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Marian R. Williams

The death penalty has long been a source of debate and is perhaps the most litigated sentence in the United States. Arguments for the use of the death penalty point to “just deserts” or retribution, while arguments against its use point to its implementation, including how the death penalty is administered (e.g., via electrocution, lethal injection), the types of offenses that are eligible for the death penalty (e.g., murder, rape, treason), and the offenders who are sentenced to death (e.g., males, minorities). This latter concern is the subject of much research, to the extent that a number of U.S. Supreme Court cases have addressed this research, especially in the cases Furman v. Georgia (1972) and McCleskey v. Kemp (1987). Research has indicated that those who are sentenced to death share common characteristics, including gender, minority status, social class, geography, and victim similarities. Overwhelmingly, research has noted that, in general, those who kill white victims are the most likely to receive a death sentence, particularly black offenders who kill white victims. Also, males are more likely to receive a death sentence than females, low-income individuals are more likely to receive a death sentence than higher-income individuals, and committing a capital offense in a handful of counties in the United States increases the likelihood of a death sentence. It is difficult to determine in most cases the reasons for this disparity. Outright discrimination by prosecutors, judges, and/or juries is a possibility, but the court system has made it extremely difficult for offenders to prove discrimination in their individual cases. Some researchers argue that the criminal justice system is stacked against minorities and the poor, by enforcing laws more forcefully in their neighborhoods and requiring financial resources to defend oneself (e.g., bail, defense attorneys). Regardless of the reason for disparate treatment in individual cases, the fact that disparate treatment exists is concerning in a country whose constitution emphasizes due process and equal protection under law.

Article

The dawn of the 21st century marked a turning point in the history of the American death penalty. Politically, the death penalty seemed vulnerable. A wave of abolitionism not seen since the Progressive Era took hold in the 2000s, as six states abandoned the death penalty, and governors in five others instituted moratoria, promising to use their executive power to stay all executions while they remained in office. While the Supreme Court remained committed to the constitutionality of the death penalty, it slowly chipped away at it in a series of decisions that narrowed the range of persons whom the state could execute. Public support for the death penalty, already in decline during the late 1990s, continued to fall in the 21st century. A number of factors depressed support for the death penalty to levels not seen since the early 1970s: a decline in violent crime and fear of crime; highly publicized DNA-based exonerations of death-row inmates; and wariness of the cost of maintaining the death penalty, particularly during the great recession of the late 2000s. The use of the death penalty was declining as well. The expansion of life without parole as an alternative punishment in the 1990s and 2000s gave juries in some states harsh alternatives to death sentences that they did not previously have. Longer-term changes to the judicial and penal administration of the death, meanwhile, continued to make the path between conviction and execution longer and more difficult for state officials to traverse. Most offenders sentenced to death since the 1970s were not (or have not yet been) put to death, and the average wait on death row for those who have been executed has grown to over a decade and a half. Growing problems with the practice of lethal injection, meanwhile, have posed new problems for states seeking to execute capital defendants in the 2000s, producing new legal battles and bringing executions nationwide to a temporary halt in 2007–2008. The 2016 election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States, however, may portend a slowing or reversing Americans’ 21st-century turn away from the death penalty.