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Capital Punishment in America and Britain


The death penalty did not start yesterday. Neither did it begin ten years ago. It dates back to the ancient world where people who committed certain crimes were subjected to death. Mostly referred to as capital punishment, the death penalty is said to have gained notoriety in the Eighteenth Century before Christ’s birth. Hammurabi, a well-known Babylonian ruler had his Code in place that demanded that one got whatever he or she did to others. Thus all those who were killed were subjected to death too. Other groups in the ancient world that had the practice of subjecting offenders or criminals to death include the Hittites, the Romans through their famous Law of Twelve Tablets, and the Athenians. By use of evidence that spans from the time of the ancient world through early British establishment, right into the modern-day American century, this essay will provide evidence to show that the death penalty is losing support as the preferred means of punishment for a crime (Death Penalty Information Center, 2010). The evidence will only demonstrate the support decline and is not geared to endorse or disapprove capital punishment.

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The ancient world dished out the death penalty without any restrictions. The tenth-century British government carried out numerous executions and never hesitated to kill those who were considered criminals. But this was not to go on for long. William the Conqueror did not hide his dislike for this form of punishment. He outlawed the killing of his citizens. People who committed petty crimes were usually killed before William came to power, but this stopped when it was his time in the seat of power. Only crimes he considered serious were remedied by the death penalty. For example, he had no problem with executions carried out during times of war. But the early requirement that anyone who stole or abused another be killed was abolished. As much as there was a return of the application of this type of punishment after the end of William’s reign as King of England, it did not rise to proportions as high as the ones that existed before he came to power (Death Penalty Information Center, 2010). The fact that the citizens were contented with the reduced application of capital punishment showed reduced preference for the death penalty as the punishment of choice. It is still unclear whether this was a good or bad thing.

What happened after the exit of King Henry the eighth whose reign was characterized by a spike in executions? The rest of the history of Britain is characterized by a reduction in support for the death penalty. The successive administrations under the monarchy revised the crimes that were to be dealt with by the use of the death penalty. The end result of this was a reduced number of executions within the system. This once again points to a reduced preference for capital punishment as the means of choice for punishing wrongdoers or criminals.

Besides the reduction in the number of executions in the successive British administrations, there was the next big step. It took longer to come to pass but all the same, it happened. The British establishment abolished the death penalty in the twentieth century. The last hanging took place in the year 1964 while the law was officially amended to reflect the new reality in the year 1998. Is it possible that a democratic government can do away with a law that is highly supported by the citizens? This is not possible. The British citizens expressed their opposition to the death penalty leading to its removal from the law as a means of dealing with lawbreakers. The bigger picture that emerges here is highly reduced support for capital punishment as the means of choice for dealing with people who commit crimes in our society. Whether Britain is better or worse without the death penalty is another issue.

Moving away from Great Britain, the rest of the world in general and America, in particular, have complex stories that surround the issue of capital punishment. The death penalty in the United States has its origins in Britain. More than any other country, the United Kingdom had the largest identifiable impact in the tradition of administering the death penalty. Why is this so? The settlers who came to the New World or the United States of America were originally from Great Britain. So when they came they carried the traditions of Britain with them to the new world. The first case of capital punishment in the United States of America is said to have taken place in 1607 whereby a man who was suspected of spying for the Spanish was put to death (Death Penalty Information Center, 2010). From this time forward, this form of punishment has had a place in the justice system of the United States of America. Is there any evidence to show that it is losing support as a preferred means of punishing lawbreakers in the United States of America?

As an answer to the question that came up in the preceding paragraph, the nature of the application of the death penalty in the United States of America can present us with a hint of what is happening. The justice system in the United States of America is not color blind. The circumstances may have changed in the recent past but this is not what the history of the United States tells us. Laws that are unanimously supported by all members of a society are usually applied to all the elements of the society without any prejudice. It is however necessary to point out that the skewed application of capital punishment on minorities in the United States does not necessarily make it a bad rule. The problem may be with the people implementing it. Even good legislation can become toxic if they are not properly applied. What the skewed administration leads to is a situation whereby the section of society that gets more death penalties hating the penalty together with the administrators, even when the penalty is not bad.

