There is no RationalWiki without you. We are a small non-profit with no staff — we are hundreds of volunteers who document pseudoscience and crankery around the world every day. We will never allow ads because we must remain independent. We cannot rely on big donors with corresponding big agendas. We are not the largest website around, but we believe we play an important role in defending truth and objectivity.
If everyone seeing this today donates $5, we will meet our goal for 2018.
| Fighting pseudoscience isn't free.|
We are 100% user-supported! Help and donate $5, $20 or whatever you can today with !
| You betrayed the|
“”Of two methods which are equally effective in preventing murder, the one involving least harm to the murderer is to be preferred. The harm to the murderer is wholly regrettable, like the pain of a surgical operation. It may be equally necessary, but it is not a subject for rejoicing. The vindictive feeling called ‘moral indignation’ is merely a form of cruelty. Suffering to the criminal can never be justified by the notion of vindictive punishment. If education combined with kindness is equally effective, it is to be preferred; still more is it to be preferred if it is more effective.
|—Bertrand Russel, What I Believe|
Capital punishment or the death penalty is the (almost always) cruel and unusual punishment of causing an individual's death as a punishment for a crime. A decree that one be punished in this manner is a death sentence, while the enforcement itself of such a decree is known as an execution. The term capital punishment was borrowed from the Latin capitalis ("[of/relating to] the head"), referring to the once-common method of execution by beheading.
Death sentences are currently handed down and carried out in about a third of the world's countries, including countries with very large populations such as China, India and the United States. The Council of Europe prohibits the use of the death penalty by its members, and Article 2 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union prohibits the use of capital punishment. The United Nations General Assembly has also passed three non-binding resolutions calling for an end to the death penalty.
- 1 Death penalty laws
- 2 Lethal injection
- 3 Support
- 4 Opposition
- 5 See also
- 6 External links
- 7 References
Death penalty laws
While most cultures have historically used capital punishment, many countries, particularly Western and democratic ones, have moved, or are moving, away from the application of this punishment. Italian philosopher and politician Cesare Beccaria condemned capital punishment in his 1764 treatise On Crimes and Punishments. Early moves towards abolition began in some European countries during the mid 19th century, but the move away from capital punishment gathered momentum a century later, in the years following the Second World War, as human rights became a more significant political issue.
The 1950 European Convention on Human Rights recommended that the death penalty be abolished in European nations or restricted to times of war. Protocol 6 restricted the death penalty to times of war, and Protocol 13 later provided for the complete abolition of the death penalty. The vast majority of European countries have adopted both of these protocols, excepting a few in Eastern Europe. The United Kingdom abolished the death penalty for virtually all offences in 1969 (although it still remained a theoretically valid sentence for treason until the passage of the Human Rights Act in 1998). In December 2007 the United Nations General Assembly approved a moratorium on the death penalty, which calls for a worldwide suspension (not necessarily abolition) of capital punishment. The moratorium is not binding, but established an international consensus against the death penalty.
The United States is the single exception to the western trend towards abolition, with many states and the federal government still applying the ultimate penalty for serious and/or repeated crime. In 1972 a moratorium was placed on executions by the Supreme Court, not because capital punishment itself was ruled unconstitutional but because of perceived procedural flaws. After these were ironed out, executions resumed in 1976. Poor defendants unable to afford their own lawyer are more likely to be on death row. Plea bargaining, local politics, and the state or county where the crime happened also affect the likelihood of a death sentence. Capital punishment is still exercised in 33 states, over 80% executions are in The South, with a few counties accounting for disproportionate numbers. Regions with no capital punishment include Alaska, most of New England and parts of the Midwest.. Even in these regions, however, some federal offenses such as treason, the murder of federal employees, or in some cases espionage, remain capital since federal law takes precedence. Although the only three federal prisoners executed since the moratorium (all under George W. Bush) were from death penalty states, 8 of the 59 current federal death row inmates are from abolitionist states..
Sadly, injustices are still regularly discovered, with 140 wrongly convicted people released from death row since 1973. A peer reviewed statistical analysis concluded that at least 4% of people on death row are innocent. It is estimated that 3% of American executions are botched, but the proportion of lethal injections botched is much higher.
