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What is a Death Warrant?

By Kyla G. Kelim
Updated: May 16, 2024

A death warrant — also known as an execution warrant — is a formal writ issued by a court or government official that authorizes a prison official to carry out the execution of an inmate for capital crimes. The death warrant will specify the time period and the method in which the execution must be carried out. If the execution is not accomplished before the death warrant expires, a new warrant must be issued before the execution can take place. In the United States, a judge or governor issues a death warrant after all appeals are exhausted. It is largely a routine administrative act, but signing a death warrant is symbolically significant to supporters of the inmate and the victim, as well as proponents and opponents of capital punishment.

Worldwide, 58 countries used capital punishment as of 2010. In the United States, there are a number of due process steps in place throughout the capital punishment system, including the issuance of the death warrant and the execution itself. Many other countries widely publicize the details of the punishment and issuance of the death warrant as a deterrence to its citizens. Some countries do not have those transparent safeguards in place, making it difficult to know how many of its citizens are executed. The largest number of reported executions in 2009 were in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Famous figures and high drama are associated with death warrants that have survived for hundreds of years. Queen Elizabeth I reportedly agonized over signing the death warrant for her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1587. King Charles I was executed for treason following the civil war in the 1640s that also led to the rise of Oliver Cromwell’s brief republican government. His son, restored King Charles II, ordered the executions of many signers of his father’s death warrant. Both of these documents are in London collections.

A death warrant is a term sometimes used by countries that are publicly condemning a person for actions or views at odds with the regime. That country is actually giving license to kill a person who has been alleged to have committed a crime but is not presently incarcerated. A license to kill is permission to use deadly force in the arrest of the subject, and not the specific terms of carrying out an execution following a trial.

The phrase “death warrant” is part of our popular culture. Unpopular views or laws are described as a death warrant to an affected group, idea or way of life. The idiom “signing one’s own death warrant” describes an unwise course of action in personal, political or business pursuits.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By Feryll — On Jan 07, 2015

If you watch enough movies, you would think that death warrants are often voided at the last minute as a prisoner is about to be executed. The truth of the matter is that there are very few last minute calls from the governor to save the lives of convicted prisoners.

I remember reading somewhere just how few times this has really happened. It's amazing how the movies picked up on the idea of the last-minute stay of execution and ran with it.

By Animandel — On Jan 06, 2015

@Sporkasia - I know the US has a lot of executions, but I think you have to take in consideration the number of people and the number of violent crimes we have in this country. And yes, I know the frequency of violent crimes is not a selling point for our country, but maybe this does explain why we have so many more people in prison and on death row. This also explains why we execute the number of people we do.

I will also say that I think our unwillingness to actually kill even the worst of criminals can be seen in all of the formalities and legalities that have to take place before a death warrant can be carried out. Compared to the number of murders we have in this country, we have a low execution rate.

By Sporkasia — On Jan 06, 2015

I find the fact that the United States is included in the same category as Iraq and Iran in this article rather interesting. In the U.S. our government is always talking about how we are more democratic and caring of human rights than places like Iraq and Iran; yet there we are at the top of the list in numbers of death warrants issued and executions committed, along side those terrible places that we look down upon for having no respect for human rights.

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