An Outline of Death Penalty in America

Subject: Politics & Government
Pages: 7
Words: 1772
Reading time:
7 min
Study level: Bachelor

History of Death Penalty in America

The death penalty is considered a capital punishment reserved for some crimes. An offender is sentenced to death in a court of law and subsequently executed using various methods as defined by the State. The execution in America was introduced by the British in 1608 with the execution of Captain George Kendall for spying for Spain (Death Penalty Information [DPI], 2017a). Executions for capital offenses gained momentum in the early years, exacerbated by racial inequalities and the need to control the slaves.

One significant case defines the history of the death penalty in modern America. In 1972, the Supreme Court invalidated all death penalty schemes in the country in Furman v. Georgia, with judges indicating it violated the Eighth Amendment. The amendment outlaws the use of cruel and unusual punishment, thereby ruling the death penalty unconstitutional (Bill of Rights [BR], n.d.). This ruling halted the death penalty for four years, before reinstating it in 1976 through Gregg v. Georgia case. The 1976 decision saw an unprecedented increase in death penalty rules across the country. According to Steiker and Steiker (2020), courts imposed hundreds of death penalty every year, with a high of 315 cases in 1996 and 98 executions in 1999. The rates of incarceration in the United States also surged during this period.

Since the early 2000s, the death penalty also changed significantly with a decline in the ruling. Seven states abandoned the death penalty, with opinion polls indicating that many people are against capital punishment. According to DPI (2017a), death penalties declined by over 85% since the mid-1990s, and execution fell by 75%. The decline in death penalty popularity is attributed to the growing push from human rights activists and religious organizations who uphold life’s sanctity.

Modern Use of Death Penalty

The death penalty is still applied in the US, even though with lower frequency compared to the early years. Death sentencing cases were abundant in the 1950s, but they declined following the 1972 Furman case. The period between 1994 and 1996 led to over 310 annually death penalty convictions, a record number in modern history (BR, n.d.). Since the 2000s, the number of death penalty rulings have declined steadily. For instance, in 2016, 31 defendants were handed death sentences, which increased by eight to 39 in the year that followed. Even though 31 states retain the death penalty as a legal option, only 13 states gave the death penalty in 2016 and 14 states in 2017 (Desai & Garrett, 2018). The existing controversies surrounding the death penalty plays a significant role in the decline of such rulings.

The rate of execution declined across the country, with discussions on the dignity of human life. For instance, BR (n.d.) shows execution between 1900 and 1972 surpassed 7,000, but 1,516 people have been executed since it was reinstated in 1973. Even though this number is still high, there is significant progress towards eliminating execution. An example is Virginia, which ranks third in the number of executions since 1973 has not imposed death sentences since the year 2011 (Desai & Garrett, 2018). Some states insist on having the death penalty but rarely sentence people, or when they do, no executions occur.

Use of Death Penalty in “Civilized Countries”

The fundamental right to life is upheld in many countries, so a number of them abolished the death penalty. The death penalty violates key tenets of the international human rights law, which are cruelty and unusual punishment as well as the fundamental right to life (Barry, 2019). Despite such strong statements, only 142 countries explicitly or in practice abandoned the death penalty, whereas the USA Supreme Court argues it does not violate the Eighth Amendment. Steiker and Steiker (2020) noted as death penalty sentences increased in the 1990s in the United States, the Western nations were taking a different approach towards eliminating capital punishment. Various explanations are provided for the differences in legal practice and law between the US and civilized countries.

There are several issues which explain the deep and long-standing commitment towards capital punishment in the US. The first is the historical differences towards the treatment of high-status and low-status criminals in America and Europe. For instance, during the democratization and liberalization era, Germany and France extended dignified punishments to all, while the US abolished high-status mistreatment (Steiker & Steiker, 2020). As a result, Europe focused on leveling up punishments to acceptable levels, whereas the United States passed stricter sanctions towards the low-status criminals. This issue is exacerbated by the high distrust in the American political, religious, and cultural values. The American culture has a fundamental intolerance towards divergent views, which led to the eruption of fatal campaigns against drugs and crimes and Ku Klux Klan activities (Steiker & Steiker, 2020). In the United States, the political climate is in such a way opposing ideas lead to one being labelled as an enemy, and it leads to the increased use of death penalties.

The economic system in the European countries and the United States have structural differences. The EU has a coordinated market economy (CME), emphasizing job training and education for stability. It also has highly coordinated social groups and institutions, indicating the society and economy have high tolerance rates and more skilled individuals. Conversely, a liberal market economy is an individualistic and less dependent society, with no long-term social or economic relations. The result is a community with exclusionary policies and harsh punishments because it lacks reintegration (Steiker & Steiker, 2020). The American exceptionalism and vigilante attitude result in a criminal justice system comfortable in capital punishment like the death penalty.

