The Constitutionality of Capital Punishment
According to crime statistics released by the United States Department of Justice, a violent crime is committed every 26.2 seconds (FBI: UCR, 2018). Among those violent crimes committed, a murder occurs every 32.5 minutes. In order to combat these crimes, the United States government has a series of laws that describe how it should handle these crimes. These laws are stated in the United States Constitution. The United States Constitution has established itself as "the supreme Law of the Land" (U.S. Const. Art. I). This means that the laws stated within the United States Constitution take priority over any state laws that may conflict with it. Although the United States Constitution holds the highest authority, it still allows for the states to govern their people in accordance with the laws they put in place. This rule is established in 1789 through the Bill of Rights (U.S. Const. Amend X). Although the states officially gained their power through the United States Constitution in 1789, early colonial states still had their own set of laws established. The laws used by these colonies were heavily influenced by English ordinance (Early History of the Death Penalty, 2021).
Among the several policies that influenced early colonies, capital punishment was a policy used by colonists. The first recorded execution committed in the British American Colonies was carried out in the Jamestown colony of Virginia during 1608 (Historical Timeline, 2021). Since that first execution, capital punishment has received several alterations. These revisions were made so that the methods of capital punishment would not conflict with the United States Constitution. Despite the efforts of the United States government to make capital punishment as merciful of a process as possible, it is still viewed as an unwonted and violent approach to crime (National Polls and Studies, 2021). In modern America, the death penalty has proven itself to be an outdated method of punishment that has no place in any modern civilization. In the United States, capital punishment has shown to conflict with the Eighth Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment, and has failed to promote a safer country.
Since the 17th century, the methods with which the United States government has used to perform the execution of convicted criminals have changed. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the most common method of execution used by the United Stated was hanging (The ESPY List, 2021). During this period, the United States government was recorded to have performed 6,462 hangings. Although this method of execution would remain the most used in the United States history, it was not the sole method of government authorized executions. Several medieval execution methods, such as burning at the stake, were also used at this time. As the United States government continued to develop into the late 19th and early 20th century, these medieval methods were considered outdated and were no longer used within the governmental practice of capital punishment. This period in the history of the United States is known as the progressive era (Paul, 2017).
During this progressive era, the use of electricity was incorporated into the practice of government authorized executions. The first person to be sentenced to death by electrocution in the United States of America was William Kemmler (125 Years Ago, 2015). William Kemmler, a mentally disabled man, was sentenced to death by the electric chair in the late Summer of 1890 by the state of New York. He was charged for the murder of Matilda Ziegler, who was his common-law wife at the time. Despite the appeals made by Mr. Kemmler's lawyer, claiming that death electrocution would be unpredictable and therefore violating the Eight Amendment, the United States Supreme Court deemed the execution constitutionally acceptable (In re Kemmler 136 US 436, 1890). On the day of his execution, William Kemmler had a current of 2,000 volts of electricity sent into his body for 17 seconds. Although the specialists on the scene claimed the voltage would be sufficient to kill him, William Kemmler's body only went into convulsions while turning red. After allowing the generators to recharge, the executioner made a second attempt at Mr. Kemmler's life by leaving the current on for over a minute. Although this was the first use of the electric chair in the practice of capital punishment, this would not be the only case where a government-authorized execution would result in a cruel and unusual outcome.
Following this execution and into the 20th century, several states move to abolish capital punishment for most crimes or remove it outright from state legislatures (The Abolitionist Movement, 2019). Although many states are opposed to the practice of capital punishment, over half of the states of the United States of America are in favor of continuing the practice. States in America continued to find ways to improve the methods of death by electrocution. Despite the efforts to make the process as merciful as possible, electricity continues to remain unpredictable when in contact with a human body. An example of this can be seen in the execution of Allen Lee Davis (Wills, 2021). Allen Lee Davis was sentenced to death and executed in the state of Florida in the late spring of 1999. The charges that caused him to receive a sentencing of death by electric chair were three counts of first-degree murder. When Allen Lee Davis was placed in the electric chair, the executioners have grossly underestimated the resistance his body hold up against electricity. When the execution commenced, the 344-pound man began to spout blood from his nose, which then poured down his chest. When the electricity was turned off, Allen Lee Davis was still alive. Examiners later determined that Allen Lee Davis had passed away from a heart attack. He was officially pronounced dead 5 minutes after the generator was turned off.
