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Capital punishment

Capital punishment, also referred to as the death penalty, is the judicially ordered execution of a prisoner as a punishment for a serious crime, often called a capital offence or a capital crime. Some jurisdictions that practice capital punishment restrict its use to a small number of criminal offences, principally treason and murder. In recent years in the United States, these have also included killings that occur during the course of some other violent felony, such as robbery or rape. Prisoners who have been sentenced to death are usually kept segregated from other prisoners in a special part of the prison pending their execution. In some places this segregated area is known as "Death Row ."

Historically--and still today under certain systems of law--the death penalty was applied to a wider range of offenses, including robbery or theft. It has also been frequently used by the military for looting, insubordination, mutiny, etc.

The term "capital" comes from the Latin capitalis, meaning "head." Thus, capital punishment is the penalty for a crime so severe that it deserves decapitation (losing one's head).


Methods of execution

List of methods

Electric chair as used for electrocutions. The electric chair was developed in the late 1880s with support from Thomas Edison and is still in use today.
Electric chair as used for electrocutions. The electric chair was developed in the late 1880s with support from Thomas Edison and is still in use today.

Methods of execution have varied over time, and include:

Pre-contemporary Europe

In medieval Europe, the method of execution would depend on the class of the condemned. The nobility would usually be executed in as painless and honorable a method as possible, generally with an ax (which occasionally, gruesomely failed). Those in the working class, serfs, peasants, and possibly the bourgeoisie would usually be executed publicly, in a more gruesome and painful method of execution, typically by hanging or by the wheel. Specific crimes would sometimes warrant specific methods of execution: suspected witchcraft, religious heresy, atheism, or homosexuality would typically be punished by burning at the stake. Unsuccessful regicides generally merited a horrible death.

A wide range of offenses could be punished by death, including robbery and theft, even if nobody was harmed in the action.

Such methods of execution continued into the modern era. In 1757 in France, Robert-François Damiens suffered a horrible but customary execution for his attempted regicide against King Louis XV. His hand, holding the weapon used in the regicide attempt, was burnt, and his body was wounded in several places. Then, molten lead and other hot liquids were poured on the wounds. He was then drawn and quartered, and what remained of his body was burnt at the stake. Inhumane methods of execution and class inequalities were abolished during the French Revolution, which imposed the guillotine, seen as a painless and instantaneous method of execution, for all.

Around the world

According to Amnesty International's annual report on official judicial execution, in 2003 there were 1,146 executions in 28 countries. 88% of the deaths occurred in five countries. The People's Republic of China (PRC) carried out 726 executions. Iran executed 108 people, the United States 65, Vietnam 64, and Saudi Arabia 52. From 1990 to 2003, the average number of executions per year was 2,242 as reported by Amnesty. The PRC has executed at least 20,000 people between 1990 and 2001, with 1,781 people executed between April and July 2001 in a "Strike Hard" crime crackdown.

Phyllis Schlafly provides a much higher count of executions in China than Amnesty International:

"...every year China has nearly 10,000 death penalty cases that result in immediate execution. That is five times more than all death penalty cases from other nations combined. China's executions have always been a closely guarded state secret, but these totals were revealed by Chen Zhonglin , a National People's Congress delegate." [1]

The highest per capita use of the death penalty is in Singapore, with a population of about four million and an average of 70 executions per year, mostly for drug offenses. Executions by hanging occur on Friday mornings in Changi prison. They are seldom publicized.

In most countries that have capital punishment, it is used to punish only murder or war-related crimes. In some countries, like the People's Republic of China, some non-violent crimes, like drug and business related crimes, are punishable by death.

Most democratic countries today have abolished the death penalty, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, almost all of Europe, and much of Latin America. The last execution in the Republic of Ireland took place in 1954 and in 1990 capital punishment was removed from the penal code. A heated debate on whether to reintroduce capital punishment led in 2001 to a referendum which amended the Irish Constitution to make reintroduction of the death penalty unconstitutional. The Republic of Ireland thereby became one of the first countries in the world to constitutionally ban the death penalty by popular referendum, with Switzerland having constitutionally forbidden it in 1999, though it had been abolished "in time of peace" in 1937. The last execution in the United Kingdom occurred in 1964 (see Capital punishment in the United Kingdom). Russia has had a moratorium on the death penalty since 2001. In all, 80 countries have abolished it altogether, 22 countries have not executed someone in the last ten years, and 14 only have the death penalty for "exceptional crimes" (e.g., war crimes). Many other countries retain it, especially in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Caribbean, including Japan and the United States, with a total of 78 countries still having the death penalty.

