Capital Punishment: Pros and Cons of the Death Penalty

Lethal injection table with straps as seen through barred window
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The death penalty, also known as capital punishment, is the lawful imposition of death as punishment for a crime. In 2004 four (China, Iran, Vietnam, and the US) accounted for 97% of all global executions. On average, every 9-10 days a government in the United States executes a prisoner.

It is the Eighth Amendment, the constitutional clause that prohibits "cruel and unusual" punishment, which is at the center of the debate about capital punishment in America. Although most Americans support capital punishment under some circumstances, according to Gallup support for capital punishment has dropped dramatically from a high of 80% in 1994 to about 60% today.

Facts and Figures

Red state executions per million population are an order of magnitude greater than blue state executions (46.4 v 4.5). Blacks are executed at a rate significantly disproportionate to their share of the overall population.

Based on 2000 data, Texas ranked 13th in the country in violent crime and 17th in murders per 100,000 citizens. However, Texas leads the nation in death penalty convictions and executions.

Since the 1976 Supreme Court decision that reinstated the death penalty in the United States, the governments of the United States had executed 1,136, as of December 2008. The 1,000th execution, North Carolina's Kenneth Boyd, occurred in December 2005. There were 42 executions in 2007.

Death Row

More than 3,300 prisoners were serving death-row sentences in the US in December 2008. Nationwide, juries are delivering fewer death sentences: since the late 1990s, they have dropped 50%. The violent crime rate has also dropped dramatically since the mid-90s, reaching the lowest level ever recorded in 2005.

Latest Developments

In 2007, the Death Penalty Information Center released a report, “A Crisis of Confidence: Americans’ Doubts About the Death Penalty.”

The Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty should reflect the "conscience of the community," and that its application should be measured against society's "evolving standards of decency. This latest report suggests that 60% of Americans do not believe that the death penalty is a deterrent to murder. Moreover, almost 40% believe that their moral beliefs would disqualify them from serving on a capital case.

And when asked whether they prefer the death penalty or life in prison without parole as punishment for murder, the respondents were split: 47% death penalty, 43% prison, 10% unsure. Interestingly, 75% believe that a "higher degree of proof" is required in a capital case than in a "prison as punishment" case. (poll margin of error +/- ~3%)

In addition, since 1973 more than 120 people have had their death row convictions overturned. DNA testing has resulted in 200 non-capital cases to be overturned since 1989. Mistakes like these shake public confidence in the capital punishment system. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that almost 60% of those polled—including almost 60% of the southerners—in this study believe that the United States should impose a moratorium on the death penalty.

An ad hoc moratorium is almost in place. After the 1,000th execution in December 2005, there were almost no executions in 2006 or the first five months of 2007.


Executions as a form of punishment date to at least the 18th century BC. In America, Captain George Kendall was executed in 1608 in the Jamestown Colony of Virginia; he was accused of being a spy for Spain. In 1612, Virginia's death penalty violations included what modern citizens would consider minor violations: stealing grapes, killing chickens and trading with Indigenous peoples.

In the 1800s, abolitionists took up the cause of capital punishment, relying in part on Cesare Beccaria's 1767 essay, On Crimes and Punishment.

From the 1920s-1940s, criminologists argued that the death penalty was a necessary and preventative social measure. The 1930s, also marked by the Depression, saw more executions than any other decade in our history.

From the 1950s-1960s, public sentiment turned against capital punishment, and the number executed plummeted. In 1958, the Supreme Court ruled in Trop v. Dulles that the Eighth Amendment contained an "evolving standard of decency that marked the progress of a maturing society." And according to Gallup, public support reached an all-time low of 42% in 1966.

Two 1968 cases caused the nation to rethink its capital punishment law. In U.S. v. Jackson, the Supreme Court ruled that requiring that the death penalty be imposed only upon recommendation of a jury was unconstitutional because it encouraged defendants to plead guilty to avoid trial. In Witherspoon v. Illinois, the Court ruled on juror selection; having a "reservation" was insufficient cause for dismissal in a capital case.

In June 1972, the Supreme Court (5 to 4) effectively voided death penalty statutes in 40 states and commuted the sentences of 629 death row inmates. In Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment with sentencing discretion was "cruel and unusual" and thus violated the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

In 1976, the Court ruled that capital punishment itself was constitutional while holding that new death penalty laws in Florida, Georgia and Texas—which included sentencing guidelines, bifurcated trials, and automatic appellate review—were constitutional.

