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Capital punishment

Capital punishment, also referred to as the death penalty, is a punitive sentence set after conviction for a criminal offense in which the convicted person is executed. In the US, individuals awaiting execution are said to be on Death Row.

Methods of execution have varied over time, and include:

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 (down from 85). In 2000 there had been 1,457 executions. The PRC has executed 20,000 since 1990 with 1,781 people executed between April and July 2001 in a "Strike Hard" crime crackdown.

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.

Many countries today have abolished the death penalty, such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, almost all of Europe and much of Latin America. In all 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.

Only seven countries retain the death penalty for juveniles aged under 18 at the time of their crime, although nearly all actual executions take place in the USA. [1] (http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/article.php?scid=27&did=206) Execution of those aged under age 18 has also occurred in the Congo, Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and Iran since 1990. [2] (http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/article.php?scid=27&did=208)

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 executing children (as defined by the Convention), will continue to 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 retains 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. 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 retain the death penalty (namely the United States and Japan) to be told to abolish it also or lose their observer status.

Table of contents

Arguments for and against the death penalty

The death penalty is a contentious political issue, particularly in democracies where it is retained. 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 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 murder. Murder 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.

Different groups of death penalty opponents favour different arguments. Core death-penalty opponents are perhaps more likely to primarily base their opposition on "the death penalty is murder" arguments, and advance the issues of wrong convictions and ethnic bias to convince waverers.

Key arguments for supporters of the death penalty include:

  • That people committing the most heinous crimes (usually murder, in Western countries retaining 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 - essentially, "an eye for an eye" - which is part of the concept of justice for many people.
  • That it deters crime.

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 at all affect crime rate, because potential criminals think 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; 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 penaly 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 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 Shariat and that is one reason why HRAIC[?] opposes fundamentalism.

Hindu view of the death penalty

(to be added)

See use of death penalty worldwide for a full listing of which countries have and have not abolished the death penalty.

See also:



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