Other nations where capital punishment is legal
Capital punishment also remains legal in most of Asia, numerous African countries and the Middle East. Usage varies from nation to nation. For example, in the United States the death penalty is usually reserved for homicide-related crimes, and in Japan for multiple homicides. Some countries, such as Russia and South Korea, still retain death penalty laws but have stopped issuing death sentences in recent years. In China, the death penalty is applied for various crimes against the state, including high levels of embezzlement and tax evasion, murder and child molestation, and killing pandas. Executions happen very quickly in China, so quickly that the government maintains a fleet of "execution vans" that condemned prisoners are hustled into, killed, and popped right out the other end. China executed more than 1,000 people in 2015, according to human rights charity Reprieve. In India, crimes such as mutiny, treason, murder and serious drug trafficking can be a capital offence. However, the Supreme Court of India has issued 'rarest of rare' criterion for using capital punishment. Some self-proclaimed Islamic nations such as Mauritania, Yemen, Sudan, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates punish sodomy and sometimes adultery as well as apostasy (abandoning religion or converting to another faith) with death. Israel is an interesting case, as though Israel has never explicitly abolished capital punishment, the only persons ever executed by the State of Israel were the alleged traitor Meir Tobiansky (who was convicted by a kangaroo-y military court in 1948 but turned out to be innocent - whoops) and Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, who was justly convicted and executed[citation NOT needed] for his part in the Holocaust.
The Islamic State of dubious legality uses the death penalty for almost any offense against anything, though Saudi Arabia likely executes more, including 47 on January 2, 2016, alone, and at least 157 in 2015, many for drug offenses and protesting. Still, Saudi Arabia's 2015 numbers are well below Iran's and Pakistan's, which are reported to be 957 and 322, respectively. (The US came in fifth with 28.)
In the USA the current main method of execution is by lethal injection. The standard before recent times was a cocktail of three drugs that paralyse before killing. Although it is claimed by some that this is more humane than gas, electrocution or hanging, the method can potentially mask pain. It is estimated that just over 7% of lethal injections are botched.
A growing shortage of the drugs used for killing convicted criminals has begun to affect the practice of capital punishment in the United States. The European Union refuses to allow export of drugs for lethal injections, leading many states to use untested and/or unreliably sourced drug cocktails. In October of 2015, Ohio announced it would be postponing executions until at least 2017 due to an inability to acquire the deadly drugs. Some states are using secrecy laws to prevent close examination of precisely what they are doing and US attorney general Eric Holder has called for greater transparency.
During 2014 there were three seriously botched lethal injection executions.
- In the state of Ohio Dennis McGuire was executed using a drug combination which a Harvard anesthologist warned would leave him conscious and aware of what happened while he suffocated. McGuire gasped for 10 minutes, clenched his fists and tried to rise from the gurney. Amnesty International considers suffocation a form of torture.
- In Arizona Joseph Wood gasped for roughly 2 hours and was injected 15 times before finally dying. There are widespread fears that Wood was tortured. Since the potency of drugs that needed so many injections is unknown we cannot currently establish how much he could feel. There have been calls for an inquiry.
- Oklahoma used an experimental drug cocktail as a substitute for the now-unavailable standard mixture in order to execute Clayton Lockett. Lockett died an agonizing death in what was obviously a botched attempt to execute him. For part of the time blinds were drawn to prevent witnesses observing exactly what happened. Oklahoma state refuses to name the supplier of the drugs. In a blog post appearing shortly thereafter, biologist PZ Myers wondered why it was difficult to conduct judicial executions in a humane manner when euthanizing animals painlessly is a simple process. Isaan Tharoor, a blogger for the Washington Post argues that other gruesome forms of execution are more humane than what happened to Lockett, whether that's beheading, firing squad, hanging, or falling from a height.
- In Missouri Russell Bucklew is due to be executed by lethal injection. Bucklew has a medical condition which Amnesty International fears greatly increases the risk of a painfully botched execution.
