The History of Capital Punishment

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  • Topic: Capital punishment, Murder, Crime
  • Pages : 6 (2011 words )
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  • Published : April 8, 2002
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The History of Capital Punishment
Crime has been a plague on society from ancient times to present. In response to this plague, society has formed structured rules to deal with the perpetrators of crime. A crime can be defined as act that society's government deems as illegal. Different societies have formed various methods and standards for evaluating crime and assigning corresponding punishment. What constitutes a crime has changed throughout the course of history. In ancient times, such extreme actions as the deliberate killing of another human being for the sake of family honor or religious rite was considered socially acceptable and therefore not legally wrong. Now, the majority of the modern world (with perhaps the exclusion of some Middle Eastern sects) view the deliberate killing of another human being as non-socially acceptable, and therefore legally wrong. The overall exceptions to this rule are the taking of human life in the act of war and in punishment for extreme crime(s) against humanity.

Punishment for crime has ranged from mild, in the form of fines, or incarceration, to severe, in the form of physical torture or death. In ancient times, punishment for serious crimes such as treason, theft, or murder was frequently severe and inhumane. Offenders were often tortured for hours to be either left to die a slow and painful death or be executed publicly. The use of the death penality has declined throught out the industrial Western world since the 19th century.

The concept of confinement for punishment dates back to ancient times. Imprisonment is generally a milder form of punishment which removes an individual from society and confines him/her in an institution with other offenders. Examples of historical places of confinement are London's Tower and Paris's Bastille. The Tower and Bastille were used to confine political prisoners, not criminals in the ordinary sense. The common jail has existed since approximately 1166, when King Henry II of England ordered places of confinement for criminals built. Jails mainly served the purpose for prisoners awaiting trial, while also holding unfortunate petty offenders such as beggars, vagrants, and debtors. The purpose for places of confinement remained the same until the development of the American prison system. The purpose of the American prison system posed a totally new concept to the justice world. This new concept was designed to reform the prisoner, not just punish him/her for committed crime.

American concepts pertaining to offenders, punishment, and reform was developed after much careful thought and consideration concerning the example of English law and its history. Death was formerly the penalty for all felonies in English law. In practice, the death penalty was rarely applied as widely as the law provided. A variety of procedures were adopted to mitigate the harshness of the law; therefore, many offenders who committed capital crimes were pardoned. The conditions for pardon were the offender agreed to be transported to what were then the American colonies and the benefit of the title of clergy. The benefit of clergy applied to offenders who were ordained priests (or clerks in Holy Orders) and who were thereby subject to trial by the church courts rather than by the secular courts. Hence, if an offender could show that he was ordained he was allowed to go free, and was subject to the possibility of punishment by the ecclesiastical courts. In the 17th century, the only proof of ordination was literacy, and it became customary to allow anyone convicted of a felony to escape the death sentence by giving proof of literacy by reading a verse from Psalm 51. The obvious problem with this test is that most offenders escaped punishment by simply learning the words by heart.

Capital punishment has been used in the United States since Colonial times. During this time frame, it was accepted because of the prevalence of...
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