Death Penalty: History of capital punishment execution in the US

The death penalty, commonly referred to as capital punishment, is the lawful killing of a person in line with a court ruling ordering them to be executed for crimes they committed. Many a time, this decision is made after a defendant is found guilty of capital crimes. In many judicial systems, and in the case the United States of America, capital crime can be any of the following crimes; capital murder, kidnapping of high-ranking government officials, espionage, terrorism, sexually assaulting a minor and treason. In the US, the judicial systems in every state have the constitutional right of deciding how to go about the execution of capital punishment. The different states also have the right to drop capital punishment for any other form of punishment which they deem fit for these types of crime. Many states have been seen adopting life sentence in the place of capital punishment. This paper seeks to provide a detailed exposition on the history, execution, statistical data and the reformation of capital punishment execution in the US.

History of capital punishment in the US

The death penalty is one of the oldest forms of punishment in the Unites States of America.  The first punishment of its kind was executed in 1608 on an army general who was killed by firing squad for allegedly being a Spanish spy on the American soil. The American army has also been in the record for the mass execution of soldiers before 1955 (Broughton, 2017). In 1789 after immense pressure from human rights and religious institutions, the US government reviewed the bill of rights and included an amendment that prohibited heinous and cruel execution of capital punishment in the name of justice. The amendment’s language also implied the allowance for the use of death penalty if and only if it was a court issued order. The amendment also clearly stipulated that due process should be followed before passing a capital punishment ruling on any person (Broughton, 2017).

Different states in the US have, over the years, been seen abolishing the use of capital punishment, one after the other. The first states to abolish this practice did so in the 19th century. These first states were; Michigan, Wisconsin, Maine and Rhode Island. However, 31 states and US federal government have managed to withstand the criticism of this practice and still allow capital punishment in spite of its abolishment in other states (Broughton, 2017).  In 1972, the US Supreme Court reviewed several past cases where capital punishment ruling had been issued and found them both unjustified and unconstitutional. This ruling led to the temporary abolishment of death penalty in the US. This ruling was however averted in 1979, and capital punishment was controversially reinstituted (Broughton, 2017). From then henceforth, capital punishment has remained to be a legal form of punishment in the US. This practice has received criticism and favor, in equal measures, from the American citizen.

Methods of executing death penalty

Lethal injection

This is presumably the most humane and commonly used death-inducing method used for execution in the US. This method was first adopted by the Oklahoma state in 1977 only to be used five years later in the same sate. Currently, all the 31 states in America use this method in the execution of death penalties (Broughton, 2017). During execution, the condemned person is normally restrained on a flat surface and injected with sleep inducing drugs to ensure he does not feel any pain in the process. On the prison warden’s order, the curtains of the execution room are drawn to give view to the witnesses. The condemned inmate is the injected with the lethal drug which makes the heart to stop slowly and painlessly. A doctor is then called upon to provide confirmation of death (Broughton, 2017).


This method was adopted in 1888 in New York City. However, the method was first used in 1890 to execute William Kemmler. The most common means of execution of capital punishment through electrocution is the use of an electric chair (Jennings, 2016). This is considerably one of the most painful methods of execution, and for this reason, its use has been abolished by the supreme court of America. During the execution of death penalty using this method, the condemned person is first subjected to a clean shave and then tied to onto a strong metallic chair (Jennings, 2016). A round cap-like metal, connected to electricity, is first coated with a wet sponge and tied on his head. On the warden’s signal, the power is put on and the high voltage ran through the inmate kills him as witnesses watch. The doctor is then called upon to provide proof of death.

Gas chamber

In the search for a humane way of execution, the state of Nevada introduced the use of gas chamber as a more humane way of execution compared to electrocution and hanging. This method was first put into practice in 1924 during the execution of Gee Jon. During execution by use of this method, the person being executed is tied on a chair in an airtight room and instructed to breath heavily to speed up the process. On the warden’s signal, a lethal gas is released to the room as witnesses watch through glass windows (Jennings, 2016). If the person being executed cooperates and agrees to breathe heavily, the process is fast and less painful. However, if they struggle to hold their breath, the method is evidently painful, and for this reason, it has been barred from use in several states in the US. The body is only removed from the chair after a medical test is conducted to provide proof of death. This method is used as a substitute method of lethal injection in five states in the US (Jennings, 2016).

Firing squad

In 2015, this method was legalized in Utah as the execution method in case the state was unable to obtain the lethal drugs used for execution (Jennings, 2016). Before this court ruling, the method was only allowed if and only if the person being executed chooses it over other methods. This method involves the person being executed getting restrained on a metallic chair and getting tied to it with leather straps. A doctor is then called upon to identify the position of the heart and mark it appropriately (Jennings, 2016).  The executing shooter stands by a short distance from where the person being executed is held and on the warden’s signal, they fire at him one after another aiming for the heart.  The doctor is then called upon to provide proof of death. This method is only used in Utah.


