Capital Punishment Research Paper

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Throughout the world, from earliest recorded times, the death penalty has played a prominent role in social control. Abolition of the death penalty became a matter for political discussion in Europe and America beginning in 1764, when the young Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria (1738–1794) published his little book, On Crimes and Punishments. Beccaria’s criticism of torture and the death penalty typified the Enlightenment zeal for rational reform of prevailing social practices. Beccaria’s alternative to the death penalty was life in prison at hard labor. In short order Catherine of Russia decreed an end to the death penalty, and so did Emperor Leopold in the province of Tuscany in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Maximilien Robespierre, a powerful leader in the French Revolution, attacked the death penalty as murder. In England, by the end of the eighteenth century, Parliament was being petitioned to reduce the number of capital felonies, which numbered in the hundreds; complete abolition was never a serious prospect.

Capital Punishment in America, 1793–1982

During the seventeenth century, the criminal justice systems in the American colonies took their main features from the mother country. A mandatory hanging carried out in public after conviction in a jury trial was the widely used punishment for murder and other traditional felonies (arson, rape, robbery, burglary). In the new nation, the first significant step toward reform of the death penalty was taken in Pennsylvania in 1793, when the legislature created ‘‘degrees’’ of murder and confined the death penalty to offenders convicted of murder in the ‘‘first-degree’’—willful, deliberate, and premeditated murder and felony murder (any homicide committed in the course of arson, rape, robbery, and burglary). By the middle of the nineteenth century many states had adopted this reform as a more precise conception of what ought to count as criminal homicide deserving the death penalty.

During the nineteenth century, state legislatures from Maine to Pennsylvania regularly received petitions from religious groups, notably the Society of Friends (Quakers), in favor of complete abolition. During this period two important further reforms were initiated. One ended public executions, thus confining the hangman and his necessary but sordid duties to the relative privacy of the prison yard. (Debauchery among the onlookers at public executions was widely regarded in this country and in England as a disgrace that needlessly fueled demands for abolition.) The other reform abandoned the mandatory death sentence upon a conviction of a capital felony in favor of giving the trial jury the power to choose between a death sentence and ‘‘mercy,’’ in the form of a long prison term. A third trend— statutory abolition of all death penalties— advanced, stumbled, and by the Civil War vanished. Nevertheless, between 1847 (when Michigan abolished the death penalty for murder, though not for treason) and 1887 (when Maine abolished the death penalty), several states experimented with complete abolition.

With the advent of the Progressive Era, nine states across the nation, from Tennessee to Washington, repealed all their capital statutes; all but two (Minnesota and North Dakota) restored it within a few years, as public reaction to the experiment in most states brought it to an end. Execution by lethal gas chamber was first used in Nevada in 1923 and within a few years was adopted in many other states as a method superior in its humanity both to hanging and to electrocution.

During the Depression and World War II, agitation for abolition in the state legislatures came to a virtual halt. In 1958 the first prominent interest in evaluating and abolishing the death penalty occurred in Delaware, when the legislature (under the influence of local political leadership and the pathbreaking Report of the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment in England in 1953) repealed all that state’s death penalty statutes. Influenced by the example of Delaware, several other states in the 1960s debated whether to abolish the death penalty; abolition efforts were successful in Vermont, West Virginia, and Iowa. No doubt the highpoint of the mid-century abolition movement occurred in 1964 in Oregon, when in a popular referendum the public voted to repeal the state constitutional provision for the death penalty.

Beginning in 1967, a new strategy to abolish the death penalty nationwide began to unfold, directed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) in New York. Mindful of the way in which African American defendants were especially vulnerable to the death penalty, and the way the administration of the death penalty was both highly discriminatory and in general arbitrarily imposed, the LDF decided to attack it nationwide, not in the legislatures but in the federal courts, and on federal constitutional grounds. LDF attorneys argued that the evidence showed the death penalty in the United States violated ‘‘equal protection of the laws’’ and ‘‘due process of law,’’ and that it was a ‘‘cruel and unusual punishment’’—not in this or that case, not just in the South as part of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, but uniformly and generally across the nation. This strategy, inspired by the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s, led to a moratorium on executions (though not on death sentences) as the Supreme Court debated the constitutional status of the death penalty.

