Capital punishment refers to the use of the death penalty as a form of legal punishment administered by the state. Capital punishment in the U.S. has long been the subject of constitutional, philosophical and practical disagreement, and as such, has been subject to legal fluctuation. As of the time of writing, the United States is one of 56 nations worldwide, and one of just four developed democracies (alongside Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore) which uses death penalty. The U.S. is also the only developed Western nation to employ capital punishment.
At the time of writing, the death penalty is legal in 28 states, as well as at the federal level and within the military. In most cases, the death penalty is carried out through lethal injection in the United States, though a small number of states allow condemned prisoners to choose the alternate method of electrocution by electric chair.
This controversial topic cannot be easily divided into camps of support or opposition. Individuals are not always easily classified in the complex death penalty debate. Britannica indicates that arguments both for and against capital punishment fall within three categories: Moral, Utilitarian, and Practical.
The public debate over capital punishment cannot be easily divided into camps of support or opposition. Individuals are not always easily classified in the complex death penalty debate.” – @AcademicInflux
In their simplest terms, these arguments can be summed up as follows:
These varying positions help to frame the broader issue of capital punishment in the U.S., and they also demonstrate the complexity of this debate topic. There are those who may oppose the death penalty on moral grounds, but who believe that certain practical shortcomings in the actual administration of the death penalty prevent it from functioning in a morally sound way. There may be those who see capital punishment as a poor deterrent against crime but also view it as an important power accorded to the state as a way of addressing the most severe criminal offenders. Naturally, there are also those on either side of this debate who believe fully in the moral, utilitarian and practical arguments in favor of capital punishment, and those who fully reject each of these positions.
Naturally, there are also those on either side of this debate who believe fully in the moral, utilitarian and practical arguments in favor of capital punishment, and those who fully reject each of these positions.” – @AcademicInflux
Thus, the death penalty is not an issue on which every individual can be clearly categorized as pro or con. Various shades of gray color our thinking on this subject, including race, religion, and personal experiences with law enforcement, the courts, and corrections.
The goal of this discussion is to examine the various perspectives shaping the public discussion over the death penalty, and to provide you with a look at some of the figures past and present who have influenced this discussion. The figures selected may not always be household names, but are instead selected to provide a nuanced look at the public discourse on this subject, and in some cases, even to provide you with a list of individuals to contact as part of your research.
Since its inception as a group of British colonies, the United States has employed some form of state-sponsored capital punishment to address what it deemed the most severe crimes. Executions during the colonial period of American history were carried out by way of firing squad or hanging, and could be implemented for a wide range of crimes.
With the 1789 adoption of the Bill of Rights, the use of capital punishment in the U.S. was impacted by several amendments.
The Eight Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” which placed restraints around the methods used to carry out the death penalty” – @AcademicInflux
The language used in these Amendments leaves largely intact the right of the federal government and states to employ capital punishment, but these conditions would also be used to form the various legal arguments used to oppose the death penalty, whether in certain cases, certain states, or at all.
Though capital punishment was permitted at the federal level, the 19th century saw the first state-level abolishment of the death penalty. Michigan became the first state to abolish the death penalty in 1847, and in fact, has never carried out an execution since achieving statehood. In 1852, Rhode Island followed suit (though from 1872 to 1984, the death penalty was available as a penalty for murder committed by a prisoner). Wisconsin (1853), Maine (1887), Minnesota (1911), Puerto Rico (1929), Hawaii (1948), and Alaska (1957) all abolished the death penalty at the state level prior to the first federal court case which truly challenged the Constitutionality of the death penalty.
On its face, the case of Trop v. Dulles was unrelated to capital punishment. The case actually concerned the actions of a private in the U.S. Army who, though a natural born citizen, had his citizenship revoked as a punishment for military desertion. His attorneys argued that this constituted cruel and unusual punishment, but both district and Appeals courts upheld the punishment. The Supreme Court reversed the decision, with Chief Justice Earl Warren writing in his opinion that the Eighth Amendment protected against this “primitive” form of punishment. Ironically, it was the dissenting opinion by Justice Felix Frankfurter that touched on the death penalty, asking in his critique of the majority opinion, “Is constitutional dialectic so empty of reason that it can be seriously urged that loss of citizenship is a fate worse than death?”
