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Capital punishment

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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 offense or a capital crime. Some jurisdictions that practice capital punishment restrict its use to a small number of criminal offences, principally treason and murder. 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" derives from the Latin caput, 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

 as used for . The electric chair was developed in the late with support from 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 social class of the condemned. The nobility would usually be executed in as painless and honorable a method as possible, generally with an axe (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.

Although the death penalty was briefly banned in China between 747 and 759, the first country in the world to officially and permanently abolish the death penalty was the then-independent Granducato di Toscana (Tuscany). The Grand Duke Leopold II of Habsburg, famous enlightened monarch and future Emperor of Austria, was strongly influenced by the book of the Italian Cesare Beccaria Dei Delitti e Delle Pene ("On Crimes and Punishments"), published in 1764. In this book Beccaria aimed at demonstrating not only the unjustice, but even the futility from the point of view of social welfare, of torture and the death penalty. 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 definitely abrogated death penalty and gave the order to destroy all the instruments for capital execution wherever in his land. In the year 2000 Tuscany's regional authorities instituted a holiday on 30 November of every year to commemorate the event.

Around the world

See Use of death penalty worldwide for information about all countries

According to Amnesty International's annual report on official judicial execution, in 2004 there were 3,797 executions in 25 countries. Nine out of ten of the deaths occurred in the People's Republic of China (PRC) which carried out at least 3,400 executions. 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. (See Capital punishment in the People's Republic of China). The higher total in 2004 resulted from a change in Amnesty's method of estimating executions in China. Both methodologies are suspected of yielding low results.

The 12 countries with the most executions in 2004:

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]

According to the United Nations Secretary-General's quinquennial report on capital punishment, the highest per capita use of the death penalty is in Singapore, with a rate of 13.57 executions per one million population for the period of 1994 to 1999. The death penalty is meted out for what is considered the most serious of offences. Out of 138 persons sentenced in the period from 1999 to 2003, 110 were for drug-related offences, while the rest for murder and arms-related offences. 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, though in Honduras there is a political debate raging about whether, having been abolished in 1956, it should be restored. Among western countries, the first to abolish capital punishment was Portugal. The last execution in Portugal took place in 1846, and this punishment was officially and definitely abolished in 1867. In Italy, capital punishment for common offences and for military offences in peace time was abolished in 1947. In 1994 capital punishment was abolished also for military offences in war time, so since 1994 no crime can be punished with death in Italy. The last execution in the Republic of Ireland took place in 1954 and in 1990 capital punishment was removed from the penal code. In 2001 the Twenty-first Amendment, approved in a referendum, altered the Irish constitution to make any future 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 Dutch Parliament in 1983 amended the Dutch Constitution, adding that 'Capital punishment may not be imposed.' Capital Punishment during peacetime in the Netherlands was already abolished in 1870. 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, 84 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 six countries practice the death penalty for juveniles, that is criminals aged under 18 at the time of their crime. In the 1980s and 1990s, most executions for juvenile crime took place in the USA, although, due to the slow process of appeals, no one under age 19 has been executed recently.[4] [5] As of 2005, in the United States, the death penalty cannot be applied to criminals under age 18 at the time of the crime. The Supreme Court decision that year took 72 murderers off death row. 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.

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 and the Council of Europe require abolition of the death penalty by states wishing to join, but 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. Another example is Latvia, which officially can still apply the death penalty in extraordinary circumstances, even though it is a member of the European Union.

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]. In May 2004 Turkey amended its constitution, removing the death penalty for all crimes. 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 mostly 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.

Arguments against

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. According to Victor Hugo: «Que dit la loi? Tu ne tueras pas! Comment le dit-elle? En tuant!» ("What says the law? You will not kill! How does it say it? By killing!")
  • The death penalty is violation of human rights.
  • 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. While criminal trials not involving the death penalty can also involve mistakes, there is at least the opportunity for those mistakes to be corrected. This has been particularly relevant in cases where new forensic methods (such as DNA) have become available. Since 1973, 119 people in 25 USA states have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence.
  • 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 less than stellar, 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.
  • Since there is the possibility of executing an innocent person - there is naturally a system of appeals through progressively higher courts. The cost of these appeals will often exceed that of keeping a prisoner captive for his natural life.
  • 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. For example, the documentary film The Thin Blue Line describes a case in the late 1970s in which an innocent man named Randall Adams was framed by the Dallas County police department in Texas for the 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).
  • 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. This argument is typically supported by claims that those states which have implemented the death penalty recently have not had a reduction of violent crime. A stronger variant of this argument suggests that criminals who believe they will face the death penalty are more likely to use violence or murder to avoid capture, and that therefore the death penalty might theoretically even increase the rate of violent crime.
  • 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.
  • It is claimed that the death penalty psychologically harms the executioners, in some cases contributing to "Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress", and that even when this does not occur, killing a helpless person in a situation in which the executioner is not in danger may harm the executioner in other ways, such as decreasing his or her sense of the value of life. The suggested conclusion is that when capital punishment is not absolutely necessary to defend society, society has no right to ask executioners to risk their own mental heath in such a way.
  • Abolitionists variously argue that statistics show the death penalty either makes no difference to the number of murders, or actually causes them to increase.[9]
  • 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.[10]
  • Executed "terrorists" may become "martyrs".
  • It denies the possibility of rehabilitation . Some hold that a judicial system should have the role of educating and reforming those found guilty of crimes. If one is executed he will never have been educated and made a better person.
  • Even if we have not ourselves physically committed murder, quite possibly we have fantasized about crimes of that sort: we are, ourselves, guilty of many things. Is it appropriate for the guilty to impose the most extreme kind of punishment? (This argument is implicit in, for example, a famous adage attributed to Jesus: "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.")
  • Statistics show that more murders are committed in some societies than in others. That suggests that society-at-large influences the number of murders and bears some responsibility for some of them. Therefore, it's unfair to punish the murderers the society itself has incidentally produced.

