Exploring Capital Punishment

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By Elizabeth Echard, Staff Writer

Should criminals be put to death for the crimes they commit? The topic of capital punishment has always been a sensitive issue in the United States.  Many individuals have specific opinions as to whether our present society should support such actions.  Many debates have focused on the pros and cons of capital punishment.  There are many methods used, reasons for, and view on capital punishment across the country.

Many types of execution have been used for capital punishment. The use of death for wrongdoing goes back many centuries when sanctions consisted of stoning and crucifixions.[1] The most common method used today is lethal injection. During lethal injection, the prisoner is bound to a gurney and then injected with three drugs, which put the person to sleep, stop the breathing, and stop the heart.[2]

Other historical forms of capital punishment include the electric chair, which sent 2,000 volts through a prisoner’s body,[3] asphyxiation by gas chamber,[4] , and hanging.[5] Execution by firing squad, while incredibly rare,[6] was recently spoken of as potentially more humane than lethal injection by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.[7]

The methods used during executions vary by state, and some states use more than one method. A vast majority of the states use lethal injection as their primary type of execution, including the Federal Government.[8] Fifteen of the states let the inmates choose their type of execution.[9] Nebraska is one of the most recent states to adopt lethal injection as their sole method of execution in 2009, using the electric chair as their primary source of execution until 2008 when it was found unconstitutional.[10] There are no states that use lethal gas, hanging, or firing squad as their primary source of execution.[11] Because the types of execution vary from state to state, a criminal who committed a crime in more than one state will argue to be tried in a different state, usually hoping for a lesser charge or no death penalty.

Through the years, the topic of capital punishment and whether it should be used as a sentence has been debated.  Religious groups argue against the death penalty, declaring that there is a deep concern when a human life is taken by an individual and that the taking of another life through capital punishment further devalues the life of the victim.[12]  Other critics of capital punishment argue that executing a person puts society on the same level as the person who commits a horrible crime.  It is also the perception of some death penalty opponents that usually poor people or people from minority communities are sentenced to death because they cannot afford good lawyers.[13]

There is some evidence that people given life sentences instead of capital punishment have turned their lives around and have made good contributions to society.[14]  It is also reported that capital punishment has not effectively decreased the crime rate in society.[15] Fifteen states plus the District of Columbia have abolished capital punishment and four states currently have a gubernatorial moratorium on their death penalty.[16]

Pennsylvania Governor, Tom Wolf, stated, “This moratorium is in no way an expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing heinous crimes. This decision is based on a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust, and expensive.”[17]

Pennsylvania reinstated the death penalty almost 40 years ago and during that time period, only three people have been executed, the last being 18 years ago in 1999.[18] In comparison, Texas has executed over 500 people since 1976,[19] showing that some consistency does need to be applied to the current death penalty policies within the United States.

Comparing the crime rates of states that still use the death penalty and those that have abolished it is one tool that might predict to some extent how effective the death penalty is or is not. Pennsylvania’s (death penalty/moratorium) current crime rate is 8.5% lower than it was 40 years ago,[20] while Texas’s (death penalty) current crime rate is 30.4% higher than it was 40 years ago.[21] Ohio’s (death penalty) crime rate has decreased by 36.8% over the past 40 years.[22] Hawaii’s (abolished) crime rate has decreased by 15.9% over the past 40 years.[23] Michigan’s (abolished) crime rate has decreased by 60.1% over the past 40 years,[24] and Washington’s (death penalty/moratorium) crime rate is 32.2% higher than it was 40 years ago.[25]

Exploring a topic as controversial as capital punishment leaves some very important questions for reflection. Are any crimes worthy of taking another human life?  Are some execution methods more humane than others?  Will the crime rate change in the states that have abolished capital punishment in the next several years?  As time passes, only public opinion and the data collected will serve as a means to answer these questions, but hopefully policies will be put forth by lawmakers to make the death penalty more effective and possibly more unified across the United States.




[1] Head, Tom, Thought Co., Types of Executions, <https://www.thoughtco.com/types-of-executions-4086368> (February 28, 2017).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/courts_law/sotomayor-questions-whether-lethal-injection-our-most-cruel-experiment-yet/2017/02/21/ddee7192-f862-11e6-bf01-d47f8cf9b643_story.html?utm_term=.d0738fcd5603

[8] Methods of Execution, Death Penalty Information Center, <https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/methods-execution#neb> (2017)

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Religion and the Death Penalty, Death Penalty Information Center, <https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/article.php%3Fdid%3D2249> (2017)

[13] Kartha, Deepa, We Need to Contemplate the Pros and Cons of Capital Punishment, Buzzle.com, <https://www.buzzle.com/articles/10-pros-and-cons-of-capital-punishment.html> (August 14, 2016)

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] States with and without the death penalty, Death Penalty Information Center, <https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/states-and-without-death-penalty> (November 9, 2016)

[17] Pennsylvania Governor Announces Moratorium on Executions, Death Penalty Information Center, <https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/node/6054> (February 13, 2015)

[18] Santoni, Matthew, Pa. Supreme Court Upholds Gov. Wolf’s Death Penalty Moratorium, TribLive, <http://triblive.com/news/adminpage/9672521-74/wolf-pennsylvania-court> (December 21, 2015)

[19] State Execution Rates, Death Penalty Information Center, <https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/state-execution-rates> (February 11, 2015)

[20] Pennsylvania Crime Rates 1960-2016, Disaster Center.com, <http://www.disastercenter.com/crime/pacrime.htm> (2016)

[21] Texas Crime Rates 1960-2016, Disaster Center.com, <http://www.disastercenter.com/crime/txcrime.htm> (2016)

[22] Ohio Crime Rates 1960-2016, Disaster Center.com, <http://www.disastercenter.com/crime/ohcrime.htm> (2016)

[23] Hawaii Crime Rates 1960-2016, Disaster Center.com, <http://www.disastercenter.com/crime/hicrime.htm> (2016)

[24] Michigan Crime Rates 1960-2016, Disaster Center.com, <http://www.disastercenter.com/crime/micrime.htm> (2016)

[25] Washington Crime Rates 1960-2016, Disaster Center.com, <http://www.disastercenter.com/crime/wacrime.htm> (2016)



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