The purpose of this paper is to define the extent to which key events in the historical development of areas of knowledge be judged by the standards of their time. The paper begins by arguing that historical developments and events should always be judged by the standards of that time. To help reflect on this point, key developments in the area of justice are described, in an attempt to understand the current state of affairs in the criminal justice system with specific attention to corporeal punishment and the death penalty.
Among the first legal documents to describe the death penalty and any laws or arguments supporting or refuting the death penalty was the Code of Hammurabi. First enacted in ancient Babylonia in the 1700s, in a region that is now called Iraq, the code lists twenty-five crimes worthy of the death penalty. Among the crimes described included adultery, helping slaves escape, stealing of cattle or sheep, stealing of a minor son, and receiving of slaves into one’s home (King, 2015). The only way in which this code can be interpreted is relative to the time the laws were written. Without this reference, the laws written in the code would not be well-understood or interpreted. For example, during the time in which the codes were written, a family’s livelihood may rest on the wellbeing of their slaves, their first-born or other minor sons, and whether they had sufficient cattle or livestock in which to live. Stealing of any of these may result in the devastation of the family. Hence, the death penalty was warranted as a fitting penalty, as the removal of any of these agents may result in death to the family or other family members. It is simpler to understand the law created by understanding the historical context in which the law was created.
In the United States, the law regarding the death penalty has taken many shapes and forms. For example, in 1682 the state of Pennsylvania limited crimes punishable by death to treason or murder; this occurred when William Penn, founder of the state of Pennsylvania, convened the General Assembly in 1682 (ProCon, 2013). During this gathering, several chapters of the government succeeded in creating what were considered 61 chapter or laws, that described how Pennsylvania would be governed. The crimes included for punishment by death at this time included the Quaker criminal code, which limited death crimes to crimes that were premeditated, including premeditated murder and treason. This change was considered a rather “radical” change from the practices held among other societies throughout the world during this time (ProCon, 2013). In Europe, it wasn’t until 1764 that an Italian jurist suggested that the death penalty be retracted; during this time, Beccaria, the individual in question focused on philosophers and political leaders who stated that during this time the individual worth of people as human beings was more important a consideration than what some referred to as cruel methods of punishment (Zimring, 2000).
Legal challenges to the imposition of the death penalty in the United States have existed for years. In some states, including in Georgia, in recent years, defendants have successfully argued that black defendants accused of killing white victims were up to four times as likely to receive death sentences than those convicted of killing nonwhites, or those convicted of lesser crimes (Zimring, 2000). The judge, in this case, decided that a discrepancy existed concerning punishments, and was the result largely of varying opinions regarding race. While the court did not overturn the decision, in this case, this case is relevant in that it highlights the increased awareness that court officials had of the impact of race and race relations on the death penalty. This case was decided during the late 1980s. The death penalty was legal in the original 13 colonies, and did not become illegal by any states in the United States until 1852, when Rhode Island became the very first state that declared the death penalty outlawed; Wisconsin soon followed. Just over a decade later, the fourteenth amendment was added to the Constitution, stating that a state shall have no authority to deprive a person of life, liberty, or property and that all people have equal rights under the protection of the law (ProCon, 2015). This amendment was later cited in court cases which ruled the death penalty unconstitutional, including the case of Furman v. Georgia, and Roper v. Simmons, in 2005, which ruled the death penalty unconstitutional for citizens younger than 18 (ProCon, 2015).
These facts suggest that as the laws and society have changed, so too have the regulations and opinion regarding the Constitutionality of the death penalty. As people have developed and enjoyed greater freedoms, even prisoners have demanded freedoms and that their rights and to some extent, certain freedoms remain intact.
