Capital punishment

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Capital punishment, also known as the death penalty, refers to the custom of executing prisoners who are convicted of certain heinous crimes. Such crimes are known as capital crimes, and tend to be grave crimes against persons or governments (such as premeditated murder, rape or treason). For many years, English law imposed capital punishment for the crime of polygamy. The basis for capital punishment comes from the Bible, particularly passages such as Genesis 9:5–6,[1] though critics of biblical Christianity falsely accuse Christians of hypocrisy for holding to the biblical position.[2]

There are several compelling justifications for the death penalty today. It promotes conversion and confession by the criminal. It can bring closure and relief to the families of victims of terrible crimes. It can deter wrongdoing. It can be a helpful negotiating tool for prosecutors to obtain a prompt confession and life sentence rather than force victims' families to endure delays in justice, and a disturbing trial. The death penalty also helps ensure that the criminal does not repeat his crime in prison, or escape and harm the public further.

Opposition to the death penalty ignores its foregoing justifications, and instead resorts to pacifist arguments. Most opponents of the death penalty are inconsistently pro-abortion. The Roman Catholic Church supported the death penalty for most of its existence, but has changed its doctrine in 2018. Pope Francis argued that capital punishment is unacceptable in all cases.[3] Jesus never denounced the death penalty despite clear opportunities to do so.

Although support for the death penalty has largely been Christian and conservative-based, with most of the opposition coming from the left, there's at least one case where the death penalty was supported by leftist people, although only if its use is due to "political crimes" rather than the listed crimes above, as Jean Paul Sartre when asked about this bluntly answered with the following: "Yes. In a revolutionary country in which the bourgeoisie has been swept from power, the bourgeois who would foment a riot or a plot would deserve the death penalty…A revolutionary regime must get rid of a certain number of individuals that threaten it and I see no other means for this than death; it is always possible to get out of a prison; the revolutionaries of 1793 probably didn't kill enough people."[4] Similarly, Vladimir Lenin was notoriously against the abolition of the death penalty, even screaming at Kaminev when the latter offered to get rid of the death penalty: "Nonsense, how can you make a revolution without firing squads? Do you expect to dispose of your enemies by disarming yourself? What other means of repression are there? Prisons? Who attaches significance to that during a civil war?"[5]

In the world today

Of the main developed countries, only the United States, Belarus and Japan use formalized capital punishment, though many developed countries give law enforcement greater authority to kill than allowed by the United States. For emerging countries, China uses the death penalty and in the non-developed world it is practiced in most Sharia states (those whose legal systems are based on Muslim legal philosophy), as well as many others.[6][7]

According to officially released governmental figures, the human rights organization Amnesty International estimates that Singapore has the highest execution rate in the world, at 13.65 hangings per 1,000,000 residents. Saudi Arabia has the second-highest rate, at 4.65 per 1,000,000.

Based on 2004 figures, China is the world leader in total number of executions with an estimated 3,400. Following China is Iran with 159 and Vietnam with an estimated 64 executions. The United States executed the 5th greatest number of people in the world with a total of 52.[8]


Most Australian removed the death penalty in 1984 as a punishment for murder, however at that time it had not been used since 1967. Until 2010 when it was formally prohibited by federal legislation it could still have been used as a punishment for treason during a time of war or the Ashes.

United States

red: States with the death penalty
turqoise: States without the death penalty

The federal government (both in the civilian sector and the military) authorize capital punishment for the most heinous crimes, including treason. The last Federal execution was that of Timothy McVeigh, ringleader of the Oklahoma City bombing.

