Ethics Updates


Punishment and the Death Penalty
Last updated September 10, 2011

MultiMedia Resources on Punishment and the Death Penalty

Online Surveys

Supreme Court

Internet Resources on the Death Penalty


Court Decisions

Supreme Court decisions

  • Cornell University School of Law provides full texts of recent Supreme Court decisions on sentencing, capital punishment, and the death penalty.
  • Kansas v. Hendricks. Argued December 10, 1996 -- Decided June 23, 1997. Joan Biskupic, "Court Gives States Leeway In Confining Sex Offenders," Washington Post, June 24, 1997.

Legislative Information

Search Thomas - the legislative search engine of Congress search recent and current (including pending) legislation on punishment or the death penalty

Statistical Resources

New York Times resources

Books and Monographs

Library of Congress's on-line catalogue - The most complete listing of books and monographs dealing with punishment, the death penalty, or virtually any other topic.

Internet Sites

Religious Sources


Frontline: Angel on Death Row. A Portrait of Sr. Helen Prejean (April 9, 1996)

This is a superb resource on the death penalty and another model of what a web site can provide. It includes the following pages:

Frontline: What Jennifer Saw. Examinging Eyewitness Error in Crimes and How DNA Evidence Is Setting the Innocent Free. February 25, 1996

"Identified by the victim, Ronald Cotton spent eleven years in prison for rape. But in 1995, DNA evidence proved that Cotton could not have been the attacker. With unprecedented access to the central figures in the investigation, confidential police reports and legal files, FRONTLINE delves into the Cotton case, examining the reliability of eyewitness identification and the implications of DNA evidence for the American justice system. In an exclusive interview, Jennifer Thompson tells the story of her brutal rape and how, twelve years later, she must confront the consequences of her mistaken identification. Producer: Ben Loeterman."

NPR's "Talk of the Nation"

