At one level, capital punishment, or the death penalty, is a minor issue. The media keep the public aware of all sorts of horrible crimes, but relatively few people are directly affected by those crimes, either as perpetrators or victims, or as family and friends of perpetrators and victims. Very few people are sentenced to die for their crimes, and still fewer people are ever executed. At another level, capital punishment represents two profound concerns of nearly everyone: the value of human life and how best to protect it. For most people who support capital punishment, the execution of killers (and people who commit other horrible acts) makes sense. Death penalty supporters frequently state that executions do prevent those executed from committing heinous crimes again and that the example of executions probably prevents most people who might contemplate committing appalling crimes from doing so. In addition, many death penalty supporters simply believe that people who commit such crimes deserve to die, that they have earned their ignominious fate.
For opponents, capital punishment is about something else entirely. It is a benchmark of the “developing moral standards” of American civilization. As Winston Churchill once said, “The mood and temper of the public with regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country.” Put somewhat differently, for many opponents, the level of death penalty support in the United States is a rough estimate of the level of maturity of the American people. The not-so-subtle implication is that a mature, civilized society would not employ capital punishment. Opponents maintain that perpetrators of horrible crimes can be dealt with effectively by other means and that it makes little sense to kill some people, however blameworthy they are, to teach other people not to kill. These opponents argue that although the perpetrators of terrible crimes may deserve severe punishment, that punishment need not be execution.
Capital punishment can be and has been addressed on many different levels. Only superficially is it a minor issue. Rather, it is a complex concern that encompasses fundamental questions of who a society is as a people and how some of its most vexing social problems are handled. This entry is divided into five sections. The first presents a concise history of capital punishment in the United States. The second addresses the Supreme Court’s regulation of capital punishment. The third describes Congress’s involvement. The fourth examines the practice of capital punishment under modern, or post-Furman, statutes, and the final section speculates on the future of capital punishment.