are effectively cut short
  • Capital Punishment is irrevocable and errors cannot be fixed once committed

The U.S. Compared to the Rest of the World

  • Since 1976 (the year the U.S. reinstated the death penalty) an average of 3 countries/year have abolished the death penalty (
  • 75 countries have abolished the death penalty altogether on grounds that it is cruel and unusual punishment
  • "The forfeiture of life is too absolute, too irreversible, for one human being to inflict it on another, even when backed by legal process. And I believe that future generations, throughout the world, will come to agree.“ - Kofi Annan

86 countries and territories have abolished the death penalty for all crimes

  • 86 countries and territories have abolished the death penalty for all crimes
  • 11 countries have abolished the death penalty for all but exceptional crimes such as wartime crimes.
  • 25 countries can be considered abolitionist in practice: they retain the death penalty in law but have not carried out any executions for the past 10 years or more and are believed to have a policy or established practice of not carrying out executions
  • Facts & Figures
  • Over 40 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes since 1990.
  • They include countries in Africa (recent examples include Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal),
  • The Americas (Canada, Paraguay, Mexico), Asia and the Pacific (Bhutan. Samoa,
  • Turkmenistan)
  • And Europe and the South Caucasus (Armenia,
  • Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cyprus, Greece, Serbia and
  • Montenegro, Turkey).
  • During 2004, at least 3,797 people were executed in 25 countries and at least 7,395 people were sentenced to death in 64 countries.
  • In 2004, 97 percent of all known executions took place in China, Iran, Vietnam and the USA.
  • Iran executed at least 159 people, and Vietnam at least 64.
  • There were 59 executions in the USA, down from 65 in 2003.



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