Toward Understanding the Death Penalty Debate
The death penalty remains a source of contentious public debate in the United States. No other democracy in the world uses it, yet public opinion polls in the United States have shown that support for the death penalty has been as high as eighty percent and rarely as low as fifty percent, although for a brief moment in the 1960s it fell below the fiftieth percentile. Currently, public opinion polls show that sixty-seven percent of the American people support the death penalty, although that figure drops to fifty-three percent when the option of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is presented as an alternative.1
In Furman v. Georgia (1972), the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional because it was implemented in a manner that was arbitrary and capricious. This ruling sent states back to their legislative drawing boards to fashion death penalty legislation that would avoid claims that the death penalty was administered in an arbitrary manner. In other words, death penalty statutes should make clear why people who commit the same crime (in this case, first-degree murder) do not all receive the same punishment (in this case, the death penalty).
In Gregg v. Georgia (1976), the Supreme Court ruled that Georgia's new death penalty legislation avoided the “arbitrary and capricious” implementation of the death penalty by establishing a bifurcated trial. The first stage of the trial would determine guilt. If guilty, the second stage of the trial would determine the appropriate punishment. For a jury to bring in a sentence of death, it would have to consider a range of aggravating and mitigating circumstances that would tip the weight toward the death penalty or a life sentence. It is doubtful that any legislative method can eliminate the arbitrary and capricious nature of death sentences, but asking juries to balance or consider aggravating and mitigating circumstances has proven particularly vexing.
Thirty-eight states and the federal government currently authorize the use of the death penalty. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, there have been 887 executions, including ten of women.2 Of those 887 executions, 730 have been carried out in the South. Texas and Virginia account for 403 executions. A leading argument against the death penalty is that it is possible to execute an innocent human being. One very disturbing figure is that 112 death row inmates have been exonerated since 1973. These exonerations have occurred as a result of DNA testing (which is not always available), because substantive questions have been raised about a convicted defendant's inconsistencies on a confession, and, in at least one case, because someone else confessed who did commit the murder. In some cases, it is quite possible that innocent individuals have been executed.3
Books on the death penalty abound. This essay focuses almost exclusively on the United States, with a brief reference to international law. However, the volumes cited under “Reference and Research” direct interested readers beyond the United States. The remainder of the essay is subdivided into the following categories: History, Collections, The Philosophical Debate, The Christian Perspective, Race and the Death Penalty, Guilty but Innocent, The Immorality of the Death Penalty, Who Are We?, International Law, and General Interest. The following recommendations serve to guide the lay reader through the vast literature available on this emotionally charged topic.
Reference and Research
One of the best places to begin any search, of course, is through reference and research books. There are several noteworthy entries. First, Louis J. Palmer Jr.'s Encyclopedia of Capital Punishment in the United States provides overviews for most Supreme Court capital punishment decisions through 2000 and reviews state laws on the death penalty, among hundreds of other entries....
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