  •   Pinochet and Justice (14.4 | 28.8 Host:  Melinda Penkava.  The extradition trial of Augusto Pinochet has begun in England. If extradited, the former Chilean dictator could face trial in Spain on charges of crimes against humanity. But is it right to take Pinochet's fate out of the hands of the people who suffered under his rule? Join Melinda Penkava and guests for a look at the Pinochet case, and the questions it raises about extradition, sovereignty, and who has the right to enforce justice, on the next Talk of the Nation, from NPR News. (September 28, 1999)
  •   What Happened to Rehabilitating Prisoners?   (14.4 | 28.8)  Host: Ray Suarez  "Lock 'em up and throw away the key" may sound good, but the fact is, most prisoners aren't serving life sentences. It would seem to be in our best interest to reform convicts before they hit the street again, but advocating prisoner rehabilitation is not exactly politically fashionable. Join Ray Suarez and guests to examine the difficulties of rehabilitation. (Sept. 21, 1999)
  •   Presidential Pardons   (14.4 | 28.8)   Host: Ray Suarez.   Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch says he will subpoena documents relating to President Clinton's offer of clemency to members of a Puerto Rican separatist group. The White House has invoked executive privilege in refusing to turn over the documents, calling the subpoena politically motivated. Join Ray Suarez and guests to examine the history and politics of Presidential pardons.  (Sept. 20, 1999)
  •   Boston's Approach to Fighting Crime   (14.4 | 28.8)  Host: Ray Suarez.  Boston's crime rate has dropped dramatically in the 1990s. Last year, 16 young people were killed by guns compared to 51 in 1990. So what is Boston doing right? They've created the "Boston Strategy," a law and order program involving just about everyone: police, prosecutors, the courts, social workers, clergyand, most importantly, the community. The "strategy" brings the community groups together with city, state and federal agencies. They crack down on illicit gun traffickers while sitting down with suspected gang leaders to tell them the heat is coming if they don't stop the violence. Ray Suarez and guests will look at the "Boston Strategy" for fighting crime and ask if it can serve as a model for other cities across the country.  (July 14, 1999)
  • Violence and Kids   Host:  Ray Suarez.  Images of violence are everywhere today -- in movies, on television, on line, in the news, and in video games. Some experts say children today are becoming desensitized to violence and that they're having trouble separating the lines between reality and fantasy. Does violent programming contribute to a violent society? Join Ray Suarez and guests for a look at violence in public entertainment and its impact on kids. (June 2, 1998)
  • Juvenile Justice  Host:  Ray Suarez. The recent Jonesboro shooting raised anew the level of concern about juvenile crime. In the wake of a crisis like Jonesboro, long prison terms are often proposed for young offenders as a way to curb youth crime. But with an exploding number of prisons and prisoners, detention facilities seem an ineffective deterrent. Join Ray and guests for a look at new alternatives to reduce juvenile crime. (April 15, 1998)
  • Juvenile Crime/Mental Health   Host: Ray Suarez.  The vast majority of children in the juvenile justice system reportedly have some sort of mental or emotional problem. But most of those kids don't get the help they need ... the institutions are often overcrowded and offer inadequate counseling, substance abuse and suicide prevention programs. Join Ray Suarez and guests for a look at the availability and quality of mental health services in the juvenile justice system. (March 3, 1998)
  • Karla Faye Tucker/Death Penalty   Host:  Ray Suarez.  Condemned killer Karla Faye Tucker says she's a changed woman, and should be able to spend the rest of her life in prison. But the Texas Board of Pardon and Paroles has cleared the way for her execution today [Tuesday]. Only Texas governor George Bush or the US Supreme Court can postpone it now. Join host Ray Suarez for a look at the case of Karla Faye Tucker - redemption, judicial mercy, and capital punishment in the state of Texas ...on the next Talk of the Nation, from NPR News. (February 3, 1998)
  • The Death Penalty .   Host: Neal Conan.  Several high-profile federal capital cases, including the Oklahoma City bombing trials and the Unabomber case, have again raised the debate over the death penalty. Critics say defendants are hurt by the lack of clear guidelines determining if they're eligible for capital punishment. Join guest host Neal Conan for a look at who decides whether a defendant should face the death penalty and sentencing patterns across the country.(January 13, 1998) 
  • Mental Competency in the Courts .    Host: Neal Conan.  Following last week's suicide attempt, Unabomber suspect Theodore Kaczynski will be examined for mental illness. The possibility of an insanity plea in Kazcynski's case is creating public outcry and a quandary for legal and mental health practitioners. There are no clear-cut rules determining whether a defendent is mentally competent to stand trial or possibly defend himself. Guest Host Neal Conan and guests look at issues regarding insanity and competency in the courts. (January 13, 1998)
  • The Death Penalty Host: Ray Suarez. Guests: Judge Alex Kozinski, Judge, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, 1985-present, Author of "Tinkering With Death," The New Yorker - 2/10/97; Judge Steve Reinhart, Judge, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, 1980-present; and others. (February 11, 1997)
  • Fighting Crime Guests: William J. Bratton, Former Commissioner, New York City Police Force; Catherine M. Coles, Co-author, Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities; George L. Kelling, Co-author, Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities.  (October 31, 1996) 
  • The Death Penalty . Guests: Sean O'Brien, Criminal Defense Attorney; Susan Bowland, Office of the Attorney General for Georgia. (July 2, 1996)
  • Sexual Offenders Law.    Guests: Dr. Fred Berlin, Founder and Director, National Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma, Founder of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic, Associate Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University; Rep. Dick Zimmer (R-NJ). (June 18, 1996)

Hugh LaFollette's "Ideas and Issues"


On-Line Full Text Articles Relating to Punishment and the Death Penalty

John Stuart Mill, "Speech In Favor of Capital Punishment."

Hugo Bedeau, "The Case Against Capital Punishment."

  • This is the classic statement against the death penalty.

John Rawls, "Two Concepts of Rules."

  • Rawls' article has set the stage for contemporary philosophical discussions of punishment.

Justice Harry Blackmun, dissent in Callins v. Collins

Geoff Sayre-McCord, "Criminal Justice and Legal Reparations as an Alternative to Punishment"

  • Argues that the most attractive and plausible justifications for punishment -- whether they appeal to desert, or to deterrence, or to moral expression and education -- all actually recommend a system of legal reparations that is distinct from, and in crucial respects preferable to, a system of punishment

Geoff Sayre-McCord, "Reply to Gerald Gaus and David Estlund on 'Criminal Justice and Legal Reparations'."

David Anderson, "The Deterrence Hypothesis and Picking Pockets at the Pickpocket's Hangin."

Linehan, Elizabeth A. "Executing the Innocent"

Suber, Peter. "Against the Sanctity of Life

Fieser, James. "Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Capital Punishment"

Fieser, James, ed. "Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Cesare Beccaria"

Kleinig, John. "The Hardness of Hard Treatment."

Hinman, Lawrence M. "Stunning Morality: The Moral Dimensions of Stun Belts"

Time Magazine Cover Stories, February 7, 1994 Volume 143, No. 6.