The most comprehensive source lists less than 15,000 people executed in the United States or its predecessors between 1608 and 1991.[2] More accurate statistics list 4661 executions in the U.S. in the period 1930-2002 with about 2/3 of the executions occurring in the first twenty years.[3] Additionally the U.S. Army executed 160 soldiers between 1930 and 1967. The last U.S. Navy execution was in 1849. (See also: Capital punishment in the United States)

Only seven countries practice the death penalty for juveniles, that is criminals aged under 18 at the time of their crime. Nearly all actual executions for juvenile crime take place in the USA, although, due to the slow process of appeals, no one under age 19 has been executed recently.[4] [5] In the United States the death penalty cannot be applied to criminals under age 16 and higher ages are legislated in many states. In the United States and ancestor bodies politic since 1642, an estimated 364 juvenile offenders have been put to death by states and the federal government. Although the People's Republic of China accounts for the vast majority of executions in the world, it does not allow for the executions of those under 18. [6] Execution of those aged under age 18 has occurred in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and Iran since 1990. [7]

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which forbids capital punishment for juveniles, has been signed by all countries except the USA and Somalia, so it is likely that legally, the execution of persons for crimes committed as children (as defined by the Convention) will be restricted to the USA.

There are a number of international conventions prohibiting the death penalty, most notably the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Sixth Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights. However, such conventions only bind those that are party to them; customary international law permits the death penalty.

Several international organizations have made the abolition of the death penalty a requirement of membership, most notably the European Union and the Council of Europe. The European Union requires outright abolition of the death penalty by states wishing to join; the Council of Europe also requires this, but is 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.

The same was also true of Turkey, but in August 2002, as a move towards EU membership, the death penalty was removed from law as well as practice, but only during peacetime. On November 12, 2003, Turkey ratified the Sixth Protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights. In January 2004 Turkey signed the 13th Protocol, intending to abolish the death penalty completely, including during wartime [8]. As a result of this, Europe is a continent free of the death penalty in practice (all states having ratified the Sixth Protocol), 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 also been lobbying for the Council of Europe observer states who practice the death penalty (namely the United States and Japan) to be told to abolish it also or lose their observer status.

Arguments for and against the death penalty

Support for the death penalty varies widely from nation to nation, and it can be a highly contentious political issue, particularly in democracies that use it. A majority of adults in the United States appear to support its continuance (though like most political issues, the numbers vary widely depending on the exact question asked), but a highly vocal, organised minority of people in that country do not, and non-governmental organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch lobby against it globally. In Taiwan, the death penalty appears to have large amounts of public support, and there is little public movement to abolish it. By contrast, in most of Western Europe, public opinion majoritarily regards capital punishment as barbaric and there is little public support for its reinstatement. In countries where it has been abolished, debate is sometimes revived by particularly brutal murders, though few countries have brought it back after abolition.

Some of the major arguments used by those opposed to the death penalty include:

