Controversial Topic: The Death Penalty/Capital Punishment

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.

Controversial Topic: The Death Penalty/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.

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. 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:

  • Moral Argument for Capital Punishment: Those who advocate capital punishment for moral reasons argue that those who commit murder—in having taken the life of another—have forfeited their right to life.
  • Moral Argument Against Capital Punishment: Those who oppose capital punishment for moral reasons argue that the state—in carrying out an action which it otherwise deems criminal and immoral—is both undermining the value of life and itself acting in moral contradiction by taking the life of another.
  • Utilitarian Argument for Capital Punishment: Those who advocate capital punishment for utilitarian reasons argue that this most severe punishment is a powerful deterrent for would-be criminals who are otherwise undeterred by the threat of imprisonment.
  • Utilitarian Argument Against Capital Punishment: Those who oppose capital punishment for utilitarian reasons point to research which claims to demonstrate that the death penalty does not effectively work as a deterrent for those with severe criminal propensity.
  • Practical Argument for Capital Punishment: Those who advocate capital punishment for practical reasons argue that legal parameters and court proceedings can be relied upon to adjudicate upon the death sentence with fairness, accuracy, and justice.
  • Practical Argument Against Capital Punishment: Those who oppose capital punishment for practical reasons argue that various factors prevent the courts from fairly administrating over capital punishment, including the permeation of socioeconomic and racial inequality in the justice system, the risk of prosecuting the innocent through human error, and the potentially arbitrary nature of determining that one crime is more deserving of a death sentence than is another.

These varying positions help to frame the broader issue of capital punishment in the U.S., and they also demonstrate the complexity of this subject. 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.

Crimson Education - Unlock Your Potential
AD

A Brief History of The Issue

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.

The Bill of Rights

With the 1789 adoption of the Bill of Rights, the use of capital punishment in the U.S. was impacted by several amendments.

  • The Fifth Amendment indicates that a “capital crime” must be addressed with proper due process of the law including a grand jury indictment, before the death penalty can be applied at the federal level.
  • The Eight Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” which placed restraints around the methods used to carry out the death penalty, and which created a standard that could be used in cases thereafter to argue against the use of the death penalty in certain situations, in certain states, and in general.
  • The Fourteenth Amendment, adopted in 1868, applies at the state level the same standard that the Fifth Amendment applies at the federal level—requiring legal due process for the administration of the death penalty.
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.

State-Level Abolition

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.

Trop v. Dulles (1958)

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.

Furman v. Georgia (1972)

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.

Gregg v. Georgia (1976)

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.

Other Cases of Note

  • Coker v. Georgia (1977) barred the death penalty for rape of an adult woman.
  • Godfrey v. George (1980) determined that precise aggravating factors must exist to apply the death penalty for murder.
  • Atkins v. Virginia (2002) found the execution of intellectually disabled persons to be unconstitutional.
  • Roper v. Simmons (2005) prohibits the death penalty for minors.

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:

Top Ten Historical Influencers in the Death Penalty Controversy
Rank Person
1 Anthony Kennedy
2 Helen Prejean
3 Antonin Scalia
4 Clarence Thomas
5 Byron White
6 John Paul Stevens
7 William Rehnquist
8 Judy Clarke
9 Harry Blackmun
10 Robert Badinter

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.

Top Ten Most Influential Books About Capital Punishment
Rank Book Title
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
7 Nineteen Minutes
8 The Death Penalty: Opposing Viewpoints
9 Closed Chambers
10 The Ultimate Punishment

The Current Controversy

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.

A Quick Overview of Our Method

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:

Key Terms

Capital Punishment

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.

