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Capital Punishment

Constitutional Challenges To The Death Penalty, Racial Bias, Expense And Length Of Process, Deterrence

Capital punishment, also known as the death penalty, is the lawful imposition of death as punishment for crimes. Thirty-eight states, as well as the federal government, recognized capital punishment as of 1998; Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, the District of Columbia, West Virginia, Alaska, and Hawaii did not. Lethal injection, electrocution, lethal gas, hanging, and firing squad were the methods of execution, from most common to least common, respectively. Although federal law authorizes lethal injection, the state law where the crime was committed applies for offenses under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.

The United States stands apart from Western Europe's clear opposition to the death penalty. Nevertheless, the United States is one of 94 countries and territories in the world that use the death penalty. Most Eastern European nations retain the death penalty. Fifty-seven countries prohibit capital punishment for all crimes; 28 recognize capital punishment but do not use it. Another 15 retain it only for exceptional crimes such as crimes committed in violation of military law or certain wartime circumstances. Closer to the United States, Canada abolished the death penalty and Mexico retains it but does not use it.

History of Capital Punishment in the U. S. and the Abolitionist Movement

The first colonists, based upon long-standing English tradition, brought the idea of capital punishment with them. Until the nineteenth century in England, the death penalty could be imposed for more than 200 different crimes, ranging from the obvious, such as murder, to the inconceivable including theft of linens from a bleaching ground. The first recorded use of capital punishment occurred in 1608 in the Jamestown Colony, Virginia. Laws drawn by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636 identified idolatry, witchcraft, blasphemy, murder, assault in sudden anger, adultery, statutory rape, sodomy, manstealing, perjury in a capital trial, and rebellion as offenses punishable by death; an Old Testament reference accompanied each listing.

Following the Revolutionary War, 11 colonies adopted new constitutions. Nine of the colonies prohibited cruel and unusual punishment, but all permitted capital punishment. The First Congress passed a 1790 law authorizing the death penalty for robbery, rape, murder, and forgery of public securities. Over 160 known executions took place during the eighteenth century. For centuries to come, the Fifth and Eighth amendments to the Constitution became the focal point of ensuing controversies over the death penalty.

Opposition to the death penalty in America has existed since the seventeenth century, gaining momentum around the time of the Revolutionary War and shortly thereafter. Dr. Benjamin Rush, Judge William Bradford, the Philadelphia Society for Relieving Distressed Prisoners, and the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons incited the early movement. In 1847, Michigan became the first state to abolish capital punishment. By 1850, nine states had abolition societies. However, the Civil War slowed momentum of the abolitionists. One key victory of the nineteenth century abolition movement was elimination of mandatory capital punishment sentences.

Despite the sometimes vigorous opposition and gains made by the abolitionists, the use of capital punishment grew along with the country. Nearly 1400 documented executions took place during the nineteenth century. Early in the twentieth century, the Prohibition Era and Great Depression brought the abolition movement to a near stand-still. As a result, the 1930s and 1940s saw the highest levels of executions with between 100 and 200 prisoners executed annually. The 1950s and 1960s began to witness a decline in executions, due partly to increasing appeals in courts following initial convictions and sentencing. From 1930 through 1997, 4,291 executions occurred of which over 3,800 took place between 1930 and 1964. Support for the death penalty declined slightly in the 1960s, but grew again by the late 1970s. By 1996 over 70 percent of Americans supported the death penalty according to polls. By the close of the twentieth century, the abolitionist movement remained a vocal minority unable to sway public opinion or make significant legislative gains.

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