Capital punishment

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Capital punishment, or the death penalty, is the execution of a convicted criminal by the state as punishment for crimes known as capital crimes or capital offences. Historically, the execution of criminals and political opponents was used by nearly all societies - both to punish crime and to suppress political dissent. Among democratic countries around the world, most European (all of the European Union), Latin American, and many Pacific Area states (including Australia, New Zealand and Timor Leste) have abolished capital punishment, while the United States, Guatemala, and most of the Caribbean as well as some democracies in Asia and Africa retain it. Among nondemocratic countries, the use of the death penalty is common but not universal.

In most places that practise capital punishment today, the death penalty is reserved as a punishment for premeditated murder, espionage, treason, or as part of military justice. In some countries with a Muslim majority, sexual crimes, including adultery and sodomy, carry the death penalty, as do religious crimes such as apostasy from Islam, the formal renunciation of one's religion. In many retentionist countries (countries that use the death penalty), drug trafficking is also a capital offense. In China human trafficking and serious cases of corruption are also punished by the death penalty. In militaries around the world courts-martial have imposed death sentences for offenses such as cowardice, desertion, insubordination, and mutiny. <ref>Template:Cite web</ref>

Capital punishment is a contentious issue. Supporters of capital punishment argue that it deters crime, prevents recidivism, and is an appropriate punishment for the crime of murder. Opponents of capital punishment argue that it does not deter criminals more than life imprisonment, violates human rights, leads to executions of some who are wrongfully convicted, and discriminates against minorities and the poor.


The death penalty worldwide

Global distribution of death penalty

Reports from NGOs opposed to the death penalty tend to publicise the view that abolition is a global trend. In 1977, 16 countries were abolitionist, while the figure was 122 for the end of 2005. In more detail, 88 countries have abolished capital punishment for all offences, 11 for all offences except under special circumstances, and 30 others have not used it for at least 10 years. However, Sri Lanka recently declared an end to its moratorium on the death penalty. A total of 68 countries retain it. Among retentionist countries, seven use capital punishment on juveniles (under 18). The People's Republic of China performed more than 3400 executions in 2004, amounting to more than 90% of executions worldwide. In China, some inmates are executed by firing squad, but it has been decided that all executions will be by lethal injections in the future. These lethal injections are often performed via mobile execution van. Iran performed 159 executions in 2004.[1]. The United States performed 60 executions in 2005. Texas conducts more executions than any of the other U.S. states that still permit capital punishment, with 370 executions between 1976 and 2006. Singapore has the highest execution rate per capita, with 70 hangings for a population of about 4 million.

Image:Death Penalty World Map.png
Use of the death penalty around the world (as of 2005/06).
██ Abolished for all offenses (88) ██ Abolished for all offenses except under special circumstances (11) ██ Retains, though not used for at least 10 years (30) ██ Retains death penalty (68)* *Note that, while laws vary between U.S. states, it is considered retentionist as the federal death penalty is still in active use.

In demographic terms, many retentionist countries have large populations and high population growth. When the relative demographic proportion between retentionist and abolitionist countries is taken into account, this may indicate an underlying trend of increase in retentionist population, which is seemingly shifted in favor of the number of abolitionist countries when new countries switch to being abolitionist. However, the use of the death penalty is becoming increasingly restrained in retentionist countries, which is often masked by the population growth because it may nonetheless increase the number of executions being carried out. Countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the U.S. are the only fully developed and democratic nations that have the death penalty. The death penalty was overwhelmingly practiced in poor, undemocratic, and authoritarian states, which often employed the death penalty as a tool of political oppression. During the 1980s, the democratization of Latin America (with its long history of progressive and Roman Catholic tradition) swelled the rank of abolitionist countries. This was soon followed by the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe, which then aspired to emulate neighbouring Western Europe. In these countries, the public support for the death penalty varies but is decreasing.[citation needed] The European Union and the Council of Europe both strictly require member states not to practice the death penalty. <ref></ref> The only European country to do so is Belarus - this is one of the reasons why Belarus is excluded from the Council of Europe. On the other hand, democratisation and rapid industrialisation in Asia have been increasing the number of retentionist countries that are democratic and/or developed. In these countries, the death penalty enjoys strong public support, and the matter receives little attention from the government or the media. This trend has been followed by partial democratisation in some African and Middle Eastern countries where the support for the death penalty is low.

