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Death Penalty Trends in American Justice System


Capital punishment has been one of the most controversial and commonly discussed subjects in the American justice system for many decades. To date, many states have abolished the death penalty; the others face challenges practicing it due to the heavy opposition. This paper attempts to discuss some of the most controversial issues and cases concerning the capital punishment in the United States such as the death penalty abolition in the states of Illinois, Innocence Project, sentencing of the mentally retarded individuals, and a case of Stanley Williams that is known as one of the loudest cases that ended in execution.

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Death Penalty Abolition in the State of Illinois

Illinois is one of the states that recently abolished the death penalty.

Before making the change in the law, the Democratic governor Pat Quinn had simply stopped signing death warrants. According to De Vogue and Pinto (2011), the main argument based on which the governor made his final decision was the inability of the state’s legislative system and leaders to deliver a perfectly fair judgment.

Quinn specified that his refusal to sign the death warrants in the past was driven by an intention to design an error-free judicial process that would avoid flaws and provide fair decisions without sentencing to death the criminals who did not deserve it (De Vogue & Pinto, 2011). Further, the governor admitted that the experiences he and his team of professional had had in the past demonstrated that the desired perfection was impossible to achieve; as a result, Quinn formulated a decision to make Illinois the 16th state that abolished the capital punishment (De Vogue & Pinto, 2011).

The reason for the governor to abolish the death penalty was valid. Before Quinn, Republican governor Ryan decided to stop implementing capital punishment due to the risk of executing an innocent (De Vogue & Pinto, 2011). The discussion held by Quinn involved the groups of opponents and proponents of the death penalty. The former included the convicts who were taken off the death row due to the wrongful sentences. The fact that such people exist, makes the death penalty a highly doubtful and flawed practice in Illinois, and that is why the argument of Quinn is valid.

“Innocence Project”: Its Goals and Procedures

Innocence Project is non-profit national litigation and public policy organization whose goal is the exoneration of the individual convicted and incarcerated due to the mistakes of various types or wrongfully sentenced people (Innocence Project, 2016). This organization began to exist in 1992 and was founded by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld; it operates through the reformation of the current justice system of the United States and the DNA testing (Innocence Project, 2016).

To date, this project has multiple branches that operate in different states and fulfill the primary goals – process the claims of innocence that come from the convicts and investigate the cases with strong evidence that indicates that the prisoners are innocent. The project participants collaborate with the investigators, medical professionals, attorneys, and other specialists that help them prove the innocence of the convicts and promote their release from jail.

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The official website of Innocence Project presents a multitude of cases of ex-convicts who had spent many years in prison before their cases were investigated by the project. The evidence is that hundreds of people all around the United States are being freed who otherwise would have to spend the rest of their lives in jail due to the wrongful sentence. At the same time, the justice system of the US is reformed and made more sensitive and careful. The project is very effective.

Supreme Court Cases of Roper v. Simmons and Atkins v. Virginia

The cases of Roper v. Simmons and Atkins v. Virginia indicate an obvious trend. The sentenced persons in both of these cases were recognized as mentally retarded based on the conclusions of the psychologists. Due to the characters of the crimes committed by Atkins and Simmons they were sentenced to capital punishment. However, the sentences were changed due to the decision that was based on the Eighth Amendment that prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment”.

In the case of Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled that the punishment was excessive and stated that “An excessiveness claim is judged by currently prevailing standards of decency […] Proportionality review under such evolving standards should be informed by objective factors to the maximum possible extent” (Atkins v. Virginia, n.d., para. 3).

That way, based on the cases mentioned above, it is possible to conclude that the decisions of the Supreme Court were based on what is referred to as the “currently prevailing standards of decency”.

The future challenges to the cases of this type may arise due to the recognition of the change in the standards that would indicate that either the capital punishment for the mentally retarded individuals should be allowed due to the decency standards according to which it would no longer be considered as cruel and unusual, or the maximum extent would grow to include the capital punishment. Another challenge may be presented by the definition of the currently prevailing standards of decency. Once this aspect is challenged, there might not be any basis for the Supreme Court to recognize the capital punishment as excessive.

The Case of Stanley “Tookie” Williams

Stanley Williams was a founder and a member of a gang. In 1981, he underwent a trial and was convicted of four murders and two robberies and sentenced to death (Stanley Tookie Williams, 2016). Throughout his imprisonment, Williams never stopped claiming that he was wrongfully sentenced, he also wrote a book and became a public figure with multiple interviews. Williams had massive social support as thousands of activists demanded his death sentence to be commuted. Williams stayed imprisoned till 2005 when Arnold Schwarzenegger became the governor in power who could commute the convict’s death sentence.

Examining the life of Stanley Williams more closely, it is important to note that the transformation through which he went after being incarcerated was impressive. First of all, it is worth mentioning that Williams began his unlawful path as a member and a founder of a gang called the Crips and eventually became involved in a series of crimes that resulted in murders of a young man and a family of three, and also two separate robberies, all committed in 1979 (Robinson, 2005).

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In his attempt to achieve clemency, Williams became a public figure championed by such celebrities as Snoop Dogg, Mike Farrell, and Jamie Foxx; the latter played Williams in a movie tribute to his life called “Redemption” (Robinson, 2005). Williams authored several books for children and adolescents promoting a safer lifestyle and warning young readers from getting involved with gangs and crime. Williams’ behavior in prison also transformed from violent and dangerous to exemplary (USA: Execution of Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams a travesty of justice, 2005). Moreover, Williams was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his active civic participation and the contribution to the wellbeing of the society.

The controversy of the sentence was supported by the fact that Williams was recognized as guilty by a jury comprised solely of white people. Besides, the publicity and the support the prisoner had promoted his innocence. Also, the evidence of his guilt was surrounded by discussions because the criminal as well as his supporters claimed to be insufficient. Finally, since incarceration, Williams started to openly oppose gangs and promote lawful life. His actions indicated redemption and based on these positive behaviors, the governor was asked to commute the death penalty for Williams (A Conversation with Death Row Prisoner Stanley Tookie Williams from his San Quentin Cell, 2005).

At the same time, regardless of all his transformations and positive behavioral patterns, Stanley Williams kept stating that he was innocent and never admitted to the crimes he was accused of and convicted (USA: Execution of Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams a travesty of justice, 2005). Basically, according to the petition for clemency, the only eye-witnesses of Williams’ crimes were his accomplices who were personally interested in providing testimonies and accusing him of all the crimes to avoid getting sentenced to death (USA: Execution of Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams a travesty of justice, 2005). The death penalty of Stanley Williams was implemented regardless of all the petitions and protests which caused some social backlash.


A Conversation with Death Row Prisoner Stanley Tookie Williams from his San Quentin Cell. (2005). Web.

Atkins v. Virginia. (n.d.). Web.

De Vogue, A., & Pinto, B. (2011). Illinois Abolishes Death Penalty; 16th State to End Executions. Web.

Innocence Project. (2016). About. Web.

Robinson, B. (2005). Tookie Williams: Gang Founder versus Nobel-Nominated Peacemaker. Web.

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Stanley Tookie Williams. (2016). Web.

USA: Execution of Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams a travesty of justice. (2005). Web.

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