Death penalty

Presentation / Essay (Pre-University), 2000

7 Pages

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Death Penalty


The United States is the only western democracy that still practices capital punishment but it is also the one of the countries with the highest crime rate. Other countries are China, Lybia, Uganda, Irak, Iran, which are also known for their violation of human rights. More than 13 000 people have been legally executed since colonial time, most of them in the early 20th century. Most of them have taken place in the southern states, which are called "Death Belt", because four states, Louisiana, Georgia, Texas and Florida carry out two thirds of all executions in the U.S.. Only 12 states have never used death penalty or have abolished it.

More than 2000 people are on death row today. Virtually all are poor, a significant number are mentally ill or otherwise mentally disabled, more than 40 percent are African American and a disproportionate number are Native American, Latino and Asien (see Racism and capital punishment).

In the United States somebody may get the death penalty for first degree murder, second degree murder, aggravated rape and aggravated kidnapping.

During the middle ages and the modern period executions were brutal. They used methods like Burning at the stake, drawning and quatering, stoning, breaking on the wheel and slow strangulation. In our times the U.S. use five methods:

- Electric chair
- Firing squad
- Hanging
- Gas chamber
- Lethal injection


From its beginning, America included the death penalty in the legal punishments as a part of its criminal justice system. Although the founders of the new state America favored generally the death-penalty for certain crimes, many Americans in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries wanted to abolish capital punishment, for what they believed a new republic should have nothing to do with executions. They thought it would be better to reform a criminal than to kill him.

During the 19th century, executions were still largely public as they had been in Europe.

People seemed fascinated by executions and wanted to witness the "show". Because of that it was difficult for politicians to change the public opinion on the death penalty. But there has been a trend since the late 1800s to make executions less brutal with new methods, which were said to be less cruel and more humane.

Since 1930 the abolistionist movement became stronger and more vocal. These groups worked against the two states with the most inmates on death row, Florida and California. In 1972 the most important case, Furman vs. Georgia, was decided. The Supreme Court justices agreed that capital punishment wasn't constitutional and struck down state capital punishment laws nationwide. As a result the death sentences of hundreds of men and women on death row were commuted to life in prison.

In 1997 38 states allowed capital punishment.

Frustrated by an increasing urban street crime many people are speaking out for executions. Polls show that 75 percent of Americans favor the death penalty in some cases, many of them because they lost confidence in alternatives like life sentences. According to the US Department of Justice, the average sentence served for murder is 5 years and 11 months.


-Death Penalty is a poor-man's punishment

99.9% of all death-row-inmates are poor and couldn't afford a private attorney, who is paid more than 50.000 for capital representation. So they get defeated by public attorneys, who are often overworked and underpaid and they are seldom trained in capital defense. In some states they are only able to spend 20 hours or less to prepare for a death penalty trial. Moreover they are only given 1000$ to spent, which is too less to hire investigators, ballistic expert and a psychologist. That's why you hardly find a rich person on death row.

-Death penalty is unfair and unjust

Race, poverty, sex and geographic determine who is sentenced to death. About 42% of the people on death row are black, although they account for only 20% of the U.S. population. Moreover it depends on the state, because 12 states do not carry out Capital punishment.

-Executions of Innocent

Since 1976 more than 85 persons who didn't commit the crime for which they were condemned to death, were freed from death row because of DNA and other evidence. Studies show that in this century at least 400 innocent people have been convicted of capital crimes they didn't commit. Of those 400, 23 were executed. This is the most horrific aspect of capital punishment and as long as death penalty exists the risk of killing an innocent person can never be eliminated.

-The financial aspect

In fact death penalty is more expensive than to keep a condemned in prison for the rest of his life. The costs are made most of all at the trials (more expert witnesses, more investigators, larger jury-selection process) and on death row (more security guards, inmates aren't allowed to work) not in the execution itself.


It's the most used argument for death penalty. It says that it is necessary to kill an offender to prohibit other people from committing the same crime. But murders are often committed in moments of passion and murderers don't calculate the consequences. Sometimes crimes are committed under influence of alcohol and drugs. And as we can see the U.S. uses death penalty, but has also the highest crime rate, which means capital punishment does not lower crimes. Murder is even more common in states with death penalty.


In 82% of murder-cases, the race influences the likelihood of receiving the death penalty. Those who murder a White are more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murder Blacks. It is unusual that a black person gets death penalty for killing another Black, except the victim was a police men or a security guard, a child or maybe a woman. More than 50% of all executed people since 1930 have been black. The minorities do not commit more crimes, but they are more likely sentenced to death when they do. White judges and juries identify more with other Whites.

-Execution of the mentally retarded and mentally ill

Many inmates on death row are mentally retarded and at least 55 people diagnosed as mentally ill have been executed since 1983, although some states forbid to execute mentally ill people.

-Is the execution murder?

Capital punishment is simple murder. The death penalty even violates the right to live and the Universal Declaration of human rights. None should have the right to erase someone's life.