Public opinion

Support for the death penalty varies widely. Both in abolitionist and retentionist democracies, the government's stance often has wide public support and receives little attention by politicians or the media. In some abolitionist countries, the majority of the public supports or has supported the death penalty. Abolition was often adopted due to political change, such as when countries shifted from authoritarianism to democracy, or when it became an entry condition for the European Union. The United States is a notable exception: some states have had bans on capital punishment for decades (the earliest is Michigan, where it was abolished in 1846), while others actively use it today. The death penalty there remains a contentious issue which is hotly debated. Elsewhere, however, it is rare for the death penalty to be abolished due to an active public discussion of its merits.

In abolitionist countries, debate is sometimes revived by particularly brutal murders, though few countries have brought it back after abolition. However a spike in serious, violent crimes, such as murders or terrorist attacks, have prompted some countries (such as Sri Lanka and Jamaica) to effectively end the moratorium on the death penalty. In retentionist countries, the debate is sometimes revived when miscarriage of justice occurs, though this tends to cause legislative efforts to improve the judicial process rather than to abolish the death penalty.

A Gallup International poll from 2000 found that "Worldwide support was expressed in favour of the death penalty, with just more than half (52%) indicating that they were in favour of this form of punishment." A break down of the numbers of support versus opposition: Worldwide 52%/39%, North America 66%/27%, Asia 63%/21%, Central and Eastern Europe 60%/29%, Africa 54%/43%, Latin America 37%/55%, Western Europe 34%/60%.

In the U.S., surveys have long shown a majority in favor of capital punishment. An ABC News survey in July 2006 found 65 percent in favor of capital punishment, consistent with other polling since 2000.<ref>ABC News poll, "Capital Punishment, 30 Years On: Support, but Ambivalence as Well" (PDF, July 1 2006)</ref> About half the American public says the death penalty isn't imposed frequently enough and 60 percent believe it is applied fairly, according to a Gallup poll in May 2006.[2] Yet surveys also show the public is more divided when asked to choose between the death penalty and life without parole, or when dealing with juvenile offenders.[3][4] Roughly six in 10 tell Gallup they don't believe capital punishment deters murder and majorities believe at least one innocent person has been executed in the past five years.[5] [6]

International organizations

A number of regional conventions prohibit the death penalty, most notably, the Sixth Protocol (abolition in time of peace) and the Thirteenth Protocol (abolition in all circumstances) to the European Convention on Human Rights. However, most existing international treaties categorically exempt death penalty from prohibition in case of serious crime, most notably, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, while some provide optional protocols to abolish it.

Several international organizations have made the abolition of the death penalty a requirement of membership, most notably the European Union (EU) and the Council of Europe. The EU and the Council of Europe are willing to accept a moratorium as an interim measure. Thus, while Russia is a member of the Council of Europe, and practices the death penalty in law, it has not made use of it since becoming a member of the Council. Other states, while having abolished de jure the death penalty in time of peace and de facto in all circumstances, have not ratified Protocol no.13 yet and therefore have no international obligation to refrain from using the death penalty in time of war or imminent threat of war (Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, France, Italy, Latvia, Moldova, Poland and Spain).

Turkey has recently, as a move towards EU membership, undergone a reform of its legal system. Previously there was a de facto moratorium on death penalty in Turkey as the last execution took place in 1984. The death penalty was removed from peacetime law in August 2002, and in May 2004 Turkey amended its constitution in order to remove capital punishment in all circumstances. It ratified Protocol no. 13 to the European Convention on Human Rights in February 2006. As a result, Europe is a continent free of the death penalty in practice (all states but Russia, which has entered a moratorium, having ratified the Sixth Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights), with the sole exception of Belarus, which is not a member of the Council of Europe. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has been lobbying for Council of Europe observer states who practice the death penalty, namely the U.S. and Japan, to abolish it or lose their observer status. In South Asia, Nepal is the only country to have abolished death penalty completely for all crimes.

