The death penalty in the US



The death sentencing penalty in the United States has never been constant throughout the American History. The process has undergone several changes in the past centuries by falling into the agreement and out of agreement with the public opinion. Evidently, there exist a divide based on the death penalty issues in America with a large population of supporters as well as very many opposes. Currently, nineteen out of the fifty states have abolished death penalty while thirty-three remaining states support the process. Therefore, over the year Americans have engaged in the debate based on the effectiveness and morality of the death penalty code in the American society. Furthermore, several issues have been associated with death penalties such as discrimination based on the application, the unquestioned presence in the United States in several States and the manner in which the act has been handled over the years. Therefore, long-standing debates and arguments have developed and existed over the years on the death penalty where legislative processes have been used to limit or allow the process. Further means and attempts have also been initiated to make death penalty process a little humane through changes made in the conditions and methods of executing criminals and trying to change the public opinion on the process. Therefore, this paper will focus on the historical background of the death penalty in America as an issue in the American society while attempting to focus on the options and alternatives for dealing with the death penalty issue.

Historical background

The initiation of the death penalty cases in America was influenced by Britain when the European settlers migrated to the New world and brought along the culture of capital punishment. The first recorded instance of the death penalty in American history was the execution of Captain George Kendall in part of Jamestown, Virginias colony in 1608. The death penalty was passed on Captain George for undertaking spy activities for Spain in Virginia. By the year 1612, the death penalty had been improved by Governor Sir Thomas Dale to include minor offenses such as trading with Indians, killing the chicken and stealing of grapes (Death penalty information center n.p). The laws on execution started spreading and were reviewed based on the colony to colony system. Therefore, the first execution was done in Massachusetts in 1930, and New York colony passed laws such that crimes such as striking one’s parents or denying the existence of the true God was punished through the death penalty.

The year 1767 saw the rise of abolishment movements which made arguments against the death penalty and called for the stop of the Act in the American colonies. The abolishment period was influenced by the works of several European theorists such as Bentham, John Bellers, Voltaire and John Howard. However, the real influence of the abolishment movement was influenced by Cesare Beccaria based on his essay on crimes and punishment which argued that the colonies and leaders had no justification for killing other people and led to the abolition of death penalty in Tuscany and Austria. Furthermore, in America, Thomas Jefferson introduced a bill to attempt the abolition of death penalty in Virginia but was defeated by one vote. However, in 1794, the influence of abolition movement gained power through the repealing of the death penalty laws in Pennsylvania for all the previous offenses except for the first-degree murder. The movement was initiated by the Br. Benjamin Rush and Benjamin Franklin (US Attorney General) who believed that using the death penalty as a deterrent increases the criminal activity in the society (Death penalty information center n.p).

The effects of the abolition movement were felt even in the early and the mid-periods of the Nineteenth century when Pennsylvania moved from using public execution to carrying them in the correctional institutions in 1834. Secondly, Michigan followed suit by abolishing all crimes from death penalty except treason. Additionally, Rhodes Island and Wisconsin also abolished the death penalty for all the crimes in the states. In 1838, Alabama and Tennessee enacted the discretionary death penalty statutes which formed part of the greatest victory to the abolishment period since previously all capital crimes stood a chance of reaching a death penalty (Amnesty International USA n.p). Regardless of these efforts, during the civil war America developed new methods of execution such as the manufacture of the electric chair in 1888 and the use for execution of William Kemmler in New York in 1890.

The early and mid-Twentieth century proceeded to the progressive period in which more and more reforms were developed in the United States in which six other stated abolished the death penalty, and three others limited its use between 1907 to 1717. However, the progress was short-lived based on the fear and panic of the American citizens against the Russian Revolution. Following, the mounting challenge posed on capitalism by socialism five of the six states that outlawed the death penalty reinstated them by 1920. More criminologists started arguing that capital punishment was necessary to the American society as a social measure against intense crime. Therefore the period between 1930 and 1940 experienced the highest level of executions through death penalty than other periods in the history of its use in America, averagely 167 per year (Death penalty information center n.p). Following such findings, the public opinion changed and turned away from the use of capital punishment which in turn led to the drastic drop executions in the 1950s. The support for capital punishment even fell lower in the 1960s through 1970s with only 191 executions taking place.

Furthermore, in the 1960s the legislatures and humanists in America suggested that the use of death penalty was unusual, cruel and unconstitutional based on the Eighth Amendments which contains the value of decency and called for the progress of a mature American society. During the same period, the Supreme courts started fine tuning death penalty by including the views of prosecutor and the jury for instance in the U.S vs Jackson (390 U.S. 570) where the Supreme Court held that death penalty was unconstitutional and deserve the right to a jury to ensure Jackson does not receive the death sentence. Several cases that passed through the Supreme Court ensured that the court avoided over 40 death penalty statutes, 629 death row of inmates and leading to the suspension of the existing statues that were considered invalid in 1972 (Amnesty International USA n.p).

However, Justice Marshall and Brennan later reinstated the death penalty by opening the door to the states to establish their laws on penalty statutes. Thereby after the Furman v. Georgia case, 35 states changed their death penalty statutes even though the supreme court still held the practice to be unconstitutional (Death penalty information center n.p). The reinstatement of the death penalties in these states led to the development of more methods to carry out death penalty such as the introduction of lethal injection in Oklahoma in 1977 and use of firing squad in Utah.

However, the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the American Constitution led to the development of limiting factors to death sentencing of inmates. Since the doctrine supported the right to life, it focused on limiting the scope of the death penalty to ensure the protection of women, the elderly and juveniles. Furthermore, recent developments based on the Herrera vs. Collins case (506 U.S. 390) in 1993 ensured that the Supreme Court ensured that the Constitution barred the execution of an individual when they demonstrated conclusive innocence (Amnesty International USA n.p). Such developments led to the release of 13 innocent inmates in Illinois in 2000. Currently, based on public support and humanitarian efforts the number of death penalties in the United States has reduced to around 106 in 2009 and more efforts are being put in place to ensure total abolishment of death penalty in America.

