The Death Penalty
Historically, removal from, the group has been considered one of the ultimate forms of punishment. For many years, capital punishment, or the death penalty, has been used in the United States as an appropriate and justifiable response to very serious crimes. In 2008, 37 inmates were executed (as contrasted with 98 in 1999), and about 3,300 people awaited execution, having received the death penalty under federal law or the laws of one of the states that have the death penalty (Death Penalty Information Center, 2009). Byfar, the largest number of people on death row are in states such as California, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Alabama. Because Of The finality of the death penalty, it has been a subject of much controversy and numerous Supreme Court debates about the decision-making process involved in capital cases. In 1972 the U.S.Supreme COUrt ruled (in Form Rlll \I. Georgia) that arbitrary application of the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution but that the death penalty itself is not unconstitutional. In other words, capital punishment is legal if it is fairly imposed. Although there have been a number of cases involving death penalty issues before the Supreme Court since that time, the court typically has upheld the constitutionality-of this-practice:-¥et the-----I fact remains.that racial disparities are highly evident in the death row cens. 'can Americans make up about 42 percent of the death row lation but less than 13 percent of the U.S. population. e . ve states are more likely to execute criminals than are other states (see~ Figure 7.8). African Americans are eight to ten times more likelyto be sentenced to death for homicidal rape than are whites (non-Larinos/as) who have committed the same crime (Marquart, Eklund-Olson,
and Sorensen, 1994).
People who have lost relatives and friends as a result of criminal activity often see the death penalty as justified. However, capital punishment raises many doubts for those who fear that innocent individuals maybe executed for crimes they did not commit. For still others, the problem of racial discrimination in the sentencing process poses troubling questions. Other questions that remain today involve the execution of those who are believed to be insane and of those defendants who did not have effective legal counsel during their trial. In 2002, for example, the Supreme Court ruled (in Atkins v. Virgi/lia) that executing the mentally retarded is unconstitutional. In another landmark case (Ring \I. Ariz~mtl), the Court ruled that juries. not judges. must decide whether a convicted murderer should receive the death penalty (Cole and Smith. 2004). Executions resumed in 2008 after a de facto moratorium was lifted by the Supreme Court when the Justices decided to uphold lethal injection, However, only southern states returned to regular executions. and executions in the South accounted for 95 percent of all executions In Zoo with-+8-exerotious.-Texas accounted for 49 percent of all executions for that year (Death Penalty Information Center, 2(09). Although only III new death sentences were handed down in 2008 (down from 284 in 1999), the issue of the death penalty is far from resolved; the debate. which has taken place for more than' two hundred years. no doubt will continue through much of the twenty-first century.