Among non-governmental organisations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are noted for their opposition to capital punishment.

Juvenile capital punishment

The death penalty for juvenile offenders (criminals aged under 18 years at the time of their crime) has become increasingly rare. The only countries still officially supporting the practice are Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen[citation needed]. Countries that have executed juvenile offenders since 1990 include China, D.R. Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and Yemen. Amnesty International has recorded 47 verified executions, in several countries, of both juveniles and adults who had been convicted of committing their offenses as juveniles <ref></ref>. China does not allow for the execution of those under 18; nevertheless, child executions have reportedly taken place <ref></ref>. The United States Supreme Court abolished capital punishment for offenders under the age of 16 in Thompson v. Oklahoma (1988), and for all juveniles in Roper v. Simmons (2005). Since 1642, an estimated 364 juvenile offenders were executed by the states and federal government of the US<ref>Rob Gallagher, Table of juvenile executions in British America/United States, 1642-1959.</ref>. In 2002, the United States Supreme Court outlawed the execution of individuals with mental retardation.<ref>Supreme Court bars executing mentally retarded Law Center. June 25 2002.</ref>

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which forbids capital punishment for juveniles, has been signed and ratified by all countries except for the USA and Somalia <ref>UNICEF, Convention of the Rights of the Child - FAQ: "The Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most widely and rapidly ratified human rights treaty in history. Only two countries, Somalia and the United States, have not ratified this celebrated agreement. Somalia is currently unable to proceed to ratification as it has no recognized government. By signing the Convention, the United States has signalled its intention to ratify. but has yet to do so."</ref>. The UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights maintains that the death penalty for juveniles has become contrary to customary international law.

The death penalty in specific countries

See also: Use of capital punishment by nation

Belarus · Canada · People's Republic of China · Denmark · Europe · France · India · Japan · The Netherlands · New Zealand ·Pakistan· Philippines · Russia · Singapore · Sweden · Taiwan · United Kingdom · United States


The use of formal execution extends at least to the beginning of recorded history. Most historical records as well as various primitive tribal practices indicate that the death penalty was a part of the communal justice system. Communal punishment for wrongdoing generally included compensation by the wrongdoer, corporal punishment, shunning, banishment and execution. However, within a small community, crimes were rare and murder was almost always a crime of passion. Moreover, most would hesitate to inflict death on a member of the community. For this reason, execution and even banishment were extremely rare. Usually, compensation and shunning were enough as a form of justice.

However, these are not effective responses to crimes committed by outsiders. Consequently, even small crimes including theft committed by outsiders were considered to be an assault on the community and were severely punished. The methods varied from beating and enslavement to executions. However, the response to crime committed by neighbouring tribes or communities included formal apology, compensation or blood feuds.

A blood feud or vendetta occurs when arbitration between families or tribes fails or an arbitration system is non-existent. This form of justice was common before the emergence of an arbitration system based on state or organized religion. It may result from crime, land disputes or a code of honour. "Acts of retaliation underscore the ability of the social collective to defend itself and demonstrate to enemies (as well as potential allies) that injury to property, rights, or the person will not go unpunished."<ref>Translated from Waldmann, op.cit., p.147.</ref> However, it is often difficult to distinguish between a war of vendetta and one of conquest.