Despite these poorly carried out executions resulting in horrific and bloody scenes, the sentencing of criminals to death by electrocution still remains the second most used method of execution authorized by the United States government. Currently, the most common method used during government authorized executions is a lethal injection (Methods of Execution, 2021). This method of execution, though used much more often in modern executions, is still as unsafe and unpredictable as death by electrocution. The execution of Clayton Derrell Lockett highlights the danger of performing lethal injection (Stern, 2015). Clayton Lockett was charged and sentenced to death for rape and murder. At the time of his execution, physicians attempted to use a new serum to perform the injection. An hour after receiving the injection, Clayton Derrell Lockett's veins exploded from the inside and he later died from a heart attack.
Another failed execution using lethal injection can be seen in the execution of Romell Broom, who received charges for kidnapping, rape, and murder, was sentenced to death in 1985 (CBS News, 2017). After waiting 24 years on death row, the state of Ohio had Mr. Broom brought out for execution mid Fall of 2009. Despite having trained medical professionals issue the serum, physicians made 18 attempts at various points to puncture a vein with the IV line. This event lasted for 2 hours, even having an IV line striking his bone during insertion. Although Romell Broom attempted to fight these attempts on his life in court (State v Broom, 2016), the judges issued that these attempts were not unconstitutional. Rommel Broom was then placed back on death row awaiting another execution date in 2020.
Inmates sentenced to be placed on death row suffer cruel punishments. The criminals on death row are placed in solitary confinement and have to wait anywhere between a year to several decades to be executed (Conditions on Death Row, 2019). Scholars have analyzed the conditions prisoners face during solitary confinement and determined that it is a psychological strain on inmates' mental health (Leonard, 2020). Prisoners on death row have been recorded to suffer these conditions for several years. The inmate who served the longest sentence on death row was Raymond George Riles, who served 45 years on death row (McCullough, 2021). Although capital punishment subjects criminals to cruel and unusual fates, it also has been used as a tool of oppression throughout history.
Another United States Amendment violated during the practice of capital punishment is the 14th Amendment. Studies have shown that criminals who receive capital punishment sentencing are disproportionally gendered (Shatz & Shatz, 2011). Despite committing the same crimes, men in the United States are more likely to receive the death penalty. Since the 20th century, only 55 women have been executed by the United States Government (Executions of Women, 2020). Although the system used to sentence criminals to death is inherently sexist, that is not the only way capital punishment conflicts with the Fourteenth Amendment. Capital punishment has also been proven to be racially biased. Studies have proven that statistically, a person who has murdered a white person is 17 times more likely to receive the death penalty (Rahman & Schmidt, 2021). Other studies have shown that a person of color is also more likely to receive capital punishment (ACLU, 2021).
