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What Is Capital Punishment? - Definition, History, Pros & Cons

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  • 0:03 Definition of Capital…
  • 0:37 History of Capital Punishment
  • 1:22 Capital Punishment in the U.S.
  • 2:18 Pros of Capital Punishment
  • 2:54 Cons of Capital Punishment
  • 3:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Schubert

Jessica is a practicing attorney and has taught law and has a J.D. and LL.M.

Learn about capital punishment. Examine the definition and history of capital punishment, and review the pros and cons of capital punishment to gain a thorough understanding.

Definition of Capital Punishment

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in Gondolf saying in The Lord of the Rings: 'Many that live deserve death, And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.'

Under the United States Constitution, capital punishment, also known as the death penalty, may be defined as punishment by Congress or a state legislature for committing murder, treason and other capital crimes. A capital crime is a crime where the death penalty can be used against the person convicted of committing that crime.

History of Capital Punishment

The use of capital punishment has long been a controversial subject. There are many who favor its use, while there are others who strongly oppose it. Capital punishment is the ultimate punishment one can receive from a court of law. This type of punishment has existed for centuries. Historically, governments have sentenced criminals to death for major and minor crimes against government, their leaders and members of their society. Often, capital punishment was administered in a harsh manner, such as public hangings.

In early America under the laws of Great Britain, colonists, as subjects of the Crown, were subject to capital punishment for various types of crimes. Consequently, a long history of enforcing capital punishment existed even before the United States was established.

Capital Punishment in the U.S.

Under the U.S. Constitution, capital punishment has been permitted since America's founding, except for a 4-year period from 1972 to 1976. In 1972, under the case entitled Furman v. Georgia, the United States Supreme Court ordered all executions stopped. Although unable to agree on their reasoning, the Court in Furman stated that the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment, and, therefore, a violation of Furman's Eighth Amendment right to be free of those types of punishments.

However, capital punishment was once again permitted in the 1976 case of Gregg v. Georgia. In Gregg v. Georgia, the Supreme Court gave two broad guidelines that lawmakers must follow in creating rules for imposing capital punishment so that objectivity is preserved when applying the sentence. Moreover, the laws must allow either the judge or jury to consider the criminal record and personal character of a criminal.

Pros of Capital Punishment

Those who favor capital punishment - primarily national victims rights groups - provide various reasons for doing so. Initially, these groups point to the historic record of capital punishment. Some cite the deterrent effect that capital punishment can have upon those who are considering capital crimes - they say the threat of potential death can deter some criminals. Additionally, others argue that it costs taxpayers less to execute an individual than to incarcerate an individual for years or for life. Finally, some argue that the use of capital punishment brings closure to victim's family and friends.

Cons of Capital Punishment

Organized groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and La Raza (or The Race) have opposed capital punishment for a few reasons, some of which are listed below.

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