The earliest historical records contain evidence of capital punishment. It was mentioned in the Code of Hammurabi. The bible prescribed death as the penalty for more than 30 different crimes, ranging from murder to fornication. The Draconian code of ancient Greece imposed capital punishment for every offense. Efforts to abolish the death penalty did not gather momentum until the end of the 18th century; in England and America, this reform was led by the Quakers. In Europe, a short treatise, On Crimes and Punishments (1764), by the Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria, inspired influential thinkers such as the French philosopher Voltaire to oppose torture, flogging, and the death penalty. Encouraged by the writings of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, England repealed all but a few of its capital statutes during the 19th century. Several states in the United States and a few countries abolished the death penalty entirely.
The death penalty has been inflicted in many ways now regarded as barbaric and forbidden by law almost everywhere: Crucifixion, boiling in oil, drawing, and quartering, impalement, beheading, burning alive, crushing, tearing asunder, stoning, and drowning are examples. In the U.S., the death penalty is currently authorized in one of five ways: hanging, electrocution, the gas chamber, firing squad, or lethal injection. In most nations that still retain the death penalty for some crimes, hanging or firing squads are the preferred methods of execution. In some countries that adhere strictly to the traditional practices of Islam, beheading or stoning are still occasionally employed as punishment. The fundamental questions raised by the death penalty are whether it is an effective deterrent to violent crime and whether it is more effective than the alternative of long-term imprisonment. Defenders of the death penalty insist that because taking an offender’s life is a more severe punishment than any prison term, it must be the better deterrent.
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Public opinion, which in the U.S. currently supports the death penalty for murder by a more than two-to-one margin, rests largely on this conviction. Supporters also argue that no adequate deterrent in life imprisonment is effective for those already serving a life term who commit murder while incarcerated; those who have not yet been caught but who would be liable to a life term if arrested; and revolutionaries, terrorists, traitors, and spies. Those who argue against the death penalty as a deterrent to crime cite the following: (1) Adjacent states, in which one has a death penalty and the other does not, show no significant long-term differences in the murder rate; (2) states that use the death penalty seem to have a higher number of homicides than states that do not use it; (3) states that abolish and then reintroduce the death penalty do not seem to show any significant change in the murder rate; (4) no change in the rate of homicides in a given city or state seems to occur following a local execution.
In the early 1970s, some published reports purported to show that each execution in the U.S. deterred eight or more homicides, but subsequent research has discredited this finding. The current prevailing view among criminologists is that no conclusive evidence exists to show that the death penalty is a more effective deterrent to violent crime than long-term imprisonment. A series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the 1970s made the death penalty in the U.S. unconstitutional if it is mandatory, if it is imposed without providing courts with sufficient guidance to determine the appropriateness of the sentence, or if it is imposed for a crime that does not take or threaten life. Apart from crimes such as treason and espionage, about which the Supreme Court has rendered no decisions, the death penalty was confined to crimes of murder, including felony murder (that is, any homicide committed in the course of committing another felony, such as rape or robbery).
Thirty-eight states revised and reenacted their death penalty laws after the 1972 Court ruling that all but a few capital statutes were unconstitutional. The Court upheld some revised death penalty laws in 1976; since then more than 150 executions have been carried out. Many court decisions of the 1980s and early 1990s have lowered bars to executions. In 1986 the Court ruled that opponents of executions may be barred from juries in murder cases. The following year the Court ruled that the law may be applied to accomplices in crimes that led to murder then rejected a challenge to capital punishment based on statistics that indicated racial bias in sentencing. In separate decisions in 1989, the Court decided that the death penalty could be applied to those who were mentally retarded or who were underage (but at least 16) at the time of the murder. In the early 1990s, the trend of Supreme Court rulings was to cut back on the appeals that Death Row inmates could make to the federal courts.
- Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 2, pg. 514-520. Published 1996.
- Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 15, pg. 892-917. Published 1996.
- Internet Source, Library of Congress, “Capital Punishment”, updated 1-26-99.