The Evolution of the Death Penalty: From Barbaric Punishment to Controversial Practice

Since the 1970s, over 8,500 people have been sentenced to death in the US. While the death penalty is slowly losing public support, there is a long history and great debate behind the practice. 

Capital punishment is typically reserved for criminals who commit serious crimes such as murder, treason, and espionage.  However, that hasn’t always been the case. Throughout history, across countries and cultures, capital punishment has taken various forms. 

While the majority of Americans favor the death penalty, eight in ten citizens still acknowledge the risk of wrongful execution, according to Pew Research.

So whether you think the death penalty is simply a barbaric tradition or the foundation for preventing heinous crimes, let us explore how the practice of this punishment has evolved in the first place. 


History of the Death Penalty 

The use of the death penalty can be traced back to ancient civilizations, with evidence of its application found in historical records and legal codes. The practice has evolved over time, with different societies adopting distinct approaches to capital punishment and varying in the crimes deemed punishable by death.

Upholding Law and Order: the Death Penalty in Ancient Cultures

In ancient cultures, the death penalty was often employed as a means of maintaining social order and enforcing the rule of law. For example, the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian legal code dating back to the 18th century BCE, prescribed the death penalty for various offenses, including theft, adultery, and bearing false witness. Similarly, ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman societies all utilized capital punishment as a tool for upholding their respective legal systems.

The Middle Ages: Beheadings, Hangings, and Other Gruesome Punishments

During this period in history, capital punishment was often justified on religious grounds, with authorities arguing that it served as a means of purging the community of evil and maintaining moral order. In some cases, the death penalty was also employed as a means of suppressing political dissent and consolidating the power of ruling elites.

Throughout Europe, methods of execution during this period included beheading, hanging, and burning at the stake. 

The First Whispers of Abolition in the Early Modern Period

The early modern period saw the continued use of the death penalty in Europe and the expansion of its application to the colonies of the New World. In England, the Bloody Code, a set of harsh criminal laws enacted during the 17th and 18th centuries, resulted in the execution of thousands of individuals for a wide range of offenses, including petty theft and poaching. As the Enlightenment took hold in the 18th century, however, some thinkers began to question the morality and effectiveness of capital punishment, setting the stage for future debates and reforms. 


The Death Penalty in American History 

Capital Punishment During and After the American Revolution

The use of the death penalty in the United States has its roots in the colonial period, with capital punishment laws varying between the different colonies. Following the American Revolution, the newly formed states began to reevaluate their criminal codes and, in some cases, revise their capital punishment laws. While some states maintained the use of the death penalty for a wide range of offenses, others began to limit its application to only the most serious crimes, such as murder and treason.

Founding Fathers and the Death Penalty

The Founding Fathers of the United States held a variety of opinions on the death penalty, reflecting the broader debates of the time. Some, like Thomas Jefferson, advocated for capital punishment in limited circumstances, while others, such as Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Benjamin Rush, were more skeptical of its effectiveness as a deterrent and questioned its morality. The U.S. Constitution, drafted in 1787, does not explicitly prohibit the use of the death penalty, but the Eighth Amendment, adopted in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights, prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments,” a phrase that has been the subject of ongoing debate regarding the constitutionality of capital punishment.

Early Abolition Movements in the 19th Century

Abolitionists, inspired by the broader social reform movements of the time, argued that capital punishment was inhumane, ineffective as a deterrent, and prone to error. In 1846, Michigan became the first state to abolish the death penalty for all crimes except treason, and other states soon followed suit. However, the abolition movement faced significant opposition, and by the end of the 19th century, most states still maintained the use of capital punishment.

A Shift in Capital Punishment Methods

In the United States, the history of the death penalty has been marked by a gradual shift in execution methods. In the early years of the nation, hanging was the most common method of execution. However, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, new methods such as electrocution and the gas chamber were introduced, with proponents arguing that these methods were more humane and efficient than hanging. The first use of the electric chair occurred in 1890, while the gas chamber was first used in 1924.