  • The death penalty is killing. All killing is wrong, therefore the death penalty is wrong.
  • The death penalty is a human rights violation.
  • Torture and cruelty are wrong. Some executions are botched and the executed suffer extended pain. Even those who die instantly suffer mental anguish leading up to the execution.
  • Criminal proceedings are fallible. Many people facing the death penalty have been exonerated, sometimes only minutes before their scheduled execution. Others, however, have been executed before evidence clearing them is discovered. Whilst criminal trials not involving the death penalty can involve mistakes, there is at least the opportunity for mistakes to be corrected.
  • Since in many cases at least the defendants are financially indigent and therefore end up being represented by court-appointed attorneys whose credentials are often highly questionable, opponents argue that the prosecution has an unfair advantage; however, in recent years some death-penalty advocates have gone on record as being open to the concept of using the French inquisitorial system for capital cases instead of the adversarial proceedings currently followed in virtually all American courts today, thus addressing this issue. In addition, some states that have the death penalty - most notably New York State - have established an office of "Capital Defender," either appointed by the state's governor or popularly elected.
  • The race of the person to be executed can also affect the likelihood of the sentence they receive. Death-penalty advocates counter this by pointing out that most murders where the killer and victim are of the same race tend to be "crimes of passion" while inter-racial murders are usually "felony murders;" that is to say, murders which were perpetrated during the commission of some other felony (most commonly either armed robbery or forcible rape), the point being that juries are more likely to impose the death penalty in cases where the offender has killed a total stranger than in those where some deep-seated, personal revenge motive may be present.
  • It can encourage police misconduct as in the incident described in the documentary film The Thin Blue Line. In the late 1970s, an innocent man named Randall Adams was framed by the Dallas County police department in Texas for a notorious murder of a police officer because they knew the more likely suspect, David Harris, was still a minor and thus ineligible for the death penalty so Adams had to serve as a scapegoat to execute.
  • It is not a deterrent because anyone that would be deterred by the death penalty would already have been deterred by life in prison, and people that are not deterred by that wouldn't be stopped by any punishment.
  • It has also been argued that the death penalty does not deter murder because most murders are either "crimes of passion" or are planned by people who don't think they'll get caught (however this argument could be used for any penalty)
  • Some people argue that the death penalty brutalises society, by sending out the message that killing people is the right thing to do in some circumstances.
  • Abolitionists variously argue that statistics show the death penalty either makes no difference to the number of murders, or actually causes them to increase
  • With mandatory appeals and enhanced procedural and evidentiary requirements for capital cases in the USA, the cost of a death penalty case far exceeds (usually by a factor of ten) the cost of a trial and life imprisonment.
  • Executed "terrorists" may become "martyrs"
  • It denies redemption, in a non-religious sense. Some hold that a judicial system should have the role of educating those found guilty of crimes. If one is executed he will never have been educated and made a better person.

Key arguments for supporters of the death penalty include:

  • People committing the most heinous crimes (usually murder in countries that practice the death penalty) have forfeited the right to life.
  • Government is not an individual and is given far more powers.
  • The death penalty shows the greatest respect for the ordinary man's, and especially the victim's, inviolable value.
  • It strikes fewer "innocent persons" than alternative penalties, as among prisoners and ex-prisoners there are many who relapse into new crimes which strike "innocent persons".
  • It provides peace of mind for many victims of crime and their families.
  • It recognizes humankind's natural sense of justice.
  • It is less cruel than prolonged sentences of imprisonment, especially under the conditions that would be popularly demanded for heinous criminals.
  • It is explicitly allowed in constitutions and other documents of basic law.
  • It provides extra leverage for the prosecutor to deal for important testimony and information.
  • It shows how seriously society looks at the most heinous crimes.
  • It enjoys democratic support of the people.
  • It may deter violent crime and murder. Most advocates do not hold that this is a primary reason for supporting the death penalty.

There is ongoing debate whether capital punishment reduces crime rates, because potential murderers (or other criminals) would be too scared of punishment to commit crime, or it doesn't affect crime rate, because potential criminals think that they won't be caught, so they don't care about punishment until it's too late. There are even studies that have concluded that the death penalty appears to encourage murder. However, like many questions in the social sciences, actual research data on this question can be (and is) interpreted very differently by people with differing predispositions towards capital punishment. In any event, the actual effectiveness or otherwise of it is largely irrelevant to many who feel strongly about the debate, as their views are based on other factors.

Religious views of the death penalty

Death penalty in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible, Old Testament)

The Tanakh prescribes the death penalty for a great many violations of law. Most historians no longer accept the view that the laws of the Bible, as written, were ever actually followed as a legal code. Instead, they hold that the laws in the Bible were developed in a living society and culture, and that the oral law of this society was not identical to what one would posit from a literal reading of the Biblical text alone. Rabbinic Jews have always held this view; Judaism holds that a specific oral law (later redacted in the Talmud) explains the meaning and context of these Biblical laws. In this view the death penalty was rarely used, and exceedingly difficult to carry out.

Jewish view of the death penalty

The Jewish view of all laws in the Bible, not just the death penalty, is based on the reading of the Bible as seen through Judaism's corpus of oral law. These oral laws were first redacted around 200 CE in the Mishnah and later around 550 CE in the Talmud.

