It is usually called, simply, the chair and at one time, was in constant use at New Yorks legendary Sing Sing Prison. But, no executions have occurred in New York since 1963, a time when support for capital punishment was eroding across the country. The states capital punishment statute was declared unconstitutional in 1977. In this year, and in each of the following 17 years, Democratic governors vetoed legislation to restore the death penalty.
Yet, in 1994, with the coming of republican Governor George Pataki, an agreement was quickly reached with legislative leaders on a law to revive the death penalty for several categories of murder which included about ten types of homicides. The signing of the law also replaced electrocution with lethal injection. New Yorks stance on capital punishment reflects an ongoing, nationwide trend. More than thirty other states have reinstated the death penalty since the early 1970s, with many others still considering.
Opinion surveys show strong support for the death penalty in all regions of the country and among virtually all population groups. A Gallup Poll taken in 1994 reported that eighty percent of the population favored the death sentence for persons convicted of murder. About forty percent advocating the death penalty for homicide said that they wanted revenge, an eye for an eye. Roughly thirteen percent of the advocates cited its alleged deterrent effect. Yet, law enforcement officials throughout the country do not consider the death penalty as an effective deterrent.
In a national poll in 1995 of 386 police chiefs and sheriffs, the death penalty was ranked as the least cost-effective way of reducing violent crime. For convicted murderers who have been sitting on death row for years, Congress and the Supreme Court could turn the death penalty into a reality. A bill approved by the house in early February of 1995 would curb the ability of inmates to file habeas corpus petitions, in which they seek federal review of their convictions in state courts on grounds that their constitutional rights have been violated.
As the courts, lawmakers, and the public continue the capital punishment debate, one of the key questions being asked is if habeas corpus reform will speed the pace of executions. Supporters of the House-passed bill limiting habeas corpus appeals by prisoners say the measure would save taxpayers money. Paul Kamenar, executive legal director of the Washington Legal Foundation, a pro-death-penalty group says the habeas corpus bill will go a long way toward eliminating inordinate delays in (carrying out) the death penalty.
On the other hand, Leigh Dingerson, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, questions whether limiting habeas corpus appeals will have much impact. Its hard to tell what the effect will be because every case going through the appeals process is different. Its not as if there are 2800 uniform cases that can all be expedited the minute some legal barriers are lifted. She continues, The pace of executions may increase slightly, but were not going to see floodgates opening. The question of whether innocent people actually are convicted and executed is endlessly debated.
Discussion of the issue can revolve around a study published in 1987 by Hugo Adam Bedau and Michael L. Radelet. These two named 350 persons which they said had probably been wrongly convicted of potentially capital crimes in the U. S. between 1900 and 1987. Most were either pardoned or had their convictions overturned because of new evidence. But, the authors say that twenty-three people were executed in error. Once these guys are executed, theres really not much that can be done about it. Many people often wonder if the death penalty deters people from committing capital crimes.
If you were to round of the some 3,000 people who are under death sentence in this country and executed them all today on television, would the streets be any safer tomorrow? Executions satisfy the publics demand that murderers suffer punishment proportionate to their offense. A 1985 study shows that the death penalty deters more potential homicides than earlier studies suggested. Yet, some experts argue that the death penalty actually encourages homicide in some circumstances. It is said that the threat of capital punishment raises the stakes of getting caught.
Author Michael Kronenwetter wrote, Anyone already subject to the death penalty has little to lose by killing again and again. The potential sentence can not be made worse than it already is. This makes criminals who already face death for a previous crime more likely to kill in order to avoid being captured… to silence any witnesses against them. Many psychiatrists also speculate that homicide may occasionally serve as a roundabout route t suicide. It was concluded that Gary Mark Gilmore committed two-execution style murders in Utah because he knew that he would face the firing squad.
Another main issue at large in capital punishment is whether or not mentally retarded defendants should be executed. Although death penalty opponents have had little success in recent years, they have made progress in protecting mentally retarded defendants. A popular case was that of Rickey Ray Rector, whose brain damage was so severe that he planned to eat his dessert after his execution. There are about ten states now that ban the execution of the mentally retarded, as do the 1988 and 1994 anti-crime bills passed by congress.
There were many early abolition efforts against capital punishment. Opponents of it condemn the penalty as inhumane. By the mid-1960s, the death penalty seemed fated for extinction. Just seven executions were conducted in 1965, one in 1966, and two in 1967. Yet, todays modes of execution seem almost merciful. In ancient Persia, condemned prisoners were often eaten alive by insects and vermin. During the Middle Ages, common execution methods included mutilation, amputation, impaling, flaying, crucifixion, boiling in oil, drawing and quartering, breaking on the rack, and burning at the stake.
Just as appalling, in a way, were the crimes that exposed offenders to such torture. Under the Code of Hammurabi, selling beer illegally carried the death penalty. The ancient Hebrews inflicted death on anyone found guilty of cursing his mother or father or breaking the Sabbath. The Persians executed anyone who accidentally sat on the Kings throne. From the late Middle Ages until the 18th century, the number of capital offenses increased greatly in many European countries.
In 15th century Britain, only eight offenses were punished by death, including treason, murder, and rape. But the number of capital crimes ballooned to about 350 by the mid-1700s. Public executions were festive and frequent, and hawkers sold refreshments and programs. Meanwhile, a movement to abolish capital punishment was gaining support throughout Europe. In 1753, Russia became the first important nation to ban the death penalty. American colonies prescribed death for fourteen offensives, but the number for which death was actually imposed varied from colony to colony.
For example, in 1936, the Massachusetts Bay Colony listed thirteen capital crimes. A century and a half later, nine such offensives are recognized. Many death penalty opponents also considered life imprisonment more effective than executions as a crime deterrent. While the cost debate still swirls on, a nationwide consensus is emerging on execution technology. Just as electrocution once was hailed as more humane than hanging, lethal injection is now the execution method of choice in most death penalty states.