Under The Microscope: Capital Punishment



I’d honestly be lying if I said being inside the same maximum security prison as Dennis McGuire, a convicted murderer from the small town I live in, wasn’t the most amazing life experience I’ve had thus far. Now, let me explain. It isn’t every day that you get to witness history, let alone lay witness to one of the most controversial topics in today’s society: the death penalty. It was my third week on the job as a journalist, and I was already volunteering myself to be present for someone’s death.

Being in the media room with a bunch of big-shot reporters was a thrill, at least until the thought crept up that I represented the county in which this horrendous crime occurred. Being one of two reporters on staff in this small town of West Alexandria, Ohio, this was honestly the chance of a lifetime, perhaps a darkly sardonic thought.

Capital punishment has been used in the United States since the 1700s, and opposition to the death penalty in the U.S. is nearly as old as capital punishment itself. The United States primarily adopted methods of execution from Britain, and the history of executions in the U.S. and other countries dating back to the middle ages, according to PBS, is a long and strange one.

Of course during the middle ages, capital punishment was coupled with torture. And in Britain, the number of capital offenses grew so swiftly that by the 18th century, 222 crimes were punishable by death.

The Brits had little leeway when it came to life versus death, with crimes including robbing a rabbit warren, cutting down a tree, and counterfeiting tax stamps all punishable by your death.

Using the United States as an example, by 1837, North Carolina required death for crimes ranging from murder, rape, and slave-stealing to the theft of bank notes, buggery, and duels ending in death. However, North Carolina did not have a state penitentiary and apparently no suitable alternative to capital punishment.

Over the years, the methods of execution have proven to be quite malleable. Hanging was actually the preferred and most practiced method for over 100 years in the United States — excluding Connecticut, which hung people for over three centuries until they began using electrocution in 1937.

Most states adopted the electric chair once hanging was considered inhumane, followed by lethal injection and/or the gas chamber.

Some states practiced various methods of execution until they adopted the most common methods of today. For example, Louisiana’s earliest execution methods involved hanging, then burning, then the breaking wheel, then being shot, then back to hanging, then electrocution, and then injection.

The state of Hawaii, on the other hand, did away with the death penalty altogether in 1957 — after 49 executions between the late 1800’s and early 1900’s — before it was even granted statehood.

Yes, executions will always happen, and it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to change these laws.

And what about Dennis McGuire of Eaton, Ohio? Well, McGuire was convicted of kidnapping, raping, sodomizing, and killing Joy Stewart, of West Alexandria, Ohio, who was eight months pregnant. The details are irrelevant, yet one can only imagine what Stewart and other victims have gone through.

So now what happens to the convicted culprit?

The cost of housing an inmate on death row varies by state, and the cost of housing them in a penitentiary is also unfathomably high, as seen in a state like Rhode Island who as of 2012 was paying an average $63,000 per maximum security prisoner. Alternative methods of rehabilitation for a convicted murderer do exist, and sometimes these activities even involve engaging with members of victim’s families.

Unfortunately, these alternative methods are slow to adopt, and we are left with many questions on how to deal with convicted murderers. Do we give them a quick trial and kill them with a noose, or do we make them wait 20 years and kill them with a drug concoction that we’re not really sure will even work? Do we have them endure rigorous psychotherapy while spending their life in prison? Do we turn them loose?

In my humble opinion, each death row case is extremely different. However, if the murderer has enough substantial evidence against them and they have confessed to the crime, like Dennis McGuire did, what other choices do we have?

Megan Kennedy

Megan Kennedy

A University of Dayton alumni, reporter, nature enthusiast, animal whisperer, avid hiker, mystery novel lover, and whiskey connoisseur.
Megan Kennedy
Megan Kennedy

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