Influencers:

  • Matthew Barnett Robinson is a full professor and criminologist for Appalachian State University in North Carolina. He earned his Ph.D. from Florida State University. His research interests have included social justice, race and crime, criminological theory, the death penalty, the “war on drugs”, crime mapping, and white-collar crime. He has published more than twenty books, including The Drug Trade and the Criminal Justice System, Crime Mapping and Spatial Aspects of Crime: Theory and Practice, Death Nation: The Experts Explain American Capital Punishment, and Greed is Good: Maximization and Elite Deviance in America. He studied the use of the capital punishment in North Carolina, publishing a report titled, “The Death Penalty in North Carolina: A Summary of the Data and Scientific Studies”. He found that the death penalty was not an effective deterrent and was more costly than life imprisonment. Learn more…
  • Henry Schwarzschild was an activist for civil rights and human rights. He joined the Civil Rights Movement and became involved in the fight against capital punishment. He founded the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and the Lawyer’s Constitutional Defense Committee and headed the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project. Learn more…
  • Sara R. Ehrmann was a Boston civic leader who fought against capital punishment both city and nationwide. Best known for her work in establishing the 1951 “Mercy Law” in Massachusetts, which allowed juries to opt out of the death penalty on first-degree murder cases, Ehrmann was an influential leader of the Massachusetts Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty as well as the American League to Abolish Capital Punishment . Ehrmann launched her career as a direct response to the internationally controversial Sacco and Vanzetti case, which her husband worked on as an assistant defense councilman. Learn more…

Death Penalty

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.

Influencers:

  • Yoshihiro Yasuda is a famed and controversial lawyer in Japan who is known for his anti-death penalty activism. With the death penalty being a prominent method of prosecution in the Japanese judicial system for violent criminals, Yasuda has a history of defending many of these criminals as he wishes to prevent the death penalty from being imposed. As an advocate for the abolition of the death penalty, Yasuda has been able to successfully prevent a large number of death sentences from being handed down in his career. At the time Yasuda took on many of these violent cases, such cases were seen as damaging to a lawyer’s career, and therefore, there existed only a small number of lawyers who took on such cases because many feared the media bashing, and could not expect much compensation. A significant number of these cases were then defended by Yasuda, and this concentration was viewed as problematic by some critics. He took part in many of these controversial trials because he believed that the suspects were tried unfairly as a result of mass media coverage. Yasuda is also known to reject television appearances for he dislikes the mass media. Learn more…
  • Cheryl Bormann is an attorney from Chicago. Bormann specializes in the defense of serious criminal charges including murder where the government is seeking the death penalty. She is best known for defending Waleed bin Attash before the Guantanamo military commission which began in 2012. Bormann studied law at Loyola University Chicago. From 2008 through 2011 she headed the Capital Trial Assistance Unit at the Illinois State Appellate Defender, the state agency responsible for providing legal assistance to defendants in death penalty cases in Illinois. The abolition of the death penalty in Illinois in 2011 rendered Bormann’s position redundant. Learn more…
  • Sid Harle is an American Judge and Republican Politician who presided over several high profile cases, including 20 death penalty cases, the sentencing of a police officer accused of sexual assault, awarding the death penalty to a youth pastor who murdered a pregnant woman, and also the exoneration of Michael Morton after 25 years of wrongful imprisonment. Learn more…

Death Sentence

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.

Influencers:

  • Marcus Reymond Robinson is an African-American convicted and sentenced to death in Cumberland County Superior Court for the June 1991 death of Erik Tornblom. Robinson also was sentenced to 40 years in prison for robbery with a dangerous weapon, 10 years for larceny and five years for possessing a weapon of mass destruction. In April 2012, he successfully appealed against the death sentence under North Carolina’s 2009 Racial Justice Act which allowed for a prisoner under sentence of death to appeal for the sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment if racism is proven to be a factor in the original trial. North Carolina Superior Court judge Gregory Weeks found that the Act was applicable in Robinson’s case after his lawyers cited a study from Michigan State University indicating that qualified black jurors were systemically excluded from jury service, both generally in North Carolina and at Robinson’s trial. Consequently, Weeks ordered his removal from death row. Robinson was the first death row inmate to use the legislation. Learn more…
  • David Paul Hammer was an American federal prisoner serving life without possibility of parole. He was sentenced to death on November 4, 1998 for the murder of his cell mate, Andrew Marti. He is also a writer and anti-death penalty advocate who achieved media fame for his 2004 autobiography The Final Escape, Secrets Worth Dying For, and 2010′s Deadly Secrets: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing, based on information from when McVeigh was a then-fellow death row inmate. Hammer is also known for his appeals against his 1998 federal death sentence and against the death penalty itself. Hammer’s federal conviction was vacated in 2005 for the government’s Brady violation . After 16 years in isolation on federal death row isolation at Terre Haute prison in Indiana, in 2014 the court resentenced him to life without parole. He was serving his sentence at the ADX Florence, Colorado until his death at Terre Haute in 2019. Learn more…
  • Alton Coleman was an American serial killer who, along with accomplice Debra Brown, committed a crime spree across six states in the Midwest between May and July 1984 that resulted in the deaths of eight people. Coleman, who received death sentences in three states, was executed by the state of Ohio in 2002. Brown was also sentenced to death in Indiana, but the death penalty was commuted to life imprisonment without possibility of parole in Illinois. Learn more…

