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Like abortion, the institution of capital punishment is a very divisive topic. The line dividing the supporters and opponents of capital punishment is variably drawn across political philosophies, race, sex and religion. The Governor of Illinois, not long ago, declared a moratorium on death penalty cases in his state. This essay is dedicated to a presentation of facts about capital punishment, without delving into personal opinions in support or opposition. Approximately, 80 per cent of Americans support the death penalty. When options are offered, such as life imprisonment without possibility of parole, the number of people who support the death penalty reduces to about 53 per cent. Recently, the number of people put to death has decreased. Improvements in forensic technologies, especially, DNA testing is the cause. Many unfairly condemned people have been exonerated.
Strong cases have been made for and against capital punishment. Supporters of the death penalty believe that justice is served. This justice is the basis of a moral community. They believe that vicious criminals have forfeited their rights to free society and even life itself. The arguments range from deterrence to retribution and punishment. It is also about protecting the innocent. The arguments against, however, are based on its actual administration in our society. Opponents believe that since death is irreversible, there is the risk of killing an innocent person. They also believe that the death penalty is disproportionately meted out to those who cannot afford good and aggressive legal representation -- thus the poor and minorities are at risk. Death penalty opponents also believe that the deterrence weakness argument is weak. They believe that to kill a human being identifies society as at the same level as criminals. (Dorsen, 2002)
History of Capital Punishment
Since ancient times, capital punishment was applied regularly. Historically, it was since 1750 BCE, Code of Hammurabi established edicts and precedents for the death penalty. From the fall of Rome to modern times, capital punishment was practiced throughout Western Europe. The modern movement for the abolition of capital punishment began in the 18th century. The socialists and anti-royalists Montesquieu and Voltaire were the first known death penalty abolitionists. Around that time, Great Britain was also seeing a shift in death penalty perceptions due to the efforts of Jeremy Bentham. South and Central American nations, Venezuela and Costa Rica abolished the death penalty in 1863 and 1877, respectively.
As of mid-2001, capital punishment has been abolished in seventy-five nations. Some countries have retained the death penalty only for crimes of war, treason. In some cases, drug trafficking meets with this harshest sentence. In other countries, capital punishment is a law but has not been imposed in several years. Countries that have retained the death penalty for a broad range of crimes, especially murder. These countries are mostly in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. The U.S.A. And China are nations that impose the death penalty the most frequently. Until the 1890s, hanging was the primary method of execution used in the United States.
Hanging is still used in Delaware and Washington, although both have lethal injection as an alternative method of execution. The last hanging to take place was January 25, 1996. In 1924, the use of cyanide gas was introduced in Nevada. In 1977, Oklahoma became the first state to adopt lethal injection as a means of execution, though it would be five more years before the first person executed by lethal injection in Texas.
Today, 37 of the 38 states that have the death penalty use lethal injection. In the United States, since the 1970s, almost all capital sentences in the United States have been imposed for homicide. The constitutionality of the death penalty has been highly debated. The Eighth Amendment that precludes "cruel and unusual punishment," has been raised. The 1972 U.S. Supreme Court case of Furman v. Georgia ruled that capital punishment as then practiced was unconstitutional. (USSC, 1976) In 1977, Gary Gilmore, was executed by a firing squad in Utah. Today, 38 states and the federal government have reinstituted the death penalty. In 1982, Texas became the first state to execute a prisoner using lethal injection, which is now the method of choice. Texas currently leads all other states in the number of executions carried out. In 2002, the Court barred the execution of mentally retarded offenders. In 2002, the Court ruled that the death penalty must be imposed through a finding of a jury and not a judge.
DNA testing has helped exonerate about twenty-six per cent of the condemned inmates on death rows. DNA testing to identify crimes and criminals (or not) has helped catch mistakes. It has proved that the courts and jury can make mistakes. Supporters of the death penalty are requesting prosecutors to encourage the use of DNA testing to prove without reasonable doubts that the crime was indeed committed by the individual on trial. Though very reliable, DNA test are error-prone during processing. DNA testing can only be used in cases where the crime was intimate and personal. (Easterbrook, 2000)
Statistics and Modes of Capital Punishment in the United States
Before hanging, the inmate is weighed. The process is rehearsed using a sandbag of the inmate's weight. This is to determine the length of drop necessary to ensure a quick death. If the rope is too long, the inmate could be decapitated, and if it is too short, the strangulation could take as long as 45 minutes. Before the execution, the prisoner's hands and legs are secured; he or she is blindfolded; the noose is placed around the neck, with the knot behind the left ear. The execution takes place when a trapdoor is opened and the prisoner falls through. The prisoner's weight causes a rapid fracture-dislocation of the neck.
Firing squad still remains a method of execution in Utah and Idaho. Lethal injection is also used. Inmates are allowed to choose the method in which they want to die. For execution by firing squad, the inmate is bound to a chair with leather straps across his waist and head. The inmate is seated in front of an oval shaped canvas wall. Sandbags to absorb the inmate's blood surround the chair. A black hood is pulled over the inmate's head. A doctor locates the inmate's heart with a stethoscope and pins a circular white cloth target over it. Five shooters, standing twenty feet away and armed with.30 caliber rifles loaded with single rounds. One of the shooters is given blank rounds. Each of the shooters aims his rifle through a slot in the canvas and fires at the inmate. The prisoner dies as a result of blood loss caused by rupture of the heart or tearing of the lungs.
New York introduced electrocution while seeking a humane alternative to hanging. The first electric chair was built in 1888. Today, electrocution is used as the sole method of execution only in Nebraska. The condemned is shaved and strapped to a chair with belts across the chest, groin, legs, and arms. A metal skullcap-shaped electrode is attached to the scalp and forehead over a sponge moistened with saline. An additional electrode is moistened with conductive jelly and attached to a portion of the prisoner's leg that has been shaved to reduce resistance to electricity. A jolt of between 500 and 2000 volts, which lasts for about 30 seconds, is given. The doctors wait for the body to cool down and then check to see if the inmate's heart is still beating. Jolts are applied until the prisoner is dead.
States that have lethal gas also have lethal injection as an alternative method of execution. The condemned person is strapped to a chair in an airtight chamber. Below the chair rests a container of sulfuric acid. A long stethoscope is typically affixed to the inmate so that a doctor outside the chamber can pronounce death. The room is sealed. The warden then gives a signal to the executioner who flicks a lever that releases crystals of sodium cyanide into the pail. This causes a chemical reaction that releases hydrogen cyanide gas. The prisoner is instructed to breathe deeply to speed up the process.
When lethal injection is used, the condemned person is usually bound to a gurney and a member of the execution team positions several heart monitors on his skin. Two needles are then inserted into usable veins, usually in the inmate's arms. Long tubes connect the needle through a hole in a cement block wall to several intravenous drips. A saline solution is administered. Next, the inmate is injected with sodium thiopental. This is an anesthetic. Then pavulon or pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes the entire muscle system and stops the inmate's breathing. The flow of potassium chloride stops the heart. Death results from anesthetic overdose and respiratory and cardiac arrest. (Weiseberg, 1991)
The states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Nebraska, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Idaho and Utah allow executions by firing squad. Arizona, California, Maryland, Mississippi…[continue]
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