English Discourse Site Menu:

Capital Punishment: In the Eyes of the American People
Ericka Criner
Academic affiliation: Oklahoma State University
©Read the copyright notice at the bottom of this page
before reproducing this essay/webpage on paper,
or electronically, or in any other form.

Capital punishment has been a controversial topic for many years. What is capital punishment? Capital punishment is the consequence given to a criminal for committing a capital crime, such as murder. Capital punishment also is "social retribution deserved by the murderer in the opinion of his fellow citizens" (Haag 32). What is the consequence? The consequence is the death penalty. The death penalty is basically killing a human for killing another human, which may seem hypocritical. Convicted criminals are not killed by the hands of humankind, but by the laws in which people are expected to abide by. The purpose of this essay is to examine scholarly articles, found through research, in order to present knowledgeable information about the death penalty and how the American people view this particular form of punishment.

The death penalty has been a form of punishment for centuries. According to the website "History of the Death Penalty", "the first established death penalty laws date as far back as the eighteenth century B.C. ... which codified the death penalty for twenty five different crimes." The methods of execution during these times consisted of "cruxification, drowning, beating to death, burning alive, and impalement" (History of the Death Penalty 1). The execution process was brought to the United States by European settlers. The first recorded execution occurred in 1608, when the Capitan George Kendall was executed "for being a spy for Spain"(History of the Death Penalty 2). In 1612 the Divine, Moral, and Martial Law passed and individuals could be administered the death penalty for even minor offenses such as "stealing grapes, killing chickens and trading with Indians"(History of the Death Penalty 2). In the 1960s people began to challenge the constitutionality of the death penalty. Before the early 1960s the death penalty was declared constitutional by the "Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment" (History of the Death Penalty 4). Because of the "issue of arbitrariness, the death penalty was again brought before the Supreme Court in 1972 in Furman v. Texas", the penalty was suspended (History of the Death Penalty 5). Four years after the death penalty was suspended, the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment. Consequently, "since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, there have been 887 executions, including ten women" (Foley 215). Today more than half of the States use the death penalty, "thirty-eight states and the federal government currently authorize the use of the death penalty" (Foley 215). Ever since the reinstatement of capital punishment, the American people have been divided amongst those who support and those who oppose against it.

Amongst the American people are a variety of reasons why they support the death penalty. The vast majority of people agree with the death penalty, "public opinion polls show that sixty-seven percent of the American people support the death penalty, although that figure drops to fifty-three percent, when the option of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is presented as an alternative" (Foley 215).

According to "Public Opinion and the Death Penalty" by Neil Vidmar and Phoebe Ellsworth, people's "perceptions of increasing crime rate, fear of victimization, and increased perceptions of the effectiveness of punishment all contribute to increased willingness to use punishment, including capital punishment, as a means of resolving the crime problem" (1258). Although some people believe the death penalty can not be justified, "death is seen as a justifiable punishment" (Radelet and Akers 1). Supporters may agree with the death penalty, but their opinion of when it should be used varies accordingly. Some supporters of the death penalty believe that capital punishment should be saved for the most "especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel" crimes (Blackmun 70). A number of supporters, as well as the justice system, hold the idea that executing people for crimes will discourage others from committing crime, but that is not true (Farrell 1). Studies show "that the death penalty does, and can do, little to reduce rates of criminal violence" (Radelet and Akers 10). Therefore, concluding capital punishment is not a deterrent. While others believe despite the fact that capital punishment exist, people voluntarily commit murder; therefore, they should be punished with the death penalty. The lex talionis argues "that if we do to the criminal what he did to his victim, we are as wrong as he was," but this argument "overlooks that murder is a crime, an unlawful taking of life, while punishment is lawful, and capital punishment is a lawful taking of life" (Haag 34).