In the United States, many Evangelical Christians support the death penalty despite being "pro-life", making the distinction between "innocent" life and "non-innocent" life. Judgment is not, as is often stated, left to God. Of course, without capital punishment, their religion would have had a lot of trouble getting started. Indeed, the Bible lists a vast number of "crimes" which "merit" the death penalty. Then again, the Bible never mentions a crime for which the criminal has to go in jail either and has multiple crimes that are punished with exile, torture and giving the criminal the status of a slave. Why Evangelical Christians don't want to forbid imprisonment and reintroduce the punishment of exile and slavery as a status specifically for criminals is a mystery to which we will never know the answer.
Capital punishment is generally supported by conservatives — you know, the ones against abortion because they "hold to the sanctity of life", yet somehow seem to feel that an adult life has no particular sanctity if it is being lived by a person who, for whatever reason, has committed a particular crime.
Thankfully, it's not true of all conservative or religious groups; some people and religious organizations that are anti-abortion, such as the Roman Catholic Church and those subscribing to "consistent life ethic", are also anti-capital punishment and often anti-war, too.
On the flip side, individuals such as pundit Bill Maher espouse views which could be said to amount to a "consistent death ethic", with Maher humorously referring to himself as being "pro-death" due to his support of abortion and euthanasia as well as the death penalty.
The Roman Catholic Church is now relatively consistent in its pro-life stance, opposing both abortion and most cases of capital punishment, although some American Catholics don't seem to have noticed.
Opponents of capital punishment usually cite a number of reasons for their position, from the view that it creates a moral vacuum at the heart of society wherein the only body with the authority to legitimately and with premeditation kill is the State, that it is institutionalized barbarism, and pointing to the small but significant number of cases where the death penalty has been enacted and the accused has been subsequently demonstrated to be innocent of the crime for which they suffered the ultimate penalty. There are many examples of innocent people being executed — see below for more. There is (in the U.S.) currently a program funding DNA testing of evidence to exonerate potentially wrongly convicted inmates on death row, which is producing a steady trickle of freed prisoners.
There is also the rather abstract concept that a state is subservient to its people, and may never take their lives for any reason. This concept sees judicial executions as unlawful and therefore murder according to a higher law.
Incidentally the United States, after all these years, still has one of the worst murder rates in the developed world. Something is definitely not working.
Another issue for the U.S. and its continued use of the death penalty is the evident racial bias in its application. Black males are far more likely to be sentenced to death for similar or even lesser crimes than white males, and the death penalty is more likely to be imposed when the victim is white. 77% of death row defendants are there for killing a white person while half of murder victims are black.
A gender bias is also evident, with very few women receiving the death penalty, even in light of the disparity in criminal incidence. Both of these biases indicate to outside observers that in spite of the protestations of its supporters that the death penalty is all about deterrence, it has a much murkier rationale that puts the whole process on a very dubious footing. This effect is attributed to the US practice of having the death penalty requested by the prosecution during and after conviction, rather than by a more impartial source such as a judge. Of course, judges aren't free of bias, and may impose harsher penalties during an election year.
“”The object of causing pain to the criminal is presumably deterrent. If prisons were so humanized that a prisoner got a good education for nothing, people might commit crimes in order to qualify for entrance. No doubt prison must be less pleasant than freedom; but the best way to secure this result is to make freedom more pleasant than it sometimes is at present.
|—Bertrand Russel, What I Believe|
The supposed deterrent effect is also dubious as it doesn't deter against the main motives for murder: passion, compulsion and profit. The first two cannot be deterred against practically by definition. In the case of the third no one commits a crime anticipating that they will be apprehended and punished - those who do anticipate such scenarios usually have plans to get away with it, be it destroying the evidence, framing someone else, hiding from law enforcement, or getting a good lawyer to beat the rap. Additionally there is the "might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb" effect — once someone is subject to the ultimate penalty, there is nothing to hold them back. Once the "point of no return" has been reached (i.e. rape, murder, etc.), there is no longer a deterrent against further crimes to avoid capture and punishment, particularly when the culprit is trying to evade capture (the idea is that they might have reached the limit of legal punishment, but as long as that limit is short of death there's still a worse outcome to avoid by surrendering). FBI data shows that over the last 20 years, the murder rate has, on average, been higher in states which retain the death penalty than those which do not.
