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From Corrupting the Youth to Aggravated Murder: Who Deserves Death as Punishment?

From Corrupting the Youth to Aggravated Murder: Who Deserves Death as Punishment?

Catlin Davis 

During Classical antiquity, an Athenian jury sentenced the enigmatic philosopher, Socrates, to death for “corrupting the young” and “not believing in the gods in whom the city believes.”[1] Ignoring all questions of Socrates’ guilt, the punishment he received was severe: Death is final, irrevocable. Today, many countries have entirely banned death as a form of punishment.[2] In the United States, the death penalty is saved almost exclusively for crimes of aggravated murder.[3] This was not always the case. In early American history, the death penalty was used as punishment for a variety of crimes, and while it was never imposed for the crime of “corrupting the young,” it was imposed for crimes of theft, forgery, piracy, treason, rape, and murder.[4] This Note will address why the use of capital punishment narrowed and why is it preserved for criminal defendants who commit aggravated murder.

Part I of this Note lays out basic punishment theories in Western philosophy, relying on arguments and perspectives provided by Platonic dialogues.[5] Part II transitions from Athens to the United States by discussing the early history of the death penalty in America starting with the text of the Constitution and the criminal statute created by the First Congress.[6] 

To understand why death is a lawful punishment for aggravated murder, this Note explores the history of constitutional challenges to capital punishment. Supreme Court capital punishment cases offer a variety of punishment theories concerning why death is appropriate for some crimes.[7] Part III analyzes what arguments and justifications the Supreme Court has examined, relied on, and rejected in death penalty cases. The Supreme Court’s analysis of punishment theories is then compared, supported, and questioned by academic studies and public opinion polls on the issue.[8]

Punishment theories have the power to explain whether an action serves a legitimate purpose, achieves a desirable goal, or is simply cruel or unusual.[9] Exploring which theories successfully validate the use of death as punishment is important because this analysis informs future constitutional challenges to the death penalty.

This Note ends with a reflection on American principles. The reflection considers what the most successful, or most appealing, punishment theories tell us about the United States of America. By looking at the principles underlying the most appealing punishment theories we learn what ideas are most valuable to the American public. Reflecting on these principles helps us understand why criminal defendants convicted of aggravated murder are deemed worthy of State execution.

Questions and inquiries regarding this Note may be forwarded to the author at

[1] Plato, The Trial and Death of Socrates 24b–c, 35d, 38b (G.M.A. Grube trans., 3d ed. 2000).

[2] See Death Penalty, Amnesty Int’l, (last visited Oct. 23, 2015) (noting that as of July 2015, 101 countries have abolished the death penalty).

[3] Cornell Univ. Law Sch., Death Penalty Database: United States of America, Death Penalty Worldwide, (last updated Mar. 10, 2014).

[4] An Act for the Punishment of Crimes, Wall Street J., (last updated July 22, 2011). See 1 Stat. 112, § 1 (1790) (“treason … shall suffer death,”); 1 Stat. 113, § 3 (“willful murder” on federal property “shall suffer death”); 1 Stat. 113-14, § 8 (piracy “shall suffer death”); 1 Stat 115, § 14 (forgery and counterfeiting “shall suffer death”).

[5] The note discusses the following Platonic dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito. Plato, supra note 1, at 24b–c, 35d, 38b.

[6] See An Act for the Punishment of Crimes, supra note 4. See, U.S. Const. amends. V, XIV (noting that both of these Amendments imply the existence and use of capital punishment by the government).

[7] See, e.g., Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972); Enmund v. Florida, 458 U.S. 782 (1982); Tison v. Arizona, 481 U.S. 137 (1987); Atkins v. Virgina, 536 U.S. 304 (2002) (noting that in all of these decisions the Court considers theories of punishment, such as deterrence and retributivism, throughout its analysis).

[8] Examples of studies and polls include: The Next to Die, Marshall Project, (last visited Oct. 23, 2015); Death Penalty, Gallup, (last visted Oct. 23, 2015); The Death Penalty & Deterrence, Amnesty Int’l, (last visited Oct. 23, 2015).

[9] See, e.g., Furman, 408 U.S. at 238; Enmund, 458 U.S. at 782; Tison, 481 U.S. at 137; Atkins, 536 U.S. at 304 (using punishment theory explanations, such as for deterrence and retributivism, to analyze whether the death penalty was constitutional in each case).

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