Capital Punishment in Historical Perspective
(Not Being yet Another Argument Pro or Con)

April 1989By Robert Kirtland

The Rev. Robert Kirtland is Adjunct Professor of Law in the College of Law at the University of Toledo in Ohio, and author of George Wythe: Lawyer, Revolutionary, Judge.

Like an old tennis shoe that’s long been among the family dog’s treasured possessions, the death penalty is one of those issues so chewed over as to be almost beyond recognition. Yet the debate goes on: like other issues overcharged with emo­tional content, it promises to join death, war, and taxes as a constant of social experience. Elaborate statistical studies purport to show that capital punishment is or is not a more effective deterrent than life imprisonment; that it is or is not more costly than imprisonment; that it does or does not brutalize society and pander to man­kind’s basest instincts.

Other statistics demonstrate that capital punishment is or is not simply closet racism or thinly disguised contempt for the poor.

“Scientific,” too, is an argument based on the optimistic theory of rehabilitation, popularized in the 18th century by the Marchese di Beccaria: edu­cational detention would turn the criminal into a productive, peaceful citizen. Proponents of this theory in its contemporary form assure us that with just a bit more understanding of the criminal’s enzymes or childhood trauma, a bit more tinkering with the mechanics of behavior modification, Beccaria’s promise will at last be fulfilled.

Finally, a political instinct, before which at least one Supreme Court justice bows, warns that a failure to recognize and respond to society’s demand for appropriate retribution will diminish respect for law across the board.

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