A Continuing Conflict: A History of Capital Punishment in the United States

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Date: 2018
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Topic overview; Essential overview
Length: 7,016 words
Lexile Measure: 1260L

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Capital punishment is the ultimate punishment—death—administered by the government for the commission of serious crimes. The word capital comes from the Latin word capitalis, meaning “of the head.”

Although capital punishment has long enjoyed popular support in the United States, the level of support has declined in recent decades. Gallup, Inc., conducts an annual poll concerning the death penalty. In U.S. Death Penalty Support Lowest since 1972 (October 26, 2017, http://news.gallup.com/poll/221030/death-penalty-support-lowest-1972.aspx), Jeffrey M. Jones of Gallup indicates that 55% of those polled in October 2017 were in favor of capital punishment for people convicted of murder. The level of approval has dropped considerably since 1994, when it peaked at 80%.

Proponents and opponents of the death penalty are passionate in their beliefs. People on both sides of the debate often use philosophical, moral, and religious reasoning to justify their positions. Some view capital punishment as retribution (a justly deserved penalty for wrongdoing). Retributionists sometimes rely on historical moral teachings, such as the Bible. One often-quoted biblical phrase is “an eye for an eye,” which comes from the book of Exodus (or Sh'mot in the Torah) and is part of the religious laws that existed at the time the Bible was composed that clearly prescribed execution for murder. Death penalty opponents typically take an opposite moral viewpoint, arguing that execution is wrong and is more about revenge than retribution. Furthermore, they believe the capital punishment process is flawed by discrimination against the poor and people of color and that it has captured innocent people in its web. There are also practical issues associated with capital punishment, such as its financial costs and its effectiveness (or lack thereof) at deterring others from murdering. Opponents and advocates of the death penalty both complain about the legal appeals process that follows a death sentence. Opponents say the so-called safeguards are inadequate and mistake-prone; advocates say the process takes too long and delays the administration of just punishment for heinous crimes.

The US system of governance is based on the separation of federal and state powers. This means that individual states decide for themselves if they want to practice capital punishment. States with laws (or statutes) that allow death penalty sentences are said to have capital punishment by legislative authority. In other words, the state legislatures have enacted laws that permit the death penalty to be carried out under particular circumstances. However, laws are subject to court challenges regarding their constitutionality (their adherence to the strictures laid out in the US Constitution). Capital punishment laws are often challenged in court. Any laws ruled unconstitutional cannot be enforced until they are changed to be constitutional. In some cases, state legislatures have been unable or unwilling to pass revised statutes. As a result, a state can have death penalty laws on its books that are actually unenforceable.

As of January 2018, the federal government (including the US military) and 31 states had death penalty statutes that were in force for new capital offenses (Tracy L. Snell, “Prisoners...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|KHBYOP741663065