“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” This is the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. Capital punishment, also known as the death penalty, is a brutal killing of person who was sentenced to death by a court of criminal offense. The death penalty arguably goes against the Eighth Amendment and the fundamental values of our societies.
Details about the Death Penalty
Crimes that could result in a sentence to the death penalty consist of murder, drug trafficking, rape, robbery, kidnapping, etc. As of 2020, lethal injection is the standard for carrying out the death penalty. Although this method may not seem drastic, the death penalty’s history of firing squads, public hangings, and electric chair shocks is indicative of a cruel history.
Capital punishment originated in the United States in the seventeeth century. The practice was brought to America by European Settlers and the first execution took place in Jamestown, Virginia.
In 1972, there was a Supreme Court case regarding the legality of the death penalty. The nine judges who were in charge of making the final decision on the case are pictured above. Furman v. Georgia focused on the Eighth Amendment and if carrying out the death penalty for convicted rape and murder violated the Eight Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
In a 5-4 decision, the ruling was that the death penalty did violate the Eighth Amendment. They also ruled against it because they believed that the death penalty intentionally targeted the poor and minorities. That being said, capital punishment was officially abolished in the United States, but not for long.
The abolition of the death penalty was overturned in Gregg vs Georgia in 1976. The Supreme Court went back on the precedent set in 1972 and in a 7-2 vote, they ruled that it did not violate any amendment of the Constitution. This reinstated and continued the legality of capital punishment.
Support and Opposition to the Death Penalty Today:
Those in favor of the death penalty argue that death is a justifiable punishment for murder. If someone killed someone else, they deserve to be killed. Supporters also believe that rather than taking up space in jails or allowing people to be rehabilitated, it is simply cheaper to execute someone. People that oppose the death penalty take the inhumane stance. They say that it is inhumane for people to be executed for crimes they have committed and that capital punishment goes against America’s supposed fundamental values. With regards to money, some say that the death penalty is also a waste of federal funds.
Although the number of supporters for the death penalty has surely decreased over the past century, a fair share of Americans still support this practice. The graph below is a study conducted by the Pew Research Center. The data displays both the support for and against the death penalty based on gender, race, age, education, and political affiliation. From this research, we can conclude that white, republican, old men are the people that most strongly believe in the death penalty for murder. Democrats and black people are the people least in favor of it.
Despite the fact that this was conducted recently in 2018, the results actually have origins stemming from centuries ago. The death penalty certainly has a history of targeting certain groups.
Capital punishment has origins in the history of segregation. As of 2019, the percentage of the population of black people in the United States was around 13.4%. According the Death Penalty Research Center, around 42% of the people on death row are black. Based on the flaws of our criminal justice system and its favor of white people over black people, these percentages are not simply a coincidence.
The New York Times also states that the punishment for killing a white person is 17 times more likely to result in a sentencing to the death penalty than killing a black person. Minorities' lives are valued less than the lives of white people. Professor Phillips from the New York times states that “‘It’s not necessarily that the death penalty has a race problem. It’s more that the United States has a race problem that happens to infect the death penalty.’” This short statement sums up the sad realities of America.
Combined with the racial bias of the death penalty, capital punishment is known for having innocent people on death row. Exoneration is when a conviction is reversed or overturned, due to evidence of innocence. Although the death penalty is ideally supposed to execute only guilty people, innocent people also have a risk of being executed. This is unjust and once again relates back to the flaws in the criminal justice system.
Rehabilitation vs Death Penalty
The arguments of the death penalty also comes with the argument of rehabilitation. Should people be able to be rehabilitated?
"We can't just rail against crime. We must speak of the root problems—devastating family breakup, an insidious culture of violence that cheapens human life, skyrocketing prisoner recidivism rates that rob our communities of husbands and fathers—and recognize that there is a societal role in rehabilitation and restoration." -Frank Wolf
This is a pie chart from a study from Oxford’s Treatment Center. Many people in the United States who go to jail do not have the opportunity to go to rehabilitation centers. While some may say that not everyone deserves to have the chance to be rehabilitated, rehabilitation seems like a more effective and humane solution to the problem of criminality. It would allow for people to truly get the help that they need and be back in our communities, rather than keeping people in solitary confinement and brutally executing them.
As Goldberg and Deroshowitz in a Harvard Article discuss why the capital punishment should be abolished, they state, “The lives of over five hundred prisoners waiting on death row are immediately at stake. But also at stake is our faith in and commitment to national self improvement, as we decide whether to take what Camus called the ‘great civilizing step’ of abolishing the death penalty... threatens to further brutalize a nation already saturated with war, riot and crime. This generation of Americans has experienced enough killing.”
Ensuring the legality of the death penalty should not be the priority of the country. As the authors mention in the article, execution by the government should be abolished as there is already plenty of “war, riot, and crime” in the country today. By continuing the death penalty, the country only contributes to the ongoing problems. Instead of keeping the death penalty and promoting execution from the government, the United States should be focusing on how they can reduce problems from within.
Whether or not capital punishment is good or bad, humane or inhumane, in accordance with the Constitution or not, the reality of the situation is that it is still currently legalized in twenty seven states. It is still very much present in our very own communities now. Although we may not have slavery or de jure segregation anymore, the country still has a long way to go in ensuring equality for all.
Written by Tia Williams
Edited by Paul Griessel Jr, Eric Young & Michael Ding
ACLU 2012, accessed 27 July, 2021,
Death Penalty Research Center 2021, accessed 27 July 2021,
1Arthur J. Goldberg & Alan M. Dershowitz, Declaring the Death Penalty Unconstitutional, 83 Harv. L. Rev. 1773 (1970), 1773, 1819