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What is Capital Punishment?

Updated on January 16, 2010

Capital punishment was common among all ancient civilizations. Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Hebrews, Persians, Greeks, and Romans prescribed it for a variety of crimes, including acts that today are considered minor offenses or no crimes at all. Thus death was decreed for malpractice in selling beer by the Code of Hammurabi, for idolatry by the law of the ancient Hebrews, for accidentally sitting on the king's throne by Persian law, for sacrilege by Greek law in the days of Pericles, and for stealing the keys to one's husband's wine cellar by the laws of the early Roman republic. The means of inflicting death in ancient times were varied, but they were characterized by a common barbarity. Executions were devised as great public spectacles where crowds might observe any one of a number of methods of killing criminals, including boiling in oil, flaying alive, stoning, or impaling. One of the most horrible ways of inflicting death in ancient times was the Persian method called "the boats." The condemned was put in one boat with another fitted over him. From these his head, hands, and feet protruded. Thus encased, he was forcibly fed with milk and honey, which were also smeared on his face. Exposed to the sun, he was eventually devoured alive by insects and vermin that swarmed about and bred within him.

Modern Types of Execution

For many years governments believed that public executions were necessary to achieve the greatest retributive and deterrent effects. The authorities in some countries still hold to this point of view, but since the second half of the 19th century the general practice has been to exclude the public from executions.

As was seen, in earlier times methods of execution were greatly varied, sometimes attended by cruel tortures. Today the trend is toward relatively swift and painless methods of execution. Military executions are by firing squad almost everywhere, but civil authorities vary considerably in their methods, although most use hanging. Decapitation (by guillotine) is used in France and in a few Asian and African countries. In Spain the method is strangulation by the garrote. The electric chair and the gas chamber were most prevalent in the United States. Now it leans more towards lethal injection.

Debate on the Value of Capital Punishment

Arguments about the philosophy of punishment and its methods are largely meaningless unless presented in terms of a particular culture. The following discussion applies principally to the countries of Western civilization, especially the English-speaking countries.

Proponents and opponents of capital punishment argue in terms of its deterrent, retributive, economic, and socially protective effectiveness.


In favor of capital punishment, it has been insisted that the criminal should die because he has perpetrated a horrible crime, and that only his execution will satisfy the public and prevent it from taking the law into its own hands. Opponents of the death penalty argue that all the evidence points to the opposite conclusion. Many jurisdictions have abolished capital gunishment; many others have reduced the num-er of capital offenses; and everywhere authorities have sought to make the method of execution as swift and painless as possible. Opponents also say that studies show no positive correlation between illegal lynchings for revenge and the elimination of the death penalty.

The proponents of capital punishment argue that retribution should not be construed as revenge. The almost universal desire for revenge must be kept in check and regulated in modern society by legal retribution if order is to be maintained. Retribution functions interrelatedly with reformation and deterrence, both of which must be expressed in terms of society's moral code. The principal function of retribution is to support this code and thus help unify society against those who violate it. In supporting the moral code, this argument continues, retribution increases the effectiveness of reformation and deterrence.

The law exacts retribution by attaching a penalty to each crime according to its seriousness as measured by the moral code. Thus, explain the proponents, the value of the life of the criminal, as measured by the moral code, may be less than such values as the security of the state, the sanctity of the home, or the life of the innocent victim. The law has always recognized the necessity of such a choice, and justifies killing in self-defense, in the prevention of a felony, in the lawful arrest of a felon, or in war against the enemies of a state. Indeed, proponents contend, not to kill in these cases would jeopardize the welfare of society. Just as the individual has the right and duty to kill to protect himself, so the state has the right and duty to take the life of a criminal to protect greater values, according to this argument.

Proponents further argue that there is no substitute for the death penalty in giving retribution its maximum effectiveness. Life imprisonment, usually advanced as a substitute, can readily be converted into early parole. Thus the malefactor may soon come to see no difference between the breaking of a window and the fracturing of another's skull. What often parades as humanitarianism is merely public indifference to dealing with delinquents and criminals. Such public lethargy endangers the moral code. Opponents, however, say that the limited enforcement of the death penalty has little effect on upholding the moral code.


The most frequently advanced and widely accepted argument in favor of capital punishment is that fear of death deters people from committing crimes. Opponents contend that any fear of the death penalty is greatly reduced by the decrease in the number of jurisdictions using it, by the uncertainty of detection, the long delavs in court procedures, and the unwillingness of many juries to convict in cases where the death penalty is mandatory, by the declinein the number of executions, and by the non-public nature of executions. They argue that statistical studies, although not conclusive, indicate that the use of the death penalty has no significant effect on either the frequency of capital crimes or the safety of law-enforcement officers, and that the humanitarianism of modern society would probably defeat any effort to increase the use of capital punishment.

Proponents of capital punishment not only point to the inconclusiveness of statistical studies but also emphasize that the deterrent influence of the death penalty does not depend merely on the fear it may engender. By attaching this penalty to certain crimes, the law exerts a, positive moral influence in the educational process. By strongly stigmatizing these acts, the law helps to develop attitudes of disgust and even horror for them. Further, proponents insist that the deterrent influence of the death penalty reaches across state lines into jurisdictions that have abolished it, and so all are benefited by its continued use in some areas.


Some proponents of capital punishment argue that it is cheaper to execute a prisoner than to keep him in an institution for life or a long term. Opponents insist that it is increasingly expensive to enforce the death penalty. Since a large segment of the public is against capital punishment, juries are more and more reluctant to convict those who may receive this penalty. For those who are convicted, the commonly used process of appealing the decision is costly to the state. Further, a prisoner committed to an institution may be able to support himself and his dependents and make restitution to his victim or to the surviving relatives. Moreover, say the opponents, the economic argument if carried further might be applied to all prisoners who are not self-supporting. If the argument is valid, all prisoners should be executed to save the taxpayer the expense of institutionalizing them. When extended this far, opponents contend, the absurdity of the economic argument becomes obvious.


A fourth argument in favor of capital punishment is that it protects society from dangerous criminals by ensuring that they will neither repeat their crimes nor pass on undesirable hereditary traits to their offspring.


Opponents, however, adduce the following arguments:

(1) The improvement of institutional rehabilitation programs and probation and parole procedures could reduce the possibility of sending dangerous persons back into the community.

(2) People who commit noncapital offenses and are not executed may also have mental and physical defects, and the existence of such defects may not be related in any way to the causation of crime.

(3) Mental and physical defects may be caused either by heredity or environment, and in many cases scientists are not able to determine the cause.

(4) Many persons who are apparently normal may carry recessive defective genes and have defective children. Therefore, even if all persons who have hereditary defects could be identified and killed, the next generation would still have a new group of defective individuals.

(5) Only a very small percentage of all criminals are executed, and, again, the number is declining.

(6) The wealth, education, or social position of the accused, rather than his potential threat to society, may determine whether he receives the death penalty, and therefore the penalty can be, and indeed has been, applied arbitrarily.   Moreover, society sometimes executes persons who are entirely innocent.   Proponents agree that such an occurrence should be guarded against but argue that the possibility of executing innocent persons should not blind people to the important protective and retributive effect of the death penalty on persons of criminal intent.

The opponents of capital punishment have achieved some notable victories in recent decades. The death penalty, however, remains in the laws of most jurisdictions throughout the world. It is apparent that public opinion still strongly supports its use, at least for those crimes that are considered to offer the most serious threat to society.


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