Most importantly, the case introduced the precedent of “evolving standards of decency” when invoking the Eighth Amendment, requiring that courts assess whether a punishment is “cruel and unusual” according to constantly evolving social and ethical mores.
This 1972 Supreme Court decision was simultaneously a landmark case and a case that failed to set a long-term precedent regarding the death penalty. Furman v. Georgia was actually a collection of cases consolidated into a single Supreme Court ruling. The rule struck down the use of the death penalty by a narrow 5-4 majority. However, the brief opinions written by those ruling in the majority reflect the complexity and variance of perspectives on the issue. Several justices argued that the Eighth Amendment’s “cruel and unusual punishment” clause rendered capital punishment wholly unconstitutional. But this was not necessarily put forth by the full majority as a precedent. Some majority justices expressed concerns over the inconsistency of its application, while others spoke of the connection between racial discrimination and application of the death penalty. But in neither of these concerns was the death penalty itself characterized as unconstitutional. The decision did, however, result in an immediate moratorium on capital punishment in the U.S., with all existing death sentences being commuted to life imprisonment.
In response to the decision rendered by Furman v. Georgia, 37 states crafted new conditions around their respective death penalty laws aimed at redressing the concerns cited by the Supreme Court. In particular, some states took steps to proscribe far more specific terms around which the death penalty should be applied. Others introduced a “bifurcated” trial and sentencing structure, placing some procedural limits on the level of discretion given juries to make life and death decisions. Georgia’s bifurcated process was subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court on a 7-2 ruling. The use of the death penalty resumed in January of 1977, and the number of capital punishment sentences grew rapidly, even as much of the developed and democratic world moved toward total abolition.
Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential figures concerning the issue of capital punishment in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. This list has been vetted both to exclude political heads of state and prominent inmates who have been executed, in order to distill the list to those who have directly impacted the public debate over capital punishment. It is unsurprising, given the impactful case history above, that the remaining influencers are either attorneys or Supreme Court Justices:
|6||John Paul Stevens|
Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential books on the topic of capital punishment in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. This list is vetted to exclude the large number of religious scriptures that-because of their explicit legal prescriptions and their frequent reference to the death penalty-came up in significant numbers as part of our search.
|1||Dead Man Walking|
|2||On Crimes and Punishments|
|3||In Cold Blood|
|4||United States Code|
|5||Live from Death Row|
|6||The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town|
|8||The Death Penalty: Opposing Viewpoints|
|10||The Ultimate Punishment|
At the time of writing, the death penalty has been abolished in 22 states as well as Puerto Rico and Washington DC. It remains a legal remedy availed to the federal government and the U.S. military. Since the 1976 decision in Gregg v. Georgia, more than 7,800 defendants have been sentenced to death, with more than 1500 executions taking place over that span. More than 2500 convicts are on death row today.
From 2003 to 2020, there were zero executions for federal crimes. However, under the Trump Administration, the Justice Department resumed federal executions in July 2020. Since that time, 8 federal death row inmates have been executed.
Under the Trump Administration, the Justice Department resumed federal executions in July 2020. Since that time, 8 federal death row inmates have been executed.” – @AcademicInflux
This accelerated pace of federal executions has renewed longstanding debates about the moral, utilitarian, and practical concerns surrounding capital punishment. There are many in the legal community who maintain that the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment is sufficient to rule the death penalty unconstitutional and who support total abolition of capital punishment in the U.S. Opponents to the death penalty with backgrounds in sociology or social activism refer to research suggesting that racial biases in the justice system render inherent bias in the use of execution. And some criminologists argue that the death penalty is not effective at deterring crime.