Arguments for

  • Retribution — the death penalty is imposed as a way of "balancing justice" for the crime committed.
  • Deterrence — it deters criminals from committing future crimes.
  • Prevention — it prevents offenders from ever returning to society, thereby preventing them from repeatedly harming or murdering other people.
  • It shows how seriously society looks at the most heinous crimes.
  • People committing the most heinous crimes (usually murder in countries that practice the death penalty) have forfeited the right to life.
  • 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 equal justice, in this case, a life for a life
  • It is the most effective way to protect society (its structures and its individuals) from a felon.
  • 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 enjoys democratic support of the people. (in countries where this applies)
  • From an economic point of view, it is less expensive to execute a convict than to house him or her as a prisoner for life.
  • Just as the virtuous deserve reward proportionate to their good deeds, so too the vicious deserve punishment proportionate to their bad deeds. One might even hold, with Kant, that respect is shown to the criminal as someone who has chosen a particular path in life by visiting the appropriate punishment on the criminal.
  • Criminals may be led to rethink their lives and set their souls in order by the pressing expectation of death.
  • It upholds the rule of law, because it discourages vigilantism or self-help on the part of the victim's family or friends (in the form of lynchings or the retaining of hit men). If not controlled, such self-help can lead to extremely destructive vendettas or blood feuds.

There is an ongoing debate as to whether capital punishment reduces crime rates; ideally, potential murderers (or other criminals) would be too scared of the punishment to commit crime. The counterargument is that it doesn't affect crime rate, because potential criminals think that they won't be caught, so they do not care about punishment until it is 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 lack 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)

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 him—or herself. As such, the death penalty was effectively legislated out of existence. Today, Israel only uses the death penalty for extraordinary crimes.

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 witnesses 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 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. Christians believe that his death was punishment for the sins of the world and brings about their redemption.

Christians are divided on the issue of capital punishment—some are in favour, some are against it under all circumstances. There are two broad patterns. Firstly, there is a tendency for Christian opinions to match those of the countries they live in; many churches based outside the USA are officially against capital punishment, while many American churches are in favour of it. Secondly, liberal Christian groups tend to oppose it while most conservative Christian groups support it—exceptions to this rule include the Amish and Mennonites, conservative groups which oppose the death penalty, and the Roman Catholic church; Pope John Paul II described capital punishment as part of a "culture of death".

Those in favour of capital punishment often point to passages in the Old Testament that advocate the death penalty such as Genesis 9 which states, "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man." Those against tend to select their passages from the New Testament that advocate love, forgiveness, and mercy. In Matthew 5, Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven."

In John 8, a story is told of a woman who was caught in the act of adultery. The Old Testament Law demanded that she be put to death by stoning; Jesus saves her life by requiring that the first stone be cast by someone who has never sinned, and rather than take that role himself, simply tells the woman not to transgress again. (It should be noted that the passage in question is absent from some early manuscripts, which may indicate that it is a later addition to the text.)

Interpreting the Bible as a story of man's redemption through repentance to Christ, some Christians argue that by executing a murderer we are cutting short his life and taking away his opportunity to repent. Some conservative Christian groups who believe in a literal Hell argue that all who die without repentance automatically go there, and point out that many serial killers, including Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy, became born again Christians in prison. The less forgiving might observe that the families of their victims are unlikely to be comforted by the prospect of these men entering heaven.

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 and apostasy (deserting Islam). A dhimmi (non-Muslim living under protection 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 countries with a Muslim majority, especially those which still have laws on their statute books which date from their colonial pasts.

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."

Regardless, most of the nations that have historically been considered Buddhist, including the People's Republic of China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Taiwan (the Republic of China), and Thailand, retain the death penalty and have long considered the death penalty appropriate punishment for heinous crimes. It should noted, however, that the majority presence of a religion in a country does not necessarily imply an influence of said religion on public policy.

Related articles

External links and references

Pro-death penalty links

Groups that oppose the death penalty

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