Washington, 31 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In the United States, the majority of states permit capital punishment and the practice is widely supported by the general public, although there is a small but growing minority that laments its use.
Today, 38 out of 50 states in the U.S. allow the death penalty. The methods of execution vary among the 38 states and include hanging, electrocution, the gas chamber, firing squad or lethal injection. Most states -- and most inmates -- choose either lethal injection or the electric chair.
According to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) -- a non-profit, anti-death penalty organization -- there are currently more than 3,500 men and women on death row in the U.S. Last year, 68 prisoners in the U.S. were executed. There have already been 26 executions carried out in the U.S. this year alone. By far, the most executions take place in Texas -- with 20 of last year's 68 executions taking place in this large southwestern state.
The DPIC says the number of people on death row in the U.S. has been growing at an average of 100 to 150 people per year. If executions proceed as scheduled, the center says, more death-row inmates will die of natural causes than will be executed.
The history of capital punishment in America can be traced back to 15th-century England. At that time, English law determined that there were seven major crimes punishable by death: treason, murder, larceny, burglary, rape and arson. When England colonized North America, the death penalty was applied under these seven crimes. These same laws subsequently remained in effect and were widely used even after America won its independence from the British in 1776.
By the end of the 18th century, however, a movement to end the death penalty in America was launched, led by a pacifist religious group called the Quakers. Their efforts met with some success, and by the mid-1800s, several states in the U.S. had abolished the death penalty. Other states passed laws narrowing the crimes that warranted the death penalty. But the use of capital punishment in many other states continued.
It wasn't until the mid-1970s that the issue of capital punishment in the United States was finally addressed by the nation's highest court. In a flurry of important decisions, the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty in America could not be applied if any of the three following conditions were met:
-- If the death penalty was a mandatory sentence.
-- If capital punishment was imposed without providing courts with sufficient guidance to determine the appropriateness of the sentence.
-- Or if the death penalty was imposed for a crime that did not take or threaten life.
However, the death penalty itself was not abolished as the Supreme Court did not find that it violated the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which forbids the infliction of "cruel and unusual punishment." In 1977 -- in the first exercise of capital punishment in the U.S. since 1967 -- convicted murderer Gary Gilmore was executed by a firing squad in the western state of Utah.
As a result of these rulings, the death penalty in the U.S. is today confined to crimes of murder. Some legal experts also say that espionage and treason may be grounds for the death penalty in the U.S., although the Supreme Court has yet to rule on this.
Recent polls show that Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of the death penalty. In fact, one recent poll cited a margin of more than two-to-one in favor of capital punishment for murder or murder-related crimes.
Dudley Sharp -- vice-president of the Texas-based pro-death penalty organization Justice For All -- tells RFE/RL that Americans support the death penalty because they are sick of being victimized by violent criminals.
In a conviction shared by most proponents of the death penalty in America, Sharp said that -- although the evidence is inconclusive as to whether the death penalty serves as a deterrent to violent crime -- it is the only way to ensure that the criminal does not strike again, even from prison.
"From a strictly victimization standpoint, the death penalty is the only punishment that guarantees no future harm will accrue from that individual criminal."
Sharp also says that claims by opponents of capital punishment that the death penalty in the U.S. is racially biased are nonsense. He says that white murderers are twice as likely to be executed in the U.S. as are blacks or other minorities. He adds that statistics show that white murderers in the U.S. are also executed -- on the average -- about 17 months earlier than blacks and other minorities.
But Michelle Justice -- an opponent of the death penalty who works at the Death Penalty Information Center -- tells RFE/RL that a disproportionate number of non-whites are sentenced to death and executed in the United States. She adds that poor and uneducated defendants -- most of whom are black or from other minority groups -- are also far more likely to be sentenced to death and executed.
Justice also says that statistics show the death penalty does not serve as a deterrent to violent crime. She says numerous polls of criminals and death-row inmates indicate that the threat of death does not stop or deter violent criminals. She adds that even a 1995 poll of police chiefs in the U.S. found that the majority did not believe the death penalty is an effective law-enforcement tool.
"[Capital punishment] is a political tool that politicians use to feed on the fears of the public and to make it appear that they are hard on crime. People feel that because of the crime problem in the U.S., we need to have stiff penalties and a harsh criminal justice system, and that includes the death penalty."
Justice also says the use of capital punishment in America is embarrassing human-rights violation that leaves the U.S. isolated from most other industrialized nations, which banished capital punishment long ago.
But capital punishment does not appear to be in imminent danger of disappearing in the U.S. In fact, death penalty proponents have been receiving strong support from a conservative Supreme Court over the past decade.
In the first of many decisions supporting capital punishment, the Court ruled in 1986 that opponents of executions may be barred from juries in murder cases. The following year, the Court ruled that capital punishment may also be applied to accomplices in crimes that lead to murder. And they rejected a challenge to capital punishment based on statistics that indicated a racial bias in sentencing.
In 1989, the Supreme Court made two important decisions regarding the death penalty in America. The first ruling found that the death penalty can be applied to those who are mentally retarded. The second decision made the death penalty applicable to teen-agers, as long as they were at least 16 years old at the time of the murder.
Finally, throughout the early 1990s, the Supreme Court cut back on the number of appeals that death-row inmates could make to federal courts, making it easier and speedier for states to execute inmates on death row.
Still, despite the recent rulings, death-row inmates in America still have a lengthy amount of time for appeal and are afforded many opportunities to have their sentences overturned. The average length of an appeal by a death-row inmate in America today is about nine years.
(The second of four features on capital punishment in different parts of the world.)