Sample Criminal Justice Paper on Death Penalty

Death penalty

            Death penalty, also known capital punishment, is a form of punishment meted to a convicted person. The criminal offences that can attract such punishment are capital crimes. The term capital was derived from Latin word, Capitalis, which literary means “the head”. The practice was widely used in many societies in the past. It specifically involved execution by beheading. Historical evidence shows that death penalty was widely used in most societies as a form of punishment for criminals as well as political and religious dissenters. It was often be accompanied by torture (Diana 231). According to Anckar (33), over 36 nations around the world are actively using the death penalty, 103 have completely abolished its legality for all offenses while six have only abolished its legality on ordinary crimes but maintain it for special crimes including war crimes. Fifty countries have however, abolished the death penalty de facto as they have not used it for more than ten years or have suspended its implementation.

Many nations have banned the execution of individuals aged below 18 years at the time they commit their offensive acts. While such executions are banned under the international law, only a few Middle Eastern nations like Iran, Saudi Arabia as well as Sudan have undertaken such executions as from 2009. Death penalty has become a global issue that has caused controversy in different nations and states. Sides on the debate on legality of capital punishment are based on differing political or religious ideologies. This paper aims to support death penalty by showing the positive side that justifies its use as a form of punishment for crimes.

Supporting death penalty

            Death penalty has been employed in nearly all societies throughout recorded history to suppress criminal activities and political dissent. Most of the countries that practice this type of punishment reserve it for huge offenses that include murder and treason. Other countries also reserve it for crimes that include rape, sodomy, drug trafficking and incest. In countries like China, human trafficking as well as serious cases of bribery and corruption are also punishable by death. According to Anckar (41), death penalty can be traced in the beginning of documented history with most historical records indicating that different primitive societies integrated death penalty in their justice systems. This form of punishment was however rare as most societies used corporal punishment, banishment and social rejection to instill justice. In most communities, compensation and shunning were particularly sufficient means for instilling justice although formal apologies as well as blood feuds were also common particularly when criminal offences involved neighboring tribes. Only a few communities exercised capital punishment, which took various forms including boiling, stoning, burning, crucifixion, crushing, slicing, sawing and neck lacing (Diana 232).

The first death penalty laws were put in place in the 18th Century BC when the Code of King Hammaurabi of Babylon was established and it emphasized on instilling capital punishment on twenty five different crimes. The penalty also became part of the 14th Century BC Hittite’s Code, 7th Century BC Draconian Code and the 5th Century BC Roman law. During these periods, execution took various forms such as impalement, crucifixion, burning to death and drowning. By the dawn of the 10th Century AD, hanging became a common form of execution particularly in Britain. Although hanging was restricted during the 11th century AD during the reign of William the Conqueror, cases of execution drastically increased particularly in the 16th Century when Henry VIII took over the British lordship (Hood 123). During this time, death tall resulting from capital punishment was estimated at 72,000 with some of the common execution methods used including boiling, hanging, beheading, quartering, and burning. During the following two centuries, the number of capital offenses in Britain continued to rise and by the end of 1700s, 222 offences were punishable by death. However, due to the severity of this punishment, most juries avoided convicting criminals and this led to the restructuring of the British death penalty. As a result, the death penalty law was lifted from more than 100 offences that were initially punishable by death (Diana 235).

