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Moral and Religious Influences - Deciding On Capital Crimes

death penalty murder century

The number and type of capital offenses have varied greatly among different societies as well as the manner of executions. Some cultures, such as ancient Greece, assigned the death penalty to almost every crime, even simple thefts of food. Ancient England also had harsh death penalty laws. It applied the death penalty to over forty crimes at the time of North America's initial colonization. This number more than doubled during the eighteenth century and jumped up to 220 capital crimes by the early nineteenth century in Great Britain alone.

Though each of the thirteen colonies made use of the death penalty, they chose to use it much less than Britain. Manpower was in short supply and every hand was needed to help the small, isolated settlements survive in their early years. Punishment for most crimes was fines and mutilation, such as branding or cutting off an ear. Most colonies listed about twelve capital offenses. The twelve included witchcraft, blasphemy, murder, adultery, kidnapping, conspiracy, manslaughter, sexual deviance, rebellion, and poisoning.

Can Killing Be Morally Right?

Although the trend worldwide in the last decades of the twentieth century was to abolish the death penalty in numerous countries, the debate still raged in the United States. Every execution commonly drew protestors opposing capital punishment outside the prison walls. Those in favor of the death penalty believe in retribution, claiming a person who has taken another person's life or performed some other terrible crime does not deserve to have a life. They also claim the death penalty poses a much greater deterrence to violent crime than life sentences without the possibility of parole. Additionally, even if incarcerated, some inmates kill again within the prison facility.

Opponents of the death penalty most frequently cite moral and religious reasons for not taking a person's life. For example, the Catholic Church constantly promotes the protection of life, not only in opposing the death penalty, but on other issues such as abortion. The church and some other religions state that the death penalty is contrary to the sacredness of life. Society, they say, should focus on forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation of the victim and society. Ultimate justice, they say, is with God.

Opponents of the death penalty also believe mistakes are made in the criminal justice system. The prospect of executing an innocent person, no matter how infrequent, is too much of a risk. Death cannot be reversed like other penalties. They believe life in prison keeps the person from committing other crimes. It is obvious debate over the death penalty will continue well into the twenty-first century.

Pennsylvania had the fewest capital crimes with only murder and treason. By the American Revolution all but Rhode Island had at least ten capital crimes. These capital crimes were carried directly over into the new state laws. In 1790 the most common capital crimes were treason, murder, sexual deviance, rape, arson, burglary, robbery, and counterfeiting.

A group of men walking to their public hangings in Pennsylvania. In 1794 the Pennsylvania legislature abolished the death penalty for all crimes except first-degree murder. (AP/Wide World Photos)


A reform movement in the late eighteenth century following the American Revolution began pressing for elimination of the death penalty. In 1794 the Pennsylvania legislature abolished the death penalty for all crimes except first-degree murder. This was the first time a government distinguished between different categories of murder. First-degree murder was the willful, premeditated (thought out or planned in advance) act of murder, or murder committed with another serious crime such as arson, rape, or burglary.

Though other states soon adopted the new distinction of first- and second-degree (an unplanned or accidental killing) murder, none sharply reduced the number of capital crimes like Pennsylvania. However, Pennsylvania slowly added more crimes back to its list of capital punishment crimes through the first decades of the nineteenth century.

Once again beginning in the 1830s a movement grew to abolish the death penalty. Some religious organizations supported the death penalty while others did not. In 1847 Michigan abolished all capital punishment except for treason, and other northern states followed. Yet in the South, capital punishment increased and black slaves were the most frequent victims.

In the 1830s only five capital crimes applied to whites in Virginia but seventy applied to slaves. The movement to completely abolish the death penalty lost momentum during the Civil War and was not revived until the end of the nineteenth century. Under renewed pressure, Congress reduced the number of federal capital crimes in 1897 from sixty to three—treason, murder, and rape. The movement to eliminate the death penalty was led by Quakers and liberal Christians seeking reform in the justice system. Between 1897 and 1917 a number of states abolished the death penalty altogether. Social upheaval in the first few decades of the twentieth century, however, brought a reversal as public support for capital punishment increased again.

Violent labor conflicts had become more frequent, political radicals had fierce confrontations with authorities, and street crime increased as the population grew. After the kidnapping and murder of the infant son of American pilot Charles Lindbergh (1902–1974), federal and state governments added kidnapping to their death penalty lists.

The number of executions rose steadily, reaching very high numbers in the 1930s and 1940s. The movements to reduce the number of executions began taking effect again and states once more reduced the number of capital crimes. By the 1960s murder was the most common capital crime in the United States, followed by rape, armed robbery, kidnapping, sabotage, espionage, and burglary. In 1965 nine states had no capital crimes and four others had very few.


Moral and Religious Influences - Can Killing Be Morally Right? [next] [back] Moral and Religious Influences - Capital Punishment

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