The lawful infliction of death as a punishment; the death penalty.
capital punishment continues to be used in the United States despite controversy over its merits and over its effectiveness as a deterrent to serious crime. A sentence of death may be carried out by one of five lawful means: electrocution, hanging, lethal injection, gas chamber, and firing squad. As of 2003, 38 states employed capital punishment as a sentence; 12 states—Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin—and the District of Columbia did not.
The first known infliction of the death penalty in the American colonies occurred in Jamestown Colony in 1608. During the period of the Revolutionary War, capital punishment apparently was widely accepted—162 documented executions took place in the eighteenth century. At the end of the war, 11 colonies wrote new constitutions, and, although nine of them did not allow Cruel and Unusual Punishment, all authorized capital punishment. In 1790, the First Congress enacted legislation that implemented capital punishment for the crimes of Robbery, rape, murder, and forgery of public Securities. The nineteenth century saw a dramatic increase in the use of capital punishment with 1,391 documented executions. The death penalty continued as an acceptable practice in the United States for some time.
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In 1967, a national Moratorium was placed on capital punishment while the U.S. Supreme Court considered its constitutionality. In 1972, it appeared that the Court had put an end to the death penalty in the case of furman v. georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 92 S. Ct. 2726, 33 L. Ed 2d 346, declaring certain capital punishment laws to be unconstitutionally cruel and unusual because juries were applying them arbitrarily and capriciously. It seemed as if Furman would mark the passing into history of capital punishment in the United States.
By 1976, Georgia, Florida, and Texas had drafted new death penalty laws, however, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld them. Of the nine justices, only two, william j. brennan jr. and Thurgood Marshall, persisted in the belief that capital punishment is unconstitutional per se. Capital punishment had survived, and so had the controversies surrounding it.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the Constitution permits the use of capital
punishment, decisions on this issue have divided the Court and have done little to convince opponents of the death penalty that it is fair. Critics have argued that the death penalty is a form of cruel and unusual punishment, that it is applied in a racially discriminatory manner, that it lacks a deterrent effect, and that it is wrong.