The history of capital punishment in the United States

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In any community, the test of that society’s integrity, authority, and core identity is found in the legal system that the society has. History has shown that killing is, and has, been present among all men or in all societies that have a historical record. But in order to deter this, punishments for killing and other crimes that are considered gross in the society have been developed. One of such punishment is the capital punishment or the death penalty as it is known in some quarters. In this paper, it is my objective to trace the history of capital punishment in the United States, state some of the crimes that attract capital punishment, review the most current case of capital punishment in the States and give my verdict on the sentencing of the case.

George Kendall who was a captain is recorded as the first victim of capital punishment. According to the death penalty information center, his crime was espionage or spying as it commonly known. He was executed in the year 1608 accused of spying for Spain. This was a crime, like many others at that time that was punished by death according to the American law that was heavily modeled after the Great Britain laws (Bienen, 2010). Though in its early days the practice was used as an outdoor spectacle, it started to change slowly as it was turned into a correctional facilities’ practice with the first recorded case of electrocution being in 1890. Cyanide gas is recorded to have been first used in the year 1924 (Garland et.al, 2011). The following years witnessed major changes in the form and administration of capital punishment across America.

The 20th century became known as the change period for the death sentence or the capital punishment. At the onset of the century, nine states moved to abolish or restrict its use (Mandery, 2013). However, this scenario did not last for long as the economic depression struck the United States in the 1930’s. The highest number of capital punishment was recorded during this period with an average of 167 people being executed every year(Galvin,2016). However, the 1950’s saw the capital punishment lose its popularity and by 1968 the Supreme Court of the United States of America decided cases that altered the cause of capital punishment forever.  In the case of United States v. Jackson 390 U.S. 570(1968), the court outlawed federal kidnapping statute that gave the jury the mandate to impose the death penalty as it was causing many accused to waive their trial via the jury in a bid to escape the death penalty that was mandatory for the jury to impose (Garland et.al, 2011). During the same year, in the case of Whitherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S 510(1986), the court ruled that jurors who had a personal objection to capital punishment could be stopped from sitting in the jury of cases pertaining to crimes that carry capital punishment (Bienen, 2010).

The progression of capital punishment continued and in the year 1972, the case of Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S.238 (1972) saw the Supreme Court suspend capital punishment altogether arguing that it was an inhumane and cruel way of punishing people; it was a violation of the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The decision, however, did not outlaw the completely eliminate capital punishment, as the ruling only stated the statute of Georgia state that gave the jury the power to mete capital punishment. This window gave other States the leeway to start reworking on their own statutes in regards to the jury and the capital punishment (Garland et.al, 2011).  The year 1976, saw the introduction of three capital punishment cases which resulted in the reinstatement of the capital punishment with the court approving the guiding statutes to be used in imposing capital punishment. The year 1977, witnessed the execution of Gary Gilmore after the reinstatement of the death penalty. But even after this reinstatement, the U.S supreme has weighed in on the matter from time to time giving guidance and rulings whenever necessary.

Currently, in the United States, there are 33 States that still embrace capital punishment with the Federal government and the military also retaining the practice (Bienen, 2010). However, there still remain some concerns about capital punishment in the United States of America and one of them is the lack of a set standard for the practice across the country with every state having its own standards and laws (Galvin, 2016). Therefore, it is important that the Supreme Court which is the highest court in the land sets a standard for the practice.

Some of the crimes that attract the death penalty are murder in various forms and degrees, treason, espionage terrorism resulting in death, and military crimes among other crimes as stipulated in the Constitution. As a way of deterring these heinous crimes, the capital punishment has continued to be administered to perpetrators with the most recent case of capital punishment being the case of Kennedy v. Louisiana June 25, 2008, which was heard at the United States Supreme Court (Galvin, 2016).  In this case, the petitioner; Kennedy, had received the death penalty for raping his step daughter. According to the State of Louisiana, capital punishment is allowed in the case where a child under the age of 12 years is raped. When the case was taken to the State of Louisiana Supreme court, the court held that the sentence given was just and should stand. In this regard, the case of Coker and Georgia in which the court had prevented capital punishment being used in a case involving an adult woman did not have an effect on this particular case as it involved a minor.  However, when the case came before the United States Supreme Court, the court ruled that the eight amendment outlaws the use of capital punishment because the crime did not result in death or the intention was not to kill.

I disagree with the Supreme Court argument since just because the child did not die, it does not mean that the intention was not to kill. How did the Supreme Court establish the motive of the petitioner in the case? What would motivate the petitioner to commit such a heinous crime if not to cause gross harm? For a mentally sound man to defile a defenseless minor who needs special protection from the state, it calls for the highest level of punishment. The court cannot, therefore, say that because there was no death, the most deserving of punishment for such crimes cannot be administered. Do we have to wait for lives to be lost for us to take another life? Or, is it prudent for us to take one life and spare several other lives that otherwise would be threatened by this one life? The Constitution is there to preserve lives, therefore, in a case where it is required to take one life to preserve many more innocent lives there should be no hesitation as witnessed in the Supreme Court. There is nothing humane about raping a child who is 8 years old and defenseless. Therefore, there should be nothing like an inhumane death for such a criminal. If the Supreme Court of Louisiana has found it fit to execute criminals who rape minors, then it is the duty of the Supreme Court of the land to protect the rights of these children by upholding the laws that protect such rights.

Did you like this sample?
  1. Bienen, L. B. (2011). Murder and its consequences: essays on capital punishment in America.         Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
  2. Galvin, A. (2015). Old Sparky: the electric chair and the history of the death penalty. New York: SkyHorse Publishing.
  3. Garland, D., McGowen, R., & Meranze, M. (2011). Americas Death Penalty: Between Past and      Present. New York University Press.
  4. Mandery, E. J. (2014). A wild justice: the death and resurrection of capital punishment in             America. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
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