What Is the Death Penalty? - History, Facts, Pros & Cons

Instructor: Jessica Schubert

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

Learn about the death penalty. Examine the history of the death penalty and the facts surrounding the history of the death penalty. Review the pros an cons of the death penalty to gain a thorough understanding.


You have probably heard the saying 'give them the chair.' This refers to the death penalty. The death penalty, the ultimate punishment given by a court of law, is arguably as old as humanity itself. One can easily picture a group of early humans killing a person who has killed, or committed a horrific act upon another individual, or a group leader killing a person who challenged his authority.

Historically, governments have sentenced criminals to death for major and minor crimes against government, their leaders, and members of their society. Often, the death penalty was administered in a cruel and grotesque manner involving a torturous death.

In early America under the laws of Great Britain, colonists, as subjects of the Crown, were subject to the death penalty for many crimes. Thus, a long history of enforcing the death penalty was in place even before the establishment of the United States.

Under the United States Constitution, capital punishment, also known as the death penalty, may be included 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.


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

However, capital punishment was once again allowed 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 the death penalty. This is so 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.

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