There is a set of principles in which individuals should abide by, regardless of the standards of the time. This argument confirms that despite one’s freedoms and rights as defined by the Constitution or other law, there are still ethical and moral codes that most people live by. These moral and ethical codes influence the extent to which actual laws are adopted. The death penalty serves as a prime example. In many states, the death penalty was absolved, or at the very least, more humane methods of carrying out death sentences were developed as technology improved. However, the crimes which carried with them a penalty of death varied only slightly throughout time. Murder and treason remain two of the tops reasons for corporal punishment. Most people agree that the taking of the life of another person is wrong and morally reprehensible. Similarly, treason, or the act of betraying one’s own country, is considered and has been considered reprehensible and punishable by death for centuries. Other crimes that are equally morally and ethically considered universally wrong, including kidnapping. Even during the time of Hammurabi, and during the time the code of Hammurabi was written, the taking of a family’s minority or younger son was considered an act punishable by death.
In 1932, Charles A. Lindbergh lost his son to a kidnapping that took place in New Jersey. The infant was later found in the nearby woods, slaughtered. It was this offense or the taking of a minor life that led to Congress passing a federal kidnapping statute, which is sometimes referred to as the Lindbergh Act. This statute makes committing the crime of kidnapping a capital offense punishable by death (Gardner & Anderson, 2008). The passing of this law well into the 19th century merely affirms that certain actions have always been held as morally or ethically correct or incorrect. Since the time of the Bible, when the ten commandments were written, the moral and ethical nature and character of persons, and laws supporting this character, have been maintained in a similar fashion. Murder and treason have long been considered ethical and moral traps that define wrongdoing, and subsequently have led to a significant punishment.
Historical Development: Progression
In modern society, restorative justice is increasingly a trend among overflowing prisons. It is more likely that a judge or jury may contemplate whether a criminal is well-suited to reform than it may be for a judge or juror to consider whether a criminal, regardless of the crime committed, may be tried for the death penalty. Some may view even the change from death sentencing to life in prison, or consecutive life sentences, a sign of historical development, where greater knowledge of the rights of individual men led to rehabilitation of the justice system. Some of the evidence collected on punishment over the years has led researchers to conclude that adolescents or young adults that commit crimes are more likely to be restored and less likely to repeat violent offenses than older criminals (Braswell & Fuller, 2014). For this reason, some judges or jurors may be more likely to provide conservative sentencing to an individual if they fall within a certain age range.
Restorative justice maintains that it is possible to reform criminals so that they may contribute to meaningful communities (Braswell & Fuller, 2014). Restorative justice asks lawmakers and citizens to rethink capital punishment for certain crimes, suggesting that certain criminals can be reformed, so that the offenders may return to society and contribute (rather than take away from) the epicenter of life (Braswell & Fuller, 2014). The next century may be marked by one where citizens and lawmakers work diligently to rehabilitate even what have been considered the “worst” offenders, working instead to rehabilitate members of society rather than end their life via the death penalty (Braswell & Fuller, 2014). Only time will tell if this form of restoration succeeds, or, if over time the measures by which criminal actions are weighed shift again to promote another form of justice within society.
Historical development in areas of knowledge should only be judged by the standards of their time to a certain extent. A good example of how historical development in areas of knowledge has led to different standards is related to capital punishment, as evidenced in this research paper. Historically, capital punishment has always existed, and may always continue to exist. The forms that capital punishment has taken over time have shifted to include more humanitarian means of punishment, in part due to technological advances that have aided jailers in performing their duty over time.
These changes often reflect the time period in which one is judged for their crime. The most modern trend is toward restorative justice, although only time will tell if this trend changes once again.
- Braswell, M. & Fuller, J. Corrections, peacemaking and restorative justice: Transforming
individuals, London: Routledge., 2014.
- Gardner, T. & Anderson, T. Criminal Law, NY: Cengage Learning, 2008.
- King, L.W., Hammurabi’s code of laws, 28 November 2016, retrieved from:
- ProCon, The history of the death penalty, Procon.org, August 2013. Retrieved 28 November
2016 from: http://deathpenalty.procon.org/view.timeline.php?timelineID=000025
- Simon, R.J. & Blaskovich, D.A. (2007), A comparative analysis of capital punishment: Statutes,
policies and reason, MA: Lexington Books, 2007.
- Zimring, F.E. Capital punishment, Microsoft Encarta Online, May 2000. 29 November 2016,
Retrieved from: http://autocww.colorado.edu/~toldy2/E64ContentFiles/LawAndCourts/CapitalPunishmen t.html