However, one should be careful not to confuse correlation with causation. That states with the death penalty have higher murder rates than states without does not necessarily mean that there is a causal relationship between murder rates and capital punishment. The April 18, 2012 report by the National Research Council of the National Academies reviewed more than three decades of research and concluded that studies claiming a deterrent effect on murder rates from the death penalty are fundamentally flawed. Criminologist Daniel Nagin of Carnegie Mellon said: "Nothing is known about how potential murderers actually perceive their risk of punishment." The report concluded: “The committee concludes that research to date on the effect of capital punishment on homicide is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates".
Racism is a factor in determining who gets executed. In the US, an execution is more likely in a murder case if the accused is black and the victim is white. A study in Philadelphia showed blacks were significantly more likely to get the death penalty than whites or defendants of other races regardless of the severity of the murder.
Blatant racist language on the part of the police indicates the biases at play: a Texas police officer told Clarence Brandley, who was later convicted of the murder of a white high school girl: "One of you two is gonna hang for this. Since you're the nigger, you're elected." Brandley was exonerated in 1990 after ten years on death row.
Judges are also known to drop an occasional N-bomb when the accused's life is at stake. In preparing for the penalty phase of an African-American defendant's trial, a white judge in Florida said in open court: "Since the nigger mom and dad are here anyway, why don't we go ahead and do the penalty phase today instead of having to subpoena them back at cost to the state." Anthony Peek was sentenced to death and the sentence was upheld by the Florida Supreme Court in 1986 reviewing his claim of racial bias. Juries can also engage in racist language. One black member of the jury (that convicted a black man) later described an atmosphere of racial intimidation. A white juror said execution would leave "one less nigger to breed".
Death penalty proponents often complain that taxpayer dollars would have to be used to support criminals in jail. (So off with their heads, eh?) In fact, the death penalty actually costs more in the US due to increased investigative expenses, appeals (paid for by taxpayers), and the cost of the execution itself. There are also arguments that bring up the diminishing space in jails, but they fail to consider that people about to be executed are placed on death row (usually for several years at least in the US) and need to be supported.
There is also a psychological cost for the death penalty for most people involved. Many workers involved in executions have reported suffering post traumatic stress disorder or similar symptoms, including flashbacks and nightmares, and they have entered bouts of deep reflection after the execution. Families related to the executed person must also cope with this loss.
Peer reviewed research suggests at least 4% of those sentenced to death in the United States are innocent. Since 1977 140 prisoners have been released from death row over evidence of wrongful conviction and more than 1200 were executed. There have been documented cases of executing innocent people.
“”For every nine people that we have executed in America, we have identified one innocent person on death row.
|— Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative speaking to the BBC |
Many people support the death penalty in theory but oppose it in practice for just this reason (often in addition to the complications of cost and uneven justice detailed above).
In Missouri Larry Griffin was convicted of murder based on the evidence of a criminal, Robert Fitzgerald, who was released from prison the day Griffin was convicted. Wallace Conners, who knew Griffin and was an eyewitness to the shooting, said Griffin was not there, but Conners was not called to give evidence. Griffin died by lethal injection in 1995. In Georgia, Troy Davis was executed although there was inconsistency in the evidence of different prosecution witnesses. Most non-police witnesses contradicted or recanted their evidence and said they gave evidence under police pressure.. One of the few who did not recant was implicated as the shooter by other witnesses In Texas, Carlos DeLuna was executed for the brutal murder of a woman. The real murderer was almost certainly a different man, Carlos Hernandez, though prosecutors maintained Hernandez was a figment of DeLuna's imagination. After the execution investigators tracked Hernandez down, and he had a police record including violence against women and the suspected murder of another woman, so police should have been able to find him. Also in Texas, Claude Jones was convicted of capital murder based on evidence from an accomplice and a strand of hair. The accomplice later stated his evidence in court was untrue and had been given to get himself a reduced sentence. Then-governor George W. Bush refused to delay the execution to test the DNA of the hair and Jones was executed. Subsequent testing proved the hair was from the victim and not Jones. Yet another Texas case involved Cameron Todd Willingham whose three daughters died in a fire. The prosecution maintained the fire was an arson he started, while fire experts have stated that the forensic evidence was seriously flawed. This forensic evidence was questioned while Willingham was still alive, but the execution went ahead nevertheless. In 1992, Johnny Garrett was executed for the murder of a nun Sister Taeda Benz. 12 years later a man named Lencio Rueda was implicated in the murder of a woman named Narnie Bryson, who had died in almost identical circumstances to Sister Benz and when pressed by Garrett's lawyer admitted that the bloody shirt found at the scene of Sister Benz's murder belonged to him. Garrett's family have requested DNA testing to clarify the matter, only for the state to threaten to sue.