At the state level, 17 states and the District of Columbia prohibit the death penalty.[9] In the Furman case, the Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty in 1973 (and all inmates had their sentences automatically commuted to life in prison), but in 1977 (after intervening changes in state laws) once again allowed it in the Gregg series of cases.[10]

Even in those states which still have death penalty statutes on the books, executions may be few and far between: Pennsylvania has hundreds of people on death row, though only three inmates have been executed since the reinstatement of capital punishment laws, and all three essentially "volunteered" by dropping their appeals. Ultra-liberal California also has death penalty statutes on the books, but hasn't executed anyone since 2006 notwithstanding two failed state initiatives to abolish the death penalty in the state. On the other end of the spectrum is Texas, which has (as of July 2018) executed over 550 inmates, more than any other state since Gregg reinstituted the death penalty and roughly 1/3 of the total nationwide.[11]

Frivolous appeals (often repetitive, making the same arguments previously rejected) and overly cautious stays of execution can create a backlog on death rows in many states.

65% of Americans believe putting someone to death for a crime is acceptable, according to a recent poll. But respondents were close to evenly split on whether they would prefer the death penalty (50%) to mandatory life in prison (46%). The death penalty is most favored by age 30+ males who are Caucasian and Republican.[12]

Capital punishment for federal crimes existed for centuries. After the death penalty was suspended by judicial activism in 1973, the federal government reinstated it again in 1988.[13]

Some studies conducted since the start of the new millennium have consistently shown a deterrence factor in the United States based on use of the death penalty. It has been calculated that each person executed saves the lives of anywhere from 3 to 18 innocent people.[14] Other studies have shown that as a whole, "death-penalty states" typically have higher murder rates than states that do not have capital punishment, but obviously many other factors influence the overall murder rate, such as poverty and policies toward repeat offenders.[15]

Methods in the United States

Lethal injection is the official method of capital punishment in almost all of the 38 states that have the death penalty. A few states allow for other methods in some circumstances. Several botched electrocutions in Florida in the 1990s have effectively put an end to the era of the electric chair, which was the most common means of execution in the United States before 1972. In addition to these two methods of execution, lethal gas, hanging, and shooting have all been used at least twice since 1977. Firing squads were conducted in Utah, most recently in 2010. The three hangings took place in Washington and Delaware, most recently Billy Bailey's 1996 hanging in Delaware. The gas chamber, which has been abandoned because it has been found to normally lead to slow death, has been used in California, Arizona, Nevada, Mississippi, and North Carolina since 1977. Walter LeGrand's 1999 execution in Arizona's gas chamber will almost certainly be the last of this type.


In American history, there was regional variation in the use of the death penalty (with The South always higher), the execution rate (per million people) dropped steadily between the colonial period and the present, that the number of crimes meriting the death penalty was sharply reduced, and few women were executed, while a disproportionate number of African American, ethnic, and poor men died at the hands of the state. In Colonial America, capital punishment was used more frequently, as it fit into the context of colonial life. Rates of execution were similar to those in England and matched the general violence of colonial life. There were no prisons for long-term incarceration (only jails for brief incarcerations.) Public executions served as communal warnings. By the 1790s, executions began to decline. Many capital offenses were dropped, the methods of execution changed, and long-term incarceration in prison emerged as the preferred alternative punishment. Executions disappeared from the public square except in the cases of lynchings, which grew in numbers in the South after the Civil War.[16]


The United States has never used the guillotine, which was very popular in France. The last use of the guillotine in France was in 1977. Thereafter, capital punishment in France was abolished, in 1981.


Canada does not employ capital punishment, and it has not been a possible sentence in Canadian civilian courts since 1976.

Canada long employed capital punishment as a punishment for murder or treason, typically executing prisoners by long drop hanging in the case of civilians, and by firing squad in the case of soldiers or other military. (In particular, 25 soldiers were executed for various crimes during World War I.) Canada had several notorious executioners, particularly Arthur B. English, also known as "Arthur Ellis", after whom the Arthur Ellis Awards – a Canadian literary award – for mystery writing is named.

While Canada's use of capital punishment was inherited from the legal system of the United Kingdom, opposition to capital punishment began to arise in the late 1950s, and came to a head in 1959, when Steven Truscott, a 14-year-old boy, was convicted of murder, with a recommendation from the jury for mercy. The judge passed down a sentence of execution by hanging, then the only legal punishment for murder in Canada.