A ten-year moratorium on executions that had begun with the Jackson and Witherspoon ended on 17 January 1977 with the execution of Gary Gilmore by firing squad in Utah.


There are two common arguments in support of capital punishment: that of deterrence and that of retribution.

According to Gallup, most Americans believe that the death penalty is a deterrent to homicide, which helps them justify their support for capital punishment. Other Gallup research suggests that most Americans would not support capital punishment if it did not deter murder.

Does capital punishment deter violent crimes? In other words, will a potential murderer consider the possibility that they might be convicted and face the death penalty before committing murder? The answer appears to be "no."

Social scientists have mined empirical data searching for the definitive answer on deterrence since the early 20th century. And "most deterrence research has found that the death penalty has virtually the same effect as long imprisonment on homicide rates." Studies suggesting otherwise (notably, writings of Isaac Ehrlich from the 1970s) have been, in general, criticized for methodological errors. Ehrlich's work was also criticized by the National Academy of Sciences - but it is still cited as a rationale for deterrence.

A 1995 survey of police chiefs and country sheriffs found that most ranked the death penalty last in a list of six options that might deter violent crime. Their top two picks? Reducing drug abuse and fostering an economy that provides more jobs.

Data on murder rates seem to discredit the deterrence theory as well. The region of the county with the greatest number of executions—the South—is the region with the largest murder rates. For 2007, the average murder rate in states with the death penalty was 5.5; the average murder rate of the 14 states without the death penalty was 3.1. Thus deterrence, which is offered as a reason to support capital punishment ("pro"), doesn't wash.


In Gregg v Georgia, the Supreme Court wrote that "[t]he instinct for retribution is part of the nature of man..." The theory of retribution rests, in part, on the Old Testament and its call for "an eye for an eye." Proponents of retribution argue that "the punishment must fit the crime." According to The New American: "Punishment—sometimes called retribution—is the main reason for imposing the death penalty."

Opponents of retribution theory believe in the sanctity of life and often argue that it is just as wrong for society to kill as it is for an individual to kill. Others argue that what drives American support for capital punishment is the "impermanent emotion of outrage." Certainly, emotion not reason seems to be the key behind support for capital punishment.


Some supporters of the death penalty also contend it is less expensive than a life sentence. Nevertheless, at least 47 states do have life sentences without the possibility of parole. Of those, at least 18 have no possibility of parole. And according to the ACLU:

The most comprehensive death penalty study in the country found that the death penalty costs North Carolina $2.16 million more per execution than a non-death penalty murder case with a sentence of life imprisonment (Duke University, May 1993). In its review of death penalty expenses, the State of Kansas concluded that capital cases are 70% more expensive than comparable non-death penalty cases.


More than 1000 religious leaders have written an open letter to America and its leaders:

We join with many Americans in questioning the need for the death penalty in our modern society and in challenging the effectiveness of this punishment, which has consistently been shown to be ineffective, unfair, and inaccurate...
With the prosecution of even a single capital case costing millions of dollars, the cost of executing 1,000 people has easily risen to billions of dollars. In light of the serious economic challenges that our country faces today, the valuable resources that are expended to carry out death sentences would be better spent investing in programs that work to prevent crime, such as improving education, providing services to those with mental illness, and putting more law enforcement officers on our streets. We should make sure that money is spent to improve life, not destroy it...
As people of faith, we take this opportunity to reaffirm our opposition to the death penalty and to express our belief in the sacredness of human life and in the human capacity for change.

In 2005, Congress considered the Streamlined Procedures Act (SPA), which would have amended the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). AEDPA placed restrictions on the power of federal courts to grant writs of habeas corpus to state prisoners. The SPA would have imposed additional limits on the ability of state inmates to challenge the constitutionality of their imprisonment through habeas corpus.

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Gill, Kathy. "Capital Punishment: Pros and Cons of the Death Penalty." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Gill, Kathy. (2021, February 16). Capital Punishment: Pros and Cons of the Death Penalty. Retrieved from Gill, Kathy. "Capital Punishment: Pros and Cons of the Death Penalty." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).