States Using Death Penalty in America

The implementation of the death penalty is based on values held by every region. Therefore, every State applies the law differently, with 11 confederate states and Oklahoma adhering to strict death penalties. These areas account for 80% of all the modern era execution (Shatz, 2017). The death penalty rulings and execution disparity occur because the two are applied based on the defendant’s race. States with rigid social and religious differences are likely to uphold death sentencing than areas with a more open culture. The study by Desai and Garrett, (2018) grouped these states into five. The first is abolitionists, including 22 states like Alaska, New Mexico, and Colorado with no death penalty. The second category is de facto abolitionists, where the death penalty is retained, but they do not impose it, with California as an example. The third is symbolic states such as Oregon, which imposes death sentences but do not go through with executions. The final is executing states, which irregularly impose the death penalty and execute people, for instance, Texas (Desai & Garrett, 2018). As a legal option, the death penalty is still present in 25 states, while three states have a Governor-imposed moratorium against such rulings.

Death Penalty in the State of Georgia

Georgia is one of the states left with the death penalty as a legal option for prosecutors to follow certain crimes. According to DPI (2017b), the first recorded death penalty case in State was in 1735, and it has been happening ever since. The crimes punishable by death in Georgie were a primary aiding runaway slave, rape, murder, horse stealing, and robbery. DPI (2017b) also indicates the sentence’s preferred execution method included hanging, firing squad, and burning on a stake. However, in 1924, Georgia began electrocution as the preferred method, even though hanging continued until 1931. Electrocution continued to be used until 2001, when the Supreme Court ruled it cruel and unusual punishment, making it unconstitutional. In its place, the State turned to lethal injection, and it is carried out to this day.

Georgia made the headlines through the 1972 Furman v. Georgia trial, which led to the declaration of all death penalty as unconstitutional. The State had the fourth-highest number of executions by 1976 with 950 (DPI, 2017b). The death penalty as capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, and since then, Georgia has executed 76 people. The State did not execute a person between March 2014 and March 2019, making it the only time in its history to go five consecutive years without execution (DPI, 2017b). The last execution occurred in January 2020, while another person was condemned to life imprisonment hours before being imposed to the death sentence.

Good and Bad Reasons for or against Death Penalty

One reason against the death penalty is the disproportionate sentencing and imposition. Findings from Garrett et al. (2017) revealed only less than 1% of counties sentence people to death, most of which are dominated by black people. On the other hand, their study indicates death penalty is disproportionately imposed when a victim is white. Therefore, it becomes a challenge not to view the death penalty as a racialized capital punishment. The second reason is the death penalty is inhuman, cruel, and degrading to the defendant. There is no acceptable way to impose a death sentence because they all involve taking away human life, which is considered sacred. The death penalty is also in violation of international human law and the Ten Commandments. The United States is a religious country, and the Bible condemns the killing of another person. The death penalty can be misused by individuals who have a personal vendetta against the defendant. Additionally, mistakes conducted during the preliminary investigation process might condemn an innocent person to death row.

Retribution is the first reason why the death penalty is good in the United States. People who commit a heinous felony such as mass murder or other capital offences should be punished in proportionate harm caused to the victims. The third reason is that law and order are required in a society, which means people who commit various crimes should be punished to maintain social control (Sethuraju et al., 2016). Finally, individuals who willingly commit murder might do it once more, which is why the death penalty should not be abolished because imprisoning such characters could lead to more killings.

Crimes Punishable by Death Sentence in Georgia

The death penalty is considered a high bar, which means it is only reserved for select offences. Common crimes where the death penalty is applicable include rape, murder, and armed robbery, as well as kidnapping for a person with a prior record for a capital felony (Lopes, 2020). The death penalty is warranted when a person with a record of capital offence commits another crime, murder for monetary gains, mass murder, and killing police or judicial officer. It is also implemented when the perpetrator tortures and kills the victim or a convicted felon killing while correctional facility.


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Bill of Rights. (n.d.). Gregg v. Georgia (1976). Bill of Rights Institute. Web.

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Desai, A., & Garrett, B. L. (2018). The state of the death penalty. Notre Dame Law Review, 94, 1255-1312. Web.

Garrett, B. L., Jakubow, A., & Desai, A. (2017). The American death penalty decline. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973- ), 107(4), 561-642.

Lopes T. (2020). What you should know about the death penalty in Georgia. The Lopes Law Firm. Web.

Sethuraju, R., Sole, J., & Oliver, B. E. (2016). Understanding death penalty support and opposition among criminal justice and law enforcement students. SAGE Open, 6(1). Web.

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Steiker, C. S., & Steiker, J. M. (2020). The rise, fall, and afterlife of the death penalty in the United States. Annual Review of Criminology, 3, 299-315. Web.