While Truscott's death sentence would later be commuted in 1960, his case galvanized public opinion, and in 1961 Canada reclassified capital murder, defining it as a murder that involved premeditation, murder during the commission of a violent crime, or the murder of a police officer or prison guard. This marked the beginning of the decline of capital punishment in Canada, as the last executions would be in December, 1962. The government of Canada routinely commuted any death sentence passed thereafter (indeed, the Liberal Party made opposition to capital punishment a part of their platform).

In 1976, this de facto state of affairs became law, when the Canadian Parliament abolished the use of capital punishment under the Criminal Code. Executions were still permitted under the National Defense Act until 1998, when they were similarly abolished.

Currently, Canada's Supreme Court does not allow the extradition of criminals who may be executed for their crimes.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia follows a strict interpretation of Islam under which those convicted of murder, drug trafficking, rape and armed robbery are executed in public with a sword. As of November 25, 2007, Saudi Arabia has beheaded 136 people, 38 people in 2006 and 83 people in 2005.[17]

European Union

The death penalty has been abolished in all 28 European Union member states, and 47 out of the 50 countries in Europe (only Belarus still practices it, and Russia has had an effective moratorium since 1996).[18] The EU has long been against capital punishment, and campaigns for its abolition worldwide, but the Treaty of Lisbon introduced capital punishment for "mutiny" EU-wide. Ironically, abolition of capital punishment is anyway a condition of acceding to the EU[6] and EU law also bans detainee transfers in cases where the receiving party may seek the death penalty.

North Korea

The Associated Press has reported that executions and torture in North Korea are "worse than animal slaughter." "One inmate, Choe Kwang Ho, sneaked away from his work for 15 minutes to pick fruit. He was executed, his mouth stuffed with gravel to prevent him from protesting." "If a female inmate got pregnant, he said, she and her lover would be shot to death publicly. Then, An said, prison guards would cut open her womb, remove the fetus and bury it or feed it to guard dogs."[19]


Some have questioned how a nation such as the United States that largely identifies itself as Christian (76.5%) could have 65% of Americans believing putting someone to death for a crime is acceptable.[20] They question whether or not the Bible allows such a view.[21] The 6th Commandment is wrongly translated by liberals as, "Thou shalt not kill." This translation suggests that executions are a sin. The correct translation of the 6th Commandment is "Thou shalt commit no murder." As murder is defined as "wrongful killing", when following that translation it is possible to argue whether or not judicial executions are murder. In any case, any possible moral justification for humans to met out capital punishment upon other humans is based on exactly two interacting facts: 1) humans in the fallen world already are subject to eventual death by natural means; 2) some offenses (crimes, sins) are biologically so deep that the integrity of the central victim(s) is too compromised to recover by natural means (including, but not limited to, death). Added to those two facts is a third: the maintenance of such offenders is in no way the duty of the offended, so long as the offended is not already so guilty ('let only those who are without hypocrisy cast the first stone', or 'a family of thieves cannot selectively punish its members'.) Finally, and most importantly, the 6th Commandment is part of the Mosaic Law in the Old Testament, which mandates capital punishment for many offenses (see below); therefore, an interpretation of the 6th Commandment as forbidding capital punishment is nonsensical.

Religious views of capital punishment


Biblical View

The Bible has several passages support the death penalty for different offenses. Genesis 9:5–6 has the first reference for the death penalty, stating that the just punishment for taking a human life is for the murder's own life to be taken.