As explained by Anckar (54), Britain influenced the use of capital punishment in America more than in any other country. This was mainly because of the invasion of European settlers that introduced this practice into the American territory. The first recorded capital punishment occurred in 1608 when George Kendall was executed for being a spy on behalf of the Spanish government. In 1612, Sir Thomas Dale, the then governor of the state of Virginia, established the Martial laws that supported the use of death penalty even for minor offences like stealing dates and killing chicken. By 1665, Duke’s laws were established under the New York Colony, and they provided for execution event for felonies that included denying God as well as striking one’s parents. Those that were not in favor of the death penalty found support in American intellectuals that widely used theories to criticize the practice (Hood 127). This was followed by an initial attempt to reform the death penalty law when Thomas Jefferson established a bill intended to reform the Virginia death penalty. The bill proposed that death penalty should only be used to punish major crimes like murder and treason. This implementation was followed by a declaration from Benjamin Rush, who challenged the belief that death penalty was a deterrent by claiming that it actually perpetuated criminal conduct. While Rush believed in brutality, he gained the support of the US Attorney who equally believed that death penalty should be retained. The Attorney then led Pennsylvania to become the first state where death penalty was founded on culpability. As a result, the state cancelled death penalty on all crimes except for murder. During the first part of the 19th Century, most states significantly reduced the number of crimes punishable by death. Other states completely abolished the practice although most states still upheld it (Diana 240). During the Civil war, death penalty significantly reduced as more attention was inclined towards the anti-slavery movement. This went on until 1880s when new methods of execution, which included the the use of electrical chair, were introduced. The electrical chair was first introduced in New York and was used to execute William Kemmler. Execution using cyanide gas was introduced in 1924 as states sought to employ a more humane way to carry out the death penalty. The first person to be executed using this lethal gas was Gee Jon who died after the lethal gas was pumped into his cell. From 1920s to the 1940s, the use of death penalty drastically increased, which was partly due to writings compiled by various criminologists that presented death penalty as an appropriate social measure (Hood 128). Public sentiment however drifted away from death penalty particularly in 1950s, which saw the number of executions reducing drastically. This was followed by complex challenges that emerged in the 1960s and they questioned about the constitutional legality of capital punishment. Although the 5th, 8th and 14th Amendments of the US constitution were interpreted as allowing death penalty, contrasting interpretations were made in the 1960s, which presented death penalty as a cruel and unusual practice. By the end of the 1960s, the Supreme Court started to fine-tune the administration of the death penalty. During this period, the court listened to two capital cases and required the ultimate judgment by the jury (Ingrid 87).  The first case involved the US versus Jackson, where the Supreme Court analyzed arguments pertaining to the provision of state kidnapping decree, which demanded for execution of the death penalty upon the approval of a jury. The court however maintained that this activity was unconstitutional as it motivated defendants to surrender their right to the judges so they would not receive a capital punishment. The second case involved Witherspoon versus Illinois where the Supreme Court maintained that a possible juror’s mere stipulations about capital punishment were not enough grounds to shield that individual from serving in the court in a death penalty case. Following these rulings, other states implemented guidelines intended to guide their respective juries on whether and when to impose the death penalty (Ingrid 89). Such states included the new guideline reforms in their death penalty statutes and they determined situations where capital punishment could be employed as well as defined certain limitations within which the practice could not be implemented. In 1986, the Supreme Court banned implementation of death penalty on persons with mental retardation, which was applied for the first time in case involving Ford versus Wainwright. This was further stressed in another case involving Atkins versus Virginia, where the Supreme Court ruled that executing persons with mental illness and retardation violated the 8th Amendment that bans cruelty on mentally retarded individuals (Hood 131). Another limitation for death penalty was portrayed in 1987 in a case involving McCleskey versus Kemp where the Supreme Court established that racial disparity would not apply in determining individuals that could be protected by the law when executing death penalty. Another case involving Roper versus Simmons exhibited that juveniles were another limitation for death penalty. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that applying death penalty on individuals that engaged in criminal activities when they were below eighteen years of age was cruel and hence was prohibited by the constitution (Anckar 72).

Apart from these various cases where limitations were employed to prevent possible application of the death penalty, there are other major cases in which individuals were convicted and sentenced to death. The case involving Kennedy versus Louisiana is a suitable example where death penalty was used. In this case, Patrick Kennedy, who in this case was the petitioner, was found guilty of raping an eight-year old child. The verdict was given following a Louisiana statute, which authorized death penalty to be instilled on rape cases on children aged twelve years and below. The Supreme Court rejected petitioner’s dependence on a previous ruling in a case involving Coker versus Georgia where the verdict escaped death penalty even after being proven guilty for rape of a grown woman. Another case where death penalty was used involved Baze versus Rees (Ingrid 92). The petitioners in this case were sentenced to death for murder but they filed a suit claiming that the use of lethal injection violated the 8th constitutional Amendment, which inhibits execution of cruel punishments. The court however ruled that that the practice was constitutional and it even reaffirmed that lethal injection was safe as it did not perpetuate unnecessary infliction of pain. Another case involving Roper versus Simmons showed that death sentence could not be applicable to persons aged below eighteen years by the time they commit a crime. In this case, the petitioner confronted the Missouri Supreme Court for dismissing the offender’s death sentence and instead sentencing him to life imprisonment without parole. The court ruled that Simmons, who had committed murder at the age of 17, could not be sentenced to death as the US constitution prohibited the use of death penalty on juveniles aged below 18 years at the time of crime (Jefferey 140). A case involving Ring versus Arizona was carried out in 2002 and it showed that a jury had the power to increase a prison sentence to death penalty. In this case, the petitioner was sentenced by Arizona Supreme Court to life imprisonment for committed first-degree murder. However, the court, employing the case of Walton versus Arizona as a basis for legal precedent, raised the sentence to death. The US Supreme Court however reversed this ruling and granted the petitioner’s requested for certiorari. This action was based on a previous case involving Apprendi versus New Jersey where the US Supreme Court maintained that any circumstance that leads to increment in sentence beyond the statutory maximum sentence must be presented to a jury or declared by the defendant (Diana 249).

