How Ethical Systems Change: Lynching and Capital Punishment

How Ethical Systems Change: Lynching and Capital Punishment

How Ethical Systems Change: Lynching and Capital Punishment

How Ethical Systems Change: Lynching and Capital Punishment


Slavery, lynching and capital punishment were interwoven in the United States and by the mid-twentieth century these connections gave rise to a small but well-focused reform movement. Biased and perfunctory procedures were replaced by prolonged trials and appeals, which some found messy and meaningless; DNA profiling clearly established innocent persons had been sentenced to death. The debate over taking life to protect life continues; this book is based on a hugely popular undergraduate course taught at the University of Texas, and is ideal for those interested in criminal justice, social problems, social inequality, and social movements.

This book is an excerpt from a larger text, Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Decides?,


The evidence is clear. In the United States, there is a close connection between capital punishment and the patterns of lynching following the Civil War. This connection is grounded in the shadows of the Thirteenth Amendment and Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

In a society fissured by a strong sense of Us and Them, equal protection under the law was hard to find. Convictions and punishment were quite simply and clearly differentially distributed across racial lines. Equality and due process for Us did not mean the same thing as equality and due process for Them. Sham trials and brutal lynchings were widespread and disproportionately inflicted upon former slaves and their descendants. For those seeking a more inclusive communal life, such blatant inequality generated a deep sense of injustice and withdrawal of legitimacy from existing practices.

This sense of injustice and the closely linked denial of legitimacy energized social movements for change. In 1963 a group of lawyers launched a campaign to first reform and then totally abolish a system of capital punishment soiled by the lingering legacy of slavery. It took almost a decade, but in June 1972 capital punishment, as then practiced in the United States, was declared arbitrary and capricious, and therefore unconstitutional. If the noted problems could be fixed, however, executions could resume. New guidelines were crafted, and on January 17, 1977 they did. Still, problems remained. One broad-scale study showed that something on the order of two-thirds of the cases contained reversible error. Prominent Supreme Court Justices, once voting to sustain capital punishment, changed their minds, noting that the system they had helped to construct had become messy and meaningless. They would no longer tinker with the machinery of death. It should be abandoned.

Over the next two decades, lingering concerns were heightened when clear evidence emerged from new techniques for DNA profiling. Many innocent persons had been sentenced to die. Reform efforts expanded, moratoria were declared and, within the decade between 2000 and 2010, the number of executions decreased from almost 100 to just less than 50. There was a parallel decline in the number of persons sentenced to death, signaling a further decline in executions in the years ahead. As this book goes to press, the questions of who should live and who should die for offences committed remain grist for a frequently caustic and accusatory debate.

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