Execution

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.

Influencers:

  • The death of Clayton Darrell Lockett occurred on April 29, 2014, when he suffered a heart attack during an execution by lethal injection in the U.S. state of Oklahoma. Lockett, aged 38, was convicted in 2000 of murder, rape and kidnapping. Learn more…
  • Michael Angelo Morales is a convicted murderer who was scheduled to be executed by the State of California on February 21, 2006. Two hours before the scheduled execution, the State of California notified the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that they could not comply with a lower federal judge’s ruling that the execution must be carried out by a medical professional due to the chemical used in the execution. Consequently, California has indefinitely suspended Morales’ execution. The case subsequently led to a moratorium on capital punishment in California entirely, as the only legal method of execution must be carried out with the participation of a licensed physician, who are ethically prohibited from participating in executions. Learn more…
  • Virginia Christian was the first female criminal executed in the 20th century in the state of Virginia, and a juvenile offender executed in the United States. She was also the only female juvenile executed by electric chair and, to date, the last female criminal executed in the electric chair by the Commonwealth of Virginia. She was the last female criminal executed by the Commonwealth until Thursday, September 23, 2010 when Teresa Lewis became the first female criminal in nearly a century to be executed in the US state of Virginia. Learn more…

Death Row

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.

Influencers:

  • Willie Jerome “Fly” Manning is on death row at Mississippi State Penitentiary, USA, with two death sentences for a conviction of double murder. He was previously also convicted and sentenced to death for an unrelated double murder, but the State Supreme Court overturned this verdict and ordered a new trial. The charges against him for the Jimmerson-Jordan murders were then dropped, and he was listed by the Death Penalty Information Center as a 2015 death row exoneree for this case. Learn more…
  • Willie Jasper Darden, Jr. was an African American man who was executed in Florida for murder during the course of a robbery. Darden’s case was notable because of the 14 years that he spent on death row between his death sentence and his execution, which, at the time, was longer than the time any other inmate in the United States had spent on death row prior to their execution. He was also notable for the number of protests and amount of controversy and attention that his case attracted worldwide, as well as the unusually large number of death warrants that he lived through prior to his execution. Learn more…
  • Doyle Hamm is a former Alabama death row inmate, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1987 murder of Patrick Cunningham. While on death row, Hamm developed lymphatic cancer, which made it difficult to impossible to achieve the venous access necessary to administer the drugs used in lethal injections. Despite months of warning by Hamm’s attorney and human rights observers and a decades’ long legal battle, the Alabama Department of Corrections attempted to execute Hamm on February 22, 2018. The unsuccessful execution attempt lasted nearly three hours and drew international attention. In March 2018, Hamm and the state of Alabama reached a confidential settlement, the terms of which preclude a second execution attempt. Learn more…

Furman v. Georgia/Gregg v. Georgia

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.