Drawing from the various cases where capital punishment was employed, it is evident that there is need to support death penalty. As explained by Ingrid (94), death sentence enhances morality in any given society by ensuring that individuals take precaution over their own actions to ensure that they do not act in opposition to moral codes. Offences like rape, murder, human trafficking and treason violate moral codes that are indisputably provable beyond any reasonable doubt. Although abolitionists of the death penalty claim that the practice is immoral because it perpetuates termination of human life, it is obvious that its implementation enhances morality through encouraging individuals to act in a manner acceptable by members of the wider society. On this note, implementing death penalty promotes human dignity by ensuring that the offender is presented as a moral being that has the capacity to decide his fate by choosing to do what is right or evil (Jefferey 142). Similarly, while it is obvious that people fear death more than anything else, using death penalty to punish criminals is bound to deter crimes like murder, rape and treason. This would mainly be effective when criminals are not given an alternative sentence like life sentence. On this note, criminals should be executed as long as such executions would protect members of the wider society from possible murder cases in the future. The use of death penalty is likely to further ensure that each individual in the society is given what he/she deserves thereby promoting justice and order in the society. It is obvious that crime violates social order and justice by allowing offenders to snatch people’s lives, resources, freedom and peace. Executing such offenders however ensures that they reap what they deserve thereby restoring a just and orderly society. Death penalty is further appropriate as it saves a huge chuck of monetary resources. As explained by Anckar (81), most opponents of death penalty argue that death penalty is more costly compared to life sentence. Sufficient evidence however indicates that life without parole sentences cost about 3.6 million more compared to death penalty sentences.

Although the use of death penalty is more preferable, economical and appropriate compared to other sentences, it is obvious that a lot of time is often spent in court trying to prevent as well as fight execution by death. One major reason that has seen most death penalty cases being delayed is that they often tend to be given to attorneys that are reluctant to investigate, are inconsistent in attending court trials or they say nothing when their clients are being convicted. This contributes to petitioners continuously repealing to the court to have their sentences reviewed as they believe that they were unjustly convicted. State authorities further contribute to increased durations that death penalty cases take before being implemented as they do not offer sufficient resources needed to execute offenders (Diana 267).


            Death penalty is a practice that has been in existence for as long as any recorded history can prove. Individuals in different societies were throughout history sentenced to death for different reasons and various execution methods employed. While people in certain societies were executed for committing major crimes like murder, treason and human trafficking, others in different societies were executed for engaging in minor crimes like stealing grapes, killing chicken or denying one’s parents. Death penalty practice originated from Britain although it spread to other world regions that particularly included United States. Limitations placed on this practice are that it could not apply to individuals suffering from mental illness and retardation, juvenile or victims of racial discriminations. Certain cases where the practice was applied show that previous cases were used as bases for references and that life sentences could be raised to death. The cases further showed that death penalty could not be applicable to people aged below eighteen years. Further evidence shows that it is important to support death penalty as it promotes social morality, order and justice as well as reduces financial expenditure.


Work Cited

Anckar, Carsten. Determinants of the Death Penalty: A Comparative Study of the World. Routledge, Westport, CT, 2004.

Diana, Falco. “Public Opinion and the Death Penalty: A Qualitative Approach,” The Qualitative Report 16.3(2011):231-267.

Hood, Roger. The Death Penalty: A World-Wide Perspective. Clarendon Press, New York, 1996.

Ingrid, Nicolau. “Historical Evolution of the Death Penalty Abolition as a Fundamental Human Right,” Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice 5.2(2013):89-97.

Jefferey, Kirchmeier. “Our Existential Death Penalty: Judges, Jurors, and Terror Management,” Law and Psychology Review 32.2(2008):111-145.