Amnesty International | TV Spot
A TV Spot for Amnesty International against death penalty.
About Death Penalty or Capital punishment
Capital punishment, also known as the death penalty, is a government sanctioned practice whereby a person is put to death by the state as a punishment for a crime. The sentence that someone be punished in such a manner is referred to as a death sentence, whereas the act of carrying out the sentence is known as an execution. Crimes that can result in a death penalty are known as capital crimes or capital offences. The term capital is derived from the Latin capitalis (“of the head”, referring to execution by beheading).
Fifty-eight countries retain capital punishment, 102 countries have completely abolished it de jure for all crimes, six have abolished it for ordinary crimes (while maintaining it for special circumstances such as war crimes), and 32 are abolitionist in practice.
Capital punishment is a matter of active controversy in various countries and states, and positions can vary within a single political ideology or cultural region. In the European Union, Article 2 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union prohibits the use of capital punishment. Also, the Council of Europe, which has 47 member states, prohibits the use of the death penalty by its members.
The United Nations General Assembly has adopted, in 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2014 non-binding resolutions calling for a global moratorium on executions, with a view to eventual abolition. Although most nations have abolished capital punishment, over 60% of the world’s population live in countries where executions take place, such as China, India, the United Statesand Indonesia.
Execution of criminals and political opponents has been used by nearly all societies—both to punish crime and to suppress political dissent. In most countries that practise capital punishment it is reserved for murder, espionage, treason, or as part of military justice. In some countries sexual crimes, such as rape, adultery, incest and sodomy, carry the death penalty, as do religious crimes such as apostasy in Islamic nations (the formal renunciation of the state religion). In many countries that use the death penalty, drug trafficking is also a capital offence. In China, human trafficking and serious cases of corruption are punished by the death penalty. In militaries around the world courts-martial have imposed death sentences for offences such as cowardice, desertion, insubordination, and mutiny.
The use of formal execution extends to the beginning of recorded history. Most historical records and various primitive tribal practices indicate that the death penalty was a part of their justice system. Communal punishment for wrongdoing generally included compensation by the wrongdoer, corporal punishment, shunning, banishment and execution. Usually, compensation and shunning were enough as a form of justice. The response to crime committed by neighbouring tribes or communities included a formal apology, compensation or blood feuds.
A blood feud or vendetta occurs when arbitration between families or tribes fails or an arbitration system is non-existent. This form of justice was common before the emergence of an arbitration system based on state or organized religion. It may result from crime, land disputes or a code of honour. “Acts of retaliation underscore the ability of the social collective to defend itself and demonstrate to enemies (as well as potential allies) that injury to property, rights, or the person will not go unpunished.” However, in practice, it is often difficult to distinguish between a war of vendetta and one of conquest.
Severe historical penalties include breaking wheel, boiling to death, flaying, slow slicing, disembowelment, crucifixion, impalement, crushing (including crushing by elephant), stoning, execution by burning, dismemberment, sawing, decapitation, scaphism, necklacing or blowing from a gun.
Elaborations of tribal arbitration of feuds included peace settlements often done in a religious context and compensation system. Compensation was based on the principle of substitution which might include material (for example, cattle, slave) compensation, exchange of brides or grooms, or payment of the blood debt. Settlement rules could allow for animal blood to replace human blood, or transfers of property or blood money or in some case an offer of a person for execution. The person offered for execution did not have to be an original perpetrator of the crime because the system was based on tribes, not individuals. Blood feuds could be regulated at meetings, such as the Norsemen things. Systems deriving from blood feuds may survive alongside more advanced legal systems or be given recognition by courts (for example, trial by combat). One of the more modern refinements of the blood feud is the duel.
In certain parts of the world, nations in the form of ancient republics, monarchies or tribal oligarchies emerged. These nations were often united by common linguistic, religious or family ties. Moreover, expansion of these nations often occurred by conquest of neighbouring tribes or nations. Consequently, various classes of royalty, nobility, various commoners and slave emerged. Accordingly, the systems of tribal arbitration were submerged into a more unified system of justice which formalized the relation between the different “classes” rather than “tribes”. The earliest and most famous example is Code of Hammurabi which set the different punishment and compensation, according to the different class/group of victims and perpetrators. The Torah (Jewish Law), also known as the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Christian Old Testament), lays down the death penalty for murder, kidnapping, magic, violation of the Sabbath, blasphemy, and a wide range of sexual crimes, although evidence suggests that actual executions were rare.
A further example comes from Ancient Greece, where the Athenian legal system was first written down by Draco in about 621 BC: the death penalty was applied for a particularly wide range of crimes, though Solonlater repealed Draco’s code and published new laws, retaining only Draco’s homicide statutes. The word draconian derives from Draco’s laws. The Romans also used death penalty for a wide range of offences.