In the latter half of the 20th century, lethal injection emerged as the preferred method of execution in the United States. First used in 1982, lethal injection involves administering a series of drugs designed to render the inmate unconscious, cause paralysis, and ultimately stop the heart. This method has been widely adopted across the country and is currently the primary method of execution in all states that still practice capital punishment.


20th Century Capital Punishment Debates

Throughout the 20th century, the death penalty remained a subject of intense debate in the United States, with landmark Supreme Court cases shaping the legal landscape and influencing public opinion on capital punishment.

Furman v. Georgia

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia marked a significant turning point in the history of the death penalty in the United States. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that the death penalty, as it was then being administered, constituted “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The ruling effectively placed a moratorium on capital punishment, as states were required to revise their death penalty statutes to address the concerns raised by the Court, particularly the arbitrary and discriminatory application of the death penalty. This decision led to the temporary suspension of capital punishment across the country and prompted states to reevaluate their sentencing procedures.

Gregg v. Georgia and the Modern Death Penalty

Just four years after the Furman decision, the Supreme Court revisited the issue of capital punishment in the case of Gregg v. Georgia (1976). In this case, the Court upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty, ruling that new sentencing procedures implemented by states, such as bifurcated trials and the weighing of aggravating and mitigating factors, had addressed the concerns raised in Furman. The Gregg decision effectively reinstated the death penalty in the United States, paving the way for its continued use in the modern era.


Current Status of the Death Penalty in the United States

Trend Towards Abolition

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 85 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes. The US remains one of the few developed countries that still allows the death penalty, although the number of executions has declined in recent years. There are 23 states that have abolished the practice altogether.

Public support for the death penalty has also been gradually declining, with polls showing a decrease in the percentage of Americans who favor capital punishment for convicted murderers.

Impacts of Advancements in Forensic Science

The advancements in forensic science, particularly DNA testing, have played a significant role in shaping the debate on the death penalty in recent years. The increasing use of DNA evidence has led to the exoneration of numerous individuals who were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death, highlighting the potential for fatal errors in the criminal justice system. This has raised concerns about the possibility of executing innocent people and has fueled calls for reform or abolition of the death penalty.

Potential Alternatives to Capital Punishment

As the debate over the death sentence continues, there has been increased interest in exploring alternative forms of punishment for those waiting in death row. One such alternative is life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, which some argue is a more humane and cost-effective option than capital punishment. Advocates of this approach contend that it addresses concerns about wrongful convictions while still ensuring that dangerous criminals are permanently removed from society.

A Declining Number of Death Sentences

As of July 2022, there were around 2,500 prisoners on death row in the United States. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, over the past two decades, the number of death sentences has decreased steadily, primarily due to sentence reversals and a higher number of deaths from other causes versus new death penalty sentences.   

Viewpoints on the Role of the Death Penalty and Crime

The death penalty elicits a wide range of perspectives due to its complex nature and ethical implications. Advocates argue that it is a necessary deterrent and retribution for the most severe crimes, emphasizing its potential to maintain law and order in society. Furthermore, proponents suggest that capital punishment can be cost-effective compared to the long-term expenses of life imprisonment. 

On the other hand, opponents view the death penalty as a violation of human rights and an inherently flawed and irreversible punishment, encompassing the taking of a life in the name of justice. These diverse perspectives contribute to the ongoing debate surrounding this form of punishment. They emphasize its potential for wrongful convictions, inherent biases in the justice system, and the moral and ethical concerns that fuel the ongoing debate surrounding the death penalty and highlight the complexities and controversies inherent in its application.


Final Thoughts 

As society continues to evolve and our understanding of justice and human rights continues to deepen, it is likely that the debate over the death penalty will continue. Only time will tell whether this controversial practice will continue to be a part of our justice system or whether it will eventually be abolished altogether. Regardless of one’s personal views on the death penalty, it is clear that the history of this practice is a reflection of our evolving understanding of justice and human rights.

Lou Nightingale
Author: Lou Nightingale

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