The death penalty has always been a punishment for serious crime in the United States system of justice. From America’s early years to the present the death penalty has always been a controversial issue. It has evolved from punishment for witchcraft to primarily first-degree murders. Colonial abolitionist to present-day death penalty supporters has fought to no resolution on this conflict on morality and justice. Capital punishment was a sanction perfectly familiar to America’s early settlers. Since the first European settlers arrived in America, the death penalty has been accepted as punishment for crimes. All British colonies followed the English penal code but actual practice varied from colony to colony. In colonial Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Puritans left England to build a model society for Christians to emulate. Although Puritans felt that criminal justice needed amending, they never considered doing without it. They screened settlers who resided in their towns but future offenders who would fall to sin would still sneak through.
Sin threatened not only the social tranquility of the colony but also divine wrath, for the Puritans conceived that they had covenanted with God to live according to his spiritual commands. (Hirsch 3). The Puritans felt 12 crimes fell under this category of stirring up their social tranquility. The 12 crimes which warranted this punishment were idolatry, witchcraft, blasphemy, rape, statutory rape, kidnapping, perjury in a trial involving a possible death sentence, rebellion, murder, assault in sudden anger, adultery, and buggery (sodomy). This capital list remained consistent with Puritan beliefs. The Puritan belief also held true in convictions of capital offenses. They believed that no sentence of death could pass without a warrant from God’s word. As the eighteenth century drew near most moral capital offenses were brought down to lower charges of criminal offenses. Judges and juries demonstrated an extreme reluctance to execute moral offenders they tended to downgrade capital convictions. Biblical reference took precedent as authorizations of the death penalty.
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Puritan criminal justice system mirrored Old World law by treating property offenses mildly and moral offenses with relative severity. The Quakers whom also had in place a form of capital punishment contrasted with their colonial counterparts the Puritans. The Quakers of South Jersey Royal Charter did not permit capital punishment for any crime. Their first execution took place in 1691. The Quakers believed that all human beings are born with an inner light that could lead them to salvation. The Pennsylvania Quakers did have capital punishment. William Penn’s Great Act of 1682 limited the death penalty to treason and murder. The ideas and customs of the Quakers furnished the best explanation of the nature and content of their criminal code. Quakers are considered the founding fathers of the abolitionist movement. One of these founding fathers was Dr. Benjamin Rush. Dr. Rush felt indifferent to the Puritans. He believed in punishment as a reforming system.
Dr. Rush saw prison as a workshop and a place of reformation. Rush was indifferent to the Puritans. The puritans used the bible, as precedent whereas he felt the biblical support was questionable. His beliefs attracted many followers, especially Quakers who already shared this view. AS a result, Pennsylvania only allowed the death penalty for first-degree murder. His beliefs spread to other states but to no avail. The second quarter of the nineteenth century was a time of reform in America. Capital punishment opponents rode the tide of righteousness and indignation created by the anti-saloon and anti-slavery advocates. Abolitionist societies sprang up, especially along the Atlantic coast. In 1845, the American Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment was founded. (Rein, Jacobs, Siegel 3) Although the growth of the abolitionist movement, it hid a halt when the Civil War came near.
The attention garnered for the abolitionist movement turned towards the anti-slavery movement. Many states opted to abolish the death penalty after the Civil War but overturned those decisions. Colorado abolished the death penalty but overturned the decision due to its citizen’s upset in regards to its dismissal. The federal government reduced the number of federal crimes punishable by death to three, which left treason, murder, and rape whereas death was an option, not a mandate. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s saw a resurgence of the movement. There were4 states (Michigan, Oregon, Iowa, and West Virginia ) which abolished capital punishment. In response to these states, other states greatly reduced the number of crimes punishable by the death penalty. By the end of the 1960s, all but 10 states had laws authorizing capital punishment but strong pressure by forces opposed to the death penalty resulted in an unofficial “moratorium” on executions, with the last one taking place in 1967. Prior to this, an average of 130 executions per year occurred.
In the seventies, the country was defining and refining the acceptance of capital punishment under the United States Constitution. Capital punishment left the moral line to the legal one. Legal challenges to the death penalty culminated in a 5-4 Supreme Court decision Furman v. Georgia struck down federal and state capital punishment laws permitting wide discretion in the application of the death penalty. The majority ruled that these laws constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th amendment to the Constitution and the due process guarantee of the 14th amendment. Four years later on July 2, 1976, in a 7-2 decision the justices ruled that the death penalty is not a form of punishment that may never be imposed, regardless of the circumstances of the offense, regardless of the procedure followed in reaching the decision. Furthermore, “the infliction of death as a punishment for murder is not without justification and …is not unconstitutionally severe.”(Rein, Jacobs, Siegel 6)
The rendering of this decision led to the decision of June 20, 1977, that rape and kidnapping do not warrant death. These Supreme Court decisions left only murder and treason as justifiable grounds for the imposition of the death penalty. These court decisions of the seventies weighed heavily on the dormant abolitionist’s movement. Today, among the Western democratic nations only the United States imposes the death penalty. Some countries maintain the death penalty for treason although no Western democracy has actually imposed it. The debate on Capital Punishment has been an ongoing issue for many years. The abolitionist movement which started from the Quakes believes this is an unjust cruel punishment.