These laws make it clear that the death penalty was only used in extremely rare cases. Rabbinic law developed a detailed system of checks and balances to make sure that the penalty could only be carried out if there were two witnesses to the crime, if the witnesses then verbally warned the person that they were liable for the death penalty, and that the person then had to acknowledge that he/she was warned, but then went ahead and committed the sin regardless. Further, an individual was not allowed to testify against themselves. As such, the death penalty was effectively legislated out of existence.

In Conservative Judaism, the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards approved a 1960 responsa by Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser on capital punishment. It states, in part:

The Talmud ruled out the admissibility of circumstantial evidence in cases which involved a capital crime. Two witnessed were required to testify that they saw the action with their own eyes. A man could not be found guilty of a capital crime through his own confession or through the testimony of immediate members of his family. The rabbis demanded a condition of cool premeditation in the act of crime before their would sanction the death penalty; the specific test on which they insisted was that the criminal be warned prior to the crime, and that the criminal indicate by responding to the warning, that he is fully aware of his deed, but that he is determined to go through with it. In effect this did away with the application of the death penalty. The rabbis were aware of this, and they declared openly that they found capital punishment repugnant to them....There is another reason which argues for the abolition of capital punishment. It is the fact of human fallibility. Too often we learn of people who were convicted of crimes and only later are new facts uncovered by which their innocence is established. The doors of the jail can be opened, in such cases we can partially undo the injustice. But the dead cannot be brought back to life again. We regard all forms of capital punishment as barbaric and obsolete..."
(Proceedings of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards 1927-1970 Volume III, p.1537-1538)

Christian view of the death penalty

Jesus Christ underwent the death penalty by crucifixion. His trial was affected by popular opinion. His death is frequently depicted in religious art, and the cross, either with or without his body on it, is the primary symbol of Christianity.

For many Christians, this is enough to condemn capital punishment. Nonetheless, Christians are divided about the issue. For example, while the Byzantine Empire replaced most death sentences with Mutilation (such as cutting off the tip of the criminal's nose), the Holy Roman Empire emphatically supported the death penalty and used it quite frequently (neither had a prison system in the modern sense).

Those in favor of capital punishment most often build their views on two verses in the New Testament. The first is Romans 13:3-5, where the apostle Paul appears to advocate the death penalty as an appropriate method to punish criminals. Some also take Jesus' words in Matthew 18:6 to mean that people who abuse children deserve death.

Muslim view of the death penalty

A Muslim may be sentenced to death under Shariah, Islamic law, for the murder of a Muslim, adultery if there are four witnesses, apostasy (deserting Islam), a third conviction for drinking alcohol and a fifth conviction for theft. A dhimmi (zimmi, non-Muslim living in an Islamic state) can be executed for sex with a Muslim woman, and "persecution" of Islam, for example blasphemy against Allah or Prophet Muhammad, or attempting to proselytise, i.e. convert a Muslim from his religion.

Shariah is not in force in many Muslim countries with a Muslim majority, especially those which still have laws on their statute books which date from their colonial pasts. One of the aims of Islamic fundamentalists is to re-introduce Shariah.

Buddhist view of the death penalty

The following quote from the 14th Dalai Lama is indicative of the thought of Buddhists over the last 2,500 years:

"The death penalty fulfills a preventive function, but it is also very clearly a form of revenge. It is an especially severe form of punishment because it is so final. The human life is ended and the executed person is deprived of the opportunity to change, to restore the harm done or compensate for it. Before advocating execution we should consider if criminals are intrinsically negative and harmful people and whether they will remain perpetually in the same state of mind in which they committed their crime or not. The answer, I believe, is definitely not. However horrible the act they have committed, I believe that everyone has the potential to improve and correct themselves. Therefore, I am optimistic that it remains possible to deter criminal activity, and prevent such harmful consequences of such acts in society, without having to resort to the death penalty."

However, most of the nations that have historically been Buddhist, including the People's Republic of China, India, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Taiwan (the Republic of China), and Thailand, retain the death penalty and have long considered the death penalty quite appropriate punishment for heinous crimes.

Related articles

External links and references

Pro-death penalty links

Groups that oppose the death penalty

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45