According to the Mosaic Law in the Old Testament, these are the offenses which merited the death penalty in ancient Israel:

  1. Worshiping a false god (Deuteronomy 13:6-10)
  2. Sacrificing to false gods (Exodus 22:20)
  3. Sacrificing children to Molech (Leviticus 20:2)
  4. Blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16)
  5. Desecrating the Sabbath (Exodus31:15)
  6. False Prophecy (Deuteronomy 13:5)
  7. Witchcraft (Exodus 22:18, Leviticus 20:27)
  8. Cursing Parents (Exodus 21:17, Leviticus 20:9)
  9. Rebellious Sons (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
  10. Disobedience to judgments by authority established God (Deuteronomy 17:9-13)
  11. False witness in a capital crime (Deuteronomy 19:16-20)
  12. Murder (Exodus 21:12, 21:15)
  13. Negligent homicide Exodus 21:29)
  14. Homosexual intercourse (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13)
  15. Bestiality (Leviticus 20:15)
  16. Adultery (Leviticus 20:10; 19:20)
  17. Incest (Leviticus 20:11; from Moses onward: Genesis 19:33,35; 4:17)
  18. Sex with a woman betrothed to another (Deuteronomy 22:25)
  19. Unchastity; marriage under false pretense of virginity (Deuteronomy 22:21-24)
  20. Daughter of a priest becoming a prostitute (Leviticus 21:9)
  21. Kidnapping to sell into slavery (Exodus 21:16)
  22. Coveting and making a wicked thing one's possession (Deuteronomy 7:26; Joshua 7:15,25)

The term "put to death" or similar explicit terms are usually used in commands mandating capital punishment, though the term "cut off from his people" (Lev. 17:4, etc.) may also denote such,[22] and which would increase the number of capital offenses. However, the latter phrase could potentially refer to excommunication instead.[23]

Conditions necessary for true conviction:

"At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death." (Deuteronomy 17:6; cf. Exodus 20:16)

Requirements for Judges:

Lev 19:15 Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour.

Few people support capital punishment for non-murder offenses, and a number of Christians oppose the death penalty in all cases. Apologist JP Holding argues that the Bible including the New Testament nowhere repudiates the use of capital punishment (by the State), but that it does not necessarily mandate its use, either.[24]

In Acts 25:11, the apostle Paul stated, "...if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die", while Romans 13:1-5 states that God has ordained the just use of the sword by the government. (cf. 1 Pet. 2:14)

Some Christians who are opposed to the death penalty cite John 8:3-11, which describes how Christ saved an adulteress from death by stoning by challenging the crowd "let he who has not sinned cast the first stone", which they interpret as saying that man does not have the moral authority to condemn man to death. However, apart from the controversy regarding the canonical status of the passage, it is argued that Jesus is shown to be upholding the law,[25] while only stopping the execution of the women by hypocrites, who were themselves convicted of such sins, similar to or including adultery.[26][27] (cf. Matthew 7:5; Romans 2:1) Other Christians argue that the unjust execution of Jesus demonstrates that capital punishment is immoral, though Jesus is not seen opposing the legitimacy of capital punishment itself, and only the unjust use of such power. (Jn. 10:32; 18:23; Acts 25:11) Some Christians claim that the passage was a later addition to the Bible (see article: "Adulteress story") - if it was a later addition, this might not be an issue to those Christians who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Roman Catholicism

The Catholic Church has historically supported capital punishment in many circumstances that range from combating heresy to saving lives of potential victims of crime. Traditionally, capital punishment has been endorsed by the Church for reasons beyond preventing additional wrongdoing by the same criminal.

The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) explains the historical use by the Church and Catholic nations to executing heretics, and even cremating the remains of heretics, as a way of expunging evil:[28]

The nations of modern Europe, as they gradually developed, seemed to have agreed upon the necessity of extirpating all influences and agencies which tended to pervert the faith of the people, or which seemed to them to betray the potency of evil spirits. Therefore, the laws of all these nations provided for the destruction of contumacious unbelievers, teachers of heresy, witches, and sorcerers, by fire.

In recent decades, however, officials within the Catholic Church have taken differing stances on the death penalty.