Elaborations of tribal arbitration of feuds included peace settlements often done in a religious context and compensation system. Compensation was based on the principle of substitution which might include material (e.g. cattle, slave) compensation, exchange of brides or grooms, or payment of the blood debt. Settlement rules could allow for animal blood to replace human blood, or transfers of property or blood money or in some case an offer of a person for execution. The person offered for execution did not have to be an original perpetrator of the crime because the system was based on tribes, not individuals. Blood feuds could be regulated at meetings, such as the Viking things.<ref>Lindow, op.cit. (primarily discusses Icelandic things).</ref> Systems deriving from blood feuds may survive alongside more advanced legal systems or be given recognition by courts (e.g. trial by combat). One of the more modern refinements of the blood feud is the duel.

In certain parts of the world, nations in the form of ancient republics, monarchies or tribal oligarchies emerged. These nations were often united by common linguistic, religious or family ties. Moreover, expansion of these nations often occurred by conquest of neighbouring tribes or nations. Consequently, various classes of royalty, nobility, various commoners and slave emerged. Accordingly, the systems of tribal arbitration were submerged into a more unified system of justice which formalised the relation between the different "classes" rather than "tribes". The earliest and most famous example is Code of Hammurabi which set the different punishment and compensation according to the different class/group of victims and perpetrators. The Pentateuch (Old Testament) lays down the death penalty for murder, kidnapping, magic, violation of the Sabbath, blasphemy, and a wide range of sexual crimes, although evidence suggests that actual executions were rare.<ref>Schabas, William. The Abolition of the Death Penalty in International Law. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-81491-X.</ref> A further example comes from Ancient Greece, where the Athenian legal system was first written down by Draco in about 621 BC: the death penalty was applied for a particularly wide range of crimes. The word draconian derives from Draco's laws. Similarly, in medieval and early modern Europe, before the development of modern prison systems, the death penalty was also used as a generalized form of punishment. For example, in 1700s Britain, there were 222 crimes which were punishable by death, including crimes such as cutting down a tree or stealing an animal.<ref> Almost invariably, however, sentences of death for property crimes were commuted to transportation to a penal colony or to a place where the felon was worked as an indentured servant/Michigan State University and Death Penalty Information Center</ref>

Despite its wide use, calls for reform were not unknown. The 12th Century Sephardic legal scholar, Moses Maimonides, wrote, "It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent man to death." He argued that executing an accused criminal on anything less than absolute certainty would lead to a slippery slope of decreasing burdens of proof, until we would be convicting merely "according to the judge's caprice." His concern was maintaining popular respect for law, and he saw errors of commission as much more threatening than errors of omission.

The last several centuries have seen the emergence of modern nation-states. Almost fundamental to the concept of nation state is the idea of citizenship. This caused justice to be increasingly associated with equality and universality, which in Europe saw an emergence of the concept of natural rights. Another important aspect is that emergence of standing police forces and permanent penitential institutions. The death penalty become an increasingly unnecessary deterrent in prevention of minor crimes such as theft. As well, in countries like Britain, law enforcement officials became alarmed when juries tended to acquit non-violent felons rather than risk a conviction that could result in execution. The 20th century was one of the bloodiest of the human history. Massive killing occurred as the resolution of war between nation-states. A large part of execution was summary execution of enemy combatants. Also, modern military organisations employed capital punishment as a means of maintaining military discipline. In the past, cowardice, absence without leave, desertion, insubordination, looting, shirking under enemy fire and disobeying orders were often crimes punishable by death. The method of execution since firearms came into common use has almost invariably been firing squad. Moreover, various authoritarian states—for example those with fascist or communist governments, or dictatorships—employed the death penalty as a potent means of political oppression. Partly as a response to such excessive punishment, civil organizations have started to place increasing emphasis on the concept of human rights and abolition of the death penalty.

