The Death Penalty: A History and Its Issues

Graphic via CNN

Graphic via CNN

Sierra Weaver, Editorials Editor

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The death penalty in the United States dates back to even before the country’s independence. From as early as the 1700s, it has been criticized. Today, many people are against capital punishment because of their own morals, as well as the high cost of the penalty.
The earliest case of the death penalty in the US took place in 1608. In earlier history, capital punishment was used for many more crimes than it is currently used for. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Pennsylvania became the first state to outlaw the death penalty for all crimes, except first degree murder, in 1794. From there, more and more states began to decrease use of the death penalty. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, many trials took place which challenged the use of capital punishment. During the trials, it was proposed that death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment which prohibits the use of “cruel and unusual punishment.” While this brought awareness to the movement to prohibit the use of capital punishment, it did not change many laws involving the death penalty.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the crimes that are currently punishable by death are murder, treason, and espionage, though the specifics are different among each state. Currently, the death penalty is legal in 30 states, and illegal in 20. While in all states the primary way to execute criminals is by lethal injection; electrocution, lethal gas, hanging, and firing squads are legal in some states as a secondary punishment.
Regardless of a political viewpoint, it seems it is best, at least morally speaking, to use a punishment that will make death quick and painless. According to the Washington Post, there have been some occasions in which capital punishment has not been immediate or painless, even some cases involving lethal injection. If capital punishment is going to be legal, it should most certainly be immediate, and painless. Any other description of “government sanctioned death,” intrudes on the precedence of the Eighth Amendment.
Even if all punishment was completely humane, there have been many instances of innocent people on death row. According to the National Academy of Sciences, one in every twenty-five people on death row are innocent, which is about 4.1%. The amount of people that are exonerated on death row is about 1.6%. The percentage is less than half the percentage of people that are innocent. Considering all of this, there have definitely been people executed that were innocent. According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, between 1973 and 2016, 156 people sentenced to death were proven to be innocent later. If this many people are being proven innocent with additional facts to their case or an improvement of DNA tests, how many people are innocent and just do not have additional evidence to prove it? Or, how many people were wrongfully executed before we had the technology to find additional evidence? This is a huge issue with capital punishment that many people tend to ignore. There are probably hundreds more people that have been sentenced to death or executed that are completely innocent.
In addition to the question of innocence, capital punishment is extremely expensive. Some may argue that the death penalty costs less than a life-sentence, in reality, this is completely false. According to Death Penalty Focus, it costs eighteen times more to go through the process of a death sentence than to give someone life in prison. This is an enormous difference that should be considered in keeping the death penalty legal. According to The New York Times, it costs California 114 million dollars more each year to keep prisoners on death row rather than give them life in prison. California has executed thirteen people since 1976, which cost about 250 million dollars per person. This adds up to around 3,250 million dollars. That’s just one example of just how much the death penalty can cost compared to a life sentence. Any state with capital punishment still in place will have a similar number.
Overall, the death penalty is unreliable, expensive, and, at times, inhumane. Capital punishment is unnecessary, and there are far more issues surrounding the practice, than benefits. It is not only morally questionable, but costs a huge amount of money that could be used for so many other purposes.