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Death Penalty


In 1999, 98 inmates were executed for capital crimes in the United States. In that year, the death penalty was used in 37 states and the federal prison system, but just two states accounted for half of the executions that took place -- Texas (35) and Virginia (14). Most executions performed (94) were by lethal injection.

Internationally, the United States is one of the leaders in the use of the death penalty. According to Amnesty International, China led all nations internationally in 1998 with 1,700 executions. Over 100 were executed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 68 were executed in the United States, and 66 were executed in Iran. These four nations accounted for 86 percent of all executions recorded by Amnesty International that year.

Use of death penalty in the United States dates back to colonial times, with the first recorded execution taking place in Jamestown in 1608. Although its use has always varied from state to state, it was practiced regularly throughout most of our history until 1967, when a temporary ban was instituted while the Supreme Court reviewed its constitutionality.

In 1972, in a 5-4 decision (Furman v. Georgia), the Court ruled that the death penalty as practiced in Georgia was a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which bans cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling focused on unguided jury discretion and the resulting arbitrary and capricious sentencing that took place because of it. However, the court left open the possibility that the death penalty could be reinstated if it were redesigned to avoid these problems. In response, several states set about redrafting their sentencing laws and in 1976 the Court reinstated the death penalty after a ten year moratorium. The first execution took place on January 17, 1977 when Gary Gilmore was executed by a firing squad in Utah. Federal death penalty statutes were revised in 1988, 1994 and 1996. Since 1977 over 650 people have been executed.

Death penalty supporters argue that justice demands a death sentence in certain cases, and that the concept of an "eye for an eye" is based on the nation's shared religious values. They further argue that the death penalty can deter capital crimes and possibly save lives in the process. In addition to any deterrent effects, supporters argue that there is an additional incapacitation effect -- executed offenders will never commit another capital offense. Opponents counter that there is no valid statistical evidence supporting the assertion that crimes are deterred by the death penalty, and that capital offenders can just as easily be prevented from committing further crimes by a life sentence with no possibility of parole.

Opponents argue that that high rates of error in the criminal justice system make it quite possible to execute someone who is innocent, making the state itself guilty of murder. Since 1973 at least 88 people on death row were released after evidence emerged indicating their innocence. Supporters counter that there is no evidence that any innocent individual has ever been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977, and that releases of innocent individuals on death row since then were either due to legal technicalities or demonstrated that the system's checks and balances work.

Opponents argue that only a small percentage of those convicted of capital crimes actually receive the death penalty, and those who are executed are most notable for their lack of resources or poor legal representation. Race is often posited as a potential factor. For instance, while African Americans only make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, they made up 43% of the inmates on death row in 1999, and a little more than a third of those actually executed that year. Supporters argue that African Americans are more likely to commit murders than whites, and that their victims are more often African Americans themselves, so racial issues cut in both directions.

- Updated 6/1/01

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