The Death Penalty

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The Death Penalty


On July 2, 1976, almost two hundred years since the United States of America passed the
Declaration of Independence, the Supreme Court legalized capital punishment (Appendix 1).
Capital punishment, however, began long before this. In 1622 Daniel Frank, of the Colony
of Virginia, was lawfully executed for the crime of theft. Since then there have been an
estimated 18,000 to 20,000 people lawfully executed (Espy pp.194). In the eighteenth
century, England would punish by death for crimes such as pick pocketing and petty theft.
After the 1650's colonist could be put to death for denying the true god or cursing their
parents advocates.




Capital punishment has clashed for a long time in the forum of public opinion in state
legislatures and most recently in courts. In 1972, the case of Furman vs. Georgia
(Appendix 1) reached the supreme court. The court decided that punishment by death did
indeed violate the Eighth Amendment and the prohibition against "cruel and unusual
punishment." Because of this decision death sentences all over the country were set aside.
Since then capital punishment has become an increasingly controversial issue.




In arguments against the death penalty in the United States, several themes have remained
constant. Abolitionists have always claimed that capital punishment is not an effective
deterrent, or at least, no better than long term imprisonment. Furthermore they argue that
it imposed unreasonable risks in the possibility of executing the wrong person; that a
willingness to use it tends to brutalize society; that it has never been administered in a
morally unobjectable manner; and finally that it is used mainly against relatively
defenseless members of minority groups. During the past generation, opposition to the
death penalty has been put into the context of a struggle to wipe out racism.




Among the foremost writers who have criticized the death penalty is Charles L. Black, Jr.,
Sterling Professor of Law at Yale Law School. In his book, Capital Punishment: The
Inevitability of Caprice and Mistake, he deals with many of the problems surrounding
capital punishment. In regards to race he asks the question, "Why are more than half the
people on death row black in a country with about eleven percent blacks (78) ? According
to a study brought by Black, in cases of a black killing a white, .214 are sentenced to
death, while in a case of a white killing a black, .000 are sentenced to death (Appendix
2). In virtually all the studies, even a black who has killed another black had a better
chance of escaping the death penalty than the white who killed another white. It appears
that killing a black is much less 'death-worthy', as Black puts it, than killing a white.




Throughout the years studies have shown that Americans favor the death penalty by a small
margin (Gallup Poll 63). The reasons are many, though they can be grouped into general
categories. The death penalty is a proven deterrent to violent crime. Statistics show that
the crime rate is reduced in all states that hold the death penalty (Bedau 125-30). Others
argue that it is morally just to execute a proven murderer. When confronted with the
numerous false indictments and possible deaths due to falsified testimony, the advocates
of the death penalty reply that it is no different than any other non-capital punishment
in which so called offenders often serve unjust time in prison. Finally, pro-capital
punishment supporters maintain that ridding the country of violent criminals is both
necessary, and for the benefit of the public.




One such advocate is Ernest Van Den Haag, who, in his article In Defense of the Death
Penalty: A Legal-Practical-Moral Analysis, (cited by Bedau 137-41) presents his reasons
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