Every society has striven for justice, peace, and balance. To combat the descent into brutality, humans have created punishments. Ancient civilizations assigned certain punishments to specific crimes based on their severity, the worst being capital punishment, or the death penalty, the revocation of one’s life due to odious acts. While this punishment system may have worked in ancient simpler times, they do not apply to the modern United States climate. The Eighth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from “cruel and unusual punishment”, the promise of punishments only served when deserved and rightfully so. The death penalty goes directly against the Eight Amendment and its promise and reasons such as racial bias and lack of deference will reinforce this. Capital punishment remains a relevant and controversial issue in America today and should be seen as unconstitutional. Though this topic has been increasingly discussed more often, this controversy began 3,700 years ago in Babylon.
Since the beginning of time, the death penalty has been a controversial issue among humanity. Records of the punishment of death date back to King Hammurabi of Babylon in the 18th century B.C., when twenty-five death penalty worth crimes were listed. Through the 14th and 7th century B.C., ancient texts such as Hittie’s code and the Draconian Code of Athens listed crucifixion, drowning and being beaten alive as viable punishments for the most heinous crimes. In 10th century A.D. Britain, William the Conquerer ended the most common death penalty, hanging, only allowing it for war purposes. Under King Henry VIII in 16th century A.D., over 72, 000 were executed for crimes ranging from not confessing to a crime to marrying a Jewish individual by beheadings and being burned or boiled alive. This number continues to rise and by the 1700s, over 200 punishable offenses were in effect in Great Britain. Due to the severity of the death penalty, many juries often opted to give the accused a not guilty verdict to avoid the hefty repercussions of capital punishment for simple offenses. As a result, Britain began major reform and the 222 punishable offenses lowered by over 100. However, with the expansion to the New World, Europeans brought their culture and capital punishments along with them. The first recorded execution in America was in Jamestown, Virginia in 1608 to Captain George Kendall on the accusation that he was a spy for the Spanish. Four years after the execution of Kendall, the Governor of Virginia, Sir Thomas Dale created and enacted the Divine Mortal and Marital Laws which were well known for their strict punishments for small offenses such as stealing grapes or trading with the indigenous people of America (“Early”). Though, capital punishment laws and methods varied from each colony, by 1776 most colonies had many sodomy, murder, rape, burglary and more crimes punishable by death. In 1794, influenced by death penalty abolitionists一such as Benjamin Franklin, Pennsylvania stopped the use of the death penalty except for first-degree murder. Michigan became the first state to abolish capital punishment statewide in 1846 and was followed by Rhode Island in 1852 and Wisconsin in 1853. New York was the first state to build an electric chair following the Edison electricity company’s use of the electrocution of dogs, cats, and elephants in public demonstrations in the year 1888. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty to be a cruel and unusual punishment in Fruman v. Georgia, which began a 10-year moratorium for the death penalty (Baskin). Though capital punishment was reinstated in Gregg v. Georgia in 1976, the moratorium ended with the execution of Gary Gilmore on January 17, 1977 (“The”). As of 2020, due to Roper v. Simmons and Baze v Rees, minors cannot be executed and lethal injection remains one of six legal execution methods. The other methods being, the electric chair, gas chamber, hanging, and the firing squad (Baskin). Lethal injection has killed over 1300 individuals and is the most frequently used in death penalty states. Since 1976, the electric chair has been responsible for the deaths of 163 inmates and is in use in nine states. Legally used in six states, lethal gas chambers have claimed the lives of 11 people since its first use. Lastly, the hanging and firing squad methods are legal and in use in three states where they have claimed the lives of six convicts in total (“Methods”). As of 2019, only 56% of Americans believe the death penalty is the best punishment for those convicted of murder and agree with the use of legal execution methods (Jones). Capital punishment continues to be a controversial and relevant discussion that divides the country, however, it should be abolished for it its unconstitutional nature.
Although the death penalty is still in active use, there are many compelling and factual reasons against its use and constitutionality. The death penalty has always and continues to disproportionately target minorities and the economically disadvantaged. The current death row population is 41.7% Black, 43.1% White, and 12.6% Latino (Berman and Barnes). The death penalty sentencing system continues to repeat the cycle of racial bias and oppression by increasing the magnitude of Black and Brown bodies within mass incarceration. The United States General Accounting Office for Death Penalty Sentencing reported, “In 82% of the studies [reviewed], race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty, i.e., those whom murdered whites were found more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks” (“Executions”). These individuals, due to their socioeconomic status and other extenuating factors have been set back and unable to progress appropriately in society. In almost all cases involving convicts on death row, they were unable to afford their lawyer and receive adequate counsel. Kamala Harris, a junior Senator from California spoke on this issue, remarking, “Black and Latino defendants are far more likely to be executed than their white counterparts. Poor defendants without a team of lawyers are far more likely to enter death row than those with strong representation. Your race or your bank account shouldn’t determine your sentence ” (ProCon.org). The economically disadvantaged are unfairly executed because they lack the money and resources of their wealthy, rich counterparts. Harris is an outspoken opponent of capital punishment, a firm believer that it is discriminatory, a waste of taxpayer dollars, immoral, and ineffective. There is no accurate evidence of the death penalty being a proven form of deference for a crime. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there is “no link between the presence or absence of the death penalty and murder rates” (“Deterrence”). Crimes are still committed despite capital punishment in effect and do not discourage criminals from committing heinous acts. Moreover, the quantity of death row inmates exoneration has steadily increased, especially in recent years. Between 1973 and 2014, over 140 inmates were exonerated (“Description”). Due to technological and modern advancements, new evidence is being uncovered that is exonerating an astonishing amount of death row inmates. There is an estimated 4.1% of current inmates awaiting execution that are wrongly convicted (Gross et al.). Capital punishment is an oppressive, unjust, unconstitutional system that has no place in our modern society despite the opposing side’s arguments.