-The execution is a retribution for victims families

Everyone would feel anger and a desire for revenge if someone lost a loved one to homicide, especially if the crime was rape or a brutal assault. A lot of families would feel great satisfaction, when the murderer of their loved one is executed, but executions won't heal their wounds nor will they end up their pain. What these families really need is a financial and emotional support to help them to recover from their loss. Several Organizations, like "Parents of murdered children", help families, relatives and friends to deal with their pain.


-Life on the death row

The condemned men and women are housed in a special wing in the prison, called the death row, where they are isolated from other inmates. They stay there from 4 month to over 20 years, the average length of stay on death row is 10,6 years.

Relatives, friends, spiritual adviser and the media are allowed to visit the inmates, but they have to be put on a visitor list, so the prison can do a security check. Inmates are escorted everywhere in handcuffs and often shackles and have to wear them everywhere except in their cells, the exercise yard and the shower areas. Inmates can have a black and white TV, a radio, snacks and cigarettes in their cells. And they can receive mail everyday. But they are not allowed to have cable TV or air condition and they aren't allowed to meet other inmates in a common room.

Death row inmates have to wear orange shirts to be distinguished and they are counted at least every hour.

After the governor has signed the death warrant, the inmate is placed in a wider and longer, but not so high cell. The guards will observe the prisoner 24 hours a day until his execution. The death watch cells are in the so called "Death-house", another special wing, and the cells are nearest the guard station, so the guards can beware the prisoner from suicide or escaping.

They are allowed to have a TV outside their cells but they are not allowed to listen to the radio because music stirs emotions. There is a telephone from which the prisoner can make collect calls.

-Women and Juveniles on death row

Women are a minority on death row and they are not executed as frequently as men. Female executions are less than 3 % of the total executions since 1608.

The reasons for the women being sentenced to death is that they have killed someone or maybe hired somebody to kill the husband.

The ages of the women range from 21 to 77, they have been on death row from 4 months to 15 years.

The execution of a pregnant woman is forbidden, but after the child's birth the woman can be executed.

It is prohibited to use death penalty on people under the age of 18. But still some states execute people, who committed the crimes at the age under 18. Since 1990 about 20 juveniles have been executed worldwide.


After the governor has signed a death warrant for the condemned man, he is put in a death watch cell, where he has to wait for his execution. The inmate and the attorney may write petitions to the governor, the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals and even to the Pardon Board. That's why a lot of inmates have many execution dates.

Prior to the execution the prisoner may request a last meal, which mustn't cost more than 20$ and must be purchased locally.

The condemned is allowed to have a last meeting with his family to say goodbye. Sometimes they are even allowed to hug, which is forbidden at other visits.

One hour before the execution a priest comes to the death house, where the execution takes place, to give the inmate the last sacraments if he desires it. Then the inmate is able to do the last social phone call. After a shower and the last preparations the condemned is taken to the execution chamber.

-Lethal Injection

It is the most used method in the U.S. An injection team, who have to have medical knowledge perform the execution on a voluntary basis. The executions take place in a separate building, which consists of four rooms (one room for the injection team, the execution chamber, and two sight and sound separated witness rooms.)

The condemned, escorted by five security guards, is placed on a gurney with leather straps located at the wrists, biceps, chest, stomach and legs. He is able to move his head towards the witnesses, family members and media. Before the witnesses are brought to the witness room, the microphone and the speakers are tested and intravenous tubes are set. The inmate is given the chance to pray and speak with his spiritual adviser, then he gets the opportunity to say his final statement that will be made public.

The warden informs the witnesses about the execution, returns to the chamber and gives the order to begin. Two intravenous tubes are started, one in each arm. The prisoner is given three drugs by an injection machine. The first one puts the inmate in a deep sleep, then a muscle relaxant is given to collapse the offender's diaphragm and lungs. The third drug stops his heart. The whole administration takes less than two minutes. Then a warden pronounces the inmate dead and a physician certifies that death has occurred.

Death by lethal injection in not painless. Often the executioners can't find suitable veins and a bloody procedure (venous cut down) is necessary. But it is preferred because it virtually eliminates the pain.

-The electric chair

It was first used in 1890. It was made of solid oak. Prior to the execution equipment is tested. Before an inmate's execution his head and eyebrows get shaved, to reduce the possibility of the hair to catch fire. After a shower he is issued underwear, a pair of pants, a shirt and socks, he isn't allowed to wear shoes. After the witnesses have taken place he is taken to the execution room. He is then allowed to make his final statement. Afterwards his arms, legs, and his chest get secured with leather straps. A metal cap is placed on his head and the electrode at the top is connected to the chair. Another electrode is fastened to the leg. Another leather strap holds the inmates head close to the chair. Then the execution begins. After electricity run through the inmates body, the doctor waits ten minutes to let the body cool down, then he examines the body for vital signs.

Electrocution is very inhumane and painful with awful looks. The body changes color, the inmate may vomit blood or urinate, sometimes he even catches fire or his eyes pop out on his cheeks.

-Gas chamber

The inmate gets strapped to a chair in the gas chamber. Executioners close and lock the door, press a button and lethal gas is pumped into the chamber.

-Firing squad

Blanks and bullets are inserted into the riffles so those who fire the guns will not know if they killed the inmate or not.

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Death penalty
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Caroline Kleemann (Author), 2000, Death penalty, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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