Time Magazine Cover Story on Capital Punishment and Timothy McVeigh. (June 16, 1997) Vol. 149, No. 24.

A Bibliographical Survey on Punishment and the Death Penalty Hinman, Ethics: A Pluralistic Approach to Moral Theory

Biliographical essays are drawn from Lawrence M. Hinman, Contemporary Moral Issues, 2nd Edition


There are a number of excellent anthologies on punishment, many of which contain articles on the death penalty in particular. See Punishment and the Death Penalty: The Current Debate, edited by Robert M. Baird and Stuart E. Rosenbaum (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1995); Punishment: A Philosophy and Public Affairs Reader, edited by A. John Simmons, Marshall Cohen, Joshua Cohen, and Charles R. Beitz (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995); Philosophy of Punishment, edited by Robert M. Baird and Stuart E. Rosenbaum (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1988); Punishment: Selected Readings, ed. Joel Feinberg and Hyman Gross (Encino, California: Dickenson Publishing Company, 1975); Philosophical Perspectives on Punishment, edited by Gertrude Ezorsky (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1972); The Philosophy of Punishment: A Collection of Papers, edited by H. B. Acton (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1969); Theories of Punishment, edited by Stanley E. Grupp (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971). In contrast to such comparatively modern problems as abortion and in vitro fertilization, punishment has been a theme for philosophers for centuries.

The anthology by Ezorsky contains an excellent selection of classical sources as well as contemporary authors. Also see Plato's Laws, Jeremy Bentham's An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (Oxford: Blackwell, 1967), especially Chapter 13, Section 2; Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysical Elements of Justice, Part I of The Metaphysics of Morals, translated by John Ladd (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965); and G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of Right, translated by T. M. Knox (Oxford Clarendon Press, 1962).

Among the influential contemporary articles and books, see especially Jeffrie G. Murphy, "Marxism and Retribution," Philosophy & Public Affairs 2, no. 3 (Spring, 1973), pp. argues in favor of a retributivist view of punishment that is compatible with the Marxist tradition; also see his Retribution, Justice and Therapy (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1979). Edmund L. Pincoffs, The Rationale Of Legal Punishment (New York: Humanities Press, 1966) is an eloquent defense of a retributivist view of punishment. Also see Ernest van den Haag, Punishing Criminals (New York: Basic Books, 1975). John Cottingham, "Punishment," The Encyclopedia of Ethics, edited by Lawrence C. Becker and Charlotte B. Becker ( New York: Garland, 1992), Vol. II, pp. 1053-55 and Stanley I. Benn, "Punishment," The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 7, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan, 1967), p. 29-36 both offer excellent surveys of the major issues about punishment. Among the noteworthy articles, see Andrew von Hirsch, "Doing Justice: The Principle of Commensurate Deserts," and Hyman Gross, "Proportional Punishment and Justifiable Sentences," in Sentencing, eds. H. Gross and A. von Hirsch (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), pp. 243-56 and 272-83, respectively, offer perspicuous discussions of retributivism and punishment. Also see Michael Davis, "How to Make the Punishment Fit the Crime," Ethics, Vol. 93 (July, 1983), pp. 744 ff. And Herbert Morris, "Persons and Punishment," The Monist 52, no. 4 (October I968), pp. 475-50l, which argues that criminals have a natural, inalienable and absolute right to be punished that derives from their fundamental right to be treated as a person. For a detailed and nuanced discussion of the issue of retributivism in punishment, see Marvin Henberg, Retribution: Evil for Evil in Ethics, Law, and Literature (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990).

Capital Punishment

Among the many books and anthologies on the death penalty, see the selections and exchanges in Hugo Adam Bedau, The Death Penalty in America, Third Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982); Ernest van den Haag and John P. Conrad, The Death Penalty: A Debate (New York: Plenum Press, 1983). Also see Walter Berns, For Capital Punishment: Crime and the Morality of the Death Penalty (New York: Basic Books, 1979); Charles Black, Capital Punishment: The Inevitability of Caprice and Mistake, 2nd edition (New York: W. W. Norton, 1976); Robert Johnson, Condemned to Die: Life Under Sentence of Death (New York: Elsevier, 1981); Jeffrey H. Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice, 2nd ed. (New York: John Wiley, 1984); Stephen Nathanson, An Eye for an Eye: The Morality of Punishing by Death (Totowa: Rowman Littlefield, 1987); and The Death Penalty: Opposing Viewpoints, edited by Carol Wekesser (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1991) contains a good balance of short pieces.

