An issue that causes controversy worldwide is the use of capital punishment: sentencing those guilty of severe crimes to death. In the United States Constitution, the 8th Amendment outlines basic rules for the treatment of prisoners, which have been interpreted in a number of ways over the years. The use of “cruel and unusual punishment” is not to be used, but there is controversy surrounding whether or not, in extreme circumstances, the use of capital punishment applies.
In the United States, the death penalty is usually reserved for the most horrific crimes, but whether or not someone receives this sentence often has more to do with the given political climate than the severity of their crime. In 1953, at the height of the Red Scare, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were put to death after having been convicted of being spies for the Soviet Union. However, none of the perpetrators of mass lynchings of African-Americans during the same era were ever subject to capital punishment.
The discussion of race often comes into play in the debate over the death penalty. According to a report by the United States General Accounting Office, “In 82% of the studies [reviewed], race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty, i.e., those who murdered whites were found more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks” (February 1990). Despite some of the seemingly obvious racial disparities in executions, the 1987 Supreme Court case McClesky v. Kemp ruled that “a defendant cannot rely upon statistical evidence of systemic racial bias to prove his death sentence unconstitutional, no matter how strong that evidence may be” (ACLU).
Around the world, many countries (including Canada, Venezuela, Australia and almost all of Europe) have abolished the death penalty completely. Others (like Russia and most of Northwest Africa) have been abolitionist in practice, maintaining capital punishment as a legal option but have not executed anyone in the past decade. The United States is one of the last Western countries to retain their use of the death penalty, despite receiving pressure from both foreign allies and American citizens to abolish the practice.
For Further Reading…
- David F. Forte, “8th Amendment: Cruel and Unusual Punishment” (Heritage Guide to the Constitution)
- INFOGRAPHIC: “A History of the Death Penalty” (Visual.ly)
- Kate Pickert, “A Brief History of Lethal Injection” (Time Magazine)
- Stephen F. Hanlon, “A Thirty Year Retrospective of the Death Penalty”
- Map of Death Penalty Retentionist/ Abolitionist Countries (Death Penalty Information Center)
McCleskey v. Kemp and The Race Controversy
- McClesky V. Kemp Supreme Court case (NAACP Legal Defense Fund)
- Avinash Samarth, “The U.S. Death Penalty – An International Human Rights Wrong?” (ACLU)
- Raymond Bonner and Marc Lacey, “Pervasive Disparities Found in Federal Death Penalty” (NY Times)
- Gallup poll: Public Opinion on the Death Penalty
- “The Death Penalty and Jewish Values” (Union for Reform Judaism)
- “Gallows Poll: Is the Death Penalty Necessary?” (Infographic from Visual.ly)
- Sandra Babcock, “The Global Debate on the Death Penalty”
- Linda Greenhouse, “Selective Empathy” (NY Times)
- Adam Liptak, “Does Death Penalty Save Lives?” (NY Times)
- Richard C. Dieter, “International Influence on the Death Penalty in the US” (Death Penalty Information Center)
- Erika Christakis, “Dancing Around the Death Penalty” (Time Magazine)