Movements towards "humane" execution

Dr. Guillotin

In early New England, public executions were a very solemn and sorrowful occasion, sometimes attended by large crowds, who also listened to a Gospel message <ref>Article from the Connecticut Courant (December 1 1803)</ref> and remarks by local preachers and politicians. The Connecticut Courant records one such public execution on December 1, 1803, saying, "The assembly conducted through the whole in a very orderly and solemn manner, so much so, as to occasion an observing gentleman acquainted with other countries as well as this, to say that such an assembly, so decent and solemn, could not be collected anywhere but in New England."<ref> The Execution of Caleb Adams]</ref>

Trends in most of the world have long been to move to less painful, or more "humane", executions. France developed the guillotine for this reason in the final years of the 18th century while Britain banned drawing and quartering in the early 19th century. Hanging by turning the victim off a ladder or by dangling him from the back of a moving cart, which causes death by suffocation, was replaced by "hanging" where the subject is dropped a longer distance to dislocate the neck and sever the spinal cord. In the U.S., electrocution and the gas chamber, which were introduced as more humane alternatives to hanging, have been almost entirely superseded by lethal injection, which in turn has been criticized as being too painful. Nevertheless, some countries still employ slow hanging methods, beheading by sword and even stoning, although the latter is rarely employed.

See also: Cruel and unusual punishment

Abolitionism in different countries

Marquis of Beccaria

The death penalty was briefly banned in China between 747 and 759. In England, a public statement of opposition was included in The Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards, written in 1395. More recent opposition to the death penalty stemmed from the book of the Italian Cesare Beccaria Dei Delitti e Delle Pene ("On Crimes and Punishments"), published in 1764. In this book, Beccaria aimed to demonstrate not only the injustice, but even the futility from the point of view of social welfare, of torture and the death penalty. Influenced by the book, Grand Duke Leopold II of Habsburg, famous enlightened monarch and future Emperor of Austria, abolished the death penalty in the then-independent Granducato di Toscana (Tuscany), the first permanent abolition in modern times. On 30 November 1786, after having de facto blocked capital executions (the last was in 1769), Leopold promulgated the reform of the penal code that abolished the death penalty and ordered the destruction of all the instruments for capital execution in his land. In 2000 Tuscany's regional authorities instituted an annual holiday on 30 November to commemorate the event. The event is also commemorated on this day by 300 cities around the world celebrating the Cities for Life Day.

In 1849, the Roman Republic became the first country to ban the capital punishment in its constitution. Venezuela abolished the death penalty in 1863 and Portugal did so in 1867. The last execution in Portugal had taken place in 1846.

In the United States, the state of Michigan was the first state to ban the death penalty, on March 1, 1847. The 160-year ban on capital punishment has never been repealed, and as such the state is considered to be the first democracy in recorded history to have eliminated capital punishment. Currently, 12 states of the U.S. and the District of Columbia ban capital punishment.

Capital punishment debate

Religious views

Execution by hanging in Kuwait. Doctors examine the bodies to confirm death.


The official teachings of Judaism approve the death penalty in principle but the standard of proof required for application of death penalty is extremely stringent, and in practice, it has been abolished by various Talmudic decisions, making the situations in which a death sentence could be passed effectively impossible and hypothetical. "Forty years before the destruction of the Temple" in 70 CE, i. e., in 30 CE, the Sanhedrin effectively abolished capital punishment, making it a hypothetical upper limit on the severity of punishment, fitting in finality for God alone to use, not fallible people.


Although some interpret that John 8:7 of the Bible condemns the death penalty, Christian positions, as on many social issues, vary.

The Roman Catholic Church traditionally supported capital punishment as per the theology of Thomas Aquinas (who accepted the death penalty as a necessary deterrent and prevention method, but not as the means of vengeance), but under the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, this position was reversed. His encyclical Evangelium Vitae denounced abortion, capital punishment, and euthanasia as murder (see Consistent Life Ethic). The Roman Catholic Church holds that the death penalty is no longer necessary if it can be replaced by incarceration.<ref>The Roman Catholic Church actually states that capital punishment should be avoided unless it is the only way to defend society from the offender in question, and that with today's penal system such a situation requiring an execution is either rare or non-existent, Papal encyclical, Evangelium Vitae</ref> The Catechism of the Catholic Church says "If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person".