The affirmative for the constitutionality and justification of capital punishment argue that it is humanity’s responsibility to act justly in the interest of moral balance and peace for victims’ families. One of the main justifications for the execution is justice and peace for the families of victims of murder or other brutal crimes. Before Connecticut abolished the death penalty, over 170 victims’ families wrote a letter against the death penalty to state legislators. In the letter, they spoke on how the death penalty does not bring any closure to the families and killing the convicted does not benefit them (“Victims”). This important sentiment displays how proponents for capital punishment has the interests of retribution rather than supporting the families of victims. Though one could say Capital punishment is reserved for criminals that commit most brutal and heinous crimes, it is not true. The Eighth Amendment protects Americans from having an unjust punishment for a crime. However, the death sentence is cruel and unusual, for death row inmates often spend seven to twelve years awaiting their execution (CNN). The waiting period between sentencing and the execution date is absurd. Not to mention the unreasonable costs of one death penalty trial and execution. In 2008, it was reported that Californians pay $117 million annually for capital punishment and 2.34 billion would be saved over the course of 20 years if the money allotted for the death penalty would be repurposed for life imprisonment. 60% say life imprisonment the better punishment, up from 45% in 2014 (Jones). A majority of American citizens agree that money that could be directed towards more dire needs and resources go to waste to execute one individual, the cons significantly outweigh the pros. President Donald Trump, a supporter of the death penalty especially for terrorists and drug dealers in the opioid crisis, believes the death penalty to be a deterrent because it removes murderers from society and protects American citizens. However, the Abdurrahman Boroumand Center found that when examining 11 countries in which the death penalty was abolished, there was a decline in crime and murder rates (“Study”). The death penalty is anything but a deterrent for a crime and is ineffective in lowering crime and murder rates. Each of the affirmative’s points proves relevant to the conversation, however, they are not factually backed and eventually lead back to the unconstitutionality of the death penalty in America.
The unconstitutionality of capital punishment has been refuted and unrefuted several times within the Supreme Court and remains significant and controversial within its walls. William Henry Furman burglarized a family member’s house. Upon being caught, he began to flee the scene but tripped and fell, shooting and killing his family member in the process. Jaramus Jackson also attempted to rob an individual while armed and in the process and raped the victim in the process, similar to Branch, another rapist. These three men were sentenced to death and appealed, eventually all under Fruman v. Georgia. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Fruman that the death penalty was a violation of the Eighth Amendment, a precedent which began a 10-year moratorium on capital punishment (‘Furman’). This monumental decision forced states to rework their arbitrary and racially biased system of death sentencing and voided 40 state death penalty statues. It would not be until Gregg v. Georgia in 1976 when the death penalty would be reinstated and 1977 for the moratorium to end (“The”). Though Fruman v. Georgia’s precedent was eventually overturned, its lasting effects can still be felt through declining execution rates. A case with similar lasting repercussions was argued 29 years after Fruman v. Georgia.
Roper v. Simmons was a relevant case that challenged the constitutionality of the death penalty altogether. In 1993, Christopher Simmons planned and murdered at age 17. At age 18, he was found guilty and sentenced to death but appealed numerous times up until 2002. Simmons used the claim that the Atkins ruling protects him from the death penalty due to committing the crime before 18. The Missouri Supreme Court offered to cast aside the death sentencing in exchange for life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The Supreme Court decided 5-4 in Simmons’s favor because they ruled states that the eighth and fourteenth amendment protects minors that committed a crime between 15 and 18 from being sentenced to death. After all, it was found to be a “disproportionate punishment” to those who were under 18, and hence a new precedent was set that no minor could be executed from 2005 on (“Roper”). The Roper v. Simmons precedent has been used countless times to protect minors against the unconstitutional nature of capital punishment.
To conclude, though capital punishment remains a relevant and controversial issue in America today, it should be seen as unconstitutional. The death penalty has been disproportionately oppressive and targeted towards the less financially endowed, black and brown bodies and individuals of low socioeconomic status. In most cases, death row inmates’ executions do not affect the national crime rate and is not an effective deference method. More inmates are being exonerated and found innocent with every year. Alternatives to the death penalty, like life imprisonment are more accepted by the public and cheaper. As long as the death penalty continues its activity, America will never find true justice or peace.