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History Surrounding Capital Punishment

History Surrounding Capital Punishment

The earliest historical records contain evidence of capital punishment. It was mentioned in the Code of Hammurabi. The bible prescribed death as the penalty for more than 30 different crimes, ranging from murder to fornication. The Draconian code of ancient Greece imposed capital punishment for every offense.

Efforts to abolish the death penalty did not gather momentum until the end of the 18th century; in England and America this reform was led by the Quakers. In Europe, a short treatise, On Crimes and Punishments (1764), by the Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria, inspired influential thinkers such as the French philosopher Voltaire to oppose torture, flogging, and the death penalty. Encouraged by the writings of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, England repealed all but a few of its capital statutes during the 19th century. Several states in the United States and a few countries abolished the death penalty entirely.

The death penalty has been inflicted in many ways now regarded as barbaric and forbidden by law almost everywhere: Crucifixion, boiling in oil, drawing and quartering, impalement, beheading, burning alive, crushing, tearing asunder, stoning, and drowning are examples.

In the U.S., the death penalty is currently authorized in one of five ways: hanging, electrocution, the gas chamber, firing squad, or lethal injection. In most nations that still retain the death penalty for some crimes, hanging or the firing squads are the preferred methods of execution. In some countries that adhere strictly to the traditional practices of Islam, beheading or stoning are still occasionally employed as punishment.

The fundamental questions raised by the death penalty are whether it is an effective deterrent to violent crime, and whether it is more effective than the alternative of long-term imprisonment.

Defenders of the death penalty insist that because taking an offender's life is a more severe punishment than any prison term, it must be the better deterrent. Public opinion, which in the U.S. currently supports the death penalty for murder by a more than two-to-one margin, rests largely on this conviction. Supporters also argue that no adequate deterrent in life imprisonment is effective for those already serving a life term who commit murder while incarcerated; those who have not yet been caught but who would be liable to a life term if arrested; and revolutionaries, terrorists, traitors, and spies.

Those who argue against the death penalty as a deterrent to crime cite the...

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