Capital Sentencing in the United States of America
Capital Sentencing in the United States of America
Capital sentencing is an act of condemning somebody to a death penalty for a felony that was committed.

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Capital sentencing is an act of condemning somebody to a death penalty for a felony that was committed. It involves a conviction of guilt or innocence and if a person is found guilty a capital sentence is handed. There are many ways used to administer this kind of punishment. However commonly used methods in the world are death by hanging or by lethal injection. In the United States of America, death penalty is administered through lethal injection.

In the USA, capital sentencing is a highly controversial topic. The country is split by the thoughts whether to allow death penalty or not. However, despite the differences in opinion, many states allow capital sentence for people found guilty of particularly serious crimes. The practice of death penalty towards criminals found guilty continues facing the opposition from those who consider it to be not morally right and a contradiction to the right to live that every human being possesses. The opponents of this practice feel that no person or institution is supposed to, for whatever reason, ever take a human life away.

The U.S. government allows death penalty in cases that are justified under the eighth amendment of the Constitution. It clearly points out that the punishment is to be used only for murders committed by mentally stable adults. Therefore, any murder committed by a mentally unstable person, or a person under the legal adulthood age cannot, for whatsoever reasons, qualify. Any other crimes which do not meet the conditions set under the amendment cannot lead to capital sentencing as this will be a contradiction to the law.

It is important to note that crimes subject to the punishment varies with jurisdiction and has also varied much over different historical times. For example in 1972, the U.S.A Supreme Court stated that death penalty as it was being practiced then was unconstitutional (Furman vs. Georgia, 1972). This law challenged the penalty’s statutes and procedures that had been used in the United States of America up to 1972, and in a decision made by five Supreme Court judges, termed the use of the penalty unconstitutional due to the way it was practiced then.

It led to a countrywide change in the death penalty laws and procedures in order to rectify the arbitrary and unconstitutional way of the penalty’s usage (Mark, 2006). Currently the resultant capital punishment is based on three main themes: death-eligible crimes, personalized determination of death worthiness and highest standards of reliability (Mark, 2006). The themes which form a basis for determination of whether an offence qualifies for a capital punishment are a result of the capital sentencing law improvement by the U.S. Supreme court in the case of Woodson v. North Carolina (1976), Greg v. Georgia (1976), Jurke v. Texas (1976), and Lockett v. Ohio (1978).

Capital sentencing in the USA is a psycho-legal issue that needs a more careful and individualized consideration in each particular case. Therefore, before sentencing a decision, the situation leading to the crime and the criminal’s psychology have to be scrutinized by a qualified psychologist to reach a free and fair decision in the court of law. In order to determine whether an offender qualifies for a capital sentence, there are three main issues that are considered in the USA: death eligible crimes, individualized determination of death worthiness, and highest standards of reliability (Cunningham, 2003).

Death Eligible Offences

Death penalty is restricted to a murder directed towards a specific class of people such as children or the police. The Supreme Court specifies that death penalty should not be a mandatory punishment, regardless of the committed. The case should be based on the death-worthiness of the individual under consideration.

Individualized Determination of Death-Worthiness

The determination is normally done through a procedure. This process involves two phases: a guilt phase and a sentencing phase. The guilt phase involves the determination of the accused guiltiness while the sentencing phase entails analysis and weighing of the for and against information. It involves checking which information is more meaningful based on the facts about the case so as to lead the capital sentencing process in the right direction to ensure the delivery of justice.

Heightened Standards of Reliability

In order to ensure the high standards of reliability, the law requires an appointment of two attorneys to represent the defendant. The two lawyers are supposed to determine the innocence of their client. The appointment of the two is done by the state to ensure an adequate representation of capitally charged people even when they cannot afford legal fees. Also, to ensure justice is served, the process is put under a lot of scrutiny and the law provides many stages and opportunities for appeals. The appeals serve the purpose of detecting errors that may have occurred during the trial. Moreover, in order to ensure that justice is not violated on the part of the offender, an after-conviction proceeding is usually instituted to determine issues that may have made an offender be erroneously and unfairly judged.

There are two main psycho-legal issues that are keenly analyzed in capital sentencing: moral culpability and violence risk assessment. They are highly vital in the determination of cases involving capital punishment.

Moral Culpability

It refers to blameworthiness of a person for committing an act that is morally wrong in accordance to the values, norms and the law of a specific society. Someone is morally culpable if they are found to have knowingly, and without any acceptable justification, perpetrated an act of commission or omission that violates the society’s morals. Determination of moral culpability in capital offences is important as it helps to understand the circumstances that led to the felony. This eventually helps the court to give a fair ruling based on objectivity and speculations on the victim or the victim’s representatives feelings of vengeance ..

