Capital Punishment In America and Controversies

Capital punishment is one of the controversial issues in America and other countries. While capital punishment is obsolete in most of the developed countries of the world, U.S. still practices death penalty in most of its states and has the support of public opinion; there are organizations and groups who are for or against it and each of them have its own justifications based on moral, religious and emotional grounds.

Death penalty was reinstated in 1976 and continues to its existence in 21st century. 67% of capital conviction is overturned, seven percent of those whose sentences were overturned have been acquitted, and ten percent were re-sentenced to death. The reminder ends up with lesser sentences.

Capital punishment has been a lawful punishment since the colonial period in America and was considered a normal part of judicial process. Death penalty was prescribed for major crimes; but from the beginning death penalty was only used and practiced when there was no other way for punishing the criminal. The reform movement toward death penalty began in 1750′s in Europe by academics such as Cesare Beccaria and Voltaire. This movement was influential in Europe and ended capital punishment in 1767. In America some intellectual were also affected by the movement. They argued that death penalty should be abolished as a cruel act and they defended life imprisonment as a more rational way. As a result of these efforts, in 19th century Michigan was the first state that abolished death penalty; however most states still practiced death penalty for certain crimes.

Capital punishment has gone through different stages in 20 century: during the progressive era before the First World War, six more states banned capital punishment. During 1920s through 1940s a number of states reinstated death penalty which led to an increase in number of execution. In 1930 up to 1945 this increase was even greater. From 1950s to mid-1970s the approach toward capital punishment changed again which was as a result of advancement ofliberal ideas. In this period the trend was toward judicial challenges to the constitutionality of the death penalty.

In 1976 Greggv. Georgia reinstated the use of capital punishment in American states.

Legal Process

The legal process for the death penalty in the Unites States is complicated and includes four stages:

1. Sentencing,

2. Direct review,

3. State collateral Review and

4. Federal Habeas Corpus. Recently a fifth stage has been included and is becoming an important process:

5. Section 1983 Challenge which is a clemency or pardon in which the governor or president of jurisdiction can unilaterally reduce a death sentence.

Each of these stages is going to be explained briefly:

Direct Review:

If a defendant is sentenced to death at the trial level, the case goes to direct review. In this process an appellate court examines the evidence presented in the trial court and decides whether the decision was legally right or not: if the appellate court finds no significant legal errors in capital punishment sentence, the judgment will be affirmed; if significant legal errors are discovered then the judgment will reverse; and if the appellate court finds that no reasonable could find defiant eligible for death penalty, which is very rare, then the defendant will be acquitted.

State Collateral review:

When a death sentence is affirmed on direct review, supplemental methods e.g. collateral review remain to attack and change final judgment. When the defendant receives his death sentence in the state level trial, the first stage is State Collateral Review. This process varies from state to state. The purpose of these proceedings is to create a chance for the prisoner to change the final judgment.

Federal habeas corpus

After a death sentence is affirmed in State Collateral Review, the prisoner may apply for Federal Habeas Corpus, which is a kind of lawsuit that can be brought in federal courts; here the prisoner can attack a death sentence in federal court. The purpose of federal habeas corpus is to ensure that state courts have done a reasonable job in protecting defendant’s constitutional right.

Section 1983 contested

If the federal courts refuse to issue a writ of habeas corpus, the Governor may set an execution date. In recent years the prisoner can postpone the execution through a final round of federal litigation using the Civil Right Act of 1871. The United States Supreme Court approved the use of Section 1983 as a way for challenging a states method of execution a cruel and unusual punishment in violation of Eight Amendment.

Controversies over the Use of Capital Punishment

Different groups and parties support or oppose the use of death penalty and each of them has its own moral and religious justification. In America the majority of public opinion supports death penalty. Religious groups have different opinions about it: more conservative groups tend to support capital punishment while those who are more liberal are inclined to oppose it. The debate and controversies are around several issues; those who oppose it claim that: is it morally correct to kill another human being even if he is a criminal? Can death penalty be used as a deterrent to avoid more crimes? Is capital punishment used fairly across racial, social and economic classes? And what if an innocent person is found guilty and executed and new evidence in future reveals the improper judgment?

Until 1960s it was assumed that capital punishment was permitted by Fifth Amendment, eight Amendment and fourteen Amendment. However some Activists and movements tired to reform the process and its shortcomings: they believed that the rules which were applied to criminals differed wildly from state to state; they also argued that gas chambers and electrocution violated the eight Amendment as a cruel and unusual way of execution. In 1972 the Supreme Court concluded that capital punishment is a cruel and unusual punishment and in Furman v. Georgia the court struck down the capital punishment as a violation of the Eight Amendment. The Furman decision stopped all execution in the United States at least temporarily but did not abolish it completely. In 1976 the court clarified the decision. In Gregg v. Georgia the court argued that Gregg, convicted of robbery and murder, could be executed only if the jury considered both aggravating and mitigating circumstances. This decision established the constitutionality of Capital punishment. This decision argued that if the juries consider all circumstances of every individual and investigate it properly then ultimate death penalty is acceptable.