Capital Punishment

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Capital Punishment


Capital Punishment, legal infliction of death as a penalty for violating criminal law. Throughout history people have been put to death for various forms of wrongdoing. Methods of execution have included such practices as crucifixion, stoning, drowning, burning at the stake, impaling, and beheading. Today capital punishment is typically accomplished by lethal gas or injection, electrocution, hanging, or shooting.

The death penalty is the most controversial penal practice in the modern world. Other harsh, physical forms of criminal punishment-referred to as corporal punishment-have generally been eliminated in modern times as uncivilized and unnecessary. In the majority of countries, contemporary methods of punishment-such as imprisonment or fines-no longer involve the infliction of physical pain (see Corporal Punishment). Although imprisonment and fines are universally recognized as necessary to the control of crime, the nations of the world are split on the issue of capital punishment. About 90 nations have abolished the death penalty and an almost equal number of nations (most of which are developing countries) retain it.

The trend in most industrialized nations has been to first stop executing prisoners and then to substitute long terms of imprisonment for death as the most severe of all criminal penalties. The United States is an important exception to this trend. The federal government and a majority of U.S. states allow the death penalty, and on average 75 executions occur each year throughout the United States. (1)

Forms of Criminal Punishment: Capital Punishment

Introduction to Capital Punishment

The most extreme form of punishment is death. Execution of an offender is known as capital punishment. Like corporal punishment and banishment, capital punishment has been used since ancient times. The Old Testament of the Bible prescribes death as the punishment for over 30 crimes. The Romans executed Jesus Christ by crucifixion, a common form of capital punishment between the 6th century bc and the 4th century ad. In England in the 1800s more than 200 crimes were punishable by death.

In the late 18th century, social commentators began to criticize penal practices they considered brutal and unnecessary. Many of these philosophers condemned the use of capital punishment, initiating a debate that has continued to modern times. During the 19th century, legal reformers in England and the United States helped enact laws limiting the death penalty to the most serious crimes. Shortly after World War II (1939-1945), many countries in Western Europe, beginning with Italy and Germany, abolished capital punishment. Britain, Canada, and Australia followed suit. A similar abolition movement coincided with the breakup of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1991, when several nations in Eastern Europe eliminated capital punishment. The use of the death penalty has become increasingly controversial, especially in the United States and Japan, the only industrialized democracies that continue to practice capital punishment.

In the U.S. system of government, power is divided between a central (federal) authority and smaller local units of government (the states). Federal law authorizes capital punishment for more than 40 offenses, including premeditated murder, treason, and murder related to aircraft hijacking, drug trafficking, and civil rights violations. The majority of states also authorize the death penalty for violations of state criminal law, including such crimes as treason, murder, and rape. As of early 2005, 12 states did not permit capital punishment. Methods for executing offenders vary among the states. The majority of states that have the death penalty execute offenders by means of lethal injection-the administration of fatal amounts of fast-acting drugs and chemicals. Other common methods include lethal gas and electrocution. Three states execute criminals by hanging and three states provide for execution by firing squad.

In the 1972 case of Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the procedures leading to imposition of the death penalty in Georgia were unlawful. Although the Court indicated that capital punishment was not necessarily a “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of the Constitution of the United States, it determined that allowing a jury unlimited discretion to choose between a death sentence and a prison sentence is unconstitutional. Because all of the states that provided for capital punishment at that time also used a standardless system-that is, a system in which the sentencing decision of jurors was unguided-this ruling invalidated every state’s death penalty statute. Following the Furman decision, many states passed new death penalty legislation. These laws still gave the jury the discretion to choose between imprisonment or death, but they also restricted the types of crimes for which death could be imposed and provided instructions to guide the jury’s determination of punishment. In 1976 the Supreme Court ruled such systems constitutional.

Opponents of capital punishment see it as barbaric and degrading to the dignity of the individual. Many believe it poses too great a risk of executing an innocent person. Supporters respond that the death penalty provides a uniquely effective punishment. They consider it a necessary form of retribution for terrible crimes. Opponents of the imposition of capital punishment in the United States assert that authorities apply the death penalty unfairly. These critics emphasize the disproportionate numbers of African Americans on death row and also note that the race of the crime victim provides a statistically clear determinant of whether an offender receives a sentence of death or imprisonment. Although about half of all murder victims are nonwhite, 80 percent of death sentences are imposed for murders of whites. Those who believe capital punishment is not imposed unfairly attribute this trend to differences in the types of crimes involving white victims.

Those who support capital punishment believe it serves an important function of vengeance. Some proponents of the death penalty argue that those who kill should also be killed because death is the only fitting punishment for an individual who takes another’s life. Supporters of capital punishment also believe that executing offenders will deter others from committing similar crimes. See also Capital Punishment.” (1)

Capital Punishment

Embracing mainstream international law, this section on capital punishment explores the context, history and effect of the area of the law covered here.


See Also

  • Social Problem
  • Crime
  • Delinquency
  • Juvenile Delinquency
  • Delinquent
  • Social Issues
  • Crime Prevention


Further Reading

  • The entry “capital punishment” in the Parry and Grant Encyclopaedic Dictionary of International Law (currently, the Encyclopaedic Dictionary of International Law, 2009), Oxford University Press


Notes and References

Guide to Capital Punishment

The Legal History of Capital Punishment

This section provides an overview of Capital Punishment

Capital Punishment in Constitutional Law

From the Comparative Constitutions Project: 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.

Capital Punishment and the Death Penalty Debate

See the Death Penalty Debate

World Development

See Capital Punishment Development in the World

Capital Punishment in the U.S.

See Capital Punishment in the United States

Contributed By:

Franklin E. Zimring, B.A., J.D.

Professor of Law and Director of the Earl Warren Legal Institute, University of California at Berkeley. Co-author of The Citizen’s Guide to Gun Control, Capital Punishment and the American Agenda and other books.

Capital Punishment


Notes and References

  1. “Capital Punishment,” Encarta Online Encyclopedia

See Also

  • Legal Biography
  • Legal Traditions
  • Historical Laws
  • History of Law

Further Reading

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