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Capital Punishment in the United States Explained

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In our Explainer series, Fair Punishment Project lawyers help unpackage some of the most complicated issues in the criminal justice system. We break down the problems behind the headlines - like bail, civil asset forfeiture, or the Brady doctrine - so that everyone can understand them. Wherever possible, we try to utilize the stories of those affected by the criminal justice system to show how these laws and principles should work, and how they often fail. We will update our Explainers monthly to keep them current. Read our updated explainer here.
To beat the clock on the expiration of its lethal injection drug supply, this past April, Arkansas tried to execute 8 men over 1 days. The stories told in frantic legal filings and clemency petitions revealed a deeply disturbing picture. Ledell Lee may have had an intellectual disability that rendered him constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty, but he had a spate of bad lawyers who failed to timely present evidence of this claim -…

America has lost the right to comment on other nations’ use of the death penalty

With executions skyrocketing among US allies, some authority might come in handy right about now

State-sponsored executions are at their highest level in 25 years, according to a report released this week by Amnesty International. In 2015, the report tallied 1,634 people executed worldwide — a more than 50% increase over 2014.

The real number is probably much higher, since China is estimated to be the world’s most prolific executioner, but its death toll is a closely guarded state secret. Of the countries included in the report, 89% of last year’s executions took place in Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. While these countries are no stranger to capital punishment, their 2015 stats are a dramatic increase from prior years. What we’re witnessing is an alarming surge in executions among America’s official and unofficial allies in the Middle East.

The US is the only Western country to still use the death penalty. It keeps company with the countries mentioned above — China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan — on the list of top five executioners worldwide. How can the United States scold other countries for their use of capital punishment when the nation has fought tooth and nail for centuries to keep the practice alive?

After all, the United States doesn’t simply “still have” capital punishment, as though it were a stubborn vestige of another era, habitual and entrenched. Campaigns against capital punishment have been waged internally since the birth of the nation. The United States even dropped the practice in the 1970s, only to reinstate it a few years later.

The US has had vocal death penalty detractors since its inception, including some Founding Fathers. In 1792 Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote an essay called “On Punishing Murder by Death,” in which he argued that the death penalty “lessens the horror of taking away human life, and thereby tends to multiply murders.” He called this phenomenon he “brutalization effect.”

Rush’s ideas garnered support, and the American death penalty abolitionist movement was born. The movement wasn’t fringe: it counted among its ranks Benjamin Franklin and US Attorney General William Bradford. Abolitionism gained traction, particularly among educated white elites in the North, but pro-capital punishment voices were louder and the practice persisted.

Americans’ stance on the death penalty oscillated wildly throughout the 19th century. Abolitionists would make headway in one state, only to lose ground in another. Michigan abolished the death penalty in 1846, just as Southern states began to classify less serious crimes committed by slaves as capital offenses. 


Source: Timeline, Meagan Day, April 7, 2016

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