When examining the racial demographics within the inmates currently on death row in the United States, over 50% of criminals sentenced are either black or Latinx (Racial Demographics, 2021). These statistics have remained consistently discriminating for over a hundred years. The process of sentencing citizens to be executed has also proven to be flawed and denies them their due process of law. Evidence of this can be seen in many cases throughout the history of the United States. For example, in the case of George Stinney, a 14 year African American boy was sentenced to death after being denied several rights (EJI, 2014). George Stinney was charged for the murder of two white girls of the ages 7 and 11. In this case, George Stinney was denied a fair trial by a jury of his peers, forced to confess without the presence of an adult, and the South Carolina Court did not allow him to bring any witnesses to the stand. At the time of this case, no African Americans were allowed to enter the courthouse. This led to a 10-minute verdict from an all-white jury convicting George Stinney and calling for capital punishment. The only evidence used against George Stinney was his forced confession which was taken without the supervision of his parents or any legal aid. This case resulted in the second youngest child in the United States being sentenced to a government-authorized execution. 70 years after the electrocution of George Stinney, his name was later exonerated. Although these rights were denied to a child, they have also been denied to adults in the past also. In the case of Atkins v Virginia, Daryl Renard Atkins received a death sentence despite being a mentally disabled person. Daryl Renard Atkins was charged with armed robbery, abduction, and capital murder. The initial sentencing he received was death. Upon taking his case to the Unites Stated Supreme Court, Daryl Renard Atkins was able to have his sentencing reduced to life in prison. The United States Supreme Court has also been proven to deny inmates on death row the right to DNA testing after their trials (Supreme Courts Rejects Due Process Right to DNA Testing After Trial, 2009). These DNA test results could have resulted in the exoneration of many criminals who were put to death. This denial is also preventing citizens from having a fair trial under the due process of law.
Besides being a policy that conflicts with many of the United States Constitutional laws, the use of capital punishment has also failed to prove itself as the more beneficial sentencing for criminals. The utilization of capital punishment in the United States has been found to be an unprofitable system of penalizing convicted criminals. Studies have shown that the methods used to perform government authorized executions (Costs, 2021). Although the cost of capital punishment has risen greatly in the past decades, it has always been the least costs effective way to punish a criminal. Recent studies have also shown that a life sentence in prison is several times cheaper than issuing a government-authorized execution (Robinson, 2018). The average government authorized execution could cost the government and taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. The average cost to imprison a criminal for life without parole is $200,000 to $300,000 (California Innocence Project, 2021).
The high prices of capital punishment for each state in the United States have risen more in recent years due to a shortage in the supplies used during an execution. Most of the drugs used by doctors to make the serum for lethal injection have either been removed from the market or have gone up in prices (Nasaw, 2012). This has caused states that use capital punishment to outsource for different methods of creating a serum to execute a criminal while also abiding by the laws of the United States Constitution.
The use of capital punishment in the United States has provided no evidence of being an effective deterrent to crime. Recent studies have proven the states that issue capital punishment to criminals do not have lower crime rates than states that do not (Bonner & Fessenden, 2000). Upon reviewing the statistics of states that use the death penalty and those that do not, scholars have determined that homicide rates are higher in states that utilize capital punishment (Amnesty International USA, 2017). Criminologists have also taken part in surveys, providing information to further elaborate on why capital punishment is failing as a legitimate crime deterrent (Amnesty International USA, 2017). Many states use different methods to carry out the order of capital punishment. Although the most common method in the United States is lethal injection, some states use different methods such as the gas chamber, or firing squads (Barnes, 2018). Despite these varying methods of performing government authorized executions, no state is able to provide evidence of either method being more efficient than the other. These poor results have caused many American citizens to lose their support for capital punishment (Gallup Poll, 2020). These studies have shown that support for capital punishment has been the lowest it has been in over 50 years. In 2020, American citizens expressed their disapproval of Former President Donald Trump's use of outdated methods of execution such as a firing squad and hanging (Sarat, 2020). These outdated methods of killing have put the United States in a position where it is losing its moral support from foreign allies (Williams, 2000).
In conclusion, the use of capital punishment has proven itself to be an outdated method of punishment. A myriad of past executions of proven that the use of capital punishment in the United States has led to cases that conflict with the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. It also is undeniably the more expensive method of punishment, costing Americans millions of dollars. Considering the risks of corruption within the government and an imperfect method of justice, the act of taking a person's life is far too unsafe to be performed in modern society. Support for capital punishment in the 21st century will lead citizens to neglect the unconstitutionality of the practice. A modern country leading the world, such as the United States of America, should consider the option of offering better rehabilitation sources for its criminals.