Capital Punishment in America
The concept of “a life for a life” is “as old as civilization itself”
(McCiellan 9). Capital punishment, the legal taking of the life of a criminal,
has been utilized in response to three distinct catagories of offense. The three
categories are: crimes against the person; crimes against property;
and crimes which endanger the security of the nation (Horwitz 13).
Capital punishment is still in use in the United States today, but has been
abolished by many countries (II 536). The countries that still have the death
penalty on their books, rarely employ it .
The earliest writings on the subject dates as far back as 2000 B. C.,
but it is clear that capital punishment more or less has existed since the birth
of mankind (Szumski 25). Throughout history, it has been exercised in almost all
civilizations as a retribution for severe crimes, but sometimes also for the
thrill and excitement. The Romans put slaves and prisoners in the Coliseum as
lion food while spectators enjoyed the sight (Horwitz 13).
In the early colonial states, the death penalty was applied for a vast
number of crimes, just like in England, the ruler of the states in this era (II
536). In England, in the 18th century, there were approximately 220 offenses
punishable by death. Some of them would today be considered as misdemeanors
and petty crimes (i. e. shooting of a rabbit, the theft of a pocket handkerchief,
and to cut down a cherry tree) (Horwitz 13). The majority of these were crimes
dealing with property. However, transportation became an alternative to
execution in the 17th century. A lot of these criminals were shipped to the U.S.
In the early days of our Constitution, the only segments that showed
that the death penalty existed were two amendments in the Bill of Rights (Landau
11). These amendments deal with protection and rights of the accused. The fifth
amendment prohibits the state from depriving an individual of life without due
process of law. The eight amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual” punishment.
The Supreme Court has still not determined what this phrase means. In one case
in the 1890s, the question was if capital punishment violated the eight
amendment. The court relied on the matter that “a definition of cruel and
unusual punishment must reflect the evolving standards of decency that mark the
progress of a maturing society” (14). Surveys from this era show that a
majority of the people favored the death penalty.
In the Middle Ages, capital punishment was also applied to animals
(Horwitz 24). An animal, guilty of having killed a human being, would be
executed, sometimes after a trial with a lawyer representing the animal. In one
case, in Dijon, France, a horse kicked his master to death. In court, a witness
testified that the man had provoked the horse. In spite of this, the creature
was sentenced to death. Trials with animals was considered to be absolutely fair.
“Enlightment thinkers”, or social reformers, such as Montesquieu,
Voltaire, and Caesar Beccaria fought to bring an end to the use of capital
punishment (II 536). The Caesar Beccaria, an Italian criminologist in the 1700s,
influenced society and “stimulated penal reform” to abolish the practice of this
irrevocable penalty (Szumski 22). As an alternative, he recommends retribution,
that is making up for losses. In his essay An Essay On Crimes and Punishments,
approved by philosopher Voltaire, he admits that capital punishment is justified
in only one case; Beccaria argues that “when [a criminal], though deprived of
liberty, he has such power and connections as may endanger the security of the
nation”, he should be executed (Szumski 24). This relates to justify capital
punishment in cases of spying, which still is a controversial issue today.
Religious opposers argue that the death penalty “contradicts the
teachings of love and mercy” (Szumski 86). At the same time a religious
supporter, Haven Bradford Gow, claims that the Bible justifies “an eye for an
eye and a tooth for a tooth” as stated in the Catholic Bible in the Fifth
“Another kind of slaying belongs to the civil authorities to whom is
entrusted the power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of
which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent” (Bradford).
The Bible is constantly used as a defense for capital punishment and many
references can be found to such a penalty. Another religious supporter judge
that “religious teachings prove that the death penalty upholds the dignity of
human life as ordered by scripture” (Szumski 79).
There are two famous cases in American history, dealing with capital
punishment, that has evoked much controversy. They are Sacco and Vanzetti v. U.S.
and the case of the Rosenbergs. During the 1920s, fears of communism led to the
dislike of immigrants. The Italian immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti were victims of
this “Red Scare” (Davidson 336). They were accused of having killed two guards.
Since they were both anarchists, it has been speculated if they had a fair trial
and if the death sentence was justified. None of the four witnesses could for
sure tell if Sacco and Vanzetti were the men they had seen.
Another case, that degrades the U.S., is the case of the Rosenbergs.
