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Standards of Decency in America

This is a dissertation on the Evolving Standards of Decency in America’s judicial system in relation to capital punishment. The first of three arguments in this abstract show how, when, and why America will come to embrace a complete moratorium on capital punishments.
Evolving Standards of Decency demonstrates that through the history of America (and the world) people have come to understand, appreciate, and value human life. Even when considering the lives of convicted criminals justice does not always mean an eye-for-an-eye.
State-sanctioned executions go back to the reign of King Hammurabi of Babylon, in the Eighteenth Century B.C. Hammurabi’s Code allowed for the death sentence for twenty-five different crimes. In Fourteenth Century B.C. the Hittite and, the Seventh Century Draconian Code of Athens, made the death penalty law for any crime committed.

Also, written on the Twelve Tablets, Fifth Century B.C. Romans decreed that the death sentence could be carried out by such means as impalement, burning, beatings, drowning, and notoriously, crucifixion. America however, gets the majority of its ideology about state executions from England. England is home to some of the world’s most famous proponents of the death penalty. Possibly the most notorious was King Henry VIII. During his reign he sought the execution of some twenty-five thousand Englishmen for crimes as menial as hunting on the king’s land, delinquent taxes, insanity, witchcraft, hunting of game out of season, adultery, and Judaism. America’s first encounter with the death penalty occurred when Captain George Kendall was hung for being a spy for Spain, in Virginia during 1608. Four years later Virginia Governor Sir Thomas Dale enacted the Divine, Moral and Martial Laws which could get you a rope necktie for the offense of grape stealing, killing chickens, or trading with Indians.

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It took until 1794 for Pennsylvania to repeal the death penalty for all cases except first-degree murders. Until then Americans were, by court order, being executed for crimes such as adultery, theft, and Indian trading for almost two hundred years. It took until 1846 when Michigan became the first state to abolish the death penalty for all crimes with the exception of treason. Following Michigan’s lead, shortly thereafter, Rhode Island and Wisconsin abolished the death penalty for all crimes. By this time many nations as a whole had accepted a moratorium on state-sanctioned murder. Enlightened nations such as Ecuador, Venezuela, Portugal, Netherlands, Costa Rica, and Brazil had all put an end to the death penalty. In 1958, the United States Supreme Court heard Trop v. Dulles (356 U.S. 86). (This is the case from which my thesis stems.) Although it was not a case where the death penalty was in question the idea of “evolving standards of human decency” was introduced.

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In short, the case opinion given by Chief Justice Warren underlined the idea that punishments change with the cultural and moral shifts within the society that they are judged. This ruling started a trend that has gone both ways in American courts with ideas like those exemplified in the “Truth in Sentencing Act”. Our courts should always uphold that a crime should be punished by a just and fair means. However, the definitions of “just” and “fair”, much like “cruel” and “unusual” have long been debated. In many countries, this concept has been understood to mean no matter how severe the crime, the punishment is never executed. Exceptions in many of these countries still remain when dealing with treason and war crimes.

The Courts have stated that people with mental health or mental retardation issues can never be executed. This was standard procedure as recently as twenty years ago. In Ford v. Wainwright (477 U.S. 399) the court held the people with mental insanities should not be executed for capital crimes. In Penry v. Lynaugh (492 U.S. 302) courts upheld that people with mental retardation were not excluded from the death penalty however, it was to be considered a mitigating factor in sentencing. I only state this last case because I feel it was a step in the right direction. In a landmark case on June 20, 2002, in Atkins v. Virginia (00-08452) the court stated that it was a violation of the Eighth Amendment to execute someone with mental retardation.

Penry v. Lynaugh (492 U.S. 302) and Atkins v. Virginia (00-08452) shows how America is slowly beginning to realize the major flaws within the capital crime, capital punishment system in regard to the mental condition of the defendant. It also illustrates how the courts are continually evolving away from capital punishment. Only cases revolving around mental defects have been noted, there are many other areas of concern that one must look at when debating capital punishment. Examples of these areas of concern are disparity between the wealthy and the poor, discrimination between the races, and the incredible number of cases in which sentences have been completely exonerated after DNA testing. Throughout America’s history the courts have been forced to set standards and precedents, and in an ideal world where there are Evolving Standards of Human Decency are eminent, the idealist looks to the courts for guidance.

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Here are some facts in regards to the death penalty. I understand full well that they are simply facts without context as of right now and I look to provide the context in my second two papers. As of August 2006, 123 people have been exonerated of all charges and freed from death row. Almost all defendants facing the death penalty cannot afford their own attorney. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, 202 black defendants have been executed for the murder of a white victim, while only 12 white defendants have been executed for the murder of a black person. Executions have been carried out by the following methods since 2000:

Beheading (in Saudi Arabia, Iraq)
– Electrocution (in USA)
– Hanging (in Egypt, Iran, Japan, Jordan, Pakistan, Singapore, and other countries)
– Lethal injection (in China, Guatemala, Philippines, Thailand, USA)
– Shooting (in Belarus, China, Somalia, Taiwan, Uzbekistan, Viet Nam, and other countries)
– Stoning (in Afghanistan, Iran)

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Standards of Decency in America. (2021, Mar 23). Retrieved August 11, 2022, from