Although many are executed in the People’s Republic of China each year in the present day, there was a time in the Tang dynasty when the death penalty was abolished. This was in the year 747, enacted by Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (r. 712–756). When abolishing the death penalty Xuanzong ordered his officials to refer to the nearest regulation by analogy when sentencing those found guilty of crimes for which the prescribed punishment was execution. Thus depending on the severity of the crime a punishment of severe scourging with the thick rod or of exile to the remote Lingnan region might take the place of capital punishment. However, the death penalty was restored only 12 years later in 759 in response to the An Lushan Rebellion. At this time in the Tang dynasty only the emperor had the authority to sentence criminals to execution. Under Xuanzong capital punishment was relatively infrequent, with only 24 executions in the year 730 and 58 executions in the year 736.
The two most common forms of execution in the Tang dynasty were strangulation and decapitation, which were the prescribed methods of execution for 144 and 89 offences respectively. Strangulation was the prescribed sentence for lodging an accusation against one’s parents or grandparents with a magistrate, scheming to kidnap a person and sell them into slavery and opening a coffin while desecrating a tomb. Decapitation was the method of execution prescribed for more serious crimes such as treason and sedition. Despite the great discomfort involved, most of the Tang Chinese preferred strangulation to decapitation, as a result of the traditional Tang Chinese belief that the body is a gift from the parents and that it is, therefore, disrespectful to one’s ancestors to die without returning one’s body to the grave intact.
Some further forms of capital punishment were practised in the Tang dynasty, of which the first two that follow at least were extralegal.[clarification needed] The first of these was scourging to death with the thick rod[clarification needed] which was common throughout the Tang dynasty especially in cases of gross corruption. The second was truncation, in which the convicted person was cut in two at the waist with a fodder knife and then left to bleed to death. A further form of execution called Ling Chi (slow slicing), or death by/of a thousand cuts, was used from the close of the Tang dynasty (around 900) to its abolition in 1905.
When a minister of the fifth grade or above received a death sentence the emperor might grant him a special dispensation allowing him to commit suicide in lieu of execution. Even when this privilege was not granted, the law required that the condemned minister be provided with food and ale by his keepers and transported to the execution ground in a cart rather than having to walk there.
Nearly all executions under the Tang dynasty took place in public as a warning to the population. The heads of the executed were displayed on poles or spears. When local authorities decapitated a convicted criminal, the head was boxed and sent to the capital as proof of identity and that the execution had taken place.
In medieval and early modern Europe, before the development of modern prison systems, the death penalty was also used as a generalized form of punishment. During the reign of Henry VIII of England, as many as 72,000 people are estimated to have been executed.
During early modern Europe, a massive moral panic regarding witchcraft swept across Europe and later the European colonies in North America. During this period, there were widespread claims that malevolent Satanicwitches were operating as an organized threat to Christendom. As a result, tens of thousands of women were prosecuted and executed through the witch trials of the early modern period (between the 15th and 18th centuries).
The death penalty also targeted sexual offences such as sodomy. In England, the Buggery Act 1533 stipulated hanging as punishment for “buggery“. James Pratt and John Smith were the last two Englishmen to be executed for sodomy in 1835.
Despite the wide use of the death penalty, calls for reform were not unknown. The 12th century Jewish legal scholar, Moses Maimonides, wrote, “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent man to death.” He argued that executing an accused criminal on anything less than absolute certainty would lead to a slippery slope of decreasing burdens of proof, until we would be convicting merely “according to the judge’s caprice”. Maimonides’s concern was maintaining popular respect for law, and he saw errors of commission as much more threatening than errors of omission.
Islam on the whole accepts capital punishment, and the Abbasid Caliphs in Baghdad, such as Al-Mu’tadid, were often cruel in their punishments. For hudud crimes such as zina (consensual extramarital or homosexual sex) and apostasy (leaving Islam and converting to another religion), Sharia requires capital punishment in public, while for crimes such as murder and manslaughter, the victim’s family can either seek execution (Qisas) or can choose to spare the life of the killer in exchange for blood money restitution (Diyya).
In the last several centuries, with the emergence of modern nation states, justice came to be increasingly associated with the concept of natural and legal rights. The period saw an increase in standing police forces and permanent penitential institutions. Rational choice theory, a utilitarian approach to criminology which justifies punishment as a form of deterrence as opposed to retribution, can be traced back to Cesare Beccaria, whose influential treatise On Crimes and Punishments (1764) was the first detailed analysis of capital punishment to demand the abolition of the death penalty. Jeremy Bentham, regarded as the founder of modern utilitarianism, also called for the abolition of the death penalty. Beccaria, and later Charles Dickens and Karl Marx noted the incidence of increased violent criminality at the times and places of executions. Official recognition of this phenomenon led to executions being carried out inside prisons, away from public view.
