Many distinctive doctrines in criminal law originated in efforts to restrict the number of capital crimes and executions. For instance, in the late 18th century, when all murder in the United States was punishable by death, Pennsylvania pioneered in dividing murder into two categories. The state enacted laws that authorized punishment of first-degree murder by death, while second-degree murder was punishable by imprisonment only. Elsewhere, penal codes uniformly required death for certain serious crimes. In these jurisdictions, discretionary powers to commute death sentences gradually expanded. (A commutation substitutes a lesser penalty for a more severe one—for example, replacing execution with a life sentence.) Today in many nations, including Turkey and Japan, the death penalty remains legal but the number of executions has declined over time.
Although many jurisdictions limited imposition of the death penalty, no government had formally abolished capital punishment until Michigan did so in 1846. Within 20 years Venezuela (1863) and Portugal (1867) had formally eliminated the practice as well. By the beginning of the 20th century the death sentence had been abolished in a handful of nations, such as Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Norway, and The Netherlands. Although not formally eliminated, it had fallen into disuse in many others, including Brazil, Cape Verde, Iceland, Monaco, and Panama.
The defeat of the Axis powers provided a foundation for the elimination of the death penalty in Western Europe. Some of the nations involved in the war saw abolition of capital punishment as a way to disassociate themselves from the atrocities that had taken place. Italy formally abolished the death penalty in 1947 and the Federal Republic of Germany did so in 1949. The British government instituted a Royal Commission to study capital punishment in 1950 and abolished the death penalty in 1965. (Northern Ireland did not abolish capital punishment until 1973.) By the early 1980s every major country in Europe had stopped executing criminals.
Coincident with this trend in Western Europe, many countries belonging to the Commonwealth of Nations, an association of countries formerly affiliated with the British Empire, eliminated capital punishment. For instance, Canada conducted its last execution in 1962 and abolished the death penalty in 1976. New Zealand held its last execution in 1957 and Australia stopped executing criminals ten years later. A similar burst of abolitionist activity coincided with the breakup of the Soviet Union. East Germany, the Czech Republic, and Romania all outlawed capital punishment between 1987 and 1990. Throughout the former Communist countries, abolition of the death penalty was a political act far removed from the usual domain of criminal justice policy-making. Eliminating the death penalty was one of many ways the citizens of these countries rejected unlimited state power over individual life. For example, in Romania the overthrow of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was followed by his execution and that of members of his family. Shortly thereafter, the new government abolished capital punishment, which was associated with Ceausescu’s brutal, tyrannical rule.
Critics of capital punishment contend that it is brutal and degrading, while supporters consider it a necessary form of retribution (revenge) for terrible crimes. Those who advocate the death penalty assert that it is a uniquely effective punishment that deters crime. However, advocates and opponents of the death penalty dispute the proper interpretation of statistical analyses of its deterrent effect. Opponents of capital punishment see the death penalty as a human rights issue involving the proper limits of governmental power. In contrast, those who want governments to continue to execute tend to regard capital punishment as an issue of criminal justice policy. Because of these alternative viewpoints, there is a profound difference of opinion not only about what is the right answer on capital punishment, but about what type of question is being asked when the death penalty becomes a public issue.
Execution by Guillotine During the French Revolution (1789-1799), King Louis XVI of France was tried as a traitor and condemned to death. His execution by guillotine, which took place in a crowded plaza in Paris, was a public spectacle. Early opponents of the death penalty opposed such brutal methods of criminal punishment.Corbis
Early opponents of capital punishment objected to its brutality. Executions were public spectacles involving cruel methods. In addition, capital punishment was not reserved solely for the most serious crimes. Death was the penalty for a variety of minor offenses.
The allegations of brutality inspired two different responses by those who supported executions. First, advocates contended that capital punishment was necessary for the safety of other citizens and therefore not gratuitous. Second, death penalty supporters sought to remove some of the most visibly gruesome aspects of execution. Executions that had been open to the public were relocated behind closed doors. Later, governments replaced traditional methods of causing death—such as hanging—with what were regarded as more modern methods, such as electrocution and poison gas. Lethal injection is now the preferred method of execution in the majority of U.S. states.
