Capital Punishment: cruel and unusual punishment

The choice between life and death is one of the biggest issues in the world today, and the biggest factor for that issue is whether or not the death penalty is “cruel and unusual punishment.” The issue about capital punishment has many sides and each side is backed by many differentiated individuals, however most people bring about good reasoning’s for and against the death penalty. The death penalty argument can be approached from many different angles; the angles used in this paper are the main facts and information when it comes to the death penalty. In this paper the subjects are the history of the death penalty, the main people and cases for capital punishment, biases used when deciding for the death penalty, and the methods that are used today. I am here to prove to the reader that the death penalty is not “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The death penalty has been around for thousands of years extending all of the way back to Eighteenth Century B.C., but the differences between now and then are obvious. Back then death penalties were carried out by such means as crucifixion, drowning, beaten to death, burning alive, and impalement. Using methods such as these to carry out executions for the death penalty is a very severe type of cruel and unusual punishment, but back in Eighteenth Century B.C. this type of execution was considered to be normal. Death penalties did not slow down for a few centuries, in Sixteenth Century A.D. Henry VIII used some common methods like boiling, burning at the stake, hanging, beheading, drawing, and quartering. In Britain the death penalty was the answer for crimes such as marrying a Jew, not confessing to a crime, and even treason. By the 1700’s, 222 crimes were punishable by death in Britain, including stealing, cutting down a tree, and robbing a rabbit warren. These crimes hardly seemed bad enough to sentence individuals to death by the juries in Britain, so eventually the number of crimes punishable by death greatly decreased in the 1800’s. Britain was the greatest influence when it came to the American colonies adopting death penalty laws. When the European’s came to the new world they brought the practice for capital punishment. The first recorded execution in the new colonies was that of Captain George Kendall in the Jamestown colony of Virginia in 1608, he was thought to be a spy for Spain. In 1834, Pennsylvania was the first state to move the executions out of the public and into correctional facilities. This was a big step for capital punishment because no longer could the average civilian witness a death sentence carried out, and it also created more of a humane attitude towards the capital punishment argument. From 1920 to 1940 there was resurgence in the death penalty because of the writings of criminologists; in the 1930’s there were more executions than any other decade in American history. The death penalty enthusiasm started to become depleted during the 1950’s, and the fall in executions declined greatly due to public influence.
Since Eighteenth Century B.C. there have been many death convictions, but the public have not had a chance to see who the face is behind the crime. News and radio are the main factors towards the public getting the information they deserve; in the past one hundred years it is relatively easy for the average individual to hear about the latest capital punishment case. The four most important and most recent cases of America’s history involved Gary Gilmore, Ted Bundy, Karla Faye Tucker, and Timothy McVeigh. These individuals were given fair trials, and each one was convicted and sentenced to the death penalty due to their heinous crimes that each committed. All four are deceased by some type of lethal execution because of the crimes they have committed, and each person received what they deserved. Gary Gilmore was convicted of killing two individuals during a robbery; he shot both Bennie Bushnell and Max David Jenson. It took nearly a decade to convict Gary, but eventually he was killed by a firing squad just after 8 a.m. on Monday, January 17, 1977. To many people’s dismay, Mr. Gilmore more or less welcomed his death by saying, “let’s do it.” Gilmore, who had vowed not to flinch before the firing squad, sat calmly, a hood covering his head, as five anonymous gunmen armed with .30-caliber rifles took aim and fired. This type of execution was more common back in the 70’s, but eventually and gradually the electric chair took precedence in the killings of many on death row. The case and conviction of Ted Bundy was the next real big capital punishment trial in the United States. Mr. Bundy ultimately confessed to abducting and killing 23 women, but prosecutors say he could have been responsible for the killings of up to 100 individuals. Ted Bundy was put to death in Florida’s electric chair on January 24, 1989 after confessing to possibly a small portion of his killings. Mr. Bundy was a very educated man who could fool many people with his charm and smile, but his killings eventually caught up to him and he finally received what he deserved after a few years of murder. Bundy seemed confident he would be acquitted of the state kidnapping charges, but he was convicted as many thought he should. Prosecutors and investigators say Bundy began confessing to murders as the day of his execution approached in the hopes that, if he slowly gave out information, it would delay his punishment. This did not work in his favor at all; his sentence was carried out with great pleasure and relief to the public and the victim’s families at the scheduled time. In 1998 a women by the name of Karla Faye Tucker became the first woman executed in Texas since 1863 and the first in the nation since 1984. Tucker was convicted of hacking a man and women to death; she became a born-again Christian in prison, and was executed by lethal injection in Texas on Feb. 8, 1998. During the last days and weeks of her life, Tucker questioned her execution as a just method for punishment. Her transformation from a drug-addicted and violent teen-age prostitute to a born-again Christian was especially moving, but in the end she perished to her well-deserved death. Everyone knows Timothy McVeigh as the terrorist who was a major part of the Oklahoma City bombing killing 168 people. It was one of the most recent large scale bombings in America, and the main person the clues lead to was none other than Timothy McVeigh. He was executed by lethal injection on June 11, 2001, and became the first person in 38 years to be killed by the federal government.
All four individuals were sentenced to death for something horrible that they had done, but for every case there is always a fragment of doubt that surrounds the evidence. This fragment of doubt leads to the wrongfully accused; every wrongfully accused individual in the system is someone who essentially is murdered. The court system’s are supposed to prove the person guilty beyond reasonable doubt, but in some situations, “beyond reasonable doubt,” is not looked into too well. In three pretty recent cases James Adams, William Henry Anderson, and Everett Applegate were all wrongfully accused. All three of these men were convicted and sentenced to death, but the miraculous part was that each person had a pretty decent alibi to back up their innocence. James Adams was convicted of first-degree murder of his girlfriend, sentenced to death, and executed in 1984. There were witnesses that said James’ car was at his girlfriends, someone saw his car leave, and someone heard a voice inside the victims’ home. In the end, the truth was not discovered until a skilled investigator examined the case and found out that his girlfriend had borrowed his car, the person who said they saw him leave could not have been able to make out the individual in the