The arguments against death penalty

Several criminology studies in the past and the present have discredited the fact that death penalty provides a deterrent and works effectively than the other forms of criminal punishment. For instance research by William Bowers, a criminologist from the Northeastern University has shown that the use of death penalty has an opposite effect to the intended purpose. The findings indicate that the society at large is highly brutalized by the use of capital punishment thereby increasing the likelihood of crime especially murder or treason in the community (Bowers 77). What is the purpose of maintaining the use of death penalty when the result increases crime and murder? It is not logical since the reason behind developing regulations is to ensure the negative effect is reduced or eliminated. Therefore, the process of death penalty sentencing and execution leads to wastage of government resources without positive outcomes. Furthermore, research has shown that the states in the US that still use death penalty have higher rates of murder than the states that do not use the process on their criminals (Radelet 61). A comparison of America and other countries that do not use death penalty such as Canada and countries in Europe indicate that America experiences high levels of criminal activity and have higher murder rates in her population. Therefore, the death penalty cannot provide a deterrent since the people who get into violations that result into death sentencing never plan to be found.

Secondly, murderous acts and criminal activities that can lead to the death penalty are committed when the individuals are never in the right state of mind in most cases. Most murder cases are often associated with passion and anger, substance abusers and mentally ill individuals who acted impulsively without their knowledge (Enns 872). Sentencing a person to death sentence will not change the state of mind of these groups and does not provide a solid solution to their problems. The mentally ill, passionate people, anger moments and substance abuse will always exist in the society. Therefore, executing a person based on murder charges will not help them in controlling impulsive actions that not require sending a message through killing other people. Therefore it totally teaches the condemned groups nothing at all since through death they will not learn to correct their mistakes. If the process of the death penalty is meant to dissuade the murderers the why is it that the rate of murder in America still stands at five victims in every 100,000 people. Since the process does not serve its purpose, it is just right to abolish it and develop the new mechanism for dissuading the criminals. Finally, the process is hypocritical and immoral since it is not convincing to denounce murder by committing the same act. By promoting the act, the states are promoting the right to taking life (Vaughn n.p). Therefore, if the justice system is meant to provide lessons to the criminals, then it should avoid killing criminals to pass a moral message to the people that take part in the activities.

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Strategies to deal with the death penalty issue

The most significant form of the solution is the development of legislation through the enacting moratorium in which commissions are appointed to review capital system. Legislation stands a greater chance to eliminate the death penalty issue in America since the country believes in upholding the constitutionality of the nation. For instance, enacting a moratorium had worked in 2006, when New Jersey became the first jurisdiction which used the recommendation of a commission to abolish the death penalty (Dieter n.p). Secondly, the application of the public support by the state governments can be effective in developing legislation to eliminate the death penalty. The current studies by Gallup have shown that most of the Americans are opposed to capital punishment and would prefer alternative means to handling murderers and treason cases (Enns 857). Furthermore, the stereotype about American politicians being on the defensive when opposing capital punishment. Today more and more states are electing governors who oppose capital punishment (Radelet 61). For instance, Illinois has been on record by recently electing governors who oppose death penalty to continue with the establishment and achieving the moratorium developed by Governor George Ryan in 2006. Additionally, the Supreme Court should play a critical role in promoting the rule of law through using the Eighth Amendment standard of decency in ruling on murder cases to ensure a dead end to the death penalty. Lastly, research has shown that once sentenced to life without parole most hardcore criminals pose less threat to the society. The criminals given the life without parole sentence serve their time in prison and are denied their freedom thereby the society becomes safe without using the death penalty. Coupled with the sentence of life without parole, the federal and state government should focus on dealing with the root causes of the problem through interventions to drug abuse, anger management and successful treatment of mental diseases.


The use of death penalty has a long history in the American society from its introduction by the Europeans in America in the 1600s to the current influences such the expansion of federal capital punishment and greedy politicians who would use the process to promote their agenda through the death penalty. Several research in criminology has opposed the use of death penalty to ensure deterrent. Furthermore, the abolition of death penalty in America highly depends on the collaborative forces based on public support, development of legislation, the Supreme Court and use of alternative means of punishment to bring an end to the unusual, immoral and unconstitutional act. Furthermore, the use of sentencing to life without parole provides a great alternative to the capital punishment issue and makes the justice system remain moral and not promoting vices like murder in the society. Therefore, it is very significant for America to join the rest of her allies by encouraging all the states to abolish the death penalty.

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  1. Amnesty International USA. “U.S. Death Penalty Facts”. 2017,
  2. Bowers, William J., Margaret Vandiver, and Patricia H. Dugan. “New look at public opinion on capital punishment: What citizens and legislators prefer.” Am. J. Crim. L. 22 (1994): 77.
  3.  Death penalty information center. “Part I: History Of The Death Penalty | Death Penalty Information Center.” Deathpenaltyinfo.Org, 2017,
  4. Dieter, Richard C. “Sentencing for life: Americans embrace alternatives to the death penalty.” (1993).
  5. Enns, Peter K. “The public’s increasing punitiveness and its influence on mass incarceration in the United States.” American Journal of Political Science 58.4 (2014): 857-872.
  6. Radelet, M. L., and Borg, M. J. The changing nature of death penalty debates. Annual Review of Sociology, 26.1(2000): 43-61.
  7. Vaughn, Lewis. Doing ethics: Moral reasoning and contemporary issues. New York: WW Norton & Company, 2015.
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