Until the 1890s, this was primarily the most common and widely used method of execution. Washington and Delaware still us this method although they still use lethal injection as an alternative method. A day before execution using this method, the inmate is weighed to determine the size and the strength of the hanging rope to be used. During execution, a waxed knot is tied around his head as the inmate stands on a stool (Jennings, 2016). On the warden’s signal, the stool is kicked away and the inmate in left hanging in the air. The inmate dies of the instantaneous neck dislocation and subsequent breathing problem. The inmate is only untied after a doctor performs a confirmation of death test on him (Jennings, 2016).

Key statistical information on death penalty

According to the US penalty information center, one thousand for hundred and forty-eight people have been executed since 1976. According to other statistics, the whites have constituted more than 55 percent of the total number of executed felons in the United States of America. However, the blacks have dominated the list of defendants executed for interracial murders in the US (Lee, Paternoster and Rowan, 2016). Since 1979, 155 people have been cleared of charges and released from death row after successfully appealing to the American Court of Appeal (Jennings, 2016). However, it is in the record that seven people have been executed while innocent due to the presentation of falsified evidence. Since 1968, the number of women who have faced capital punishment is 2 percent of the total number of people executed.

Other statistics have proven that cases, where the death penalty has been ruled, are way more expensive that those where death penalty have not been sought. For instance, in Kansas, it is estimated that the state incurs $400,000 for cases of a death penalty and only $100,000 for cases where the death penalty has not been sought (Lee, Paternoster and Rowan, 2016). More research conducted in California shows that more than $4 billion has been used in death penalty cases since 1978; this cost is inclusive of all expenditure from the onset of the case to execution (Lee, Paternoster and Rowan, 2016). Every other state in America has recorded very high expenditure on death cases as compared to other forms of punishment, like life imprisonment.

The US death penalty and information center have gone further to present statistical information of the public opinion on capital punishment. The highest percentage of people included in the survey was found to be for life imprisonment without parole. However, quite a substantial portion of the people involved in the survey, 33 percent, was found to be for the death penalty (Lee, Paternoster and Rowan, 2016). More than 90 percent of the persons who supported death penalty insisted on the use of humane means to go about it. In other statistics presented in 2006, law enforcement authorities ranked death penalty among the most ineffective ways of reducing crime rates in any region (Lee, Paternoster and Rowan, 2016). They were also seen citing its huge negative impact on the tax payers’ hard earned money.

Importance of reforms on death penalty

The courts should establish well regulated appealing procedures for people put under death sentence. This will provide the defendant and his council more chance to try and prove his possible innocence. In the cases where enough incriminating evidence is provided to the court, the appealing will help the defendant’s council to figure out legal means by which the sentence can be changed to more favorable terms (Lee, Paternoster and Rowan, 2016). In case they are successful; the defendant’s life will be saved and better correction and penal measures taken against him. It is the responsibility of every country’s government to protect the lives of this citizen and provision of alternative means of correction will be in line with the achievement of this responsibility (Lee, Paternoster and Rowan, 2016). This reform would also go a long way in reducing the number of children living without both parents as this is one of the major contributing factors to the aggravating issue of poverty in the world today.

The right reforms should be done on the death penalty to ensure that the period between the final ruling and execution is reduced to the minimum possible time. Research shows that convicts awaiting execution suffer from different psychological disorders due to fear and anxiety (Lee, Paternoster and Rowan, 2016). Their families are also subjected to distress as they await the killing of their loved one. To save both the condemned person and their family these psychological traumas, the process should be as fast as possible. Psychologists argue that it is easier to moan a death of a beloved one that to stay with the trauma of awaiting their execution. It is therefore recommended that the execution should be done as soon as possible after the final judgment is passed.

Proper reforms should be done on the death penalty to allow the person going to be executed sometime with their family and friends (Lee, Paternoster and Rowan, 2016). Right before the execution, the relatives of the condemned person should be allowed some personal time to interact freely with their loved ones. Psychologists argue that whenever people have a good moment with loved ones who are either on their death bed or, in this case, awaiting execution, helps them to overcome the grief of their loved ones’ death with more ease. This also gives a chance to the inmate to pass his last wishes to his family members and to bid them farewell before his execution. However emotional the moment may be, it is of great importance to both the convict and his family and friends (Lee, Paternoster and Rowan, 2016).