In England in the 18th century, when there was no police force, there was a large increase in the number of capital offences to more than 200. These were mainly property offences, for example cutting down a cherry tree in an orchard. In 1820, there were 160, including crimes such as shoplifting, petty theft or stealing cattle. The severity of the so-called Bloody Code was often tempered by juries who refused to convict, or judges, in the case of petty theft, who arbitrarily set the value stolen at below the statutory level for a capital crime.
The 20th century was a violent period. Tens of millions were killed in wars between nation-states as well as genocide perpetrated by nation states against political opponents (both perceived and actual), ethnic and religious minorities; the Turkish assault on the Armenians, Hitler’s attempt to exterminate the European Jews, the Khmer Rouge decimation of Cambodia, the massacre of the Tutsis in Rwanda, to cite four of the most notorious examples. A large part of execution was the summary execution of enemy combatants. In Nazi Germany there were three types of capital punishment; hanging, decapitation and death by shooting. Also, modern military organisations employed capital punishment as a means of maintaining military discipline. The Soviets, for example, executed 158,000 soldiers for desertion during World War II. In the past, cowardice, absence without leave, desertion, insubordination, looting, shirking under enemy fire and disobeying orders were often crimes punishable by death (see decimation and running the gauntlet). One method of execution, since firearms came into common use, has also been firing squad, although some countries use execution with a single shot to the head or neck.
Various authoritarian states—for example those with fascist or Communist governments—employed the death penalty as a potent means of political oppression. According to Robert Conquest, the leading expert on Stalin’s purges, more than 1 million Soviet citizens were executed during the Great Terror of 1937–38, almost all by a bullet to the back of the head. Mao Zedong publicly stated that “800,000” people had been executed after the Communist Party’s victory in 1949. Partly as a response to such excesses, civil rights organizations have started to place increasing emphasis on the concept of human rights and an abolition of the death penalty.
Among countries around the world, almost all European and many Pacific Area states (including Australia, New Zealand and Timor Leste), and Canada have abolished capital punishment. In Latin America, most states have completely abolished the use of capital punishment while some countries, such as Brazil, allow for capital punishment only in exceptional situations, such as treason committed during wartime. The United States(the federal government and 31 of the states), Guatemala, most of the Caribbean and the majority of democracies in Asia (for example, Japan and India) and Africa (for example, Botswana and Zambia) retain it. South Africa’s Constitutional Court, in judgment of the case of State v Makwanyane and Another, unanimously abolished the death penalty on 6 June 1995.
Abolition was often adopted due to political change, as when countries shifted from authoritarianism to democracy, or when it became an entry condition for the European Union. The United States is a notable exception: some states have had bans on capital punishment for decades, the earliest is Michigan, where it was abolished in 1846, while others actively use it today. The death penalty there remains a contentious issue which is hotly debated.
In abolitionist countries, the debate is sometimes revived by particularly brutal murders though few countries have brought it back after abolishing it. However, a spike in serious, violent crimes, such as murders or terrorist attacks, has prompted some countries (such as Sri Lanka and Jamaica) to effectively end the moratorium on the death penalty. In retention countries, the debate is sometimes revived when a miscarriage of justice has occurred though this tends to cause legislative efforts to improve the judicial process rather than to abolish the death penalty.
Modern-day public opinion
The public opinion on the death penalty varies considerably by country and by the crime in question. Countries where a majority of people are against execution include New Zealand, where 55 percent of the population oppose its use, Australia where only 23 percent support the death penalty, and Norway where only 25 percent are in favour. Most French, Finns and Italians also oppose the death penalty. A 2010 Gallup poll shows that 64% of Americans support the death penalty for someone convicted of murder, down from 65% in 2006 and 68% in 2001.
Use of capital punishment is growing in India in the 2010s due to both a growth in right wing politics and due to anger over several recent brutal cases of rape. While support for the death penalty for murder is still high in China, executions have dropped precipitously, with 3,000 executed in 2012 versus 12,000 in 2002. A poll in South Africa found that 76 percent of millennium generation South Africans support re-introduction of the death penalty, which is abolished in South Africa.
Movements towards non-painful execution
Trends in most of the world have long been to move to less painful, or more humane, executions. France developed the guillotine for this reason in the final years of the 18th century, while Britain banned drawing and quartering in the early 19th century. Hanging by turning the victim off a ladder or by kicking a stool or a bucket, which causes death by suffocation, was replaced by long drop “hanging” where the subject is dropped a longer distance to dislocate the neck and sever the spinal cord. The Shah of Persia introduced throat-cutting and blowing from a gun as quick and painless alternatives to more torturous methods of executions used at that time. In the U.S., the electric chair and the gas chamber were introduced as more humane alternatives to hanging, but have been almost entirely superseded by lethal injection. A small number of countries still employ slow hanging methods and stoning.
