According to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Fall 2006 report, the total number of death row inmates amounts to 3,344. There are roughly 41 percent black and 45 percent white prisoners awaiting their execution. Since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976, 1047 people have been executed. (Death Row 1, 5). Among all U.S. states allowing the death penalty, California, Texas and Florida have the most criminals on death row (Death Row 29).
Normally, major reasons in favor of capital punishments are retribution, deterrence, and the general protection of society. Many people experience poetic justice and indemnification when murderers receive their death sentences. They disregard the unproportional, high cost of the capital punishment process which evolves due to repeated appeals and prisoners spending years or even decades on death row (Banner 295).
These numbers and notions become extraordinarily significant due to the fact that the United States is the only country among all its Western peers that continues death sentencing. To this day, the perception of human rights including the dignity of every human being has convinced all major political leaders in Western nations to abolish the death penalty and use life sentences instead for first degree murder and other capital offenses. The following paper will examine several reasons which might have played an important role in the retention of the death penalty, and further analyze the overall dissatisfaction with current regulations of capital punishment processes. While historical issues such as cultural considerations, slavery and racism as well as recent developments such as technological innovations influenced the position of capital punishment to a rather small degree, the dominant impacts are legal arrangements and culture war politics due to the distinctive political and legal system of the U.S., and the symbolic meaning of support for the death penalty among citizens which, in turn, directly influences the legislative and judiciary procedures in this country.
The first topic to be addressed is the role of slavery and racism. After centuries of slavery, particularly in Southern states, and the long struggle for equality among all colors of people, racial bias still persists nowadays. According to Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, there is an “underrepresentation of racial minorities among judges, prosecutors, policy makers” which is especially problematic with regard to death sentences (Stevenson 92). Historically, lynching and racist motivated executions played an important role in the South in order to repress African Americans (Stevenson 92). And to this day, Southern states do not only have the highest murder rate but also more than 80 percent of all executions in the U.S. (Facts 3). If we observe racial bias we are obliged to direct our efforts toward advancement of equality. However, racism does not lead to a rethinking process among the majority of the population – also if they are concerned about racism and its negative effects on society. Delinquents coming from minority backgrounds are often ejected and not worthy being included in the improvement of civil rights to begin with (Stevenson 93). Death penalty supporters, such as Paul Cassell, a district court judge of Salt Lake City, even argue that racism should not be considered in reference to capital punishment since statistics are wrongly interpreted (Cassell 201).
Another minor point in regard to the retention of the death penalty are cultural considerations such as the so-called American exceptionalism. David Garland, professor of Law and Sociology at New York University, dismantles these allegedly exceptional characteristics of U.S. culture. He both rejects Whitman’s proposal of a missing culture of dignity as well as Zimring’s ideas of a vigilante tradition (Garland 348-50) due to the fact that cultural explanations for developments in death penalty procedures disregard the time factor. While the U.S. was in line with European sentiment regarding capital punishment for a long time, a sudden shift during the 1970s imbalanced the progress and, from then on, U.S. politics contrasted other Western nations. Consequently, when arguing in favor of cultural reasons, one cannot overlook the time pattern of capital punishment. Therefore, there must be other, more dominant forces influencing the recent developments.
In regard to technological innovations, it is important to examine past and present instruments of putting prisoners to death. Since 1976, the most widely used method of execution has been lethal injection. 37 out of 38 states use this method, also the U.S. government (Facts 4). According to Jonathan and Cliff Gromer from the Popular Mechanics Magazine, there are various methods of execution: hanging, electrocution, gas chamber, fire squad, and lethal injection. While hanging is quick and painless, an incorrect rope and drop length may lead to horrible consequences such as decapitation. The electric chair kills more impersonal with high voltages. Lethal injection gives three different types of drugs. The then “peaceful outward appearance” can be misleading since some of the drugs lead to internal lung implosion and writhing of the organs (Gromer 1-5).
With the development of impersonal and new ways of execution, other methods soon appeared “barbaric and unnecessarily cruel” and also privatized the whole process (Banner 169-70). Consequently, the idea of deterrence did not have the same effect anymore because people could not gather around the criminal anymore while he was killed. The death penalty turned into a distant event, committed by the state and watched by the media. “A distaste for inflicting pain had been assuaged by technology, and technology had transformed the meaning of an execution.” (Banner 207) Although nowadays there are issues with the latest death method, the lethal injection, there are reasonable doubts that technology can be the driving force behind the retention of the death penalty in the U.S. because the methods used can hardly change the acceptance or rejection of capital punishment, particularly since the criminal is far away and has nothing to do or in common with the average citizen.
It is now time to take a closer look at the two major factors concerning the initial question: legal and constitutional arrangements as well as culture war politics.