Reforms should be instituted in the process of execution of death penalty to ensure it is done in the most humane, right and painless way possible (Pratt, 2016). The execution of people for crimes has been one controversial issue over the years with some people arguing that it should not be applied as a means of administering justice, in the first place. However, many of those who support it claim that its execution should be as fast and painless as possible. This argument is founded on the fact that it is both inhumane and ungodly to make people go through pain and subsequently death in the name of serving justice (Pratt, 2016). They also argue that the people tasked with the role of conducting execution should not undergo the psychological trauma of seeing people being executed under very painful circumstances. Statistics have it that quite some death penalty executioners undergo post-traumatic disorder and other related psychological disorders as a result of these traumatizing experiences (Pratt, 2016).

Necessary reformation of the death penalty should be conducted to reduce the expenses incurred by the government. Over the years, the citizen of the US and other countries in the world have been heard complaining about the heavy taxes imposes on them to fund correction facilities and especially on the issue of execution. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are used to handle a single execution case in the US (Pratt, 2016). With the increased crime rate and death penalty rulings, the ordinary citizens are forced to dig dipper into their pockets to fund these cases. It is therefore recommended for the government to introduce necessary cost reduction reforms to reduce the expenses catered for by the taxpayer’s hard earned money. For instance, the government could try more cost effective correction and penal measures in place of death penalties (Pratt, 2016).

The government should reform the policies related to the issuance of death penalties to ensure that the families of the executed persons are adequately supported, both morally and financially. Many a time, the executed persons are adults with families to fend for. The government should, therefore, take it upon itself to provide financial support to these families to ensure they don’t end up in poverty for crimes of the parents (Pratt, 2016). The government should also ensure that the children of the executed person receive a proper education, health care, and other key basic needs as they grow up. The government should also ensure that the families get adequate and proper moral support during and after the execution period. Execution of a loved one is most likely to have adverse psychological effects on his family members and friends. The government should therefore, ensure that they get professional help from qualified psychiatrists to help them cope with the situation (Pratt, 2016).

The government should also institute necessary reforms to ensure that cases that may warrant issuance of the death penalty are handled with utmost integrity and professionalism (Pratt, 2016). Many a time, the credibility of the judicial systems has been questioned with people arguing that at times the court rulings are both unfair and unjust. In the past, convicted felons have been seen getting realized after a realization that their cases were judged unfairly probably due to the presentation of falsified evidence. The government in conjunction with the independent judicial institutions should take it upon themselves to ensure credibility in the judicial system to make sure that nobody probably is executed unfairly (Pratt, 2016). These reforms would go a long way in ensuring that only those who deserve to be executed are issued with death penalties.

Necessary reforms should also be made to the process of issuance of death penalties to make an exception for the minors and the mentally ill persons. The US government is in record issuing death penalty to juvenile cases. It is a common opinion among many people that the minors should not be subjected to death penalties until they are of mature age and informed enough to defend themselves in a court of law. On the other hand, the mentally ill people are usually not in a good position to make a good judgment of what is right and wrong, and for this reason, they should be subject to correction and penal measures that will, in a way, help them to improve mentally. It is also argued that the mentally challenged persons are not in a good position to defend themselves in a court of law thus leaving them disadvantaged.

The government should also make reforms to the process of execution of death penalties to ensure that the executioner does so out of free will and volunteering and not as a part of their job description. Religious bodies and human rights organization argue that no person’s job description should involve the killing of another person (Pratt, 2016). The argument is based on religious grounds and the fact that this job may have adverse psychological impacts on the executioners. The government should, therefore, make sure that no one should be forced to kill another person in the name of a job. As stated earlier, it is in the record that quite a substantial number of people who have, in the past, been mandated to execute people have ended up suffering from serious psychological disorders with some even indulging in drug and substance abuse (Pratt, 2016)..

The most commonly recommended reform, especially by religious bodies and human rights organizations, is the complete abolishment of death penalties in the US and all over the world. The religious organizations base their argument on different religious believes (Radelet and Cohen, 2017). They even go further to support their arguments with different religious publications. The human rights organizations base their arguments on worldwide accepted human rights publications that provide no allowance for the murder of people on whatever grounds (Radelet and Cohen, 2017).

From the information gathered in this paper, it is, therefore, justified to conclude that the issue of the death penalty has evolved and experienced many changes and reforms, over the years. A conclusion can also be made that the issue of the death penalty has received support and criticism on equal measures .The controversial issue of the cost associated with the death penalty has also been found to be angering the American citizens and for this reason, the government should device strategies to handle it. From this paper, it can also be concluded that the government should make necessary reforms to ensure that the process of issuance and execution of death penalty is handled with utmost integrity and professionalism.