The History of Capital Punishment Essay

This essay has a total of 1897 words and 8 pages.

The History of Capital Punishment

The History of Capital Punishment
Crime has been a plague on society from ancient times to present. In response to
this plague, society has formed structured rules to deal with the perpetrators of crime. A
crime can be defined as act that society's government deems as illegal. Different societies
have formed various methods and standards for evaluating crime and assigning
corresponding punishment. What constitutes a crime has changed throughout the course
of history. In ancient times, such extreme actions as the deliberate killing of another
human being for the sake of family honor or religious rite was considered socially
acceptable and therefore not legally wrong. Now, the majority of the modern world (with
perhaps the exclusion of some Middle Eastern sects) view the deliberate killing of another
human being as non-socially acceptable, and therefore legally wrong. The overall
exceptions to this rule are the taking of human life in the act of war and in punishment for
extreme crime(s) against humanity.
Punishment for crime has ranged from mild, in the form of fines, or incarceration,
to severe, in the form of physical torture or death. In ancient times, punishment for
serious crimes such as treason, theft, or murder was frequently severe and inhumane.
Offenders were often tortured for hours to be either left to die a slow and painful death or
be executed publicly. The use of the death penality has declined throught out the
industrial Western world since the 19th century.
The concept of confinement for punishment dates back to ancient times.
Imprisonment is generally a milder form of punishment which removes an individual from
society and confines him/her in an institution with other offenders. Examples of historical
places of confinement are London's Tower and Paris's Bastille. The Tower and Bastille
were used to confine political prisoners, not criminals in the ordinary sense. The common
jail has existed since approximately 1166, when King Henry II of England ordered places
of confinement for criminals built. Jails mainly served the purpose for prisoners awaiting
trial, while also holding unfortunate petty offenders such as beggars, vagrants, and
debtors. The purpose for places of confinement remained the same until the development
of the American prison system. The purpose of the American prison system posed a
totally new concept to the justice world. This new concept was designed to reform the
prisoner, not just punish him/her for committed crime.
American concepts pertaining to offenders, punishment, and reform was
developed after much careful thought and consideration concerning the example of
English law and its history. Death was formerly the penalty for all felonies in English law.
In practice, the death penalty was rarely applied as widely as the law provided. A variety
of procedures were adopted to mitigate the harshness of the law; therefore, many
offenders who committed capital crimes were pardoned. The conditions for pardon were
the offender agreed to be transported to what were then the American colonies and the
benefit of the title of clergy. The benefit of clergy applied to offenders who were ordained
priests (or clerks in Holy Orders) and who were thereby subject to trial by the church
courts rather than by the secular courts. Hence, if an offender could show that he was
ordained he was allowed to go free, and was subject to the possibility of punishment by
the ecclesiastical courts. In the 17th century, the only proof of ordination was literacy,
and it became customary to allow anyone convicted of a felony to escape the death
sentence by giving proof of literacy by reading a verse from Psalm 51. The obvious
problem with this test is that most offenders escaped punishment by simply learning the
words by heart.
Capital punishment has been used in the United States since Colonial times.
During this time frame, it was accepted because of the prevalence of violence in society.
This punishment was used mostly to discourage people from committing violent as well as
other crimes. For instance, in the early west horse theft was considered such a serious
crime that conviction resulted in death by hanging. This crime was punishable by death
due to the tremendous importance of and dependence on the horse in that society.
Capital punishment in this instance was an attempt to bring order to a frontier area filled
with violence and lawlessness.
In 18th century England, concern about increasing crime led to many statues either
extending the number of offenses punishable with death or doing away with benefit of
clergy for existing felonies. Towards the end of the 18th century, English law contained
approximately 200 capital offenses. The application of the death penalty was extremely
erratic, often depending on the whim or mood of the presiding judge instead of clear
guidelines. In practice, many offenders who were convicted of capital crimes escapes the
gallows as result of reprieves and/or royal pardons. Still others who were charged with
capital crimes were acquitted against the evidence because the jury was unwilling to see
the death penalty applied in a minor case.
Executions in 18th century England were public events which were attended by
huge crowds. Following an execution, it was common for scenes of violence and disorder
to break out in the crowd. Public opinion eventually disapproved of executions as
spectacles. Later, in 1868, execution were carried out away from the general public in the
privacy of prisons.
The erratic application of the death penalty in the 18th and 19th centuries led to
demands for reform. The inconsistencies and severity of the law and its administration
undermined its intended deterrent effect. Demands for change came from both
humanitarian reformers and reformers concerned with the effectiveness of the legal
system. As a result, most of the capital statues were repealed and by 1961 only four
offenses retained the death penalty: murder, treason, arson in a royal dockyard, and piracy
with violence.
Later, the only capital crime punishable by death was narrowed down to murder.
From the 1930's to the 1960's reformers focused their energy on abolishing the death
penalty for murder. After one attempt almost succeed in 1947, the English government
appointed a special commission to consider the option of eliminating the death penalty.
The report on this question became known as the Royal Commission on Capital
Punishment of 1953, and it still remains as one of the most significant and comprehensive
accounts concerning the topic of capital punishment. This report, along with several
controversial executions, resulted in the restricting the death penalty to certain types of
murder (or other wise known as "capital murders"). All other murders were to be
punished by a mandatory life sentence.
The great amount of reform still did not solve dissatisfaction, since the public saw
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