In the United Kingdom in 1950 Timothy Evans was hanged for the murder of his wife and child. Another man had committed both murders, and testified as a prosecution witness against Evans at his trial.  The Evans case was a factor in the later abolition of capital punishment in the UK.
In Pakistan in 2014/2015 after a terrorist outrage that killed over 100 people, a moratorium on the death penalty was ended. Many risk dying without a proper trial: one notable case is a man who, aged 14, was tortured into confessing to a crime he quite likely did not do and has suffered the agony of death row for over a decade. It can be assumed that almost every execution in the Islamic State is of dubious legality and grossly unjust.
Delay and death row conditions in the USA
“” I have little doubt about the cruelty of so long a period of incarceration under sentence of death. It might also be argued that it is not so much the State as it is the numerous procedures that the law demands that produce decades of delay. But this kind of an argument does not automatically justify execution in this case. Rather, the argument may point instead to a more basic difficulty, namely the difficulty of reconciling the imposition of the death penalty as currently administered with procedures necessary to assure that the wrong person is not executed. (Justice Breyer in a dissenting opinion over the execution of Manuel Valle who was on death row for 33 years)
Condemned prisoners in the United States typically spend 10 years or more in solitary confinement on death row, but a few prisoners have spent over 30 years there. African American Anthony Ray Hinton for example was released after almost 30 years enduring the harsh conditions on Alabama's death row. For 10 years before Hinton's release experts maintained the guns Hinton was accused of using did not match evidence in the murders he was convicted of.
Prisoners are isolated for 23 hours a day in small cells (8 by 10 feet is a typical size), and the majority of death row prisoners have hard beds without mattresses. Prisoners' chances to get social contact, exercise, employment and education are severely limited. For some the combination of isolation and uncertainty causes serious mental deterioration. Some prisoners decide they would rather die than face longer time on death row.
Prosecutors and judges are more often than not elected and want to show voters they are tough on crime, while defense lawyers are frequently underpaid and lack resources to work effectively. Only people who agree with capital punishment may serve on capital juries, therefore many death sentences are passed. Between 1973 and 1995 5% of death sentences led to execution, while 68% were later reversed. Courts later decide two thirds of prisoners experiencing the agony of death row should not be there.
Delay in the Commonwealth
The 1993 Privy Council case of Pratt v AG of Jamaica highlighted the psychological suffering that is experienced by guilty prisoners and also by those later exonerated while they are on death row. The defendants had been convicted of murder in 1979, and had spent over 10 years on death row waiting for their execution whilst the underfunded and overstretched Jamaican legal system reviewed their appeals. At the time, 23 prisoners on death row had been awaiting execution for more than 10 years and 82 prisoners had been awaiting execution for more than five years. On three separate occasions, death warrants were read to them and they were removed to a holding cell and prepared for their hanging, only to be saved at the last minute by lawyers. Lord Griffiths is a Law Lord who got his position in the House of Lords through his legal ability and is not a hereditary peer. Griffiths, in a masterful piece of legal writing, observed that:
“”There is an instinctive revulsion against the prospect of hanging a man after he has been held under sentence of death for many years. ... we regard it as an inhuman act to keep a man facing the agony of execution over a long extended period of time ... A state that wishes to retain capital punishment must accept the responsibility of ensuring that execution follows as swiftly as practicable after sentence, allowing a reasonable time for appeal and consideration of reprieve. It is part of the human condition that a condemned man will take every opportunity to save his life through use of the appellate procedure. If the appellate procedure enables the prisoner to prolong the appellate hearings over a period of years, the fault is to be attributed to the appellate system that permits such delay and not to the prisoner who takes advantage of it.
The Privy Council concluded by holding that spending more than five years on death row constituted "inhuman or degrading punishment or other treatment," which is prohibited in pretty much every human rights treaty. The two defendants had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment.