As asserted above, the United States administration of the death penalty is not color blind (Urbina,2003,p.5). The application history of the death penalty shows a lack of uniformity. A disproportionately high number of non-whites for example African Americans and Latinos have been victims of the death penalty. Is it that these groups produce the highest number of criminals or lawbreakers who commit serious crimes that are punishable by death? The answer to this question is no. Going back to the period immediately after the abolition of slavery in the United States, after the American Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln of 1863, mere suspicion of a black person as having committed any crime culminated in death by hanging. These decisions were always reached in law courts that had all-white juries and white judges who had racist inclinations and had the general determination of a section of the white society to deal with the African Americans who they perceived as an economic threat. To kill a Mockingbird Lee Harper is a book based on a story of an innocent black man who was suspected of having raped a white woman (Lee, 1960, p.112). The man was eventually killed under shady circumstances even after he was found to be innocent. It is reported that in the period between 1930 and 1969, close to four thousand Americans were executed. More than half of these executions were of black people; covering a whooping fifty-four percent. The African American community is not the majority in the United States. It is a minority community. The majority community which is the white European community had forty-five percent of these executions during the same period.

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What does the above tell us? The death penalty never had steady support during this time when it was widely applied. It was applied with prejudice and bias towards a group that was not in favor of those in power. As a means of dealing with misdemeanors, it is possible that it would have been received positively by both groups if would have been applied across the racial spectrum. It is therefore clear that capital punishment has experienced declining support in the United States as well; especially among minorities due to its unfair application. Note that this does not in any way lean towards telling us whether capital punishment is good or bad. It only seeks to give us the reason for the reduced backing.

Perhaps the most solid evidence of reducing the popularity of capital punishment as the best means of dealing with crime is seen in the judicial system. Although affected by the racial overtones as noted elsewhere in this essay, there is evidence of a sustained effort to reduce the application of the death penalty in the United States. Michigan State abolished the death penalty in 1846. The only crime that was punishable by death was treason (Death Penalty Information Center,2010).In Furman v.Georgia, a case that was determined by the Supreme Court of the United States of America in 1972, a number of death penalty legal provisions were rendered powerless. Public sentiment was in line with this ruling, a sign that capital punishment was losing support as the best means of dealing with crime. One wonders whether this is the reason for the subsequent upshot in crime in the United States.

Besides the 1972 ruling in the Furman v.the state of Georgia, 1977 was another remarkable year as far as capital punishment is concerned. Rape that was the reason for the highest number of executions of especially black men in the United States became a subject of debate in the Supreme Court of the United States. In Coker v.Georgia, the Supreme Court declared that people accused of rape are not to be executed. The reason given by the court is that the crime is not equal to the punishment. The punishment was declared too much compared to the crime. The outcome of this was the transfer of the people accused of rape from death row. This is another indicator of declining support of the death penalty as a means of choice for dealing with crime (Green, 2010).

To what extent does the thesis that the death penalty is losing support hold? There is evidence that as much as there may be sustained effort to narrow the number of crimes that are punishable by death, a bigger segment of society is getting more comfortable with capital punishment. This may be especially true for the United States whereby only eleven states have abolished capital punishment. The majority of the other states have this kind of punishment and is not a surprise that the state of New York enacted the death penalty as recently as 1995 (Green, 2010). This continued presence of capital punishment in the United States of America sets it apart from a huge number of western countries that abolished this form of punishment a long time ago. The presence of capital punishment in such a high number of states also indicates the level of public support that it has.


In conclusion, it is clear that capital punishment has been around for a long. The reduced application in Britain during the time of William the Conqueror, the reduced application in succeeding regimes, and its abolition in 1964 marks reduced support for capital punishment. The same is reflected in the Michigan state abolition of the death penalty except for treason in 1846 and the Supreme Court rulings of 1972 and 1977 that dealt substantial blows to the death penalty. But the continued enactment of capital punishment laws in the United States, for example, that of New York in 1995 and the presence of capital punishment in more than thirty of the states points to another reality. This reality is that capital punishment is largely acceptable to a substantial percentage of the population in the United States. It is upon the consideration of the other countries in the western world that we notice the decline in support for capital punishment. The question that remains is: Is society better with capital punishment or without it?


Death Penalty Information Center. (2010).Introduction to The Death Penalty. Web.

Green, M. S. (2010). “History of the Death Penalty & Recent Developments.” In Melissa S. Green, compiler (1998-2009), Focus on the Death Penalty (website). Justice Center, University of Alaska Anchorage. Web.

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Lee, H. (1960). To Kill a Mockingbird.Bel Air: J.P Lippincott & Co.

Urbina, M. (2003).Capital Punishment and Latino Offenders : Racial and Ethnic Differences in Death Sentences.New York:LFB Scholarly Publishing.

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