The Lambeth Conference of Anglican and Episcopalian bishops condemned the death penalty in 1988. In Protestantism, both Martin Luther and John Calvin followed the traditional reasoning in favor of capital punishment, and the Augsburg Confession explicitly defends it; the Mennonites and Friends, among other, smaller groups, opposed it. Some Protestant groups have cited Genesis 9:5-6, Romans 13:3-4, and Leviticus 20:1-27 as the basis for permitting the death penalty [7][8]. Both proponents and opponents derive their own stance from the Bible itself. Until recently, however, the retentionist position was held by all but a relatively few groups.

The United Methodist Church, along with other Methodist churches, also condemns capital punishment, saying that it cannot accept retribution or social vengeance as a reason for taking human life.<ref>The United Methodist Church: Capital Punishment</ref> The Church also holds that the death penalty falls unfairly and unequally upon marginalized persons including the poor, the uneducated, ethnic and religious minorities, and persons with mental and emotional illnesses.<ref>The United Methodist Church: Official church statements on capital punishment</ref> The General Conference of the United Methodist Church calls for its bishops to uphold opposition to capital punishment and for governments to enact an immediate moratorium on carrying out the death penalty sentence.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (colloquially known as Mormons) hold a neutral position on the death penalty.


Scholars of Islam hold it to be permissible but the victim or the family of the victim has the right to pardon. However, the Qur'an, teaches that the killing of one man is like that of killing all humankind. In Islamic jurisprudence (Fiqh), to forbid what is not forbidden is wrong. Consequently, it is difficult to make a case for abolition of the death penalty which is explicitly endorsed.


The ancient Hindu scriptures do not have much mention on the death penalty. The Hindu epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata mention individuals put to death (in duels) as a matter of Dharma and to protect society at large. The Ramayana was written by the saint Valmiki who was a robber-murderer before he became a saint, stories of reformed murderers abound in Hinduism (and Buddhism). Hindus believe that the effects of misdeeds in current lives manifest in future lives. See Reincarnation and Karma.

Capital punishment in arts and media

Image:Francisco de Goya y Lucientes 023.jpg
Executions of the Third of May by Goya.

As a capital punishment forms a more important thematic element. Many of these works are abolitionist in nature, but sometimes capital punishment is used as a metaphor for some other theme, such as sacrifice or mortality.

The Gospels describe the execution of Jesus Christ at length, and these accounts form the central story of the Christian faith. Depictions of the crucifixion are abundant in Christian artistry.

Valerius Maximus' story of Damon and Pythias was long a famous example of fidelity. Damon was sentenced to death (the reader does not learn why) and his friend Pythias offered to take his place.

Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities ends in a climactic execution, and the image of a man going to the guillotine has become synonymous with the novel.

Victor Hugo's The Last Day of a Condemned Man (Le Dernier Jour d'un condamné) describes the thoughts of a condemned man just before his execution; also notable is its preface, in which Hugo argues at length against capital punishment.

Anaïs Nin's anthology Little Birds included an erotic depiction of a public execution.

William Burroughs' novel Naked Lunch also included erotic and surreal depictions of capital punishment. In the obscenity trial against Burroughs, the defense claimed successfully that the novel was a form of anti-death-penalty argument, and therefore had redeeming political value.

In The Chamber by John Grisham, a young lawyer tries to save his Klansman grandfather from being executed. The novel is noted for presentation of anti-death penalty materials.

Capital punishment has been the basis of many motion pictures including Dead Man Walking based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean, The Green Mile, and The Life of David Gale.

In "Justice", a first-season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, 15 year old Wesley Crusher inadvertently breaks a trivial law and consequently faces a death sentence.

The Suffering for the Xbox and PS2 deals heavily with injection, electrocution, and gas tanks.

See also: List of movies about capital punishment

See List of protest songs for a list of protest songs about capital punishment.

Methods of execution

Further information: List of methods of capital punishment

External links

Resources opposing capital punishment

Resources favoring capital punishment

Religious views on the death penalty


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Capital punishment

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