The death penalty is a form of punishment that involves executing a person after he or she has been found guilty of a crime by his or her legal system. This may be done as an act of retribution, to ensure that the individual cannot commit future crimes, and/or as a deterrent for potential criminals. Most countries have used this form of punishment at some point in modern times for different crimes, putting people to death in a variety of ways that have evolved with society.
History of the Death Penalty
Often referred to as capital punishment, executions carried out by a government or ruling monarchy date back as far as humans have been recording history. Some ancient texts indicate that, originally, the death penalty was viewed as a price to pay for a crime rather than a punishment, meaning any person's blood being spilled could make up for the crime. For this reason, the original perpetrator did not necessarily have to be the one executed. Since then, however, it has evolved into a means of punishing the individual, ensuring he or she commits no other crimes, and, in many societies, as a way to bring closure to any people harmed by the criminal's actions. It has also been viewed as a means to deter people from committing more severe crimes, much in the way the threat of jail time is used to instill fear in "minor" criminals.
Crimes Earning the Death Penalty
This punishment is typically reserved for crimes that a culture or society has decided are "the worst of the worst;" however, this can vary drastically by country. In western countries that still practice capital punishment, it is usually reserved for murder, espionage, or treason. In some Middle Eastern and other countries, sexual crimes may warrant execution, including incest, rape, sodomy, or adultery. Certain jurisdictions also recognize religious crimes, drug trafficking, and human trafficking as serious enough to warrant execution, and a number of militaries around the world recognize nearly any crime committed by a soldier, including insubordination, as punishable by the death penalty.
Early Forms of Capital Punishment
In the past, the methods used to put people to death were what many in modern society would consider horrific. This was mainly due to the fact that death itself was not necessarily viewed as a punishment, which meant the manner in which a person was executed had to be painful. Drawing and quartering, flaying alive, or burning were not uncommon practices in Medieval Europe or in much of the rest of the world. Other common means of execution included boiling alive, dismemberment, and crucifixion.
A movement began in the late-18th century towards more humane punishments and executions, resulting in the development of the guillotine in France. Other traditional methods were also adapted to meet this new ideal, with one example being hanging; although originally a person was hung so that he or she was strangled to death, this method of execution was altered to snap the neck immediately, which was viewed as more humane. This was followed by the use of the electric chair, death by firing squad, and the most commonly used form of capital punishment in the western world, lethal injection.
Criticizing and Supporting the Practice
The death penalty is one of the most hotly debated topics in the world. Many religions oppose it, although others support it or take no official position. Some modern philosophical theories of ethics disagree with the practice, although many philosophers argue that certain crimes should automatically result in the person losing his or her "right to life."
There are also arguments against some of the justifications for capital punishment. Supporters may argue that a serious crime deserves an equally serious punishment, while opponents say that this is revenge rather than punishment, and that life in prison is more punishing. While execution does prevent the person from committing another crime, spending the rest of his or her life in jail also removes the criminal from society. Many opponents also argue that it rarely has any deterrent effect, and that criminals seldom consider the possibility of a death sentence when committing a crime.
Many people who oppose the death penalty also contend that it is often applied unequally; in the US, for example, people convicted of murder are more likely to be sentenced to death if the victim was white. It has also been argued that factors such as how much money the defendant has, and the quality of lawyer he or she can afford, plays a bigger role in who gets a capital sentence than the severity of the crime. Supporters say that, while flaws within the legal system should be addressed, they do not mean that the entire process does not work.
Since capital punishment was reinstated in the US in 1973, more than 130 people have been released from death row because evidence was found to indicate that they were wrongly convicted. Opponents say that many more people who are sentenced to death may be innocent, and even if one innocent person is executed, it's too many. Supporters often argue that most death penalty convictions that are overturned are done so for technical reasons, not because the person wasn't guilty. In addition, while there is a small chance that an innocent person may be put to death, there are also wrongly convicted people sentenced to long prison sentences; if the chance that an innocent person is incarcerated is not a good enough reason to stop sending people to prison, then it's not enough reason to abolish the death penalty.
Abolishing the Death Penalty
Since the 18th century, a number of countries around the world have abolished the practice entirely, although some have reinstated it, most notably China. The Roman Republic of 1849, San Marino, Venezuela, and Portugal all outlawed the practice in the mid-1800s. Over a century later, Canada followed in others' footsteps, abolishing the practice 1976; France ended it in 1981 and Australia in 1985. In 1977, the United Nations issued a resolution stating that abolishing the practice as much as possible would be in everyone’s best interest.
Still Used Today
Despite the fact that a majority of countries no longer use the death penalty, 60% of the world’s population lives in a country that does as of 2012. Nearly 600 executions are known to have taken place in 2011, although there may have been more because not every country makes this information publicly available. The most verifiable executions took place in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the United States; some experts believe many more have likely been put to death in China.