Among the many helpful articles on capital punishment, see Hugo Adam Bedau excellent's overview, analysis, and bibliography in "Capital Punishment," The Encyclopedia of Ethics, edited by Lawrence C. Becker and Charlotte B. Becker ( New York: Garland, 1992), Vol. I, pp. 122-25; Stanley I. Benn, "Punishment," The Encyclopedia of Philosophy 7, ed. Paul Edwards [New York: Macmillan, 1967], p. 32 ff.; and Richard Wasserstrom, "Capital Punishment as Punishment: Some Theoretical Issues and Objections," Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Vol. 7, pp. 473-502, who raises a number of objections to capital punishment, not because it is capital, but because it is punishment. On the inhumanity of the death penalty, see Michael Davis has recently argued in "The Death Penalty, Civilization, and Inhumaneness," Social Theory and Practice, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Summer, 1990), pp. 245-259, that the "argument from inhumaneness" advanced by Reiman and Bedau lacks an adequate account of inhumaneness. Jeffrey Reiman replied to Davis in "The Death Penalty, Deterrence, and Horribleness: Reply to Michael Davis," Social Theory and Practice, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Summer, 1990), pp. 261-272. Also see Thomas A. Long, "Capital Punishment&endash'Cruel And Unusual'?", Ethics, Vol. 83 (April, 1973), pp. 214-223 and the reply by Robert S. Gerstein, "Capital Punishment&endash'Cruel And Unusual:' A Retributivist Response," Ethics, Vol. 85 (October, 1974), pp. 75-79. On the irrevocability of capital punishment, see Michael Davis, "Is The Death Penalty Irrevocable?" Social Theory and Practice, Vol. 10 (Summer, 84), pp.143-156, argues that there is no morally significant sense in which the death penalty is more irrevocable than life imprisonment; the death penalty is only distinctive in regard to the more modest claim about what we can do to correct error in application. On the arbitrariness of the death penalty, see especially Christopher Meyers, in "Racial Bias, the Death Penalty, and Desert," Philosophical Forum, (Winter, 1990-91) pp. 139-148, supports McCleskey v. Kemp (1987), in which the Supreme Court's ruled that racial bias was not sufficient ground for overturning a death sentence, as long as punishment is seen as retribution and as long as defendants do not receive more punishment than they deserve; Brian Calvert, in "Retribution, Arbitrariness and the Death Penalty," Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Winter, 92), pp. 140-165, which argues that the administration of the death penalty is arbitrary because there is not a sufficiently clear distinction in kind between murders that deserve execution and murders that deserve life imprisonment. On the deterrent effect of the death penalty, see Ernest Van Den Haag, "Deterrence And The Death Penalty: A Rejoinder," Ethics, Vol. 81 (October, 1970), pp. 74-75; Hugo Adam Bedau, "A Concluding Note," Ethics, Vol. 81, (October, 1970) p. 76; Michael Davis, "Death, Deterrence, and the Method of Common Sense," Social Theory and Practice, Vol. 7, (Summer, 1981), pp. 145-178, uses what he calls the "method of common sense" to show that the death penalty is the most effective humane deterrent available to us. Steven Goldberg, "On Capital Punishment," Ethics, Vol. 85 (October, 1974), pp. 67-74, argues in favor of capital punishment for its deterrent effect on potential criminals and George Schedler, "Capital Punishment And Its Deterrent Effect," Social Theory and Practice, Vol. 4 (Fall 76), pp. 47-56 refutes the "innocent people" argument. David A. Conway, "Capital Punishment and Deterrence: Some Considerations in Dialogue Form," Philosophy & Public Affairs 3, no. 4 (Summer 1974), pp. 433 ff.

Recent Popular Literature on Punishment and the Death Penalty

1. Punishment and Prisons

  • Tina Rosenberg, "The Deadliest DA," New York Times Magazine, July 16, 1995.
    • Although this article is primarily about Lynne Abraham, the district Attorney of Philadelphia, is it very interesting from a moral point of view because it points out the ways in which the local prosecutor plays a major role in determining whether the death penalty is going to be requested in a particular case. It also contains interesting descriptions of current prosecutorial and penal procedures and proposals--e.g., proposals to reintroduce caning are currently under consideration in ten states--that raise important moral issues.
  • George Fletcher, With Justice for Some. (Addison-Wesley, 1995). An excellent discussion of victims' rights in criminal trials.
  • Joyce Purnick, "A Victim Says Attack Injuries Never Heal," New York Times, June 17, 1996. Powerful account of the aftereffects of assault on a victim.