Influencers:

  • Gary Mark Gilmore was an American criminal who gained international attention for demanding the implementation of his death sentence for two murders he had admitted to committing in Utah. After the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a new series of death penalty statutes in the 1976 decision Gregg v. Georgia, he became the first person in almost ten years to be executed in the United States. These new statutes avoided the problems under the 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia, which had resulted in earlier death penalty statutes being deemed as “cruel and unusual” punishment, and therefore unconstitutional. Gilmore was executed by a firing squad in 1977. His life and execution were the subject of the 1979 nonfiction novel The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, and 1982 TV film of the novel starring Tommy Lee Jones as Gilmore. Learn more…
  • William Henry Furman is an American convicted felon who was the central figure in Furman v. Georgia , the case in which the United States Supreme Court outlawed most uses of the death penalty in the United States. Learn more…
  • Moreese Bickham was a resident of Mandeville, Louisiana who was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death for the July 12, 1958 killing of a sheriff’s deputy, reportedly a local Klan leader. In 1974, Bickham’s death sentence was converted to life without parole after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Furman v. Georgia, which invalidated death penalty convictions in certain circumstances. In April, 1995, amid a detailed legal challenge to Bickham’s 1958 conviction, the Governor of Louisiana consented to commute Bickham’s sentence to 75 years. Several months later, Bickham’s attorney won a full release, and Bickham left Angola State Penitentiary in January, 1996, after 37 1/2 years in prison. Bickham lived the rest of his life in California, and died in hospice care in Alameda, California after a short illness, at the age of 98. Learn more…
  • Troy Leon Gregg was the first condemned individual whose death sentence was upheld by the United States Supreme Court after the Court’s decision in Furman v. Georgia invalidated all previously enacted death penalty laws in the United States. He later participated in the first successful escape from a Georgia death row, but was killed later that night. Learn more…

American Executioner

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…

Influencers:

  • Jerry Bronson Givens was the chief executioner of Virginia from 1982 until 1999, during which he executed 62 people, including two of the Briley Brothers. He spent most of his career in Virginia’s correctional system, and was initially a supporter of capital punishment. However, beginning in 1999, he served four years in prison for perjury and money laundering. This experience, together with the revelation that Earl Washington Jr., whom Givens had nearly executed in 1985 before his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, was innocent, transformed Givens into an outspoken opponent of the death penalty, which he spent the rest of his life campaigning against. He died from COVID-19 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more…
  • Dow B. Hover was an American executioner who was the last person to serve as a New York State Electrician, the state’s executioner and operator of the electric chair. He was the last person to serve as an executioner in the now no-death penalty state and was the last surviving executioner from New York. On August 15, 1963 at Sing Sing prison, Hover executed Eddie Lee Mays, the last person to be executed by the State of New York. Learn more…

Death Penalty Focus

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.

Influencers:

  • Rob Warden is a Chicago legal affairs journalist and co-founder of three organizations dedicated to exonerating the innocent and reforming criminal justice: the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, the National Registry of Exonerations at the University of California-Irvine, and Injustice Watch, a non-partisan, not-for-profit, journalism organization that conducts in-depth research exposing institutional failures that obstruct justice and equality. As an investigative journalist in the 1970s, he began focusing on death penalty cases, which led to a career exposing and publicizing the injustices and misconduct in the legal system. Warden’s work was instrumental in the blanket commutation of death row cases in Illinois in 2003 and in the abolition of the Illinois death penalty in 2011. Learn more…
  • Jeanne Woodford is the Executive Director of Death Penalty Focus. Previously, she served as the Undersecretary and Director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Warden of San Quentin State Prison, where she oversaw four executions. Learn more…
  • Stephen Vincent Kobasa is a Connecticut teacher, journalist, and Christian political activist. He focuses his work “in Colombia solidarity, towards abolition of the death penalty and in opposition to nuclear weapons.” He was “instrumental in reconstituting the state’s death penalty abolition movement” in 2000. Learn more…
***

Interested in building toward a career on the front lines of the death penalty debate? As you can see, there are many different avenues into this far-reaching issue. Use our Custom College Ranking to find:

Interested in diving into another one of our controversial topics? Check out The 25 Most Controversial Topics Today!