- Death Penalty Information Center
- Executed and possibly innocent
- Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty
- Next to Die
- "Abolitionist and Retentionist Countries," Amnesty International
- "Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union" (PDF). http://www.europarl.europa.eu/charter/pdf/text_en.pdf. Retrieved 23 August 2010.
- "moratorium on the death penalty". United Nations. 15 November 2007. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=24679&Cr=general&Cr1=assembly. Retrieved 23 August 2010.
- Death penalty statistics 2013: country by country Ordered by number of definite executions, whereas North Korea would most probably rank higher if unknown cases were counted in.
- Death Penalty Facts
- The Clustering of the Death Penalty
- See Image: Death penalty statutes in the United States.svg.
- US death row study: 4% of defendants sentenced to die are innocent
- America's 'inexorably' botched executions
- See the Wikipedia article on Use of capital punishment by nation.
- Creator of Lethal Injection Method: ‘I Don’t See Anything That Is More Humane’
- Oklahoma inmate dies after 'botched' lethal injection
- Lethal injection: Secretive US states resort to untested drugs
- Eric Holder 'greatly troubled' by spate of botched executions The Guardian
- Doctor angry Ohio executed inmate despite 'horror' warning
- Introducing Amnesty’s New Global Campaign Against Torture
- Joseph Wood Received 15 Injections Of Untested Drug Cocktail During Arizona ExecutionArizona inmate Joseph Wood was injected 15 times with execution drugs
- McCain: Prolonged Arizona execution was 'torture'
- Arizona lawyers lead call for inquiry into Joseph Wood's two-hour execution
- Oklahoma execution: Clayton Lockett death witness speaks
- "Clayton Lockett writhed and groaned. After 43 minutes, he was declared dead"
- "Charles Pierce is a bit angry"
- 4 horrible forms of capital punishment more humane than Oklahoma’s botched execution
- TAKE ACTION: Stop the Execution of Russell Bucklew!
- One might argue that these non-innocent individuals should have their
lives takenafterlives fast-tracked so that God can deliver the verdict sooner. That however conflicts with denominations which promotes sola fides, because if they convert at the correct moment they will not be punished for those sins in their afterlife, and they will reap whatever rewards result from their timely conversion.
- The Pope's Statement retrieved Aug. 26 2008
- Using the Death Penalty to Get Re-Elected
- he Increased Risks for Blacks Facing the Death Penalty
- Black Defendants and the Race of the Victims
- The Sounds of Racism
- Electric chair haunts US former executions chief
- Death Penalty Cost, Amnesty International
- The Psychological Experience of Security Officers Who Work With Executions
- Many Prisoners on Death Row are Wrongfully Convicted
- US death row study: 4% of defendants sentenced to die are innocent
- 10 Infamous Cases of Wrongful Execution
- Does a death sentence always mean death?
- Convicted, Executed, Not Guilty The Top 5 Most Wrongful Executions Of All-Time
- The state of Georgia shamefully executed Troy Davis on September 21, 2011 despite serious doubts about his guilt.
- The wrong Carlos: how Texas sent an innocent man to his deathCarlos DeLuna Execution: Texas Put To Death An Innocent Man, Columbia University Team Says
- Results of DNA Testing Come Too Late for Claude Jones
- Cameron Todd Willingham: Wrongfully Convicted and Executed in Texas
- Hanged on 9 March 1950, granted a posthumous free pardon in 1966
- Paddy Reilly - Go Down You Murderers (The Ballad Of Tim Evans) A song describing powerfully the horror that was done to Tim Evans
- The execution of Timothy Evans
- Justice at risk as Pakistan rushes convicts to the gallows
- Life on Death Row in Alabama
- Alabama inmate freed after nearly 30 years on death row
- Time on Death row
- Torture on Death Row: Court Rules Against Automatic Use of Solitary Confinement for the Condemned
- Lifelong Death Sentences
-  2 AC 1
- "Condemned man" presumably includes condemned women prisoners.
- Council ruling has implications for hundreds of people who have spent many years languishing in Commonwealth jails awaiting execution Pratt v Attornery Geeneral for JamaicaThe full text of the case can be found here