There are also many in the law enforcement and corrections communities who view the death penalty as a necessary remedy for contending with severe crimes. Likewise, a number of public office holders-most often those who lean conservative or who take a vocal “law and order” position on criminal justice-may be strong advocates for the use the death penalty. This is most common at the state level, though the recent acceleration in use at the federal level under President Trump demonstrates that a conservative push at the executive level can also impact the use and visibility of the death penalty in American public life.Back to Top
Our goal in presenting subjects that generate controversy is to provide you with a sense of some of the figures both past and present who have driven debate, produced widely-recognized works of research, literature or art, proliferated their ideas widely, or who are identified directly and publicly with some aspect of this debate. By identifying the researchers, activists, journalists, educators, academics, and other individuals connected with this debate-and by taking a closer look at their work and contributions-we can get a clear but nuanced look at the subject matter. Rather than framing the issue as one side versus the other, we bring various dimensions of the issue into discussion with one another. This will likely include dimensions of the debate that resonate with you, some dimensions that you find repulsive, and some dimensions that might simply reveal a perspective you hadn’t previously considered.
On the subject of capital punishment, the debate requires us to consider those who align with the historical and ongoing movements for the abolition of the death penalty, as well as those who have taken a hardline legal stance in support of capital punishment. Key terms include the names of abolitionist organizations, landmark court decisions, and closely connected terminology such as “death sentence,” “death row” and “execution.” These terms should deliver us to a nuanced understanding of some key influencers and their positions in the public debate.
Our InfluenceRanking engine gives us the power to scan the academic and public landscape surrounding the death penalty issue using key terminology to identify consequential influencers. As with any topic that generates public debate and disagreement, this is a subject of great depth and breadth. We do not claim to probe either to the bottom of this depth or the borders of this breadth. Instead, we offer you one way to enter into this debate, to identify key players, and through their contributions to the debate, to develop a fuller understanding of the issue and perhaps even a better sense of where you stand.
For a closer look at how our InfluenceRankings work, check out our methodology.
Otherwise get started with a look at the key words we used to explore this subject:Back to Top
The legal term for the use of the death penalty as carried out by a state, federal or military court, this key term largely yielded a collection of educators, activists, and criminologists who oppose the death penalty or who have worked to advance the cause of abolition.
A key term used in reference to the death sentence as used in judicial proceedings, the “death penalty” term yielded an array of legal figures who have had a hand in either defending those charged with capital offenses or in seeking and applying the death penalty in the event of capital offenses. As such, the set of findings included here is comprised of attorneys and judges who have either opposed, advocated, or applied the death penalty.
The “death sentence” terminology yields a list of those who have been sentenced thusly in a court of law. The inclusion of convicted and condemned prisoners is particularly interesting because our findings show that inmates using legal remedies to overturn their death sentences are often influential in forcing precedent-making decisions, and consequently, often have a direct influence on the way that subsequent death sentences are treated.
Executions in the U.S. are carried out almost entirely through the use of lethal injection. Electrocution through the electric chair was the predominant method used through the late 19th and 20th centuries, and almost exclusively in the U.S. Beginning in the 1980s, this was increasingly viewed as an inhumane method, leading to the widespread adoption of lethal injection. Using the Academic Influence search engine, the phrase “execution” largely leads to a list of individuals for whom the conditions around the actual execution have earned scrutiny. In many cases, actual executions which may be said to run afoul of the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause may be invoked in legal proceedings to call into question the broader constitutionality of the death penalty.
This is an important term in the broader discussion over capital punishment because so many inmates may spend years battling their sentencing in court. This can lead to protracted stretches of time on death row, a condition itself which has invited constitutional debate and scrutiny. The findings around this term point to noteworthy protracted stays on death row, and how these cases have impacted judicial perspective on capital punishment writ large.
As noted in our brief history on capital punishment in the United States, the two landmark cases in federal evaluation of the death penalty demonstrate that there are more than just two divergent perspectives on capital punishment. These two cases capture the complexity of the issue, as well as the push and pull between abolitionists and “law and order” advocates for the death penalty. The findings here illustrate the real-world impact of these key decisions which first placed a moratorium on the death penalty in 1972 and, in 1976, lifted this prohibition.
American executioners are individuals who have had the job of physically carrying out state-level executions. While it would seem intuitive to suggest that the individuals answering to this terminology would advocate for the use of capital punishment, the views of those charged with this responsibility may be more nuanced and varied. For instance...
This refers to a prominent non-profit organization dedicated to the total abolition of capital punishment in the United States. The group claims more than 35,000 members nationwide, and uses grassroots activism, information campaigns, and legal intervention to advance the cause of abolition.
If you would like to study this topic in more depth, check out these key organizations...
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