Capital punishment, also dubbed the “death penalty,” is the pre-meditated and planned taking of a human life by a government in response to a crime committed by that legally convicted person. Passions in the US are sharply divided, and equally strong among both supporters and protesters of the death penalty.
Arguing against capital punishment, Amnesty International believes that “The death penalty is the ultimate denial of human rights. It is the premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the state in the name of justice. It violates the right to life…It is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. There can never be any justification for torture or for cruel treatment.”
Arguing for capital punishment, the Clark County, Indiana Prosecuting Attorney writes that “…there are some defendants who have earned the ultimate punishment our society has to offer by committing murder with aggravating circumstances present. I believe life is sacred. It cheapens the life of an innocent murder victim to say that society has no right to keep the murderer from ever killing again. In my view, society has not only the right, but the duty to act in self defense to protect the innocent.”
And Catholic Cardinal McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington, writes “…the death penalty diminishes all of us, increases disrespect for human life, and offers the tragic illusion that we can teach that killing is wrong by killing.”
Death Penalty in the U.S.
The death penalty has not always been practiced in the U.S. although ReligiousTolerance.org states that in the U.S., “about 13,000 people have been legally executed since colonial times.”
The Depression era 1930s, which saw a historic peak in executions, was followed by a dramatic decrease in the 1950s and 1960s. No executions occurred in the US between 1967 to 1976.
In 1972, the Supreme Court effectively nullified the death penalty, and converted the death sentences of hundreds of death row inmates to life in prison.
In 1976, another Supreme Court ruling found capital punishment to be Constitutional. From 1976 through June 3, 2009, 1,167 people have been executed in the U.S.
The vast majority of democratic countries in Europe and Latin America have abolished capital punishment over the last fifty years, but United States, most democracies in Asia, and almost all totalitarian governments retain it. Crimes that carry the death penalty vary greatly worldwide from treason and murder to theft. In militaries around the world, courts-martial have sentenced capital punishments also for cowardice, desertion, insubordination and mutiny.
Per Amnesty International’s 2008 death penalty annual report, “at least 2,390 people were known to have been executed in 25 countries and at least 8,864 people were sentenced to death in 52 countries around the world:”
Executions in 2008, by Country
•China – 1,718
•Iran – 346
•Saudi Arabia – 102
•United States – 37
•Pakistan – 36
•Iraq – 34
•Vietnam – 19
•Afghanistan – 17
•North Korea – 15
•All others – 66
Source – Amnesty International
As of October 2009, capital punishment in the US is officially sanctioned by 34 states, as well as by the federal government. Each state with legalized capital punishment has different laws regarding its methods, age limits and crimes which qualify. From 1976 through October 2009, 1,177 felons were executed in the U.S., distributed among the states as follows:
Executions from 1976 – Oct 2009, by State
•Texas – 442 (38%)
•Virginia – 103
•Oklahoma – 91
•Florida – 68
•Missouri – 67
•Georgia – 46
•Alabama – 44
•North Carolina – 43
•South Carolina – 42
•Ohio – 32
•Louisiana – 27
•Arkansas – 27
•All others – 149
States and U.S. territories with no current death penalty statute are Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin, District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and U.S. Virgin Islands. New Jersey repealed the death penalty in 2007, and New Mexico in 2009.
The case of Stanley “Tookie” Williams illustrates the moral complexities of the death penalty. Mr. Williams, an author and Nobel Peace and Literature Prizes nominee who was put to death on December 13, 2005 by lethal injection by the state of California, brought capital punishment back into prominent public debate.
Mr. Williams was convicted of four murders committed in 1979, and sentenced to death. Williams professed innocence of these crimes. He was also co-founder of the Crips, a deadly and powerful Los Angeles-based street gang responsible for hundreds of murders.
About five years after incarceration, Mr. Williams underwent a religious conversion and, as a result, authored many books and programs to promote peace and to fight gangs and gang violence. He was nominated five times for the Nobel Peace Prize and four times for the Nobel Literature Prize.
Mr. Williams’ was a self-admitted life of crime and violence, followed by genuine redemption and a life of uniquely and unusually good works.
The circumstantial evidence against Williams left little doubt that he committed the four murders, despite last-minute claims by supporters. There also existed no doubt that Mr. Williams posed no further threat to society, and would contribute considerable good.
The case of Stanley “Tookie” Williams forced public reflection on the purpose of the death penalty:
•Is the purpose of the death penalty to remove from society someone who would cause more harm? •Is the purpose to remove from society someone who is incapable of rehabilitation? •Is the purpose of the death penalty to deter others from committing murder? •Is the purpose of the death penal