While supporters, like Michael Davis, the author of "A Sound Retributive Argument for the Death Penalty," believe "the death penalty can be justified retributively," abolitionist of the death penalty, such as Claire Finkelstein, states "retributive fails to justify the death penalty" (22). The definition of retributivism is "the theory of punishment that assets that punishment is justified because, any only to the extent that, the criminal deserves to be punished in virtue of the wrongfulness of his act" (Finkelstein 13). Therefore, Finkelstein disagrees with the death penalty and believes torture serves as a better consequence than death. She argues, "there are many penalties we would readily classify as less severe than torture and death that we do not hesitate to say are impermissible to impose" (Finkelstein 15). Some abolitionists feel "that punishment ought to improve the character of the punished person, not kill him or her" (Haag 31). Other abolitionist of the death penalty disagree with the punishment because it "violates the offenders right to life, the State has no right to kill any of its prisoners, it is an affront to human dignity, and risky" (Bedau 3). They also feel as though the governments ability to invade an "individuals privacy, liberty, and autonomy" is not justified (Bedau 4). Although it has been a long period of time since the Court declared the death penalty is used fairly, research shows that Americans lack confidence in the death penalty. People are no longer confident because "the death penalty remains fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice, and mistake" (Blackmum 67). People for capital punishment are usually "older, less educated, male, wealthier, white, and from urban areas," while the people more likely convicted and administered the death penalty are completely opposite (Neil and Ellsworth 1253). Even though "Americans who support the death penalty think it should be reserved for the worst of the worst, reality shows that it is reserved for racial minorities, people who are retarded or mentally ill, and those who cannot afford to hire a good attorney" (Hawkins 39). Some people think that the death penalty does not discriminate; however, the statistics show otherwise. According to the General Accounting Office in 1990: "in eighty-two percent of the studies [reviewed], race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty, i.e. those who murdered whites were more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks" (Farrell 1).

Statistics also show "since 1976 forty four mentally retarded inmates have been killed (Hawkins 39). Although, many people felt administering the death penalty was unconstitutional, "the Court determined that the execution of a mentally retarded person was not unconstitutional in 1989 during the case against Penry v. Lynaugh" (Foley 216). But in a recent case of Atkins v. Virginia in 2002, "the Court ruled that it is not constitutionally permissible to execute a mentally retarded person" (Foley 216). People also lack confidence in the death penalty because they fear the justice system will make a mistake and execute the innocent. Since the reinstatement of capital punishment "114 men and women have been released from Death Row…. Some only minutes away from executions" (Farrell 1). Not only have people became close, there are some whom innocent people who did not survive, "112 death row inmates have been exonerated since 1973 (Foley 215). Because fear of mistake, studies shows that a vast majority of people will agree with life imprisonment without parole instead of the death penalty which prevents convicts from committing crimes in the human community. However supporters of the death penalty, like Ernest van den Haag, argue that "convicts can (and do) commit crimes within prison, assaulting, raping, and even killing fellow inmates and guards" (35).

Many Americans lack knowledge about the death penalty. People not knowing enough information about the penalty sometimes determine whether people agree or disagree with capital punishment. The author of "The Death Penalty is Morally Unjust," is "convinced that if executions were made public, the torture and violence would be unmasked, and we [the American people] would be shamed into abolishing executions" ( Prejean 59). As shown in different research Americans are uncertain about the death penalty. The percentage of people who agree with the death penalty decreases when the option of life without parole is available. The main reason why the death penalty is sill intact is because "secrecy surrounding executions makes it possible for executions to continue" (Prejean 59). People are not only questioning whether the death penalty is a justifiable punishment, they are questioning the morality of it. According to Helen Prejean, "allowing our government to kill citizens compromises the deepest moral values upon which this country was conceived: the inviolable dignity of human persons" (59). The author, Claire Finkelstein, of "Death and Retributive" argues the same as Prejean, she argues that "the death penalty is morally impressible" and it is hard to "justify on the basis of deterrence alone" (12). However, there are some people who believe the death penalty is morally just. Those like Charles Colson states "that in order to maintain society's sense of justice, it is necessary to punish perpetrators of the worst crimes with the death penalty" (60). He believes the concept of lex talion, stating the punishment "should be at least as great as the crime" (61).

