Capital Punishment in the U.S.

The history of the death penalty in America has left the country divided over its ethicality.

Deeksha Rachupalli, Staff Writer

The death penalty has long been debated both for its ethicality and the technicality of its enforcement. 

Capital punishment dates back to the 18th century B.C. Early European settlers brought the practice to the Americas as early as 1608This punishment was a common practice until the ratification of the United States Constitution in 1787. That is when the constitutionality of capital punishment came into question, specifically regarding the 8th Amendment. 

The 8th amendment prohibits the practice of “cruel and unusual punishment,” but considering how “cruel” and “unusual” are subjective terms, it was up to the Supreme Court to determine whether the standard practice of the death penalty was unconstitutional. This resulted in two landmark cases. 

The first was Furman v Georgia, which concerned the claim that the death penalty violates not only the 8th Amendment but also the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. The verdict would later be overruled by Gregg v Georgia, which ruled in favor of the death penalty. The Court claimed that capital punishment “is an extreme sanction, suitable to the most extreme of crimes.” 

Today, the death penalty is a legal right delegated to each state, which has only amplified its controversy. Opposition to the death penalty operates under the basic pretense that no institution or system is perfect, meaning it could make mistakes. The argument is that the justice system in the US is just as susceptible to these mistakes and shouldn’t have an irreversible punishment for one that could be innocent. Studies have shown that around 4% of all death row inmates may be innocent. 

Some opponents of the death penalty allege that race has a significant impact on who is sentenced, and that the policy has a damaging ripple effect.

Capital punishment discrimination is also tied to class, according to some activists. In fact, 95% of those on death row are considered to be from underprivileged backgrounds. 

Proponents of the death penalty, however, claim that a heinous crime warrants death in order to protect the welfare of other people, which was the view espoused by the majority in Gregg v Georgia. 

Proponents also claim that a person who has knowledge of the death penalty would refrain from committing heinous crimes that they otherwise planned on acting upon. Essentially, they claim that capital punishment should act as a deterrent to crime, though one study concluded that states with the death penalty have a  48% to 101% higher homicide rate than states where it is illegal. 

In general, more people lean toward favoring the death penalty. Specifically, 60% of American adults approve of capital punishment. However, 78% still believe that there is risk involved with capital punishment.

Although the death penalty can be seen as a polarizing subject, there is common ground. Both sides want to see guilty people being punished, and both proponents and opponents dislike seeing innocent people punished and guilty people go free.