In order to establish the moral culpability of a case, the task is undertaken by a qualified and independent professional in the field of psychology or psychiatry. This helps to determine the culpability based on scientific expert findings and not only opinions. According to mental health sciences, choices and behaviors are designed and influenced by biological, developmental, neuropsychological, emotional, relationship, community, cultural and situational factors (Staub; Haney 1995, 1996). The convergence and interaction of the factors are taken as a primary reason of criminal violence (Hawkins et al., 2000). There are a lot of factors that influence human behavior. In order to establish moral culpability in capital sentence cases, an expert has to identify any factors that might adversely impact the physical, neuropsychological, psycho-educational, personality, social/interpersonal, moral, and vocational development and capability (Cunningham & Reidy, 2001; Liebert & Foster, 1994; Norton, 1992).

Violence Risk Assessment

This involves analyzing and establishing whether there is a probability that the defendant might commit felonies that will constitute a continuing threat to the society (Cunningham, 2006). This is meant to establish whether the defendant poses a danger to the society in the future. This is normally done with an intention to ensure that the court system does not release a person who is a great danger to the safety of the society. On the other hand the assessment is also done for the good of the defendant in order to ensure that a person who is not dangerous to the society is not cut off from normal human interaction and day to day activities.

Case for and Against Capital Sentencing

Capital punishment is a psycho-legal issue that draws both support and criticism. As seen earlier, there are people who strongly believe in it and support its practice in the society. However, there is also an equally strong segment of the society that strongly opposes its practice.

Reasons for Capital Sentencing


Many people in the society feel that one must answer for their felonies. The nature and degree of punishment is supposed to be in proportion to the magnitude of the crime one commits. Capital sentencing plays a vital role in ensuring this basic concept is fulfilled for offenders who perpetrate capital offences such as homicides.

Prevention of Crime

A proponent of death penalty believes that it helps to deter criminals from committing capital offences that would endanger the society. The sentence helps to make the society safer as it not only rids the world of dangerous criminals but also deters people from perpetrating that may lead to a capital sentence. In the United States of America, this is one of the major factors for its continued use.

Reasons Against Capital Sentence

There many people who feel that death penalty is not justified. The penalty is meant to achieve retribution but in most cases it ends up being more about revenge than retribution. To take a life when a life has been lost is revenge is not justice (Desmond, 1992). The argument that serves to prevent a crime is considered not fully true since the world-wide statistics show that the countries with death penalty practice have higher crime rates than those without. The opinions are sharply divided in the USA on whether a death penalty or a life imprisonment deters more people from engaging in criminal activities.

Violation of Human Right to Life

Every human being has an inherent right to live. The American society and religious organizations consider a human life to be very valuable. This human right is inherent and no person should take away another person’s life, for whatever reason. Death penalty is a violation of this basic human right. To kill a man who retains his natural worthiness is intrinsically evil (Thomas, 1990).

Killing of the Innocent

In some cases, the court ends up sentencing an innocent just because they cannot prove the innocence. This faults justice in the society.. The judges, jury and witnesses have a weakness of imperfection. As humans, they are susceptible to mistakes that in many cases have taken the lives of innocent.

Brutalizing the society

The act of death penalty makes the society brutal. Its practice teaches the society how to be brutal against people who commit or are thought to have committed capital offences. The state’s power to carry out death penalties is a manifestation that they are allowed to do anything (George, 1992).

Religious Perspective on Capital Sentencing

Different religions have various perspectives onto this issue. However, the common is that most of the religions support the use of death penalty in cases with people who are proven to have committed such capital offences as murder. In Judaism, for instance, the law of Moses says “An eye for an eye.” This means that the law allows vengeance against the offender in equal measure of the crime committed. For example, if a man murders their neighbor without any justifiable reason, the penalty for them is death.

In Christianity the opinion on the issue is highly divided. According to the teachings of Jesus, forgiveness is required from every Christian. If anyone offends a Christian, the Christian is supposed to forgive. We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing (U.S. Catholic Conference, 2001). However, the Old Testament provides death as a way of punishment. For instance, Genesis 9:6 states that whoever sheds the blood of a man, by man shall his blood be shed. The Law of Moses, contained in the Old Testament provides guidelines on crimes that are to be punished via death penalty and there are about thirty six of them that qualify . Those include rape, murder, idolatry and blasphemy.

Islam on the other hand wholly accepts death penalty where such penalty is on someone proven guilty of an offence of a magnitude that deserves it. According to Qur’an, a man must not kill except for the justice and within the Law (Qur’an 6:151). Therefore, Islam allows death penalty but only in cases proven via a trustworthy and well established institution of justice and the Law. The sentence must be just and in accordance to the Law.


From the above discourse, capital sentencing in the USA remains to be a major psycho-legal issue. There are varied opinions on its continued practice in the country. The general political opinion and the religious perspectives on the issue are varied too. Therefore, capital sentencing in the U.S. is a psycho-legal issue that requires careful consideration of all psycho-legal issues and society’s perspectives.


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