2. The Death Penalty

  • Mark Costanzo, Just Revenge:  Costs and Consequences of the Death Penalty.  The book is an examination of the costs and consequences of the death penalty and questions the justice it gives to society, and has received much acclaim for its insight into the death penalty. As Gerry Spence, author of How to Argue and Win Every Time stated, "This voice in the wilderness needs to be heard. Before we can become a civilized nation, we must stop the
    Killing -- ours first. Mark Costanzo, in this compassionate and intelligent book, leads the way."

Suggestions for Discussion Questions and Term Paper Topics

The Rights and Privileges of Prisoners

  • During the past year, there has been increasing discussion of the rights and privileges of prisoners. Some of these--such as exercise and weight lifting--relate to the prisoners' physical capabilities after release. Others--such as access to law books--may affect whether and when they are released. Others--these include requirements for hard physical labor, such as chain gangs, as well as privleges such as television--relate to the question of how unpleasant the prison experience should be. A discussion of these issues takes us to the heart of what punishment is all about. Is it intended primarily to reform, to deter, or is its purpose mainly retributive? Are there any limits on how unpleasant the prison experience can be made? At what point does punishment become torture?

Justice and Money

  • The OJ trial was one of the most expensive in history, and it is clear that Simpson's financial resources enabled him to mount a defense vastly superior to anything that most individuals would be able to present. Furthermore, those same financial resources made it much easier for the defense to remain one step ahead of the prosecution from the very beginning. What role should money play in the criminal justice system? The demands of justice seem to stress that we try to be impartial, to treat all defendants the same; yet money seems to insure that some defendants will be treated differently than others. The public defender system attempts to remedy some of these inequalities. Should be be any additional restrictions or changes in the system to insure more equal treatment for rich and poor before the law?

Justice and Race

  • The verdict in the OJ trial raised a number of important questions about the place of race in the criminal justice system. To what extent do you think that race was an issue in deciding on OJ's guilt or innocence? What is the proper role of race in such deliberations?

The Death Penalty, IQ, and Age

  • We are shocked when terrible crimes are perpetrated by individuals who are extremely young. Time Magazine, for example, published "Murder in Minature," the story of 11 yr old Yummy Sandifer--who killed and was killed in Chicago. Recently, a convicted murderer with an IQ of 70 was executed. What restrictions should we have on those who can be sentenced to death? Should there be a minimum age, such that convicted felons under that age cannot be sentenced to death? Should there be an minimum IQ, such that convicted felons who are below that IQ cannot be senteced to death either because they may have had diminished responsibility in the first place or because they would have a diminished ability to participate in their own defense?

Wrongful Murder Convictions and the Death Penalty

  • What are the implications, if any, of the fact that sometimes we wrongfully convict--and in some cases, execute--people for murder? Should this be seen in utilitarian terms, or should the death of just a single innocent person be sufficient to dissuade us from the use of this penalty? To what extent are such convictions racially biased? For a recent example of such a cnviction, see Don Terry , "DNA Tests, Confession Set 3 on the Path to Freedom in 1978 Murders," The New York Times, June 15, 1996. "Four black men, falsely convicted of murder and rape and having spent 18 years in prison, are now free - in large part because of DNA tests and the efforts of supporters who gathered evidence." The Northern Illinois University Department of Sociology maintains statistics on wrongful murder convictions.

Executions and Suffering

  • Sometimes criminals suffer more during their executions than is anticipated or planned. See, for example, the Time Magazine account (May 23, 1994) of the execution of John Wayne Gacy, "A Twist Before Dying" by David Seideman. What is the moral significance of cases such as these? Is it a factor in deciding whether the death penalty should be permitted? Wht counts as "cruel and unusual" punishment? Although there are obviously degrees of cruelty, is the death penalty inherently cruel?

Punishment and Cronic Sex Offenders

  • What punishment should be administered to chronic sex offenders? See the article by James Walsh, "The Terror and the Pity," Time, September 2, 1996, about the case in Belgium where two girls were tortured and murdered by a chronic sex offender. Also see the accompanying article on pedephiles by Alice Park, "Why Do They Do Those Horrible Things?" What are the moral strengths and weaknesses of the bill recently passed in the California Senate permitting chemical castration for child molesters?