The search for less brutal means of inflicting death continues to recent times. In 1977 Oklahoma became the first U.S. state to authorize execution by lethal injection—the administration of fatal amounts of fast-acting drugs and chemicals. Lethal injection is now the preferred method of execution in the majority of U.S. states. However, modern opponents of capital punishment contend that sterilized and depersonalized methods of execution do not eliminate the brutality of the penalty.
In the debate about execution and human dignity, supporters and opponents of the death penalty have found very little common ground. Opponents of capital punishment assert that it is degrading to the humanity of the person punished. Since the 18th century, those who wish to abolish the death penalty have stressed the significance of requiring governments to recognize the importance of each individual. However, supporters of capital punishment see nothing wrong with governments deliberately killing terrible people who commit terrible crimes. Therefore, they see no need to limit governmental power in this area.
Early opponents of capital punishment also argued that inflicting death was not necessary to control crime and properly punish wrongdoers. Instead, alternative punishment—such as imprisonment—could effectively isolate criminals from the community, deter other potential offenders from committing offenses, and express the community’s condemnation of those who break its laws. In his Essay on Crimes and Punishments, Beccaria asserted that the certainty of punishment, rather than its severity, was a more effective deterrent.
Supporters of capital punishment countered that the ultimate penalty of death was necessary for the punishment of terrible crimes because it provided the most complete retribution and condemnation. Furthermore, they argued that the threat of execution was a unique deterrent. Death penalty supporters contended that capital punishment self-evidently prevents more crime because death is so much more feared than mere restrictions on one’s liberty.
Supporters and opponents of capital punishment still debate its effectiveness. Social scientists have collected statistical data on trends in homicide before and after jurisdictions have abolished capital punishment. They have also compared homicide rates in places with and without the death penalty. The great majority of these statistical comparisons indicate that the presence or absence of capital punishment or executions does not visibly influence the rate of homicide.
Opponents of capital punishment maintain that these studies refute the argument that the death penalty deters crime. Many capital punishment opponents consider the deterrence argument fully negated and no longer part of the debate. However, supporters of the death penalty dispute that interpretation of the statistical analyses of deterrent effect. Capital punishment advocates note that because the death penalty is reserved for the most aggravated murders, the deterrent effect of capital punishment on such crimes may not be apparent in data on homicide rates in general. Supporters also urge that the conflicting results of various studies indicate that the deterrent effect of the death penalty cannot not be proven or disproven with any certainty. They maintain that in the absence of conclusive proof that the threat of execution might not save some people from being killed, capital punishment should be retained.
A unique facet of the modern debate about capital punishment is the characterization of the death penalty as a human rights issue, rather than a debate about the proper punishment of criminals. Modern opposition to the death penalty is seen as a reaction to the political history of the 20th century, most notably the Holocaust—the systematic mass killing of Jews and others during World War II (1939-1945). All the major nations in Western Europe utilized capital punishment prior to World War II. After the defeat of the National Socialist (Nazi) and Fascist governments of Germany and Italy, those two nations became the first major powers in Europe to abolish capital punishment. The postwar movement to end capital punishment, beginning in Italy and Germany and then spreading, represented a reaction to totalitarian forms of government that systematically violated the rights of the individual.
The human rights focus on the death penalty has continued, especially in settings of dramatic political change. When people view capital punishment as a human rights issue, countries that are becoming more democratic have been eager to abolish the death penalty, which they associate with the former regime and its abuses of power. For example, a number of former Communist nations abolished capital punishment shortly after the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1991. Similarly, the multiracial government of South Africa formed in 1994 quickly outlawed a death penalty many associated with apartheid, the official policy of racial segregation that had been in place since the late 1940s.