With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Despite Popular Opposition, The Death Penalty Marches on Unabated

Twenty five years ago, on a beautiful day in late April, 1998, I witnessed a lethal injection execution in the death chamber in Huntsville, Texas. At that time, Frank McFarland was the 458th condemned inmate to be put to death in the United States after executions resumed in January, 1977.  McFarland was the 150th condemned inmate to be put to death in Texas, which resumed state killings of inmates on December 7, 1982.

The world in general, and this country in particular, were very different in many ways. But one of the pathetic constants still in effect in America today is the barbaric practice of executing condemned inmates across the nation.

Texas has been and remains the leading execution jurisdiction not only within the United States, but even within the entire free world. The national execution total has now risen to 1,568, more than 3 times what it was in April 1998. Texas has another execution scheduled for later this month which, if carried out, would be the 584th execution since 1982, almost 4 times greater than where it stood in April 1998. 

To be sure, those seeking to abolish the death penalty have seen some great national successes in the last 25 years. In 1998, 37 states, the US military and the federal government allowed the death penalty, and almost 3,800 individuals were under a death sentence. Today, 27 states, the U.S. military and the federal government still allow death sentences, but the national condemned population now stands at about 2,400 people.

In 1998, it was legal in the United States to execute persons who were as young as 16 at the time of the offense for which they were convicted, as well as individuals who were classified as mentally retarded. But a pro-death penalty U.S. Supreme Court has, 25 years later, declared the execution of juvenile offenders (Simmons v. Roper, 2005) and the mentally retarded (Atkins v. Virginia, 2002) to be unconstitutional.

Two states, Ohio and Kentucky, have passed legislation now prohibiting the execution of seriously mentally ill inmates, and other states, including here in Texas, have introduced similar legislation.

And, for the first time, a state from the former Confederacy, Virginia, abolished the death penalty in March 2021.

In 1998, 68 condemned inmates were executed in the US, and the total would reach a national high of 98 executions the following year. Every year since 2016, there have been no more than 25 executions in the country, with a low of 11 recorded just 2 years ago in 2021.

What apparently has not changed is the national political lust to kill condemned inmates. In 1998, there were five legal execution methods: by electric chair, by firing squad, by gassing, by hanging, and by lethal injection, the most commonly used method nationally. The U.S. has the dubious record of having more methods of execution than any country in the world, and they are still in use today.

In fact, due to an inability of states to purchase the drugs used in lethal injections, various states have introduced legislation to return to other or newer methods of killing the condemned.

Idaho, Tennessee and South Carolina have passed or are currently debating legislation to use firing squads, and Alabama is trying to initiate a new method of using nitrogen hypoxia, a method labeled “humane” by supporters, in which a condemned inmate would be suffocated by being forced to breathe pure nitrogen, starving them of oxygen until they die.  

The myth of “humane” executions continues to persist in this country. From the days at the turn of the 20th century, when America introduced electricity to kill persons, to the current time, elected officials continue to espouse the lie of painless execution methods.   

Yet just last year, the American Bar Association (ABA) stated that “7 of 20 execution attempts in 2022 were 'visibly problematic,' according to a year-end report by the Death Penalty Information Center. The problems stemmed from executioner incompetence, failures to follow protocols or defects in the protocols” so that the year could be called “the year of the botched execution.”  Gruesome reports from execution chambers in Ohio, Oklahoma, and Arizona show that executions may have violated federal law. At minimum they have reintroduced cruelty in the name of the law.

Politicians from both of the major parties overwhelmingly continue to support the usage of the death penalty. Senator Bernie Sanders has always opposed the death penalty, and blasted Hillary Clinton’s strong support of it. When Clinton won the Democratic nomination in 2016, the issue was a non-factor in the presidential race since Donald Trump also supported it. In the waning months of his presidency, 10 federal death row inmates were executed in the last half of 2020.

Joe Biden became the first presidential candidate to run on a platform opposing the death penalty, and he promised that if elected, he would end the federal death penalty within the first 100 days after taking office. Almost 2 ½ years later, he has not done so.

In 2008, the US Supreme Court (Kennedy v Louisiana) ruled in a landmark decision that held that the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause prohibits imposing the death penalty for a crime where the victim did not die. However, the Florida legislature just passed a law calling for the death penalty for anyone who commits sexual battery on children under the age of 12. This is surely going to spark a constitutional challenge to the Kennedy decision.

As the nation grapples with a plethora of both global and domestic issues, the death penalty survives. It is the longest-running institution in our national history, now 416 years old, and there is no end in sight. Many more executions are scheduled in this country in the months and even years ahead. There is no national leader currently speaking about (and against) the death penalty in this country.

As a populace, we remain numb to the idea and practice of this hateful and overtly racist institution. The nation’s appetite for the death penalty remains unchanged despite the fact that over 190 men and women have been released from death rows when later found innocent of the capital offenses for which they were convicted.

No nation anywhere in the world, and certainly including our own, can ever be considered “good” on human rights as long as it uses executions to kill people in the name of the law, for “love of country.”

Do we really believe that killing people in the name of the law represents the best answer to violent crime that we are capable of as a society?  If so, why is this the best we can do?  And if executions do NOT represent the best societal response to some convicted felons, then why are we doing it?

The challenge is clear: we must, in our lifetimes, work for and attain a death penalty-free America. Only then will this nation be capable of moving forward to try and provide a country in which every person, regardless of who they are or what they may have done, can be afforded the most fundamental rights guaranteed to ALL people, namely, the right to a life with dignity and rights.