In 1972, the Court held that the death penalty was unconstitutional as administered, because of its arbitrary and discriminatory application (Furman v. Georgia). Many state legislatures promptly revised and reenacted their death penalty statutes, hoping they would pass constitutional muster. Four years later the Court held that several varieties of these new capital statutes had indeed cured the problems of the prior statutes and that, in any case, the death penalty as such was not unconstitutional; more precisely, the death penalty did not violate the constitutional prohibition against ‘‘cruel and unusual punishment’’ (Gregg v. Georgia). In 1977, after the moratorium had lasted nearly a decade, executions resumed, first in Utah and then across the nation. During this period a new method of execution found increasing favor across the land: death by lethal injection. First adopted, in Oklahoma, in 1977, lethal injection was first used in Texas in 1982.

Current Status of Capital Punishment

As of 1998, Amnesty International reported that some sixty nations worldwide (including all western European countries) counted as ‘‘abolitionist for all crimes.’’ Another fifteen countries were listed as ‘‘abolitionist for ordinary crimes only,’’ that is, these countries retained the death penalty only for ‘‘exceptional crimes’’ such as those provided by military law. Another twenty-eight countries were listed as ‘‘abolitionist de facto,’’ because although their statutes still authorized the death penalty in certain cases, no executions had been carried out for at least a decade. Finally, ninety-four countries—mostly in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia—were listed as retaining and using the death penalty for murder and other felonies. Interpreters of the international scene have insisted that there is a slow but steady rejection of the death penalty worldwide, a trend that isolates the United States and conspicuously prevents it from exercising international leadership in protecting human rights, as these rights are increasingly defined under international human rights law.

By 1998, in the United States, thirteen states (and the District of Columbia) had abolished the death penalty: Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Since 1977 each of thirty states has carried out at least one execution.

Among the death penalty states (and the federal government), thirty-two use lethal injection to carry out the death penalty, eleven use the electric chair, seven use the gas chamber, four use hanging, and three use firing squad. Fourteen of these jurisdictions give the prisoner a choice between death by lethal injection and one of the other four methods.

Early in 1999 the LDF reported a total of 3,565 persons under death sentence in thirty-seven states (twenty-nine of these prisoners were awaiting execution under federal law, including eight under military law). By race, whites constituted 56 percent of the total, African Americans 35 percent; other nonwhites (American Indians, Asians, Hispanics) totaled 9 percent. The vast majority (99 percent) were male. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that as of the end of 1998, 65 percent of the nation’s death row population were recidivist felons with a prior criminal record, including 9 percent who had a conviction of some form of criminal homicide. During the 1990s, the nation’s death row population grew on the average at a rate of about 250 prisoners per year. The average length of time spent under death sentence prior to execution was about ten years. Of the 6,424 persons sentenced to death between 1973 and 1998, more than a third (38 percent) were not executed; some died awaiting execution, others committed suicide, and still others were commuted or resentenced by court order.

Executions in the 1990s went from a low of fourteen in 1991 to a high of seventy-four in 1997, for an annual average of about forty. The nation’s high-point in executions during the twentieth century was reached in 1935, however, when 199 offenders were executed. During the 1930s the percentage of convicted murderers executed was far higher than in the 1990s.

Capital Crimes

Historically, a wide variety of crimes have been punishable by death. As recently as 1965 in the United States one or more jurisdictions authorized the death penalty not only for murder, but also for kidnapping, treason, rape, carnal knowledge, armed robbery, perjury in a capital case, assault by a life-term prisoner, burglary, arson, train wrecking, sabotage, and desecration of a grave, to mention only a dozen. Executions for these crimes, except for rape, were rare. Supreme Court decisions in the 1970s, however, rejected mandatory death penalties (even for murder by a prisoner serving a life term for murder), and the death penalty for such nonhomicidal crimes as rape and kidnapping. In subsequent years, Congress has enacted statutes punishing several nonhomicidal crimes with death (notably, the crime of trafficking in large quantities of drugs). Whether the Supreme Court will sustain or reject the death penalty for such crimes remains to be seen.

