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Capital Punishment Essay, Research Paper

Capital Punishment


Capital punishment is punishment by death for committing a crime. Since

the early 1800’s most executions have resulted from convictions for murder. The

death penalty has also been imposed for such serious crimes as armed robbery,

kidnapping, rape, and treason. There is a lot of conflict between people about

whether or not capital punishment is effective in discouraging crime.

In the early 1990’s, 36 states of the United States had laws that permitted

the death penalty. These laws were greatly influenced by a 1972 decision of the

Supreme Court of the United States which had banned the death penalty as it was

then imposed, describing the carrying out of the death penalty as cruel and

unusual punishment. But the court left open the possibility that the death

penalty might be imposed for certain crimes and if it was applied according to

clear standards.

After this decision was made, new capital punishment laws were made to

satisfy the Supreme Court’s requirements. These laws limit the death penalty to

murder and to other specified crimes that result in a person’s death. These

crimes include armed robbery, hijacking, and kidnapping.

Many countries, including most European and Latin-American nations, have

abolished the death penalty since 1900 – including Canada, which did so in 1976.

In the early 1990’s, the United States was the only Western industrialized

nation where executions still took place.


Capital punishment was common among all ancient civilizations. It was used

for a variety of offenses that today aren’t crimes at all, like stealing the

keys to someone’s wine cellar.

There were many different methods of executions, and they all had a

barbaric quality. Some of the more vicious methods were stoning, impaling,

boiling in oil, burned alive, and being stretched on the rack.

One of the most notorious ways of executions was being beheaded by a

guillotine. This machine, invented by Joseph Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814),

became the official instrument of execution in France during the French

Revolution. It dropped a huge knife that cut off the victim’s head. It was

regarded as quick and merciful. The guillotine was used until 1981, when

capital punishment was abolished in France.

The death penalty was a popular method of punishment in England.

Imprisonment was hardly ever used. In the 15th century there were eight capital

crimes: treason , petty treason, murder, larceny, robbery, burglary, rape, and

arson. Other crimes were soon added to the list, so that by the year 1780 there

were 350.

Executions were common enough to require gallows in every district of

London. Bodies were sometimes left hanging as a warning to other would-be

criminals. If the hangman were so inclined, he might give the convicted brandy

to dull his senses or pull on his legs so he would die quicker.

It was estimated that between the years 1805 and 1810, 3,000 death

sentences were handed out. At this time, however, the laws were not strictly

enforced. A large number of criminals were never executed because of royal

pardon or the “benefit of clergy”.

The benefit of clergy was originally designed to give lighter sentences to

clergymen. Gradually this benefit was extended to all who could read, since the

only proof that a person was ordained was literacy. All that was required was

the ability to read one particular verse from Psalm 51 of the bible, known as

the “neck verse”. This name was given to it because it had the ability to save

one’s neck. Most offenders learned this verse by heart. It wasn’t long before

this benefit became meaningless.

As a result, executions in this century averaged only 70 per year.

In the year 1819, the number of capital crimes was reduced to 220,

including shoplifting items above five shillings, cutting down trees in a park,

or shooting a rabbit.

Many capital crime offenders were pardoned on the condition that they

agreed to be transported to the american colonies in North America. American

colonies at that time also used capital punishment. The number of capital

crimes varied from one jurisdiction to another. The Massachusetts colony was

noted for executing people for the suspicion of witchcraft.

All executions in England were public until the mid-1800s. Great crowds

came to view them. It was believed that pickpockets were busy among the

spectators. In 1868, public opinion turned against the idea of executions as

spectacles, and it was decided that they should be carried out in private. At

this time the number of capital crimes were reduced drastically. By 1861, there

were only four: murder, treason, arson, and piracy with violence.

From the 1930s to the mid-1950s, people campaigned for the abolition of

capital punishment. Following a number of controversial executions, a statute

was put into effect in 1957 that restricted the death penalty to murder. All

other offenses were punished by imprisonment.

After objections to this new law, an act was passed in 1965 abolishing the

death in its entirety. This act remains today in England.

In the United States the existence of the death penalty is a matter of

state law. Although it was never used as much as England in the 18th century,

between 150 and 200 persons were executed each year in the decade before World

War II. After the war, the number of executions declined to 50 per year.

Doubts about whether the death penalty was constitutional during the 1960s led

to a series of Supreme Court decisions. In 1976 it was decided that laws making

the death penalty automatic were unconstitutional. This led to different

statutes in different states. This meant that an offence that required the

death penalty in one state, might not be necessary in another.

Arguments Against The Death Penalty

Many people oppose the death penalty, mainly because they consider it cruel.

There is also the risk of executing innocent people who were mistakenly

convicted. There have been cases where people have been executed and evidence

found after their death proved their innocence.

For example, Roger Coleman’s volunteer attorneys uncovered evidence of his

innocence after his conviction for murder. However, his appeal based on this

newly discovered evidence was filed three days late, and because of this error,

made by his attorneys, the Virginia state courts and the federal appeals courts

refused to hear the new evidence. Roger Coleman was executed on May 22,1992.

Another example is the case of Leonel Torres Herrera, who was convicted and

sentenced to death for the 1982 murders of two police officers. Some years

after his conviction, an attorney who had represented Herrera’s brother came

forward with evidence that Herrera’s brother, Raul, who had died in 1984, had

confessed to the murders. In addition, Raul’s son, who was nine years old at

the time of the killings, gave a sworn statement that he was an eye-witness to

the crime and saw his father commit the murders. Because Texas law says that

any new evidence must be presented within 30 days of the conviction, Herrera’s

motion was denied. Leonel Herrera was executed on May 12, 1993.

