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. In those jurisdictions that practice capital punishment, its use is usually restricted to a small number of criminal offences, principally, treason and murder, that is, the deliberate premeditated killing of another person. 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.
The term capital comes from the Indo-European kaput, meaning "head", through the Latin capitalis. Thus, capital punishment is the penalty for a crime so severe that it deserves decapitation (losing one's head).
Methods of execution
Methods of execution have varied over time, and include:
- Lethal injection
- Decapitation (by sword, axe or guillotine)
- Electrocution in an electric chair
- Shooting by firing squad
- Various animal-related methods
Capital punishment around the world
Amnesty International publishes a annual report on official judicial execution. In 2001 there were 3,048 reported cases in 31 countries. 90% of the deaths occurred in four countries. The People's Republic of China carried out 2,468 executions. Iran killed 139 people, Saudi Arabia 79 and the United States 66. In 2000 there had been 1,457 executions. The PRC has executed 20,000 between 1990 and 2001 with 1,781 people executed between April and July 2001 in a "Strike Hard" crime crackdown.
The highest per capita use of the death penalty is Singapore, with a population of about four million and an average of 70 executions per year, mostly for drugs offenses. The Singapore government is famously secretive about just how many executions take place, by hanging, every Friday morning in Changi prison. Relatives typically do not learn until afterward.
In most countries that have capital punishment, it is used to punish only murder and/or for war-related crimes. In some countries, like the People's Republic of China, even non-violent crimes, like drug and business related crimes, are punished with capital punishment.
Most democratic countries today have abolished the death penalty, such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, almost all of Europe and much of Latin America. Together 111 countries either do not have or do not use the death penalty. Many other states retain it, especially in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the Caribbean and the United States.
The most comprehensive source lists less than 15,000 people executed in the United States or its predecessors between 1608 and 1991. 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. 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 since possibly 1959, definitely before 1964.  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.  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. 
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 persons for crimes committed as children (as defined by the Convention), will be restricted to the USA.
|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.|
Image in the public domain, courtesy of PDImages.com.
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. In January 2004 Turkey abolished death penalty completely, including during wartime . As a result of this, Europe is a continent free of the death penalty in practice, 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 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 overwhelming 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. Killing is wrong, therefore the death penalty is wrong.
- This is a human rights violation.
- Torture and cruelty are wrong. Many executions are botched and the executed suffer extended pain in dying, and even those who die instantly suffer extreme mental torture leading up to and during the preliminaries of the execution process.
- 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.
- At least in the United States, poor people and those from ethnic minorities are more likely to be executed than whites convicted of similar crimes. Hence, its application is selective and unfair. Additionally, it is argued that the race of the victim can also affect the likelihood of the application of the death penalty, which again is unfair.
- 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.
- With mandatory appeals and enhanced requirements for capital cases, the cost of a death penalty case far exceeds (usually by a factor of ten) the cost of a trial and life imprisonment.
Key arguments for supporters of the death penalty include:
- That people committing the most heinous crimes (usually murder, in Western countries that practice the death penalty) have forfeited the right to life so executing them is not murder.
- Government is not an individual and is given far more powers; therefore, executions are not "murder."
- Since the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, a murderer is likely to murder again, so execution prevents future murders.
- That it provides peace of minds for victims of crime and their families.
- Beliefs in reciprocity or lex talionis - essentially, "an eye for an eye" - which is part of the concept of justice for many people.
- That it is in fact less cruel than prolonged sentences of imprisonment, especially under the conditions that would be popularly demanded for heinous criminals.
- That it is explicitly allowed in constitutions and other documents of basic law.
- That it enjoys democratic support of the people.
- That it deters crime.
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; they go further and teach 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. The Gospel of John (18:31) implies that it was impossible for the Jews to kill Jesus for the crimes of which he was accused, and that he was thus given to the Romans for trial.
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 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.
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. Those in favor of capital punishment most often build their views on a New Testament verse in which Christ allegedly advocates capital punishment for crimes against children.
Muslim view of the death penalty
A Muslim may be sentenced to death under Shariah, Islamic law, for the murder of a Muslim, adultery, 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 past. One of the aims of Islamic fundamentalists is to re-introduce Shariah.
- Use of death penalty worldwide provides a full listing of which countries have and have not abolished the death penalty.
- List of people who were executed
- List of reversed death sentences
- Life imprisonment
- Amnesty International
- Capital punishment in the United States
- Capital punishment in the United Kingdom
External links and references