In other countries murder is by no means the only capital crime. In Egypt and Algeria, terrorists are subject to the death penalty. Rebellion and obdurate apostasy are subject to the death penalty in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Threats of a coup d’etat in Sierra Leone led to summary executions in 1992. Certain drug offenses in Malaysia and Indonesia carry a death penalty. In 1992, China added more than two dozen new capital crimes to its penal code. Although virtually all of western European nations have abolished the death penalty for all crimes, it retains popular and governmental support in much of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

Public Opinion on Capital Punishment

American public opinion appears to support the death penalty for murder and has done so throughout the twentieth century, except for a brief period in the mid-1960s. In the 1990s, nearly 80 percent of the public approved of capital punishment; about 5 percent were undecided and the rest opposed it. However, more careful investigations of public attitudes have shown that given the option of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (LWOP), the public support for the death penalty drops by a significant amount, in some cases by half (from 80 percent to 40 percent). This research supports the view that while the public generally accepts the death penalty for murderers, it prefers their long-term imprisonment. And capital trial juries, all of them vetted to exclude anyone strongly opposed to the death penalty, coupled with plea bargaining practices, produce death sentences in only about 10 percent of the murder cases where it might be issued. Understandably, opponents of the death penalty view public support of executions as ‘‘a mile wide but only an inch deep.’’

No doubt public support for the death penalty is a powerful political factor in explaining the decline of executive clemency in capital cases and the willingness of most legislatures, state and federal, to expand the list of capital crimes. (Executive clemency in capital cases dropped from an annual average of twenty-two in the 1960s to two in the 1990s.) In Europe, however, despite popular majorities in many countries that have supported the death penalty for decades, parliaments have not only abolished it, they have gone further and made abolition a condition of entry into the Council of Europe.


In 1997 the House of Delegates of the American Bar Association called for a nationwide moratorium on executions, pending fundamental improvements in its administration. Salient problems affecting the fairness of the death penalty included failure to provide adequate trial counsel for the defendant, inadequate resources for counsel to investigate the crime and locate witnesses, and inadequate resources to verify alibi testimony and retain expert witnesses. Several other investigative bodies in the 1990s, notably the International Commission of Jurists (1996) and the UN Commission on Human Rights (1999), went further and called for the United States to abolish the death penalty entirely, on the ground that the record to date showed that these administrative problems were beyond remedy.

During the 1990s the Capital Jury Project, funded by the National Science Foundation, studied the behavior of jurors and juries in capital cases. Over a thousand juror interviews were conducted in more than a dozen death penalty states. Research found that trial jurors do not adequately understand the judge’s instructions designed to guide them in deciding whether to sentence the defendant to death, and that even where they do understand these instructions, they often ignore them.

By far the most prominent worry has been prompted by perceived racial disparities in death sentences and executions. For decades, the men and women on American death rows have been disproportionately nonwhite when measured against their proportion of the total population. (The numbers have not been so disproportionate when measured against the racial distribution of all persons in prison.) In the early 1970s, research on the death penalty for rape showed a powerful race-of-victim effect: virtually no one was sentenced to death for the rape of a nonwhite woman, and a black man accused of raping a white woman was ten times as likely to be convicted, sentenced to death, and executed as a white man charged with the same crime.

