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Capital Punishment Essay, Research Paper

The eighth amendment in the constitution states, Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishment inflicted. What this means is that the punishment should fit the crime. For example if someone was to rob a convenient store, they shouldn t be sentenced to the death penalty. The death penalty also known as capital punishment is a controversial issue in every state, since every state has a different stance on capital punishment.

Capital punishment has been around since the 17th century starting with England, which prescribed death for 14 offenses, but the American colonies impose the death sentence for fewer crimes. Then in 1636 the Massachusetts Bay Colony lists 13 crimes punishable by death, including adultery and witchcraft. In Pennsylvania under the William Penn Great Act, the death penalty is prescribed only for murder and treason. On august 6, 1890 murderer William Kemmler is the first person executed in the electric chair, at New York s Auburn prison. The chair is later installed at Sing Sing prison. In the 1930 s executions reach an all-time peak, averaging 167 per year. The 1970 s were an eventful decade for capital punishment, which saw the death penalty invalidated then reinstated. In 1977 Oklahoma becomes the first state to adopt lethal injection as their form of the death sentence. 1986 brought about another issue with the death penalty, in a Supreme Court case Ford V. Wainwright they bared executing insane persons, but in 1989 the Supreme Court ruled that executing mentally retarded persons does not violate the eight amendment in the case of Perry V. Lynaugh. In February 1997, the American Bar Association House of Delegates passed a resolution calling for a halt on executions until courts across the country can ensure that such cases are administered fairly and impartially, in accordance with due process, and with minimum risk of executing innocent people. (www. PBS.org/frontline/angel on death row)

In 1999, 98 inmates were executed, more than in any year since the early 1950 s. These inmates were executed in 20 different states 35 in Texas; 14 in Virginia; 9 in Missouri; 7 in Arizona; 6 in Oklahoma; 4 each in Arkansas, North Carolina, and South Carolina; 2 each in Alabama, California, and Delaware; and 1 each in Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah. All of those executed were men. As of December 1998, of the 38 states that have to death penalty, 11 states currently authorize use of the electric chair: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. In 2000 the inmates executed dropped 13% from 1999 to 85 inmates. George W. Bush said ”I support the death penalty for violent criminals who commit heinous crimes because we must send a strong message that the consequences of violent criminal behavior are swift and sure. (USA Today) Several other top political leaders feel the same way about the death penalty, and believe that for major crimes such as murder and other serious crimes a death penalty is necessary in order to send a message. Although there are many states that disagree with this form of punishment, for instance Florida. In 1999 Florida s bloody execution of Allen Lee Davis was further compelling evidence of a need to abolish the death penalty. This gruesome incident should not compel us to seek humane alternatives to capital punishment, said Sam Jordan, Director of Amnesty International USA s Program to Abolish the Death Penalty. It demonstrates that the states attempt to improve the process of executions cannot remove the cruelty inherent in state killing.

There are several Supreme Court cases in which the death penalty was an issue. One case was Palko v. Connecticut in 1937. This was an appeal from the Supreme Court of errors of Connecticut. A sentence of life imprisonment, on a conviction of murder in the second degree, was reversed. Upon trial, the accused was convicted of murder in the first degree and sentenced to death, which held consistent with due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment. Assuming the prohibition of double jeopardy in the Fifth Amendment applies to the same case if a new trial were at the instance of the government, and not upon defendants motion. The conviction of the defendant upon retrial ordered upon the appeal by the state in this case was not in derogation of any privileges or immunities that belonged to him as a citizen of the United States. The opinion on this case read, Appeal from judgment sustaining a sentence of death upon a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree. The defendant had previously been convicted upon the same indictment of murder in the second degree, whereupon the state appealed and a new trial was ordered. (www2.law.cornell.edu) A later case in 1982 was the case of Eddings v. Oklahoma. In this case a petitioner was convicted in an Oklahoma trial court of first-degree murder for killing a police officer and was sentenced to death. At the time of the offense, the petitioner was 16 years old, but he was tried as an adult. The Oklahoma death penalty statute provides that, in a sentencing proceeding, evidence may be presented as to any mitigating circumstances or as to any of certain enumerated aggravating circumstances. At the sentencing hearing, the state alleged certain of the enumerated aggravating circumstances, and the petitioner, in mitigation, presented substantial evidence of a turbulent family history, of beatings by a harsh father, and of serious emotional disturbance. In imposing the death sentence the trial judge found that the state had proved each of the alleged aggravated circumstances. But he refused, as a matter of law, to consider in mitigation the circumstances of petitioner s unhappy upbringing and emotional disturbance, and found that the only mitigating circumstances was the petitioner s youth, which circumstances was held to be insufficient to outweigh the aggravating circumstances. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed. The court held: The death sentence must be vacated, as it was imposed without the type of individualized consideration of mitigating factors . required by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment in capital cases. The eighth and fourteenth amendments require that the sentence . not be precluded from considering, as a mitigating factor, any aspect of a defendants character or record and any of the circumstances of the offense that the defendant proffers as a basis for a sentence less that death. A more recent case that everyone is aware of is the case of Timothy McVeigh. Convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh argued in court papers released that he did not receive a fair trial and therefore his conviction last June and subsequent death sentence should be overturned.

McVeigh’s arguments came in a 225-page brief filed with the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver by his lawyers. The Justice Department will respond later. The court usually takes several months to rule on appeals. McVeigh was convicted of the April 19, 1995; truck bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building that killed 168 people, the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history. Last month McVeigh’s former Army buddy and co-defendant, Terry Nichols, was convicted of conspiring with McVeigh and of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of eight federal workers, but jurors acquitted Nichols of actually taking part in the bombing. The jury was deadlocked in the penalty phase of that trial, sparing Nichols the possibility of the death penalty. He will be sentenced later this year. In an appeal, McVeigh listed nine grounds in arguing that the trials judge, U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch, erred in his rulings. McVeigh claimed that shortly before his trial began, potential jurors were exposed to prejudicial information in news reports that he had confessed to his defense team. He also argued that there was juror misconduct because at least one juror allegedly expressed the opinion that McVeigh was guilty long before his trial was over. McVeigh claimed Matsch unfairly excluded evidence that “someone else may have committed the bombing and the FBI failed to investigate other suspects.” The defense also said Matsch allowed jurors to hear “unfairly prejudicial, inflammatory” testimony from bombing survivors. That testimony frequently caused people in the courtroom to break down in tears.

Capital punishment can be a good thing when it is given under the proper circumstances, and with substantial evidence against the defendant. There are still many problems and issues that need to be ironed out before a state takes this as a position. The eighth amendment states: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishment inflicted , it does not say eye for an eye !

Works Cited


Bureau of Justice Statistics; U.S Department of Justice


Supreme Court case of the United States; Palko v. Connecticut (1937)


Supreme court case of the United States; Eddings v. Oklahoma (1982)


13 now on death row The case of Timothy McVei

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