For centuries death has been used as a punishment for a myriad of crimes: fighting on the wrong side of a conflict, divergent beliefs and capital offenses.
But in today’s world, the United States is the only western industrialized nation that still uses this form of punishment. It’s important to bear in mind, however, that not every state in the U.S. uses the death penalty for capital crimes. As of August 2017, the death penalty statutes exist in 33 of the 50 states.
The American Heritage Schloarship Essay Contest is asking high school juniors and seniors in Stanislaus County to consider the death penalty and explain whether or not it is a constitutional exercise of any state’s power. They will use logical argument bolstered by citations to relevant historical, social and legal sources. They will have much to consider.
Use of the death penalty in the U.S. has been hotly debated over the last 50 years. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court suspended 40 state statues, effectively interrupting the practice across the nation. The Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976 after states updated statues to allow for circumstantial provisions and improved their appeals processes.
The Death Penalty Information Center reports that since 1976, there have been 1,459 executions in the United States with 80 percent of those taking place in southern states. In the same time, 159 people who had been sentenced to death have been granted complete pardons based on evidence of innocence.
While much of the controversy over the death penalty has centered around whether or not the techniques used to mete out the sentence constitute “cruel and unusual punishment,” a violation of the Eighth Amendment, there have also been concerns over the irreversible nature of the sentence of death.
Many have also debated other death penalty issues: its effectiveness, the cost of death penalty cases and their appeals, and the racial disproportions of those sentenced to death. While important, it is the constitutional concerns that have been addressed by the Supreme Court.
The Court has considered constitutional challenges based on the Fifth Amendment (due process) and the Fourteenth (equal protection under the law), however it has been Eighth Amendment’s “cruel and unusual” punishment clause that has dominated the debate.
This year, Aaron Daniel Pennekamp will make a presentation on the constitutionality of the death penalty with a focus on the Eighth Amendment. Pennekamp is a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, served as editor of the Georgetown Law Review and clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer. He’ll speak at Beyer High School’s Little Theater on Sept. 19, at 7 p.m. The public is invited to attend.
The presentation will also be live-streamed and recorded for viewing at www.stancoe.org.
Essays are due Oct. 18. Scholarships will be judged and 19 of those submitting will be awarded scholarships ranging from $100 to $2,000. Essays will be judged by a group of community members to narrow the field before being turned over to Stanislaus County’s Superior Court judges for final judging.
Application packets are available at the Stanislaus County Office of Education website, www.stancoe.org/division/american-heritage-scholarship-program, in social science classes and at schools.
No time is better for communities, especially our budding voters, to begin discussing the constitutionality of this long-standing practice. There are currently more than 2,800 people awaiting execution in the United States, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Because it is the Supreme Court that will ultimately decide the constitutionality of death penalty statutes, citizens should consider not only the law but also the Court’s perspective that Amendments must be allowed to evolve as society’s values change.
Has the American standard of decency evolved to the point where the death penalty is deemed unconstitutional? Great question.
Janeen Zambo, Ed.D is the social science curriculum coordinator at Modesto City Schools and a member of the American Heritage Scholarship Committee.