Capital punishment, also called "the death penalty," is a punishment that is reserved for the worst of the worst crimes and criminals. The capital punishment is utilized because a particular crime is so heinous that only death can satisfy the needs of justice. During these trials, the jury is asked to determine whether or not the death penalty should be imposed. It is a solemn task that requires weeks of trial to ascertain.
The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution requires that punishments cannot be "cruel and unusual." This definition has evolved over time but now it generally means that executions must be as painless as possible. At one point this meant hanging but now it generally means death by lethal injection. A lethal injection is a mixture of drugs designed to ensure that someone dies as peacefully as possible.
If you are the defendant in a capital crime, then you are entitled to several layers of legal protection before your sentence may be carried out. First, the local Assistant U.S. Attorney must get special permission from the Department of Justice and the Attorney General before she may file capital charges against you.
Second, the jury of your trial must specifically address the "aggravating factors" that lead to the death penalty. If the jury is unable to identify and approve these factors, then capital punishment is no longer proper. Next, you are entitled to at least one appeal to the circuit court in your region. Finally, if this appeal fails you may seek clemency with the president or file a writ to the Supreme Court. All of these layers are designed to ensure that only the guilty are executed.
If you are facing the potential of capital punishment, it may be to your benefit to retain the services of an experienced criminal defense attorney. Do not take your freedom or the risk of execution lightly. Despite all of these protections, freak accidents still happen, and you could be the exception that slips through all of those cracks. Be informed with your defense strategy and make the choice with which you are comfortable.