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Capital Punishment

Essay by review  •  October 4, 2010  •  Research Paper  •  4,797 Words (20 Pages)  •  2,646 Views

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In the following pages, I will discuss the history, debate, past and current public opinion, and how it applies to American ideology and opposing values. Both sides have a fair amount of support and I have included direct quotes and paraphrasing from authors, celebrities, journalists, and ordinary people arguing both sides.

The history of the death penalty goes back to the earliest civilizations where it was used to punish all sorts of crimes from robbery, to murder, to different forms of heresy. In the United States it evolved to just punish murder, treason, and some cases of rape. It has been an issue that has sparked a never ending debate that goes back to colonial times. The general public traditionally supported the death penalty in a majority with only a few politicians speaking out against it (i.e., Benjamin Rush, Ben Franklin and later on Horace Greeley). Once the U.S. gained independence, each state went back and forth in abolishing and reinstating the death penalty and methods of execution.

The 1960's saw many trials concerning capital punishment cases that led to a ten year halt in executions. In 1965, the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) announcement of their anti-death penalty stance was a sign of things to come. It was particularly important because the ACLU had always neglected to have an opinion on the issue because they believed it was not a civil rights issue. They now determined that capital punishment was "inconsistent with underlying values of a democratic system." They explained that it discriminated against blacks and other minorities and did not comply with the eighth amendment of the constitution, in other words, it was cruel and unusual punishment (Vila, Morris:127). The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Legal Defense Fund (NAACP-LDF) also began to speak out in the mid-sixties. They agreed that the death penalty discriminated against blacks and launched a campaign against the death penalty around the same time. The LDF poured its resources into aiding death row prisoners which tied up the capital punishment cases for years allowing them to achieve their goal of a moratorium on the death penalty (Vila, Morris:131). From 1967 to 1977, there were no executions anywhere in the United States because of groups like these that rallied to oppose it, the particularly low public support of it, and a number of supreme court cases that decided in the favor of the abolitionist movement.

One crucial case was Witherspoon v. Illinois in 1968. The supreme court ruled that prospective jurors who oppose the death penalty can not automatically be excluded from juries in possible capital punishment cases. The court said that having jurors that oppose the death penalty is part of a fair, "impartial jury" as dictated by the Sixth Amendment. Some dissenters claimed that people who were ethically opposed to the death penalty were biased because they would never vote to give the death penalty to people who deserved it. Some historians say that this marked the first time that the supreme court was persuaded by public opinion against capital punishment. The following statement was made by Justice Potter Stewart who spoke for the majority, "In a nation less than half of whose people believe in the death penalty, a jury composed exclusively of such people cannot speak for the communityÐ'...In its quest for a jury capable of imposing the death penalty, the State produced a jury uncommonly willing to condemn a man to die" (Gottfried:60). Scholars and lawyers also thought this would be the end of capital punishment for good because the courts' willingness to accept people who fundamentally opposed the death penalty, but this turned out not to be true because of details in the decision that allowed courts and legislatures to work around it.

The 1972 case of Furman v Georgia was seen as a complete victory for abolitionists at the time, but proved to be more complicated than it appeared. It said that the death penalty, as it was administered, violated the Eighth Amendments because it was cruel and unusual punishment and violated the Fourteenth Amendment because it did not guarantee equal protection under the law (Costanzo:18). The crucial part of this statement was " it was administeredÐ'..." because it left the law open to be revised and then reinstated if in compliance with the Constitution. The important thing to realize was that the court did not say that the death penalty itself was unconstitutional, it said the current way it was being administered was unconstitutional. The court said that juries were not given adequate guidance in imposing a death sentence and the jury systems were different in every state. This did put a halt to all executions in the country, but only until the laws were re-written. Many states rewrote their death penalty laws that were all deemed acceptable only four years later. The apparent abolition of the death penalty was very short lived.

After many states changed their laws concerning the death penalty, criminals sentenced to death, and then given life sentences, were put back on death row. In Gregg v. Georgia, the Supreme Court decided that under the new revised laws regarding capital punishment cases that the death penalty was indeed constitutional. The new laws stated that juries had to be under the guidance of a trial court during decision making in the death penalty phase and also there was to be a mandatory state appellate court review of all death sentences (Vila, Morris:161). Justice Stewart even pointed out that public opinion had flip-flopped since the late sixties and early seventies and there was now heavy support for capital punishment (Gottfried:62). The Supreme Court was not only persuaded by public opinion in this case, but came right out and sited public opinion polls as a reason for the court's decision.

The first person to die under the new court decision was Garry Gilmore. For the general public he was the perfect example of someone who deserved the death penalty because of his blatant apathy towards human life. This confirmed the public consensus that in certain extreme cases, the death penalty is the only reasonable punishment. The case of Ted Bundy is another example. He was a serial killer that was responsible for the deaths of 50 young women and kidnapping a 12 year old girl. There was no doubt that the majority of Americans thought the death penalty was appropriate for him and other cases like his.

Despite the support of the majority of the public supporting capital punishment, many politicians and organizations still condemned the death penalty throughout the eighties and nineties. Groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, religious figures



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