Capital Punishment in America

The concept of "a life for a life" is "as old as civilization itself"

(McCiellan 9). Capital punishment, the legal taking of the life of a criminal,

has been utilized in response to three distinct catagories of offense. The three

categories are: crimes against the person; crimes against property;

and crimes which endanger the security of the nation (Horwitz 13).

Capital punishment is still in use in the United States today, but has been

abolished by many countries (II 536). The countries that still have the death

penalty on their books, rarely employ it .

The earliest writings on the subject dates as far back as 2000 B. C.,

but it is clear that capital punishment more or less has existed since the birth

of mankind (Szumski 25). Throughout history, it has been exercised in almost all

civilizations as a retribution for severe crimes, but sometimes also for the

thrill and excitement. The Romans put slaves and prisoners in the Coliseum as

lion food while spectators enjoyed the sight (Horwitz 13).

In the early colonial states, the death penalty was applied for a vast

number of crimes, just like in England, the ruler of the states in this era (II

536). In England, in the 18th century, there were approximately 220 offenses

punishable by death. Some of them would today be considered as misdemeanors

and petty crimes (i. e. shooting of a rabbit, the theft of a pocket handkerchief,

and to cut down a cherry tree) (Horwitz 13). The majority of these were crimes

dealing with property. However, transportation became an alternative to

execution in the 17th century. A lot of these criminals were shipped to the U.S.


In the early days of our Constitution, the only segments that showed

that the death penalty existed were two amendments in the Bill of Rights (Landau

11). These amendments deal with protection and rights of the accused. The fifth

amendment prohibits the state from depriving an individual of life without due

process of law. The eight amendment prohibits "cruel and unusual" punishment.

The Supreme Court has still not determined what this phrase means. In one case

in the 1890s, the question was if capital punishment violated the eight

amendment. The court relied on the matter that "a definition of cruel and

unusual punishment must reflect the evolving standards of decency that mark the

progress of a maturing society" (14). Surveys from this era show that a

majority of the people favored the death penalty.

In the Middle Ages, capital punishment was also applied to animals

(Horwitz 24). An animal, guilty of having killed a human being, would be

executed, sometimes after a trial with a lawyer representing the animal. In one

case, in Dijon, France, a horse kicked his master to death. In court, a witness

testified that the man had provoked the horse. In spite of this, the creature

was sentenced to death. Trials with animals was considered to be absolutely fair.

"Enlightment thinkers", or social reformers, such as Montesquieu,

Voltaire, and Caesar Beccaria fought to bring an end to the use of capital

punishment (II 536). The Caesar Beccaria, an Italian criminologist in the 1700s,

influenced society and "stimulated penal reform" to abolish the practice of this

irrevocable penalty (Szumski 22). As an alternative, he recommends retribution,

that is making up for losses. In his essay An Essay On Crimes and Punishments,

approved by philosopher Voltaire, he admits that capital punishment is justified

in only one case; Beccaria argues that "when [a criminal], though deprived of

liberty, he has such power and connections as may endanger the security of the

nation", he should be executed (Szumski 24). This relates to justify capital

punishment in cases of spying, which still is a controversial issue today.

Religious opposers argue that the death penalty "contradicts the

teachings of love and mercy" (Szumski 86). At the same time a religious

supporter, Haven Bradford Gow, claims that the Bible justifies "an eye for an

eye and a tooth for a tooth" as stated in the Catholic Bible in the Fifth


"Another kind of slaying belongs to the civil authorities to whom is

entrusted the power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of

which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent" (Bradford).

The Bible is constantly used as a defense for capital punishment and many

references can be found to such a penalty. Another religious supporter judge

that "religious teachings prove that the death penalty upholds the dignity of

human life as ordered by scripture" (Szumski