Punishing someone for killing another person, goes hand in hand with the phrase "an eye for an eye." The phrase basically says if one commits murder, he or she will be killed as well. The only difference is the murderer will be killed by the law instead of by the hands of humankind. So, when does the killing ever stop? That is unknown. As long as the American people continue to remain divided the killing will never stop. The American people are still trying to determine whether or not the death penalty is a justifiable punishment, morally correct, and/or biased.

Works Cited

Bedau, Hugo. "The Minimal Invasion Argument Against the Death Penalty." Criminal Justice Ethics 21.2 (2002): 3-8.

Blackmun, Harry. "The Death Penalty Is Legally Unjust." The Death Penalty: Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. Paul Winters. San Diego: Greenhaven P., 1997. 66-71

Colson, Charles W. "The Death Penalty Is Morally Just." The Death Penalty: Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. Paul Winters. San Diego: Greenhaven P., 1997. 60-65

Davis, Michael. "A Sound Retributive Argument for the Death Penalty." Criminal Justice Ethics 18.2 (2002): 22-26.

Farrell, Michael. Death Penalty Focus. 14 October 2004 <http://www.deathpenalty.org/index.php?pid=facts>:.

Finkelstein, Claire. "Death and Retribution." Criminal Justice Ethics 21.2 (2002): 12-20.

Foley, Michael A. "Toward Understanding the Death Penalty Debate." Choice 42.2 (2004): 215-221.

History of the Death Penalty Part I. 1 November 2004. <http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/article.php?scid=15&did;=410>.

Haag, Ernest van den. "Why Capital Punishment?" The Leviathan's Choice: Capital Punishment in the 21st Century. Martinez, Michael, William Richardson, and D. Brandon Hornsby, eds. Lanhan: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2002.

Hawkins, Steven. "Do We Need the Death Penalty? It is Immoral and Ineffective." The World and I 17.9 (2002): 39.

Prejean, Helen. "The Death Penalty Is Morally Unjust." The Death Penalty: Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. Paul Winters. San Diego: Greenhaven P., 1997. 55-59

Radelet, Michael and Ronald Akers. "Deterrence and the Death Penalty: The Views of the Experts." The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 87.1 (1996): 1-16.

Vidmar, Neil and Phoebe Ellsworth. "Public Opinion and the Death Penalty." Stanford Law Review 26.6 (1974): 1245-270

Search English Discourse
WWW English Discourse

Copyright notice: this page will hereafter be referred to as the essay/webpage. All rights to the essay/webpage are held by its author. You may hyperlink to the essay/webpage electronically and without notifying either English Discourse—the e-journal or the author of the essay/webpage, but hyperlinks are allowed only for non-commercial and educational use. The essay/webpage may not otherwise be reproduced in hard-copy, electronically, or any other form, unless the written permission of its author is obtained prior to such reproductions. If you do link to the essay/webpage, part of the text in the hyperlink must contain the words "English Discourse—the e-journal".

You may quote from the essay/webpage, but only if the author and English Discourse—the e-journal are unmistakably cited in parenthetical citations and works cited page, endnotes, footnotes, bibliography page, or references page citations.

You may not otherwise copy or transmit the contents of the essay/webpage either electronically or in hard copies. You may not alter the content of the essay/webpage in any manner. If you are interested in using the contents of the essay/webpage in any manner except as described above, please contact "webmaster" at "englishdiscourse.org" for information on publishing rights, and the editor will arrange contact between your organization and the author of the essay/webpage. English Discourse—the e-journal, suggests that such emails should include a subject heading that reads "editorial contact," or "publishing rights." English Discourse—the e-journal will not act as an agent or accept any fees. The essay/webpage is the intellectual property of its author, who retains sole rights. The author has merely granted permission for English Discourse—the e-journal to publish the essay/webpage.