[bird]Jane took a breath and stepped out from the tower into the daylight, guards flanking her on either side. She spied the Green from the shadow of the tower and watched as it loomed closer with every step she took. Her eyes locked to the dark shape that pressured the platform, and the people watching her approach disappeared in its shadow. Her fate stood before her in the shape of the executioner’s chopping block and she moved powerlessly closer until she felt the guards help her onto the platform.
After praying for a speedy welcome into God’s Kingdom, Jane completed the duties that came with tradition: she gave away her most personal possessions, removed her outer dress and finally, forgave the executioner kneeling before her. She sharply focused her eyes on a raven supervising the event from the chapel in front of her, determined to keep her inner eye busy as the handkerchief came to her, promising eternal darkness. After it was secured, she knelt to the block before her but found nothing underneath her hands. Panicking, she blindly waved her arms in front of her and said, “What shall I do? Where is it?” prompting a spectator to step onto the platform and guide her hands to the block.
She knelt fully and stretched her neck toward the cool face of the chopping block. “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” she said as her lungs pumped the last of her breaths through her lips. So died Lady Jane Grey on Feb. 12, 1554 in the Tower of London. She was sixteen years old.
[tower]Stories of executions and the history of the death penalty have commanded attention ever since capital punishment was first used. Lady Jane Grey’s story seems ancient, but how detached are we, as an international entity, from primitive sounding methods or botched executions? Saddam Hussein’s execution tape showed his final moments were spent in a seemingly dilapidated shed while spectators jeered and wished him into a hellish afterlife.
What is the rest of the world’s take on the death penalty and how have they evolved their methods? How has the death penalty figured in our history, and are our methods as humane as we believe they are? To the 20,000 people that wait in death rows around the world, these questions are not only important, but immediate.
Of the 193 countries in the world, 68 still retain the death penalty. China is the leader in executions across the world, having accounted for 90 percent (3400) of the executions in the world. The United States performed 60 executions in 2005, and was the leader in juvenile executions before it was made illegal.
Michigan, however, is not one of the 38 states that still uses capital punishment as a crime deterrent. Capital punishment was abolished in 1847 and was the first state to do so. Certain groups have been rallying to reintroduce the death penalty, but have so far been unsuccessful. Farmington Hills’ Judge Marla Parker said, “There have been movements to reintroduce the death penalty, actually, most recently within the last 10 years. There have been groups organized for that to be accomplished…I think they were looking to do a ballot initiative…it didn’t make it to the ballot.”
Laws pertaining to the death penalty have been in use since the beginning of recorded history, starting in 18th century B.C in Babylon. The Gospel of Luke tells the story of the execution of John the Baptist, and his dismembered head on a silver platter is one of the most haunting images from history. Capital punishment evolved through time and was present in countries all over the world. The people of Britain claimed the lives of everyone from religious rebels (Saint Thomas More [1535]) to the monarchs themselves (Anne Boleyn [1536], Mary, Queen of Scots [1587]). It seemed no one was out of reach of the executioner’s axe and execution was often used to make a point, to intimidate the rulers’ enemies or display absolute power. These tactics are still in use today: radical groups execute innocents as a fear tactic. Jack Hensley was executed in Iraq in 2004 by a group of terrorists after their demands of a release of Iraqi women in U.S. custody were not met. The execution was video-taped, demonstrating how technology has given more power to an act that once required first-hand viewing.
Rebels aren’t the only people who have employed these methods. So are these efforts successful for world leaders? Interdisciplinary studies in social sciences senior John Marshall disagrees. “No, fear tactics aren’t successful,” he said, “because ultimately, those who have disgusting power don’t believe anyone can actually kill them until their head is in the noose. Fear tactics are to keep the honest people honest.”
While reasons for capital punishment have changed little throughout the years, the laws have in fact changed. In the 1770s, a grand total of 222 crimes guaranteed a trip to the gallows in Britain. The punishment was exceedingly harsh for minor crimes, such as cutting down a tree. 100 of these crimes were removed from the legislature as death-warranting offenses between 1823 and 1837. Although suspiciously subjective, treason was the most interesting crime and led to the most dramatic executions.
[rack]As the laws changed, so did the methods. Older methods including hanging, the guillotine and firing squad have evolved into newer methods such as the electric chair, lethal injection and the gas chamber. Drawing and quartering was also popular in Britain in the 1800s. The victim was hanged from a noose but cut down before he died and then disemboweled. The victim’s genitalia and intestines were lit on fire as he watched, and finally the victim was beheaded and his body cut into four parts. The monarch then sent the parts of the body all over the county to again make a point. Although executions today may not be as graphic, do they make their point? What purpose do they really serve? Some classic methods have been retired – such as hanging – while others, though still legal, are barely used. For example, in Utah in 1996, a prisoner chose death by firing squad, reportedly to make it “awkward” for the government.
Saddam Hussein’s “people-shredder” made headlines. Reportedly, he fed his (male) adversaries into a wood chipper alive and used the shredded pieces of their bodies as fish food. The shredder was supposedly plastic and kept in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein kept and tortured his prisoners. Ironically enough, the man who created a gruesome new way to put people to death was eventually executed by one of the simplest and oldest methods known.
Pre-med freshman Ashley Asmar has her own opinions about the topic. “I think it is [old-fashioned],” she said. “I think there are a lot of different ways to punish people for doing bad things, and by giving them the death penalty, I don’t think they’re being punished. They’re just being put out of their misery.”
Asmar isn’t the only person to think so. In the past few decades, many countries around the world have abolished their capital punishment laws, and even some states are reconsidering with Texas being one of them. “…There is some movement now on the capital punishment issue. A couple of states have decided, even though they have capital punishment, to do a moratorium because they had some DNA issues where they’ve discovered they’re questioning their verdicts,” Parker said. “In both Illinois and Texas there is a lot of activity.”[ashley1]
Whether the execution of Saddam Hussein seemed surprisingly close to you, or as distant as the last moments of the life of Lady Jane Grey, capital punishment has irrevocably changed our histories. The executioner has created some of world’s greatest martyrs and stolen the innocence of the not guilty, in addition to extinguishing the black fires that fueled some of the most evil deeds in history. Whatever your stance, the history of the death penalty is both fascinating and important, and just happens to be soaked through with blood.

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