History of the Death Penalty
The Death Penalty is nothing new to our society. It has been in effect throughout the world for ages. As far back as the Eighteenth Century, B.C., a king of Babylon codified 25 crimes that were punishable by the death penalty. In the Draconian code of Athens, it was the only punishment for all crimes.} This debate is especially strong within the Christian religion, due to the fact that Jesus himself was sentenced to the death penalty.
Skipping ahead to more modern times, the death penalty in America was influenced more by Great Britain than any other country. The first record of execution in America is that of Captain George Kendall in Jamestown, Virginia. He was accused of espionage for Spain. A few years later, Virginia governor Sir Thomas Dale enacted the Divine, Moral and Marital Laws that provided for the death penalty in even the most minor offenses.
Along with the enactment of capital punishment came the abolitionist movement, which still exists today. One of the major activists was Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and founder of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. Rush challenged the belief that the death penalty was a deterrence to crime. He convinced Benjamin Franklin and Philadelphia Attorney General William Bradford of this view. Bradford later became the US Attorney General and he led PA to become the first state to consider degrees of murder based on culpability. PA repealed the death sentence for all crimes except first degree murder.
The abolitionist movement gained momentum in the early nineteenth century. The most major development during this time was Pennsylvania’s replacing public executions with closed session executions in its correctional facilities. Michigan became the first state to totally abolish capital punishment. This led to abolition all over the world.
During the Civil War the opposition waned, as focus was given to anti-slavery. The next time major consideration was given to the death penalty was the Supreme Court battles of the 1960’s. This climaxed with the 1972 case of Furman vs. Georgia where the court declared that 40 death penalty statutes were unconstitutional and void. This commuted 629 death sentences and caused an all together suspension of capital punishment until 1976, when new guidelines were drawn up and declared constitutional.
In the 1970s, the National Association of Evangelicals representing 47 denominations, and other Christian groups began supporting the death penalty. They backed up their claims with mostly Old Testament readings. However a shift has been seen. Today the Roman Catholic Church as well as most Protestant denominations are against the death penalty. Pope John Paul II has recently begun a campaign to end the death penalty worldwide.
This brings a question to mind. “How do Americans feel about the death penalty?” In an internet survey (conducted by me) I asked people from all over America how they felt about the death penalty. The major response was that they are against it. However…there is a strong portion who do not know or support it.
To hit closer to home, I took another internet survey. I asked Pennsylvanians the same question. Over half of those polled are against capital punishment. About 38% support it. However, surveys from more reliable and thorough sources show that most Pennsylvanians support a moratorium, which is the suspension of the death penalty until its morality can be researched and justified.
One final survey that I took dealt directly with IUP’s student body. The sampling of our peers are mostly against the death penalty or unsure. There is, however, approximately 1/4 of the group that believe strongly in the death penalty. Now that you know how your peers feel, let’s take a class survey.