In 2012, Japan and the US were the only countries in the G8 to have carried out executions; and the US was the only country to have carried out executions in the Americas. In 2012, there were 43 executions in the US, which have taken place in nine states: Texas (15), Arizona (6), Mississippi (6), Oklahoma (6), Florida (3), Ohio (3), South Dakota (2), Delaware (1), Idaho (1).
Capital punishment (also called the death penalty or execution) in the United States is a legal sentence in 32 states and the federal civilian and military legal systems. Its application is limited by the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution to aggravated murders committed by mentally competent adults.
In 2013, 39 inmates were executed in the United States, and 3,088 were on death row – an execution rate of less than 2%.
Capital punishment was suspended in the United States from 1972 through 1976 primarily as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision in Furman v. Georgia.
In 1976, contemporaneously with Woodson and Roberts, the Court decided Gregg v. Georgia and upheld a procedure in which the trial of capital crimes was bifurcated into guilt-innocence and sentencing phases. The 1977, the Supreme Court’s Coker v. Georgia decision barred the death penalty for rape of an adult woman, and implied that the death penalty was inappropriate for any offense against another person other than murder.
Various methods have been used in the history of the American colonies and the United States but only five methods are currently used. Historically, burning, crushing, breaking on wheel, and bludgeoning were used for a small number of executions, while hanging was the most common method. The last person burned at the stake was a black slave in South Carolina in August 1825. The last person to be hanged in chains was a murderer named John Marshall in West Virginia on April 4, 1913. Although beheading was a legal method in Utah from 1851 to 1888, it was never used.
The last use of the firing squad between 1608 and the moratorium on judicial executions between 1967 and 1977 was when Utah shot James W. Rodgers on March 30, 1960. The last use of the gallows between 1608 and the moratorium was when Kansas hanged George York on June 22, 1965. The last use of the electric chair between the first electrocution on August 6, 1890 and the moratorium was when Oklahoma electrocuted James French on August 10, 1966. The last use of the gas chamber between the first gassing on February 8, 1924 and the moratorium was when Colorado gassed Luis Monge on June 2, 1967.
Elaborations of tribal arbitration of feuds included peace settlements often done in a religious context and compensation system. Compensation was based on the principle of substitution which might include material (for example, cattle, slave) compensation, exchange of brides or grooms, or payment of the blood debt. Settlement rules could allow for animal blood to replace human blood, or transfers of property or blood money or in some case an offer of a person for execution. The person offered for execution did not have to be an original perpetrator of the crime because the system was based on tribes, not individuals. Blood feuds could be regulated at meetings, such as the Viking things. Systems deriving from blood feuds may survive alongside more advanced legal systems or be given recognition by courts (for example, trial by combat). One of the more modern refinements of the blood feud is the duel.
In certain parts of the world, nations in the form of ancient republics, monarchies or tribal oligarchies emerged. These nations were often united by common linguistic, religious or family ties. Moreover, expansion of these nations often occurred by conquest of neighbouring tribes or nations. Consequently, various classes of royalty, nobility, various commoners and slave emerged. Accordingly, the systems of tribal arbitration were submerged into a more unified system of justice which formalized the relation between the different “classes” rather than “tribes”. The earliest and most famous example is Code of Hammurabi which set the different punishment and compensation according to the different class/group of victims and perpetrators.
The Torah (Jewish Law), also known as the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Christian Old Testament), lays down the death penalty for murder, kidnapping, magic, violation of the Sabbath, blasphemy, and a wide range of sexual crimes, although evidence suggests that actual executions were rare.
A further example comes from Ancient Greece, where the Athenian legal system was first written down by Draco in about 621 BC: the death penalty was applied for a particularly wide range of crimes, though Solon later repealed Draco’s code and published new laws, retaining only Draco’s homicide statutes. The word draconian derives from Draco’s laws. The Romans also used death penalty for a wide range of offenses.
Although many are executed in the People’s Republic of China each year in the present day, there was a time in the Tang dynasty when the death penalty was abolished. This was in the year 747, enacted by Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (r. 712–756). When abolishing the death penalty Xuanzong ordered his officials to refer to the nearest regulation by analogy when sentencing those found guilty of crimes for which the prescribed punishment was execution. Thus depending on the severity of the crime a punishment of severe scourging with the thick rod or of exile to the remote Lingnan region might take the place of capital punishment. However, the death penalty was restored only 12 years later in 759 in response to the An Lushan Rebellion. At this time in the Tang dynasty only the emperor had the authority to sentence criminals to execution. Under Xuanzong capital punishment was relatively infrequent, with only 24 executions in the year 730 and 58 executions in the year 736.
Islam on the whole accepts capital punishment, and the Abbasid Caliphs in Baghdad, such as Al-Mu’tadid, were often cruel in their punishments. For hudud crimes such as zina (consensual extramarital or homosexual sex) and apostasy (leaving Islam and converting to another religion), Sharia requires capital punishment in public, while for crimes such as murder and manslaughter, the victim’s family can either seek execution (Qisas) or can choose to spare the life of the killer in exchange for blood money restitution (Diyya).
The 20th century was a violent period. Tens of millions were killed in wars between nation-states as well as genocide perpetrated by nation states against political opponents (both perceived and actual), ethnic and religious minorities; the Turkish assault on the Armenians, Hitler’s attempt to exterminate the European Jews, the Khmer Rouge decimation of Cambodia, the massacre of the Tutsis in Rwanda, to cite four of the most notorious examples.
Various authoritarian states— for example those with fascist or communist governments—employed the death penalty as a potent means of political oppression. According to Robert Conquest, the leading expert on Stalin’s purges, more than 1 million Soviet citizens were executed during the Great Terror of 1937–38, almost all by a bullet to the back of the head. Mao Zedong publicly stated that “800,000” people had been executed after the Communist Party’s victory in 1949. Partly as a response to such excesses, civil rights organizations have started to place increasing emphasis on the concept of human rights and abolition of the death penalty.
Among countries around the world, almost all European and many Pacific Area states (including Australia, New Zealand and Timor Leste), and Canada have abolished capital punishment. In Latin America, most states have completely abolished the use of capital punishment, while some countries, such as Brazil, allow for capital punishment only in exceptional situations, such as treason committed during wartime. The United States (the federal government and 32 of the states), Guatemala, most of the Caribbean and the majority of democracies in Asia (for example, Japan and India) and Africa (for example, Botswana and Zambia) retain it. South Africa’s Constitutional Court, in judgment of the case of State v Makwanyane and Another, unanimously abolished the death penalty on 6 June 1995.
Abolition was often adopted due to political change, as when countries shifted from authoritarianism to democracy, or when it became an entry condition for the European Union. The United States is a notable exception: some states have had bans on capital punishment for decades (the earliest is Michigan, where it was abolished in 1846), while others actively use it today. The death penalty there remains a contentious issue which is hotly debated.
Use of capital punishment is growing in India in the 2010s due to both a growth in right wing politics and due to anger over several recent brutal cases of rape. While support for the death penalty for murder is still high in China executions have dropped precipitously, with only 3000 executed in 2012 versus 12,000 in 2002. A poll in South Africa found that 76 percent of millennium generation South Africans support re-introduction of the death penalty, which is abolished in South Africa.
The use of the death penalty is becoming increasingly restrained in some retentionist countries including Taiwan and Singapore. Indonesia carried out no executions between November 2008 and March 2013. Japan and 32 out of 50 states in the United States are the only OECD members that are classified by Amnesty International as ‘retentionist’ (South Korea is classified as ‘abolitionist in practice’). Nearly all retentionist countries are situated in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. The only retentionist country in Europe is Belarus.