car, and they found out that the voice inside the house was a woman’s voice. Even though these facts were brought to the judge months before Adams’ execution, he refused to grant even a short stay so that these questions could be answered. William Henry Anderson was convicted of rape of a white woman, sentenced to death, and executed in 1945 without an appeal having been made. The execution took place only five months after Anderson’s arrest, perhaps in part because the sheriff wrote to the governor, “I would appreciate special attention in this case before some sympathizing organization gets a hold of it” ( Anderson’s sister and one of his co-workers said that he had been having a consensually intimate relationship with this white woman for about a year. Everett Applegate was convicted of murder of his own wife; he was sentenced to death in 1936. Another individual, Frances Q. Creighton, was said to have also been present at the crime and she had testified that she killed the victim by arsenic poisoning, at Applegate’s instigation. During the investigation Creighton also admitted to another previous murder, but this did not help Mr. Applegate on the stand when he was pleading his innocence. All of these men were wrongfully accused in different ways, but perhaps if they had the same person to help them throughout the process they might have had the chance to better their life. The person is Sister Helen Prejean, and she has been a big part of the death row inmates’ last days in the state of Louisiana. Sister Helen Prejean has witnessed five executions in Louisiana and today educates the public about the death penalty by lecturing, organizing and writing. She is a saint when it comes to death row inmates; she is able to see the side of people that not too many people can.
In the world of capital punishment there are many factors that can influence the judge and/or juries decision of whether or not to sentence the certain individual to death. There are four main factors when it comes to sentencing individuals; the four factors are age restriction, class biases, gender biases, and racial biases. The biggest and most recent controversial factor is the question on what age is the cut-off age for the death penalty, or otherwise known as the age restriction. Just recently the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in the Roper v. Simmons case, which they declared that the penalty for anyone under the age of 18 is “unconstitutional” (Thomas R. Eddlem. “Supreme Arrogence.”). The five majority justices arrived at the opposite conclusion in the 1989 case Stanford v. Kentucky that the execution of 16- and 17-year-olds was not “cruel and unusual punishment.” This just proves how our nation is changing every day to try and make it fair on everyone that is convicted of a capital crime, and to give everyone the same chance at the life they deserve. Race and class biases pretty much go hand in hand because most of the people sentenced to death are on the lower rung of the latter in society. Also most of those individuals on the lower rung of society that are sentenced to death are African American males. The fact that there is a racist bias still lingering in the discussion about the death penalty perpetuates people to keep up on studies that would help prevent such racist acts. Recent studies in Philadelphia indicate that the odds of receiving a death sentence are nearly four times (3.9) higher if the defendant is black. Race is more likely to affect death sentencing than smoking affects the likelihood of dying from heart disease. Another study found that the key decision makers in death cases around the country are almost exclusively white men. Of the chief District Attorneys in counties using the death penalty in the United States, nearly 98% are white and only 1% are African-American. Gender biases do not play as important role in the capital punishment argument as class and race, but the fact is women are not sentenced to death nearly as much as men. Since the beginning of the colonial era, 20,000 people have been executed in America, but only 400 of them have been women. In the 23 years since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment, 5,569 total death sentences have been given out by courts. Of those 5,569 total death sentences, only 112 are women. Only one of the 112 women have been executed (Velma Barfield in 1984), compared with 301 men of the 5,569 sentences. A professor at Northwestern University named Leigh Beinen once stated that “Capital punishment is about portraying people as devils, but women are usually seen as less threatening” (
Last but not least the methods used during the process of executing an individual today are much more humane than they were back in Eighteenth Century B.C.. The methods today do not carry the label of “cruel and unusual punishment,” because we all know that each death row inmate will probably get a better death than his/her victim. Some common methods used today when carrying out the death penalty include lethal injection, the gas chamber, and the electric chair. Lethal injection first came into the picture in 1977; the condemned person is usually strapped to a restraint and a member of the execution team positions several heart monitors on his skin. Two needles (one is a back-up) are then inserted into usable veins, usually in the inmate’s arms, then the execution takes place. The inmate does not even feel any pain because he/she is given a tranquilizer before the muscle failure drugs. The gas chamber is not as widely used today at all, but in some states it is used as a secondary method to either the electric chair or lethal injection. For this method the inmate is placed into a chair inside a chamber (the gas chamber), and a pail of sulfuric acid is placed below the chair. The warden then gives a signal to the executioner who flicks a lever that releases crystals of sodium cyanide into the pail. This causes a chemical reaction that releases hydrogen cyanide gas. The electric chair method is a little more grueling because it is a method that visibly dismembers the body of a human being. For this method the inmate is placed in a chair similar to the gas chamber chair, and then the guards have some precautionary actions before the electricity is run through the body. There is a sponge with saline placed under a metal skullcap-shaped electrode that is attached to the scalp and forehead. The electrode is the main source of the electricity; the sponge must not be too wet or the saline short-circuits the electric current and not too dry, as it would then have a very high resistance. A jolt of between 500 and 2000 volts, which lasts for about 30 seconds, is run through the inmate. After the body cools down doctors make sure that there is no heart beat, if there is still a heartbeat then executioner keeps running electricity through the body until the heart has stopped beating.
There is no telling where capital punishment will lead from here, but it has come a long way from Eighteenth Century B.C.. Almost all of the methods used 100 years ago are not still practiced today, which means the death penalty is becoming more and more humane with every passing year. Sure there are some who are convicted of crimes they did not commit, but if you look at the big picture you can see that there is more good than harm being done. Hopefully in the future our country, and even world, can devise a plan to make absolutely sure that each individual sentenced to death row is guilty, but until then the death penalty is the best conclusion to capital crimes. The pros and cons of this argument are both very good arguments, and each side of the argument should continue to proceed with research and studies. In the end, the thing you have to think about when arguing for or against the death penalty is whether or not the punishment fits the crime.

