Free Research Paper on Capital Punishment

Capital Punishment research paper

Capital punishment is when the law inflicts death as punishment for violating criminal law. Typically, capital punishment is used for treason, various forms of aggravated murder and large scale drug trafficking. Despite the comparatively small numbers of people who have been executed in the modern world, the issue remains a hotly debated topic. Most industrialised nations have replaced this ancient system with life imprisonment, however Japan, and the United States are exceptions to this trend. In the United States, state law controls capital punishment.

Throughout history, crucifixion, stoning, drowning, burning at the stake, impaling and beheading were the most common methods of capital punishment. Today the methods of capital punishment are lethal injection, electrocution, gas chamber, hanging, and a firing squad.

The lethal injection is the most common means of execution in the United States today. It involves the inmate being secured to a gurney where a stethoscope and cardiac monitor leads are attached. Two saline intravenous lines are started and the inmate is drugged with sodium thiopental to induce unconsciousness, than pancuronium bromide (Pavulon) to stop respiration. Lastly, potassium chloride is used to stop the heart.

The rarer practise of electrocution is a visibly destructive means to burn the body’s internal organs. The inmate is restrained to an electrocution chair and then a switch is thrown. The body can catch fire as a result. The inmate sometimes defecates, urinates or vomits blood.

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For gassing, the prisoner is restrained inside a hermetically sealed chamber soon to be filled with deadly gases. When the first signal is given, the pan under the chamber is filled with hydochloric acid. On the second signal eight ounces of potassium cyanide crystals are placed in the acid forming hydrocyanic acid to destroy the body’s ability to produce haemoglobin. Consequently, the body turns blue and the inmate drifts into unconsciousness. Within six to eighteen minutes he/she is pronounced dead.

The older practice of hanging firstly involves, weighing the inmate. This weight is converted to deliver exactly one thousand, two hundred and sixty foot pounds of force upon the neck when the body is dropped. Correctly done death is almost instantaneous, as the third or fourth cervical vertebrae is dislocated.

Capital punishment is the most controversial penal practice in the modern world. Opponents of capital punishment see the issue as a human rights concern rather than a criminal justice issue.

One of the oldest arguments for capital punishment is the idea that it deters crime. Professor Isaac Ehrlich’s studies in the 1970s supports this conception, however, he stands alone in this view, as almost every other researcher has found otherwise. Through time and contradictory reports the attitude of proponents in this regard have changed, and the emphasis is now placed on preventing hard core recidivism. The 1992 US Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that out of the two thousand, five hundred and seventy five offenders, one in eleven offenders had prior homicide convictions.

In response to the abolitionist fear that innocent people may be executed proponents reaffirm that the numerous legal safeguards prevent such happenings. Paul G Cassel in the Wall Street Journal has shown that no person has been proven innocent after his or her execution in the last twenty-three years. This proves that the finely tuned US system of legal safeguards, such as mandatory appealing is effective.

One of the main arguments for capital punishment is the “an eye for an eye“ principle. Most supporters agree that though murder is barbaric the punishment is justified by the seriousness of the wrongful act. Both sides in this debate quote the Bible to justify the humaneness of their arguments. In the case of the proponents the apostle Paul said “If you do wrong, then you may well be afraid; because it is not for nothing that the symbol of authority is the sword“ (Romans 13:4). The interpretation of this is that the State’s retribution of capital punishment is the retribution of God.

Another strong argument for capital punishment is the fact that it is more economical than life sentencing. The average time a death row prisoner has to spend in jail until the death sentence is carried out is from six months to nine years. Thus, it would be more cost effective for tax payers to pay $690,000 for the nine years spent plus the execution fee rather than the $ 4,500,000 for sixty years in jail.

Some retentionists go so far to suggest that capital punishment is more humane than life imprisonment. They say that spending a lifetime in jail is more torturous than an instantaneous death.

Despite capital punishment enjoying strong support in the United States, many still support the case against the death penalty, particularly for the sake of social justice.

One of the main arguments against capital punishment is the rebuttal to the idea that capital punishment deters crime. For example, countries such as Denmark, Switzerland, and Belgium have not experienced a rise in crime rates, despite having abolished capital punishment early last century. The other argument against the deterrent value of the death penalty is the fact that some murders are the result of passion rather than logic. Deterrence would generally only work if the crime was more premeditated.

Constitutionally, abolitionists claim that capital punishment violates the eighth and the fourteenth US Amendment, which prohibits all forms of cruel and unusual punishment. The electrocution of John Evans in 1938 is often cited to demonstrate the cruelty of capital punishment. After the first and second electric charges, he was still conscious and smoke was coming from his body, due to burning flesh.

The conscience argument that killing is morally wrong is a popular belief amongst abolitionists. According to Hertzberg, “Death penalties demean moral order and execution is not legalised murder, nor imprisonment, or legalised kidnapping but one of the oldest, most premeditated forms of homicide. It raises the criminal to moral equality with social order“. The US Catholic Bishops have also voiced their condemnation of capital punishment, “ It simply perpetuates the cycle of violence and promotes a sense of vengeance in our culture“.

Abolitionists, preferring life imprisonment cite the Leopold and Loeb (1924) case to show how criminals can contribute to the betterment of society. Leopold and Loeb were spared a death penalty sentence after been convicted with kidnapping and killing a fourteen year old boy just to see what it was like. As a result, they worked actively in hospitals, teaching the illiterate to write, creating a correspondence school, made significant developments in the World War Two malaria project and even wrote a grammar book.

The last major argument against the death penalty is the allegation that the system is racially biased. Statistics from the Baldus study suggested that defendants in Georgia charged with killing white victims are four times as likely to receive a death penalty sentence than those convicted of killing a non white victim. However, the final stance against racial discrimination within the system happened in the 1987 case of McCleskey v Kemp.

History has presented many famous instances of capital punishment. Two thousand years ago, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. In 1692, the Salem Witch-hunts proved to be the greatest but the last witch hunts in American history. In 2002, it was Ring v Arizona, on the powers of judge versus jury.

In 1987, the courts rejected a claim of systematic race bias in capital punishment and in doing so rejected the last major challenge to the death penalty in the United States. This case was McCleskey v Kemp (1987).

On 15th October 1986, Warren McCleskey, a black man was brought to Georgia’s Supreme Court to face charges of murdering a white police officer during an armed robbery. The jury, consisting of eleven whites and one black, found Warren McCleskey guilty in circumstances where a death penalty could be imposed. On the 20th April 1987, the Supreme Court affirmed conviction.

During the appeal, McCleskey’s lawyer argued that the Baldus study demonstrated Georgia’s discriminatory intent when McCleskey was sentenced. This was an alleged violation against the fourteenth US Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The Baldus study indicated that six out of eleven defendants convicted of killing a white person would not have received a death penalty had their victims been black.

Justice Powell rejected McCleskey’s argument on two grounds. Firstly, Powell wanted to encourage the sentencing powers, crucial to the criminal justice system. Secondly, the Baldus study did not sufficiently show how the purpose of the McCleskey case was discriminatory.

The five – four majority against Warren McCleskey meant that the importance of having this criminal justice system overrode the likelihood of discrimination. Consequently, the state of Georgia executed Warren McCleskey by lethal injection on September 25th, 1991.

This system, as old as government itself has ironically directed sympathy towards the prisoner. No longer is it a debate of justice versus cruelty spelled as clearly as black and white. Is this highly premeditated form of murder truly for the betterment of society or does it reflect how low society has sunk to accept Timothy McVeigh’s values? That is a question up to the individual’s conscience.

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