The Evolution and Controversy of the Death Penalty in the United States

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Evolution of the Death Penalty

Throughout the history of the United States, there have numerous cases that have dealt with the death penalty and begun to specify what crimes it should be used for. In the beginning, it seemed that the death penalty was used quite frequently for even the simplest of crimes, but as time has gone on, there have been new adjustments made to how the death penalty is used, when it is used, and for what crimes it is used, but there has been a movement by many groups such as the American Civil Liberties Unit to explain why the death penalty should no longer be used in the United States.

When the death penalty originated, it was an easy and effective way for individuals to get justice for a crime committed against them. At the time, and even now, there is an idea that the punishment must fit the crime, which is why the punishment is usually used only for murder now. There has been what people consider “an eye for an eye” idea surrounding the death penalty and why it has been used. The punishment today is used only for murders, but there have been two men that were sentenced to death for the rape of a minor, and one of those convictions was reversed because it did not result in the death of the girl, which is the main priority to the criminal justice system.

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Problems with the Death Penalty System

Problems can often occur when sentencing someone to death row. For example, there is a problem of racial bias when convicting individuals and sentencing them to death row. There is evidence to show that a person is 11 times more likely to get the death penalty when the victim is white than if they are black and 22 times more likely to receive it if the victim is white and the defendant is black. As crime changes, the death penalty law has been found by the American Civil Liberties Unit (ACLU) to not be an effective deterrent to crime, and the best way to deter crime is with more police officers, reducing drug abuse, and creating a better economy.

So, the death penalty does not deter a person from committing a crime, especially if the individual is not rationally thinking. There is also the fact that 1 out of every nine people sentenced to death are innocent. This is a much larger group of people than society realizes are sentenced to death for something they never did. Other countries do not use the death penalty; for example, Germany has started to use different ways of dealing with crime. If other countries have succeeded in abolishing the death penalty, then there could be a way that the United States could eventually do the same.

In the United States, it has been found that the states who still allow the use of the death penalty have higher murder rates than those who do not (“Murder Rate,” 2019). For example, the murder rates in states that had the death penalty in 2018 were at 5.34 percent, while in those states which had abolished it was at only 4 percent (“Murder Rate,” 2019). Individuals have no terror of the possibility of receiving the death penalty because, most of the time, those individuals are not thinking rationally. Rational thinking requires an individual to realize the consequences of actions and to understand what those results may do to a family or society in general.

Problems with the Death Penalty System

Some cases show the growth of how the death penalty is used. Now, an individual that can prove they are mentally challenged is not likely to receive the death penalty for something they did. There are three standards an individual like that has to meet. As stated in the textbook, “The person has a substantial intellectual impairment, that impairment impacts the everyday life of the mentally retarded individual, and retardation must be present at birth or during childhood”. If an individual has all three of those present in the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) definition, then executing them is considered a violation of their rights and considered cruel and unusual punishment. If an individual does not have all three elements present, the use of it does not work.

There have only been a few cases that have been able to prove that the individual that committed the crime was mentally challenged. One case where the defense was able to refute the original death penalty ruling and reverse it was in Atkins v. Virginia. In the case, two men, Daryl Atkins, and William Jones, were drinking and smoking marijuana. Around midnight, those two men decided to go to a convenience store and rob a customer. The men forced him to withdraw two-hundred dollars from an ATM before Atkins fired eight shots into the man’s body.

Soon after it happened, Atkins was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death row, but soon afterward there was an evaluation done, and it was proven that Atkins was mentally challenged. There were interviews conducted for people who knew him, as well as an IQ test, which showed he had an IQ of fifty-nine, and that he struggled in everyday life. This provided enough information to the higher court and judges to reverse the conviction and take away the previous ruling.

This case was significant because years earlier, there was a similar case with a mentally challenged individual who was sentenced to death but was found there was no violation of the individual’s rights. It showed the direction of change that the country was moving towards and understanding executing those individuals did not serve the main purposes of the punishment, which were retribution and deterrence. This is one of few cases that helped the movement of the death penalty law and how it was enacted in the country, but along with this case were cases where the suspect was not mentally challenged but had possibly made an error in their original plan.

One of those cases that had a mentally stable man who was committing a crime was Furman v. Georgia. This case traveled to the supreme court, where Furman was finally rescued from his death penalty. Furman had been burglarizing a home when he was discovered by a member of the house, and as he fled, Furman dropped his gun, and it went off and killed the individual. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to death row but appealed the decision. When the case reached the supreme court, the ruling was reversed because the judges saw it as cruel and unjust and saw it as a violation of the eighth amendment. This was an important step in how the death penalty was handled, but in a case soon after, the opposite happened.

