Capital Punishment in the United States

Capital punishment is defined as the legally authorized killing of someone as punishment for a capital crime. In the United States, a capital crime is a crime so horrendous that a sentence of death is appropriate, this includes various kinds of murder as well as espionage, treason, and aircraft hijacking (terrorism). The United States is one of the last few developed countries who still actively practice capital punishment. Of course, there are many other countries where it is legal but not often practiced; such as is the case for South Korea, where it is legal but has not been practiced since December 1997.

Most executions in the United States are carried out through lethal injections. Lethal injections are made up of a fatal concoction of drugs (barbiturate, paralytic and potassium solution) which together can cause an immediate death. The lethal injection brings death by placing the person under a slumber, then stopping the breathing and heart, precisely in that order. It takes about seven minutes for the person to die. Out of all the methods of execution to be practiced over the years, this is considered the most humane and thus is the most practiced.

Death row inmate Angel Diaz's left arm showing chemical burns after having the lethal injection administered, skin peeled prior to autopsy.
Death row inmate Angel Diaz’s left arm showing chemical burns after having the lethal injection administered, skin peeled prior to autopsy.

Other methods of capital punishment practiced in the United States includes electrocution (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia), gas chamber (Delaware, New Hampshire, and Washington), and the firing squad (Oklahoma only if other methods are found to be unconstitutional, Utah).

Capital punishment is one of those issues, like abortion, where the average citizen has an opinion. Whether you are guided by religion or personal ideology and ethics, almost everyone has an opinion on capital punishment and if it is justifiable or not. Are there some crimes so heinous that the only possible punishment could be death, or is death too harsh a punishment for any matter? Polls are showing how an ever growing number of American’s thinks that there should be alternatives to the death penalty.

One big issue is the cost. Is killing off a prisoner through capital punishment less costly than keeping them in prison for a life term? According to, many different states have done individual studies on this and all of them have found that cases involving the death penalty are more costly than cases without. In a 2011 (2012 updated) California study by judge Arthur Alarcon and Professor Paula Mitchell, it was concluded that the death penalty cost in California has totaled over $4 billion since 1978: $1.94 billion in pre-trial and trial costs, $925 million in automatic appeals and state Habeas Corpus petitions, $775 million in federal Habeas Corpus appeals and $1 billion in costs of incarceration. It was calculated that if the remaining death row inmates were transferred to life without parole, there would be about $170 million in immediate savings per year; $5 billion in savings in the proceeding 20 years.

The reason capital cases are so expensive is because more time and effort is put into the case and subsequent appeals, seeing as how a human life is at stake. One error and a person could be unfairly executed for a crime he/she did not commit. It is also becoming increasingly expensive to acquire some of the drugs needed for lethal injections. Many United States drug suppliers are halting their sales due to international protests from anti-capital punishment groups and agencies. According to an LA Times article, It used to cost the Texas Department of Justice $83.55 for the drugs used to carry out lethal injections, which included sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride. Due to lack of supply, Texas was forced to switch from sodium thiopental to pentobarbital, increasing the cost of drugs to $1,286.86.

In the United States and internationally, there has been an organized effort to end capital punishment. Capital punishment is seen as barbaric and unbecoming of developed Western nations such as the United States. In the United States Bill of Rights, the Eight Amendment prohibits the federal government from imposing excessive bail, excessive fines or cruel and unusual punishment. Of course, this is extremely ambiguous and our Founding Fathers did not clarify what constituted a cruel and usual punishment. This is left for interpretation, and many interpret capital punishment to be cruel and unusual despite the fact that at the time of the Bill of Rights, capital punishment was practiced in the young United States.

Because we are going through an election cycle, it is important to be familiar with our candidates. If capital punishment is an issue that matters to you, here is a list of some of the different Presidential hopefuls and their stance on capital punishment:

  • Jeb Bush (R): Supports capital punishment, as governor has overseen the execution of eight men
  • Ben Carson (R): Believes the death penalty should be decided state by state
  • Hillary Clinton (D): Advocates for capital punishment, with restrictions
  • Ted Cruz (R): Supports the death penalty
  • Bernie Sanders (D): Strong anti-capital punishment advocate
  • Carly Fiorina (R): Supports the death penalty
  • Rand Paul (R): Believes it is a state issue and up to the state
  • Donald Trump (R): Supports the death penalty

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