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European-American Topics - Editorial - Death penalty: American perspective

The different shades of death
By DW Hamilton

Starting with the execution of Captain George Kendall by firing squad, December 1607 (some sources say 1608) in Jamestown , the death penalty has almost always been a feature of the American criminal justice system, first in the colonies, and after independence, in the entire United States.  The number of executions in the US per-year peaked with 199 in 1935.  From 1967 to 1977, The US Supreme Court found the death penalty to be cruel and unusual punishment, often administered in an arbitrary and capricious way, and a moratorium on state executions was put into effect. Various court battles overturned that verdict, so now the number of officially sanctioned deaths in the States is trending upward once again – to 58 in the year 2004.  Of the 50 states in the U.S., 38 allow the death penalty, and with rare exception, execution is prescribed only for Aggravated Murder in the First Degree. 

How does the average American feel about the death penalty? As usual, with any complex question, where Americans weigh in individually is across the board.  A certain percentage of us would prefer nobody be killed by the state.  After all, 12 states in the U.S. do not allow executions at all, while of course, there are people within those states who would welcome the death penalty’s return. 

We do feel that if death is to be doled out, it should be done very carefully. The idea that an innocent may be condemned to die is repugnant, so increased reliance on DNA testing has overturned some convictions, while sealing the fate of others.  The idea that the DNA test is only as accurate as the personnel in the institutions handling DNA evidence has also reversed a number of executions in the last decade.  We would like to feel with certainty that whomever we condemn to death actually deserved it. 

As black and white as the subject of institutionally created death may seem, Americans can discern many shades of gray in its regard.  There is a deep black-black, an acceptance of capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia, and military casualties.  Basically, this is a “live and let die” approach, most likely produced on the supposition that being condemned to die will never occur directly to our self or a family member. Then we have a dark gray, where only three of the four are morally acceptable (these can evidently be chosen la carte, i.e., “Pro-Choice” in regard to abortion, while opposing the death penalty, for instance).  Then the gray grows lighter, as the types of “official death” one finds acceptable grow fewer and fewer.  In the pure white field, we have those who oppose state sanctioned death in all its forms, be it war casualties, aborted fetuses, convicted first-degree murderers or pulling the plug on somebody like Terry Schiavo.

Internationally, America’s policy in regard to the death penalty is the opposite of Europe’s.  By not opposing the death penalty in our borders, we find ourselves  in the company of nations, such as Afghanistan,   China (People's Republic), Cuba, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates, just to name a few among many.  This may seem an odd list upon which to be included, but it is nice that there is at least one thing the US, the Palestinian Authority, Iran, and North Korea can agree upon.

 

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