The Inclusion of Capital Punishment through History

The inclusion of capital punishment as a penalty for criminal behavior has existed from the beginning of civilized society. The practice came to the United States with the first immigrants, was not excluded by the framers of the constitution, and continues to be a form of criminal punishment in thirty states, as well as the United States Government and Military.

Despite its long history, capital punishment is controversial because of its extreme nature. As the American population has grown and evolved, there has been a steady pressure to abolish capital punishment, opting for life in prison without the possibility of parole. Supporters of abolishing capital punishment argue the practice is barbaric, archaic and places humanity in a morally precarious position.

The dwindling population actively in support of keeping capital punishment argue the practice provides a deterrent to offenders who would otherwise have no reason to commit capital crimes. A review of a variety of articles and court case summaries suggests supporters of capital punishment tend to be of the conservative ideology, preferring to protect & maintain established legal practices.

With regard to the case history of Texas’ use of capital punishment, the state has never flinched in the execution of capital criminals. Despite a Supreme Court ordered moratorium on executions in the 1970’s, Texas was the first state to meet the court’s requirements and move forward with re-establishing executions.

Two important court cases have impact and ultimately done much to provide a standard of humanity to death penalty court cases. In the case Furman v. Georgia, defendant Furman was attempting to burgle a home when the homeowner surprised Furman, who shot the homeowner (Furman v. Georgia). The defendant was eligible for the death penalty because he had committed murder during the commission of a felony. While the case bears Furman’s name, there were actually two other cases included in the suit, one for rape and one for murder (Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972)). It is important to understand – this case did not make the death penalty unconstitutional; rather, the death penalty sentence in the consolidated case was applied in a manner that the court determined violated the defendant’s rights under the Eighth and the Fourteenth Amendments. In the case of Furman, the decision to sentence fell solely to the judge and the jury. In their opinion, justices felt there was too much opportunity for the application of bias and prejudice to come into play, and therefore considered both cruel and unusual. In the case summary, the Supreme Court determined “unless a uniform policy of determining who is eligible for capital punishment exists, the death penalty will be regarded as cruel and unusual punishment.” (Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972)). Furman was paroled in April 1984.

As a result, the Supreme Court placed a moratorium on executions in 1973. A number of states decided to commute death row sentences to life without parole and opted to remove the death penalty from state law. Other states, like Texas, developed new procedures and laws to ensure death penalty cases were handled in a uniform manner and were no longer ultimately decided upon by a judge or juries.

In the 1993 case Roper v. Christopher Simmons the defendant, a minor, was sentenced to death for the pre-meditated murder of a classmate (Case Summaries/Roper). In his appeal, based on the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, asked “Is it permissible under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to execute a juvenile offender who was older than 15 and younger than 18 when their crimes were committed?” (Case Summaries/Roper). In the case summary “The Court held that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed,” (Case Summaries/Roper). The summary indicated the court justices were required to consider the “evolving standards of decency” in order “to determine a national consensus against the death penalty for juveniles.” (Case Summaries/Roper).

Consider the following Texas death penalty statistics, collected from the Death Penalty Information Center’s webpage:

  • Texas has the third largest death row population as of April 1, 2018 – 235 inmates. California was first with 740 inmates and Florida was second with 354 (DPIC).
  • Texas has the most executions of any state since 1976 – 555 total, with 7 executed in 2017 and 10 scheduled for 2018. A look at California’s execution rate of 13 since 1978 explains the high population on death row; the sentence is handed down, but never applied (DPIC).
  • Demographics on death row are predictable with regard to race/ethnicity. African Americans disproportionately receive the death penalty out of all American races/ethnicities (DPIC).
  • There are more African and Anglo Americans on death row than Hispanic, Asian or other groups. Despite the fact that Anglos outnumber all minority populations, the percentage of African and Anglo Americans is equal at 42% (DPIC).

New death penalty sentences have dwindled steadily over the last 10 years. In 2008, there were 120, whereas last year there was only 39 sentenced (DPIC). It would seem that the nation as a whole does not want to send criminals to their death. Despite this trend, Texas continues to schedule and perform executions each year, even if it is a slower pace.

This assignment has been good on both an academic and personal level. Actively reviewing the historical and statistical data regarding capital punishment with a focus on Texas has been enlightening. Although it was not discussed in this paper (simply because to do so would require an additional three to five pages), there was a great deal of credible information regarding prosecutorial misconduct, faulty investigative data, and other unfortunate failures, which appear to have resulted in death sentences for Texas citizens. It was this information that affected my perspective regarding the government’s ethical and moral authority to put capital criminals to death. There is much that is wrong with the judicial system in Texas, as well as the nation, yet it is the system that is in place for the present. I still believe in the rule of law and the need for a judicial system; I just do not think we are doing the best we can to uphold the law equally for everyone in every case. That said I am not so naïve as to believe there will be any great change in the coming generation. We are a nation that protects personal liberty, and many are will to do whatever it takes to preserve their liberty over that of others. Perhaps, as this younger generation ages and another generation emerges, the nation (and hopefully the state) will make humanity and equality the higher ideal.

Works Cited

Case Summaries/Roper. n.d. .

DPIC. https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/FactSheet.pdf. n.d. Document. .

“Furman v. Georgia.” n.d. Oyez. 12 November 2018. .

“Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972).” n.d. Justia. 22 October 2018. .

Kids Laws.com. n.d. .   

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