Since they were members of the Communist Party, which was considered “un-
American”, especially in the 1950s, with the fear of the Soviet Union, which had
just developed their own nuclear weapons. The Rosenbergs were accused of having
planned and participated in a Russian spy-ring, giving out top secret
information to the Soviets. The Rosenbergs denied, but were sentenced to death.
Today their punishment is considered to have been unjust and cruel. The case
outraged many Americans and even Europeans; it became a world-wide affair.
Arthur Garfield Hays, General for the Civil Liberties Union, exclaimed: “The
death penalty for the Rosenbergs was not justified….” Mr Hays did not argue
for the innocence of the Rosenbergs but claims that “this horrible killing by
the state is not merited” (Szumski 143).
Throughout history, there has been several different methods of
execution. The old brutal methods, such as drowning, stoning, and burning, were
common (XIV 1098). In the Middle Ages, amputations of body parts, which often
led to death, were popular (XV 283). The public executions drew large crowds.
In the 1900s, attempts were made to make executions more humane, the
electrocution and the gas chamber were invented. Earlier attempts in the 1700s,
in France, replaced the old execution methods with the Guillotine (Horwitz 28).
It soon became famous and toy stores even started selling toy Guillotines that
came with a little cage filled with live mice or sparrows. This toy became a
The reformers in Europe reached their goal eventually; the death penalty
has been abolished in many European nations such as the Scandinavian, West
Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Italy, Portugal and Switzerland.
The U.S.A. is one of the few countries that have retained the death
penalty. Lawyer Clarence Darrow, famous for his criminal cases, believes this is
an effect of the high homicide rate, which is higher in the United States
compared to most countries in the world (Horwitz 52). Darrow believes that the
high homicide rate is caused by the fact that the population is crowded into
cities whose “slums are natural breeding places of crime” (52). Another
reason for the high homicide rate of the U.S. is that people have gathered from
all over the world; racial differences are known to “intensify problems” (52).
As solution, Clarence Darrow suggest that the government focus on the causes of
crimes because “criminals will breed faster than hangman can spring his trap”
(52). Certainly, there is quite a few people on death row.
Opposers, today and in the past, repeatedly declare that the death
penalty is unapplied unequally; most criminals on death row are poor. Thus, they
cannot afford good lawyers. The Supreme Court agreed with this argument and
forced the states to rewrite their laws on capital punishment on the basis of
what crimes are punishable by death and if minimum age requirements are to be
set. Many state legislatures have set a minimum age at which such punishment is
legal. In other states there is no age limits because the general public opinion
Currently, there are 34 capital crimes, that is crimes deserving the
death penalty, under federal law (i. e. treason, espionage, the assassination of
the President, etc.) while there are some 30 under state laws (i. e. aiding a
suicide in Arkansas) (Horwitz 25). In some states the jury determine if the
death penalty will be imposed, and in other the jury recommends the judge who is
not bound follow to the jury’s advice. In some states, the death penalty is
Fewer offenses are punishable by death than formerly; the courts
increasingly chose alternative punishments, and many death sentences are not
carried out (XIV 1098). Opposers and reteutionists, those in favor of the death
penalty, cannot be characterized by any aspect such as wealth, religion, or
political views. More and more Americans seem to view the death penalty as just
retribution. Abolitionists’ attempts to overturn the death penalty have been
denied by the Supreme Court. Instead, the court argues that “In part, capital
punishment is an expression of society’s moral outrage at particularly offensive
conduct” (Landau 22).
Benton, William, and Helen Hemingway Benton, Publisher. Encyclopedia
Britannica.-volumes II, X, XIV, XV. Chicago: 1974.
Bradford, Haven. “Should religious Support Capital Punishment?” Human Events. 2
Davidson, James West. et al. American Journey -The Quest for Liberty Since
1865. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1992.
Horwitz, Elinor Lander. Capital Punishment, U.S.A. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott
Landau, Elaine. Teens and the Death Penalty. New Jersey: Enslow Publishers, Inc.,
McCiellan, Grant S., ed. Capital Punishment. New York: The H. W. Wilson
Szumski, Bonnie, et al. The Death Penalty: Opposing Viewpoints. St. Paul:
Greenhaven Press, 1986.
Tuchnet, Mark. The Death Penalty. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1994.