In the early 1980s a massive research project was launched in order to determine whether much the same pattern could be found in the death penalty for murder. The results of this research, conducted by David Baldus and his associates for the appellant’s argument in McCleskey v. Kemp (1987) and later published in their book as Equal Justice and the Death Penalty (1990), showed that ‘‘defendants charged with killing white victims were 4.3 times as likely to receive a death sentence as defendants charged with killing blacks’’ (p. 401). Nevertheless, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 5 to 4, refused to order revision or nullification of any death penalty statutes or procedures, arguing that this research failed to ‘‘prove that the decisionmakers in [McCleskey’s] case acted with discriminatory purpose.’’ Efforts in subsequent years to persuade Congress to enact a Racial Justice Act (designed to permit a challenge to any death sentence believed to be based on racial grounds and to require the government to rebut the challenge, if possible, with appropriate evidence to the contrary) were unsuccessful. Meanwhile, a 1990 report on racial disparities in death sentencing conducted by the U.S. General Accounting Office confirmed the ‘‘race of victim influence . . . at all stages of the criminal justice system process’’ (p. 5).

Miscarriages of Justice

Of all the worries associated with the death penalty, probably none is more potent than the horrifying thought that an innocent person might be executed. Western civilization itself could be said to rest on two cases of execution of the innocent: the death of Socrates in Athens in 399 B.C. and the death of Jesus of Nazareth in Jerusalem in A.D. 33. Death for witches is the most extreme case, for if witchcraft is impossible (even though belief in its efficacy remains widespread to this day in various parts of the world), then everyone burned at the stake or hanged for this crime was innocent.

There is no doubt, however, that scores of innocent defendants have been arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death—only to be saved (often literally at the last minute) because new evidence was discovered that persuaded an appellate court to overturn the sentence or convinced a governor to extend clemency. Virtually every American death penalty jurisdiction has at least one sobering story of this sort to tell. And there are scattered cases from the nineteenth century in which the state government, in the twentieth century, admitted to carrying out a wrongful execution. The Haymarket anarchists in Chicago a century ago was one such case; Governor John Peter Altgelt spared the lives of the three surviving defendants in 1893. The most recent, widely publicized, and flagrant example of this problem appeared in Illinois late in 1998: Between 1977 and 1988 in Illinois, almost as many death row inmates were released on grounds of their innocence (ten) as were executed (eleven).

Arguments for and Against Capital Punishment

Arguments in defense and criticism of the death penalty can take any of several forms: secular versus religious, and empirical versus a priori.

Religious Arguments

Jews, Christians, and Muslims have often defended the death penalty on the strength of texts in the Bible and the Koran. In 1995, however, the Vatican released a papal encyclical—Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life)—arguing that the death penalty was permissible only under very special conditions, and that in modern civil society it was not permissible because none of those conditions prevailed. The encyclical argued that the basic doctrinal paradigm for how God wants murderers to be punished is to be found in the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:8–16). Abel was murdered for no good reason by his brother, Cain, and upon discovery God inflicted on him a threefold punishment: he was cursed, he was stigmatized so all would know he was a murderer, and he was banished. He was not killed; indeed, God threatened dire punishment on anyone who would ‘‘raise his hand’’ against Cain. Early in the history of the Biblical peoples as this story is, it is unquestionably vivid and telling. Whether its impact is negated by later passages in the Bible, in which the death penalty for many crimes is endorsed, is a matter of controversy among scholars.

Christians often appeal to ‘‘the sanctity of life,’’ or at least the sanctity of human life; but this appeal cuts both ways in the controversy over the death penalty. Its opponents think executions fly in the face of the sanctity of human life; but its friends will cite this religious idea as their most important reason for favoring this punishment. If we are created in ‘‘the image of God’’ (Genesis 9:6), and if this is the source and nature of the sanctity of our lives, then the crime of murder is the gravest and most radical violation of that sanctity imaginable. It requires an adequate response to the offender’s crime, and the only adequate response is to put the offender to death.

There is much more in the Bible relevant to the death penalty besides the story of Cain and Abel and the imago dei, and Jews, Christians, and Muslims have been adroit and energetic in interpreting their scriptures to support their preferred view about the death penalty. In secular societies, however, or in nations whose religious history is nonbiblical (apart from western imperialism), other arguments are required to establish public policy and the principles governing the criminal justice system.