This case was in 1976 and had other cases like Jackson v. Georgia and Branch v. Texas being decided at the same time, and for those cases as well, the death penalty was considered unconstitutional. These cases were respectively about rape and murder convictions quite similar to other cases. All of these cases, later on, helped with convicting (or not) others of those same crimes.

In a similar case to Furman v. Georgia, there was another man that had a ruling on the death penalty. The case Gregg v. Georgia was a case where a man was convicted of robbery and the murder of two men. This time, Gregg was not as lucky as Furman. He appealed the decision stating that the death penalty violated his Eighth and fourteenth amendment rights, but the court did not agree and affirmed the decision. In the Supreme Court, it was decided 7-2 unanimously.

Previous cases like the Furman case usually help in later cases to decide what is done, but the case was different enough there was no way it could be used to help Gregg. He had intentionally committed the murder, unlike Furman, who had only dropped his gun. This was likely part of the reasoning for the case. For the Gregg case, it was most likely understood to be reasonable because of his intention of murdering two men while Furman had unintentionally murdered one.

As stated in the above paragraphs, the death penalty has had little positive effect on criminal deterrence. For deterrence to work, it needs to be swift and consistent, but the punishment of death cannot be done either consistently or swiftly (ACLU, 2019). Some crimes are not thought out before they happen but are rather a heat of moment crimes. It should be stated, though, that as years have gone by, death penalty sentences have lowered. In the 1990s, the death penalty convictions reached almost three hundred in one single year, but in 2019 it had been lowered to only 34 sentences. That shows that states have started to take action and have realized that the death penalty is not as effective as they had once hoped.

In a recent case, Kennedy v. Louisiana, that happened in 2008, a man was convicted of raping his eight-year-old stepdaughter. The damage to the girl was so extensive and required emergency surgery. The sentence to death row ended up being reversed by the supreme court because it did not result in the death of the individual, and in 45 jurisdictions Kennedy would not have been sentenced to death. To many people, this is infuriating, letting a man like this one live out his sentence in prison, but to the courts and previous cases, no one was murdered, which is what protects him from death row.

Calls for Abolishment and the Way Forward

The death penalty serves little purpose in society today. It has not deterred people from crime, and it has been the death of some innocent people. The punishment can be easily used against those who do not have good counsel or people of color (ACLU, 2019). Currently, twenty-one states have removed the death penalty and as has the District of Colombia (Deathpenaltyinfo, 2019). These states have moved forward, and now about sixty percent of respondents prefer a life sentence for murder rather than a death sentence (Deathpenaltyinfo, 2019). It has previously been used as a way to punish individuals for a specific crime, but today it seems like it is used more the ability to control citizens in the country.

This law is important when wanting to show the growth of the United States and its punishments. Every case that has dealt with the death penalty has greatly helped the adjustment and how or when it should be used. Cases like this are too important to learn about for them to be removed from future books, but it is also important to note that soon, the death penalty will most likely not exist. Even though this will likely happen, it will be important for future students to learn about and understand history. The Kennedy v. Louisiana case was one case that provided the context of what a court would do when a heinous crime was committed but did not end up being a murder.

For the reason that it provides little purpose and is used as a way to punish individuals in poverty or those of color, the death penalty should be abolished. Eleven percent of the people that fall to the death penalty are innocent. The fact is someone innocent could have been saved if the punishment did not exist. People who have been convicted and are innocent have the chance to be exonerated, but not if they have been executed. There is also the known fact that the price of lethal injection is high and has continued to rise in price over many years . The death sentence seems to still be used today just to satisfy the equal punishment to the crime, but when handling some criminal cases, it should not be trusted for the correct death of an individual.

The use of this penalty has not deterred the number of murders or various other crimes, it has become a useless punishment for criminals, and there is a possibility that life without parole could be more effective in trying to deter and prevent crimes. At this point, it is not as much a way to deter crime from happening but rather a way for the government to try and control the American people. It does not succeed in its purpose, and there should be a new created to prevent and deter crime from happening.


  1. American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). (2019). The Death Penalty. Retrieved from
  2. Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). (2019). Year End Report. Retrieved from
  3. Murder Rate by State 2018. (2019). World Population Review. Retrieved from
  4. (2008). Death Penalty Retrieved from
  5. Samaha, J. (2017). Criminal Law. Cengage Learning.
  6. Stevenson, B. (2012). The Folly of Capital Punishment. TED. Retrieved from

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The Evolution and Controversy of the Death Penalty in the United States. (2023, Aug 11). Retrieved from

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