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What is Capital Punishment?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Capital punishment is a practice in which prisoners are executed in accordance with judicial practice when they are convicted of committing what is known as a “capital crime.” Capital crimes are crimes deemed so heinous that they should be punishable by death. People may also use the term “death penalty” to refer to capital punishment. Worldwide, this practice is extremely controversial, with a variety of concerns ranging from human rights to economic efficiency being raised in discussions about this type of punishment.

The practice of executing people for certain crimes is very old; in fact, the term itself dates to a Latin root, capitalis, which means “of the head,” a reference to a common execution method used in Roman times. At various points in history, a wide range of crimes have been punishable by death, including rape, murder, treason, mutiny, and theft. In the military, death sentences for “cowardice” were used as recently as the First World War, when soldiers were shot by firing squads assembled from the men who served with them, providing both a punishment and a warning.

As early as the 1800s, some members of society were pushing for abolition of the death penalty, arguing that it was an inhumane method of punishment. Many abolitionists were also involved with animal welfare organizations and antislavery organizations. Their efforts were at least partially successful; by the beginning of the 21st century, only 58 nations were practicing the death penalty, and several of these nations had very restrictive terms which had to be met in order for capital punishment to be an option. China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States lead the world in executions annually.

Arguments for capital punishment include the suggestion that it acts as a deterrent, by reminding criminals that they can pay the ultimate price for some claims. It is also touted in some regions as a safety measure which effectively removes people who have committed horrific crimes from the street without having to worry about their release on parole in the future. Some supporters also argue that execution provides closure to family members of victims. Furthermore, supporters argue, it is possible to administer the death penalty justly and humanely.

People who oppose the death penalty argue that it is unevenly applied, creating the potential for erroneous executions of innocent people. Opponents are also perturbed by differing standards in judicial practice; for example, some nations allow capital punishment for crimes such as drug trafficking, and in some nations where homosexuality remains criminalized, it is punishable by death. Opponents also argue that administering capital punishment justly and fairly is tremendously expensive, and it is more cost effective to focus on incarceration.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By suntan12 — On Sep 17, 2010

BrickBack-At least here in the United States capital punishment reasons revolve around murder.

There are some countries where non criminal offenses result in capital punishment. For example, in many Middle Eastern countries homosexuality is a capital offense and death is the penalty.

In addition, a woman rumored to have committed adultery whether true or not also results in the death penalty.

There is a case in Iran in which a woman is sentenced to death by stoning because it was rumored that she was unfaithful to her spouse.

Communist countries like Cuba and China have executed vocal political detractors for espousing their opposing political views.

People that live in democratic countries like the United States should be so grateful because you have so many more rights than you do in other parts of the world. Capital punishment in America is a much fairer process than in other parts of the world.

By BrickBack — On Sep 17, 2010

Latte31-Capital punishment pros say that it is a deterrent to crime. Although capital crimes like murder still occur, the incidences of murder is lower in states that fully implement the death penalty.

People against the death penalty feel that it is morally wrong to kill another person. They also say that it is often more costly to have someone on death row because of their endless appeals.

Many say that death row inmates often stay on death row for such a long time sometimes fifteen to twenty years that it is really not as effective as if the punishment were immediate.

Opponents say that it does not deter criminals from committing murder because it still happens. Also, many state that what about if the person was wrongly convicted of the crime.

There have been cases in which people were almost executed for a crime that they did not commit. Although this does not happen often, thankfully the fact that it could happen is enough for many to consider abolishing the death penalty altogether.

By latte31 — On Sep 17, 2010

The capital punishment argument states that by punishing the criminal with the ultimate punishment of death, it would deter would be criminals from committing the same offense.

Usually only the most serious offenses such as murder result in the death penalty in many states in the United States.

Capital punishment statistics state that only a handful of prisoners actually get executed and none of the cases involve juveniles. Capital punishment for juveniles is unlawful.

In fact the Supreme Court ruled that minors can not be charged with the capital punishment statues. The court ruled that minors have a chance for turning their life around and because they are not of majority age they do not have the same reasoning abilities of an adult.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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