Secular Arguments

Defenders of the death penalty typically divide between those who rely on consequentialist (crime preventive) considerations, and those who rely on deontic (retributive) considerations. Arguments of the former kind depend on empirical evidence but the latter do not; they rely on moral intuitions and a priori reasoning. In a day when the death penalty was used for a wide variety of crimes and long-term imprisonment had yet to be practiced, it was plausible to stress the death penalty as a necessary means to the end of public safety. The death penalty could be used as a means to that end in either or both of two ways: as a deterrent, striking fear in would-be felons, or as incapacitation, effectively preventing recidivism in any form.

The chief source of support for the claim of superior deterrence was essentially this argument: Persons fear death more than imprisonment; the greater the fear the better the deterrent. That argument involves two empirical claims, raising the question of what (if any) evidence can be enlisted in their support. Little or no empirical evidence had been brought to bear on them until half a century ago. In the early 1950s in the United States, social scientists compared homicide rates in adjacent states (some with, others without the death penalty), homicide rates in all abolition states versus the rates in death penalty states, and homicide rates in a given state before and after abolition. In none of these comparisons was any evidence found of a superior deterrent effect thanks to the death penalty.

The debate was heightened in the mid1970s, when statistical methods borrowed from econometrics purported to show that each execution during the middle years of this century was correlated with eight or so fewer homicides. Close scrutiny established that the purported special deterrent effect (the claim that each execution caused eight or so fewer homicides) was an artifact of the methodology and not a reliable, reproducible result. By the mid-1980s, social scientists had lost interest in further research of this sort. The most recent review of a half century of deterrence research concluded: ‘‘Neither economists nor sociologists, nor persons from any other discipline (law, psychology, engineering, etc.) have produced credible evidence of a significant deterrent effect for capital punishment. And not a single investigation to date has produced any indication that capital punishment deters capital murders—the crime of direct theoretical and policy concern’’ (Bailey and Peterson, p. 154).

Research on incapacitation, by contrast, has been infrequent and less rigorous. A study of the behavior in prison and (where relevant) after release of more then five hundred offenders on death row who were resentenced in the 1970s as ordered by the Court in Furman showed that a half dozen of these murderers killed again. Many committed other felonies, but hundreds (if the evidence is reliable) were guilty of no further crimes. Since there is no reliable way of predicting which convicted murderers will recidivate, recidivist murder can be prevented only by executing every person convicted of murder. This will strike all but a few as excessively draconian as well as immoral (because it involves ‘‘punishing’’ some prior to their having recidivated, and it involves ‘‘punishing’’ others who will not become guilty of any recidivist crimes at all). Bureau of Justice statistics show that among death row prisoners in the 1990s, perhaps one in eleven had a previous conviction of some form of criminal homicide. Obviously, imprisonment failed to incapacitate these recidivist offenders. But there is no known method by means of which the courts or prison authorities could have identified the nine percent who would become recidivist murderers. Since a mandatory death penalty is unconstitutional, it is not clear what can practically and legally be done to reduce further (and ideally eliminate) this recidivism by convicted murderers.

However, as the Supreme Court’s rulings in the 1970s limited the death penalty to the punishment of murder and prohibited mandatory death penalties as well, the role of empirical arguments on behalf of the superior preventive effects of the death penalty has steadily shrunk, in favor of the a priori argument that relies entirely on desert and retribution. Here the essential argument goes as follows: Justice requires lex talionis, that is, that the punishment fit the crime; the punishment that best fits the crime of murder is the death penalty. Or, in a slightly different version: Murderers deserve to die, and justice requires that we inflict deserved punishments.

The classic objection to any argument of this form, in which the proper punishment for a crime is held to lie in making the punishment as close to the crime as possible, is that it cannot be generalized—or can be generalized only with absurd results. There is no punishment of this sort to ‘‘fit’’ a kidnapper who has no children, a bankrupt embezzler, or a traitor, a homeless arsonist, and a host of other serious offenders. As for the crimes of rape and torture, we could rape and torture the convicted offender, but the very idea is (or ought to be) morally repugnant. A retributivist can, of course, abandon lex talionis in favor of a principle of proportionality: the graver the crime the more severe the deserved punishment. This principle has great intuitive appeal; abolitionists who advocate life without the possibility of parole accept this principle. However, it does not require the death penalty. On the assumption that murder is the worst crime, all this principle requires is that murderers receive the severest punishment permissible. In sum, whereas retributivists have a plausible answer to the question, Who deserves to be punished? (Answer: all and only the guilty), they do not have a plausible answer to the next question, What is the deserved punishment? Their most plausible answer—murderers deserve the most severe punishment permissible—does not by itself provide any defense of the death penalty.