This possibility of error, where an innocent person might be put to death,

disturbs the public more than any other issue posed by capital punishment. This

is the number one concern about the death penalty in our country. Since 1900,

23 people who we know to be innocent have been murdered by the state and 350

people have been found not-guilty while on death row awaiting execution.

Opposers of the death penalty refer to it as “simple murder”. The end result

is the same…one more dead body, one more set of grieving parents, one more

cemetery slot. Every time someone is executed, opposers feel that we as a

society sink to the same level as the common killer.

According to some, the death penalty is viewed as cruel and unusual

punishment. They compare it to a criminal imprisoning his victim for years, and

every day informed him of the date of his death. Furthermore, they feel that

the methods of executing people have all been found excessively cruel. It often

takes ten minutes or more to die in the electric chair, for example.

The question about whether or not the death penalty really deters crime is

another issue. For example, the United States is the only Western nation that

still allows the death penalty, yet it has one of the highest crime rates.

During the 1980’s, death penalty states averaged an annual rate of 7.5 criminal

homicides per 100,000, while abolition states averaged a rate of 7.4 per 100,000.

That means murder was actually more common in states that use the death penalty.

These are some of the negative aspects of the death penalty, but like

everything else, this subject has both negative and positive aspects.

Arguments For The Death Penalty

Many people favor capital punishment. Their reasons are deterrence,

retribution, and prevention.

In what is considered to be proponent’s strongest argument, they state that

the death penalty is a great deterrent against potential offenders, especially

those who are not discouraged by the threat of life imprisonment.

People in favor of capital punishment argue that an execution is the only

sure way to prevent a murderer from committing more murders. If the convicted

is put in prison, there is a risk to the community that the person may escape,

be pardoned, or be paroled. In addition to this is the fact that these

murderers could pose a great danger to prison staff and fellow prisoners.

Proponents further argue that the death penalty is the only fair way of

retribution. The criminal should die because he has committed a horrible crime,

and only his death would satisfy the public. It is also said that there is no

substitute in giving retribution than the death penalty, that “…to deprive the

criminal of the like of which he has proved himself to be unworthy…is the most

appropriate as it is certainly impressive mode in which society can attach to so

great a crime…”.

Criminologists have as of yet failed to produce evidence on many of these

arguments since they involve personal conviction.

Methods Of Execution

Electric Chair

Electrocution is a means of killing a person by the use of a strong electric

shock. It is one of the legal methods of executing criminals. A prisoner is

brought into a special room called a death chamber, and strapped into an

electric chair. Metal plates called electrodes are attached to the crown of the

prisoner’s head and to the calf of one leg. An electric current is then passed

from one electrode to another through the prisoner’s body. This literally would

burn you to death internally – and you would feel it, for many long seconds.

Afterward, your body would likely be fouled by urine, feces, and vomited blood.

It will be too hot to touch for several minutes, and the smell of cooked flesh

will permeate the execution chamber.

Gas Chamber

The first execution by lethal gas in the United States took place in Nevada

in 1924. During World War 2, the Nazis of Germany used huge gas chambers to

kill Jews and other minorities in concentration camps. Today the gas chamber is

a legal means of execution in some states of the United States. The condemned

person is strapped in a chair in an airtight chamber. Glass globes containing

cyanide drop from beneath the chair and break in a crock containing sulfuric

acid. The two chemicals mix and form deadly hydrocyanic acid gas. The person

usually dies within five minutes, and during this time a terrifying sensation of

strangling and sharp pain in the arms, shoulders, back and chest may be



Hanging is also a legal means of execution in some states of the United

States. The condemned person stands on a platform with a noose of rope around

his or her neck. A trap door opens under the person, and the person falls until

jerked to a stop by the rope. The sudden jolt breaks or dislocates the bones of

the neck, causing almost immediate loss of consciousness. Death usually occurs

within a few minutes.

Lethal Injection

Some people believe that lethal injection is more humane than other means of

execution, such as the electric chair and the gas chamber. Opposers of the

death penalty, however, argue that any method of execution is inhumane. Most

condemned prisoners who have had a choice between lethal injection and other

methods of execution have chosen the injection. This is the most frequently

used method of executing criminals in the United States. A fast-acting

sedative is first injected to put the prisoner to sleep. Two additional drugs

are then injected to stop the prisoner’s breathing and heartbeat. Death usually

occurs within minutes after the injections. Although you may not experience

much physical pain, you will experience the psychological agony of being

strapped to a table while waiting to die.

Firing Squad

One other means of execution used in the United States is firing squad. The

only two states which use this method are Utah and Idaho.


While writing this essay, I found a lot of different arguments both for and

against capital punishment. After weighing both sides of the issue, I came to

the conclusion that capital punishment isn’t a good idea. There are too many

risks involved – such as executing an innocent person. Many people feel that if

someone murders another person, then he too deserves to be killed. But

murdering another person won’t bring the other one back, and two wrongs don’t

make a right. I think it would be worse to spend the rest of your life in a

cell than to go through hell for a few minutes but then be over with it forever.

Therefore, I think that a good alternative to receiving the death penalty would

be a life sentence in prison with no chance of parole.

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