Work cited

Vogel, Richard D.. “Capital Punishment Update.”
Monthly Review. New York: Dec. 2004. Vol. 56, Iss. 7, p. 31-33 (3 pp.).

Carroll, Joseph. “Americans and the death penalty.”
The Gallup Poll Tuesday Briefing. Washington: Dec. 2004. p. 82-88.

St. John’s Law Review. Brooklyn: Fall 2004. Vol. 78, Iss. 4, p. 1119-1165 (47 pp.).

Scherer-Emunds, Meinrad. “Wrongful death.”
U.S. Catholic. Chicago: Apr. 2005. Vol. 70, Iss. 4, p. 28-32 (5 pp.).

Eddlem, Thomas R.. “Supreme Arrogence.”
The New American. Appleton: Apr. 4, 2005. Vol. 21, Iss. 7, p. 30-32 (3 pp.).

Anonymous. “Too Young to Die.”
The Nation. New York: Mar. 21, 2005. Vol. 280, Iss. 11, p. 3 (1 pp.).

Anderson, George M.. “The Other Side of the Death Penalty.”
America. New York: Mar. 14, 2005. Vol. 192, Iss. 9, p. 6-8 (3 pp.).

Death Penalty Curricula for High School. 1 Nov 2001. Michigan State University Comm
Tech Lab and Death Penalty Information Center.

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