A study of executions carried out in the U.S. between 1977 and 2001 indicated that at least 34 of the 749 executions, or 4.5%, involved “unanticipated problems or delays that caused, at least arguably, unnecessary agony for the prisoner or that reflect gross incompetence of the executioner.” The rate of these “botched executions” remained steady over the period of the study. A separate study published in The Lancet in 2005 found that in 43% of cases of lethal injection, the blood level of hypnotics was insufficient to guarantee unconsciousness. However, the US Supreme Court ruled in 2008 (Baze v. Rees) that lethal injection is a constitutional form of punishment, and again in 2015 (Glossip v. Gross).
Abolition of capital punishment
Many countries have abolished capital punishment either in law or in practice. Since World War II there has been a trend toward abolishing capital punishment. Capital punishment has been completely abolished by 102 countries, a further six have done so for all offences except under special circumstances and 32 more have abolished it in practice because they have not used it for at least 10 years and are believed to have a policy or established practice against carrying out executions.
In England, a public statement of opposition was included in The Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards, written in 1395. Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, published in 1516, debated the benefits of the death penalty in dialogue form, coming to no firm conclusion. More recent opposition to the death penalty stemmed from the book of the Italian Cesare Beccaria Dei Delitti e Delle Pene (“On Crimes and Punishments“), published in 1764. In this book, Beccaria aimed to demonstrate not only the injustice, but even the futility from the point of view of social welfare, of torture and the death penalty. Influenced by the book, Grand Duke Leopold II of Habsburg, famous enlightened monarch and future Emperor of Austria, abolished the death penalty in the then-independent Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the first permanent abolition in modern times. 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 abolished the death penalty and ordered the destruction of all the instruments for capital execution in his land. In 2000, Tuscany’s regional authorities instituted an annual holiday on 30 November to commemorate the event. The event is commemorated on this day by 300 cities around the world celebrating Cities for Life Day.
The Roman Republic banned capital punishment in 1849. Venezuela followed suit and abolished the death penalty in 1854 and San Marino did so in 1865. The last execution in San Marino had taken place in 1468. In Portugal, after legislative proposals in 1852 and 1863, the death penalty was abolished in 1867.
Abolition occurred in Canada in 1976 (except for some military offences, with complete abolition in 1998), in France in 1981, and in Australia in 1973 (although the state of Western Australia retained the penalty until 1984). In 1977, the United Nations General Assembly affirmed in a formal resolution that throughout the world, it is desirable to “progressively restrict the number of offences for which the death penalty might be imposed, with a view to the desirability of abolishing this punishment”.
In the United Kingdom, it was abolished for murder (leaving only treason, piracy with violence, arson in royal dockyards and a number of wartime military offences as capital crimes) for a five-year experiment in 1965 and permanently in 1969, the last execution having taken place in 1964. It was abolished for all peacetime offences in 1998.
In the United States, Michigan was the first state to ban the death penalty, on 18 May 1846. The death penalty was declared unconstitutional between 1972 and 1976 based on the Furman v. Georgia case, but the 1976 Gregg v. Georgia case once again permitted the death penalty under certain circumstances. Further limitations were placed on the death penalty in Atkins v. Virginia (death penalty unconstitutional for people with an intellectual disability) and Roper v. Simmons (death penalty unconstitutional if defendant was under age 18 at the time the crime was committed). In the United States, 18 states and the District of Columbia ban capital punishment.
Abolitionists believe capital punishment is the worst violation of human rights, because the right to life is the most important, and capital punishment violates it without necessity and inflicts to the condemned a psychological torture. Human rights activists oppose the death penalty, calling it “cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment”. Amnesty International considers it to be “the ultimate, irreversible denial of Human Rights”.
Capital punishment by country
Most countries including almost all First World nations have abolished capital punishment either in law or in practice. Notable exceptions are the United States, China, North Korea, Japan, and most Islamic states. The U.S. is the only Western country to use the death penalty.
Since World War II, there has been a trend toward abolishing the death penalty. 58 countries retain the death penalty in active use, 102 countries have abolished capital punishment altogether, six have done so for all offences except under special circumstances, and 32 more have abolished it in practice because they have not used it for at least 10 years and are believed to have a policy or established practice against carrying out executions.
According to Amnesty International, 25 countries are known to have performed executions in 2015, three more than in 2014. There are countries which do not publish information on the use of capital punishment, most significantly China and North Korea.