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The use of capital punishment as a type of penalty in the United States has always been a contentious issue. While the punishment has attracted a huge support in earlier decades of its use in the United States, its popularity has greatly waned over the years. According to Newport (2011), the public support for capital punishment is lower today as compared to the huge public support reported in the 1980s and 1990s. The latest Gallup poll conducted in 2011 point out that 61 percent of the American population supports the utilization of capital punishment in murder cases while 35 percent do not support its use. This is the lowest support ever recorded by Gallup in the last 39 years .The debate over the use of capital punishment has largely been on whether or not, it is ethical. Due to these debates, the enforcement of capital punishment has varied across jurisdictions and states and a number of reforms have been undertaken to either enforce or weaken its applicability. Moreover, there has been abolition of the capital punishment in most states while others still enforce it but with variation in its applicability.
Capital punishment has been widely used throughout generations to punish certain crimes identified as ‘serious’ under certain state or federal laws. In the United States, capital punishment has been widely used to punish aggravated murder and on rare cases, felony murder as individual jurisdiction may define under their laws (Banner, 2002). Capital punishment was introduced in the United States through the English common law and was used to punish several felonies. Before the Declaration of Independence, capital punishment was enforced by all colonies in America. However, capital punishment was retained even after the American Revolution through the adoption of the Anglo-American common law. There has been a wide variation across jurisdictions and throughout time on the methods used to execute offenders (Megivern, 1997). However, poisoning of the criminals has gain wide usage in recent times in most states in the United States (Bakken, 2010). According to Megivern (1997), more than 15,269 people were put to death in the United States as of 1608 to 1991. Bakken (2010), reports that 4,660 criminals were put to death in the United States amid 1930 and 2002, of which about 75 percent were executed in the first two decades. There has been a remarkable reduction in the execution rates across the United States as a number of states have either abolished or suspended the enforcement of capital punishment. For instance, only thirty-seven and forty-six people were executed in 2008 and 2010 respectively.
While capital punishment is still enforced in some states, a number of states have stopped the use of capital punishment as a mode of penalty. According to Bakken (2010), most jurisdictions have repealed their states laws to abolish the utilization of capital punishment for all categories of crimes while others have suspended its use due to numerous constitutional challenges that have faced the use of capital punishment existing decades. Some of the states that have revised their state laws to abolish capital punishment include Illinois, New Mexico, Michigan, Alaska, Hawaii, Wisconsin, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Vermont, New Jersey, Maine, Minnesota, North Dakota, the District of Colombia, Puerto Rico, and Iowa. In the states where abolition has been completed in recent times, the death row criminals have been either transferred to regular prisons and jails or have been executed incase they were sentenced before the amendment was done. Others that have suspended the use of capital punishment due to court rulings and numerous challenges on the basis of its constitutionality include Oregon, New York, Massachusetts, Nebraska, and Kansas, among others.
However, California along with Texas are two states where the employment of capital punishment has largely remained in force despite the waning public support for the use of capital punishment as an alternative punitive measure. Currently, the two states record large populations of death row criminals and perform regular executions, hence it is unlikely that they will repeal their states laws any time soon (Banner, 2002). The United States military, New Hampshire, and Kansas which have constitutional capital punishment statutes have not performed executions in a long time (since 1976); however, they all have large populations of death rows (Bakken, 2010).
The applicability of death penalty across the United States varies by the nature of crimes and jurisdictions. In other words, a crime punishable by death in one state may not attract the same penalty in a different state. However, all jurisdictions that still use death penalty are known to consider aggravated murder as a capital offense. Some jurisdictions also punish treason against their individual states and the United States by death. Other crimes categorized under capital crimes include terrorism, espionage, kidnapping, rape, drug trafficking, and perjury leading to death, and among others. What one state considers as a capital offense may not be the same in another state. International evidence has found out that in nations with highly coherent and specialized governmental apparatus, the use of death penalty is minimal. On the contrary, nations with low levels of state advancement have minimal use of death penalty and retention. For instance, while aggravated rape will be punished by death in Florida and Louisiana, the same crime will not be punished by execution in Oklahoma. In addition, the designated threshold for a crime to be considered as a capital crime differs across each jurisdiction enforcing capital punishment. For instance, while Georgia, Kentucky and Idaho would punish aggravated kidnapping with death, Oklahoma would subject only those who have committed extortionate kidnapping to death (Bakken, 2010).
It is against this background that there has been a variation in sentences for offenders who have committed related crimes in the United States. In other words, each criminal will be subjected to the laws of the state where he or she has committed a particular crime. Although, the federal laws of the United States may be superior in certain circumstances, each state has the power to enforce its own laws independently. Thus, offenders who have committed similar crimes may not receive similar sentences. For instance, if a person has committed extortionate kidnapping in Georgia, he or she will be sentenced to death; however, another person who has committed a similar crime in Oklahoma will receive a lighter sentence (Banner, 2002).
In addition to variation in applicability of death penalty by offence, there has also been a remarkable difference in the speed of executions. In other words, a number of criminals have been seen sitting on death row for many years while others have been executed very fast. Bakken (2010) asserts that the legal process involving capital punishment in the United States is very complex and may take long before a criminal is executed. Basically, there are four steps in the process: sentencing, direct review, state collateral review, and federal habeas corpus. While each suspect who is facing capital crimes charges will be accorded a fair trial, the fate of the suspect may be sealed by the end of the trials. The defendant will be sentenced to death, if he or she is found guilty of committing a capital offence.
However, the defendant will wait for the verdict of the judges involved in the direct review of his or her case. During direct review, the appellate judges may affirm the sentence and let the death penalty stand or may find certain loopholes in the trial process and thus, subject the case to a new trial. On rare occasions, a defendant may be set free during the direct review by the appellate judge (Dow & Dow, 2002). In essence, it is during the direct review that a person, who has been sentenced to death, will know his or her fate. After this process, a person may be executed immediately; however, he or she may appeal for state collateral review (if it is a state death penalty case).
The processes of collateral review varies from one jurisdiction to another, however all jurisdictions have some forms of collateral review. The purpose of state collateral review is to enable the defendant to challenge the sentence. If he or she fails to overturn the sentence, the defendant will seek federal habeas corpus. The federal habeas corpus’s purpose is to review the direct review and state collateral review to ensure that the defendant’s constitutional rights are upheld. In essence, if a defendant decides to go through the four steps, his or her sentence will take long to execute; however, those who do not challenge their sentences will be executed immediately (Bakken, 2010).
The application of death penalty in the United States has not only been controversial but also has undergone a number of changes in its lengthy history. This is owing to the fact that different states in the United States have their own policies on capital punishment. One of the outstanding controversies surrounding the use of capital punishment has been the inhumane treatment of offenders, which has led many people to question whether the punishment is ethical. However, these debates have brought about frequent alterations in the applicability of the capital punishment in the United States. While the capital punishment is still used, its applicability is varied across states and jurisdictions and the number of those subjected to execution has equally reduced in recent times.