Opponents of the death penalty often point to the incompatibility of this practice with respect for the right to life, the value of even the worst lives, and human dignity. None of these normative considerations, however, quite succeeds in providing a rational ground to oppose all executions. Since at least the time of John Locke (1632–1704), defense of the death penalty can be made consistent with our ‘‘natural’’ and ‘‘inalienable’’ right to life on the understanding that the murderer forfeits his right to life. Even apart from forfeiture, it can be argued that the right to life is not absolute; few think it is morally wrong to take the life of an unjust aggressor if there is no other way to prevent an innocent person from being murdered. As for the value of human life, either this is a disguised way of asserting that the death penalty is morally wrong (and thus cannot be a reason for that judgment except by begging the question) or it is an empirical claim about convicted murderers (and thus open to doubt because of the belief that in the case of some murderers, whatever value is to be found by them or by society in their lives is cancelled or outweighed by the value to others of executing them). As for human dignity and the death penalty, proponents of the death penalty will argue that it no more confers immunity from a lawful execution than does the right to life. Perhaps the most that can be said about these three normative considerations is that they put the burden of argument on the defenders of the death penalty. A better argument against the death penalty starts from a well-known liberal principle of state interference: society, and government as its instrument, ought not to intervene coercively in individual lives except to pursue a goal of paramount social importance and then only by the least invasive, restrictive, destructive means. With this as the major premise (roughly equivalent to the principle familiar in constitutional law of ‘‘substantive due process’’), the abolitionist can then concede as a minor premise that reducing violent crime is a goal of paramount social importance. The crucial step in the argument is the next one, the twofold empirical claim that longterm imprisonment is (a) a sufficient means to that end; and (b) a less restrictive, coercive means to that end. The evidence for (a) is partly negative (the failure of social science to discover any persuasive evidence of the superiority of the death penalty as a deterrent, and the practical and legal impossibility of killing all convicted murderers to maximize incapacitation), and partly positive (the record of successful social control both in prison and in the general public without recourse to the death penalty in a dozen different American abolition jurisdictions spanning a century and a half ). The evidence for (b) is partly direct (convicted murderers themselves show by the relative rarity both of suicide, or even attempted suicide, on death row and of death prisoners who ‘‘volunteer’’ for death by refusing appeals that they believe that death for them is far more invasive and destructive than even LWOP) and partly indirect (opponents of the death penalty believe that death is more severe than LWOP, and so do its supporters).

International Law of Human Rights

Probably the most influential factor in shaping the future of the death penalty is international human rights law. In 1966 the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was adopted by the General Assembly of the UN, and it came into force in 1976. The Covenant provided that ‘‘no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhumane or degrading punishment or torture.’’ It was clear that this language was on a collision course with the death penalty. The United States ratified the Covenant but took explicit exception to two other provisions: the prohibition against executing juveniles (persons under eighteen at the time of the crime) and pregnant women. In 1989 the General Assembly adopted the Second Optional Protocol to the Covenant, asserting that ‘‘No one within the jurisdiction of a State party to the present Optional Protocol shall be executed.’’ This protocol came into force in 1991. Concurrently, the Organization of American States adopted in 1990 a Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights to Abolish the Death Penalty. Interpreting and enforcing these protocols continues to challenge signatory nations, and the United States is by no means the only country seeking for ways to disregard their mandate. Nevertheless, these developments in conjunction with the condition placed on nations wishing to join the Council of Europe that they abolish the death penalty suggest the direction in which the future will unfold (Council of Europe 1998; Schabas).


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