The death penalty, the most severe sanction or punishment a government entity can impose on an individual for a crime, has existed in some form throughout recorded history. The first known official codification of the death penalty was in eighteenth century B.C.E. in the Code of King Hammurabi of Babylon, where twenty-five crimes could result in the ultimate sanction by the state. From then until the twenty-first century the variants of capital punishment throughout the world have included crucifixion, drowning, beating to death, stoning, burning alive, impalement, hanging, firing squads, electrocution, and lethal injection. The death penalty has been abolished in Western Europe and Japan, but its persistence in the United States has incited heated debate over its efficacy and inherent justness.
The Purposes and Effectiveness of Capital Punishment
The major rationalizations for capital punishment are retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation. Obviously, the last bears no relation to the death penalty. Retribution, which argues that the state has the right to impose a level of pain and punishment equal to or greater than the pain suffered by the victim, seeks to justify the death penalty on principle rather than efficacy in reducing crime. The notion of deterrence does make this claim imply a utilitarian purpose. There are two forms of deterrence: general and specific. The latter focuses on the individual offender, who, it is claimed, is deterred from committing future crimes by punishing him/her for previous criminal activity. The former seeks to prevent such crimes from occurring in the first place. In the case of the death penalty, the well-publicized knowledge that the state punishes some crimes by death presumably deters potential criminals. Many criminologists argue that the goal of incapacitation—removing an offender from society—can be achieved equally effectively through a life sentence without the possibility of parole (LWOP).
The results of the more than 200 studies done on capital punishment are either inconclusive or adverse to the claim that it is an effective deterrent to murder. The typical research design compares murder rates in state that have and use the death penalty with (1) those that either have not used it, although the law permits its use and (2) states that have abolished it. In general, these studies tend to show no difference in homicide rates for comparable states that with and without capital punishment. Nor is there evidence that homicide rates decline or increase as states decide to reinstate or abolish the death penalty.
Why has the death penalty been an ineffective deterrent in the United States? First, capital punishment is applied with neither certainty nor swiftness, the two key characteristics of an effective deterrent. When the death penalty is imposed, it often takes many years for the sentence to be carried out, and in some cases the sentence is not upheld. In the United States in 1999, 271 prisoners were admitted to death
row, while more than 15,000 murders were reported to police. In the same year, 88 persons had their sentences overturned.
The idea of deterrence presupposes rationality and premeditation on the part of the murderer. In most murders, such factors take a backseat to nonrational influences such as rage, alcohol or drug abuse, or psychological disorder, none of which are susceptible of deterrence by death sentence. For these reasons, the most persistent and persuasive arguments for the death penalty rely on notions of just retribution and revenge by the state on behalf of the citizenry.
Opponents of the death penalty point not only to its lack of deterrent effect but also raise other key arguments. First, from a moral perspective, the abolitionists believe state executions signal that violence is an acceptable means of resolving conflicts and thus actually contribute to a climate of increased violence. Second, opponents point to the unfair and discriminatory application of the death penalty, noting the disproportionate numbers of poor people and people of color on death row, many of them having lacked vigorous and effective legal counsel. Moreover, advances in DNA analysis have exonerated enough prisoners on death row to give pause to many lawmakers who point to the ever-present possibility that the state might, for lack of adequate probative or exculpatory evidence, take the life of an innocent person. This concern has led to several U.S. states to implement a moratorium on the death penalty until it can be shown to be applied fairly to all such cases.
Comprehensive data on the use of the death penalty for all countries is difficult to collect and verify. Most of the data presented here come from two organizations opposed to capital punishment: Amnesty International and the Death Penalty Information Center. Yet the trend is clear; more and more countries are either abolishing or placing further restrictions and limitations on capital punishment.
As of 2001, 108 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice, up from 62 in 1980. Of that 108, 75 have abolished it for all crimes while another thirteen have done so for "ordinary crimes." Another 20 have the authority to carry out this sanction but have not done so. Of those that have retained its use, the death penalty is used with regularity in the Islamic nations, in most of Asia, many parts of Africa, and the United States. The United States, Kyrgyzstan (the former Soviet republic), and Japan are believed to be the only other countries where the mentally retarded are put to death.
By far, the world's leader in the use of the death penalty is China. In 1998 China reported more than 1,000 executions, which represented two-thirds of all executions worldwide (see Table 1). The other leading counties were the Congo, the United States, Iran, and Egypt. These