Understanding the ultimate punishment

JASMIN K. WILLIAMS Special to the AmNews | 10/12/2011, 6:19 p.m.
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On Sept. 21, a man named Troy Davis was executed by the state of Georgia after a 22-year stint on death row for killing an off-duty police officer, Mark MacPhail. Davis was Black. MacPhail was white.

Earlier that day, Lawrence Brewer was put to death by the state of Texas for dragging a man named James Byrd to death. Brewer was white. Byrd was Black.

Davis and Brewer were put to death legally under the rule of capital punishment, also known as the death penalty. You may have discussed this at your dinner table or with your friends and classmates. You may have watched the vigil outside the prison the night Davis was executed-the execution was delayed by four hours as the Supreme Court reviewed his case in a last-ditch, but failed, effort to save his life.

While one punishment seems to fit the crime, another leaves many unanswered questions about the use of such a final punishment. It's an issue that divides the country.

Thirty-four states allow the death penalty while 16 states, including New York, do not. Today's lesson takes a look at this important issue.

The death penalty goes back to the 18th century BCE, with the code of King Hammurabi of Babylon. It has since been used as the ultimate punishment by methods including beating, drowning, burning alive and impalement.

By the 16th century CE, under Britain's King Henry VIII, 72,000 people had been executed by either boiling, burning at the stake, beheading, hanging or drawing and quartering. Capital offenses, those punishable by death, included not confessing to a crime and treason.

Over the next two centuries, there existed 222 different crimes that could get you the death sentence, including stealing or cutting down a tree.

European settlers brought the practice to this country. The first execution here was carried out in 1608 in Jamestown, Va., against Captain George Kendall. He was accused of being a spy.

But it didn't take much to get executed. In 1612, under Virginia's Divine Moral and Martial Laws, one could be executed for stealing grapes, killing chickens or trading with Indians. New York Colony instituted the Duke's Laws of 1665, recommending capital punishment for such crimes as hitting a parent or denying the "true God."

In 1767, capital punishment was challenged in an essay titled "On Crimes and Punishment," written by Cesare Beccaria. As a result, America attempted to change the death penalty. Thomas Jefferson introduced a bill to reform Virginia's laws, proposing that it only be used as punishment for murder and treason. The bill was defeated by only one vote.

Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and founder of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, challenged the belief that the death penalty slowed crime-he said it actually increased criminal behavior.

On this, Rush had the support of Benjamin Franklin and Philadelphia Attorney General William Bradford. Bradford later became the U.S. attorney general and led Pennsylvania to become the first state to define different types of murder. In 1794, Pennsylvania became the first state in the union to eliminate the death penalty for all offenses except first-degree murder. It was also the first to take executions out of public view.