The renowned Modern Catholic Dictionary (1980) by John A. Hardon, S.J., which was given the "imprimatur" (official endorsement) by Joseph T. O'Keefe, Vicar General, Archdiocese of New York (Dec. 13, 1979), describes the Catholic position of capital punishment as follows:

It is certain from Scripture that civil authorities may lawfully put malefactors to death. ... Christian dispensation made no essential change [to the Old Testament endorsement of the death penalty], as St. Paul expressly says .... [citing Romans 13:4]. Among the errors of the Waldenses condemned by the Church in the early thirteenth century was the proposition that denied the lawfulness of capital punishment (Argentre, Collectio de Novis Erroribus, I, 86). St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) defends capital punishment on the grounds of the common good. ... If even with capital punishment crime abounds, no lesser penalty will suffice. The practice question remains of how effective a deterrent capital punishment is in some modern states, when rarely used or only after long delays. In principle, however, it is morally licit because in the most serious crimes the claims of retribution and deterrence are so demanding that the corrective value of punishment must, if necessary, be sacrificed.

The current official Catholic teaching, as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, reads as follows:

If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, given the means at the State's disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender "today ... are very rare, if not practically non-existent."[29]

Other Catholic officials have gone further. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has "called for an end to the use of the death penalty for more than twenty-five years."[30]

This surprising new position is at odds with the historic use by the Church of capital punishment to deal with heretics, and the cremation of the exhumed bodies of heretics. It may have simply reflected the late 20th-century repudiation in Europe of all uses of capital punishment.

The Roman Catholic Church generally holds the position of a "Consistent Life Ethic." The Church teaches the protection of life for all humans, from conception to natural death.[31][32][33] But the Church has never embraced the pacifist position of Quakers in categorically opposing all killing, even to stop, deter, or punish evil.

Mainline Christianity

Generally, mainline churches have opposed the death penalty; due to their liberal theology (which generally regards the Bible as errant and fallible) their opposition is based on social norms.

Conservative Christianity

Generally, conservative churches that are politically active support the death penalty as a means of justice, based on Genesis 9:5–6 and other verses.

Unification Church

Rev. Sun Myung Moon said, "Judges sometimes pass death sentences, and yet their verdicts cannot be absolutely right."[34]

Theism, atheism and the death penalty

See also: Atheism and the death penalty and Atheism and justice

Susan Jacoby

The atheist author Susan Jacoby wrote in her article Atheism and the death penalty:

..Justice Antonin Scalia’s religious justification for the death penalty, which amounts to: God has the power of life and death and lawful governments derive their power from God; ergo, capital punishment is both morally and legally permissible. It is clear, however, that neither atheism nor religion per se is a predictable, decisive factor in public or individual attitudes toward capital punishment. However people choose to rationalize their position, capital punishment is an emotional issue.

Scalia was half-right in his contention that “the more Christian a country is the less likely it is to regard the death penalty as immoral. Abolition [of capital punishment] has taken its firmest hold in post-Christian Europe, and has least support in the churchgoing United States.” [“First Things,” May 2002] He was only half-right because he was talking only about that part of the world that once comprised “Christendom.” In Saudi Arabia, for example, there is a good deal of kingly and public (insofar as public opinion can be gauged in such a society) support for the death penalty and–the last time I checked–this oil kingdom was emphatically not a Christian nation...

In the United States today, secularists are less likely–but only somewhat less likely–to support capital punishment than are the religiously observant. Support is highest, at 71 percent, among evangelical Protestants and lowest, at 59 percent, among those unaffiliated with any religion. White non-Hispanic Catholics, at 67 percent, fall in between the two groups. The important fact here is the clear majority support for the death penalty regardless of religious belief. I know a fair number of atheists who are just as enthusiastic about executing Islamic terrorists as their right-wing Christian compatriots.[35]

Injustices Caused by Limits on Death Penalty

Increasingly arbitrary limits have been placed on use of the death penalty. One arbitrary prohibition established by the U.S. Supreme Court on use of the death penalty is when the murder is committed by someone under the age of 18.[36] Prior to this Supreme Court ruling, states had statutory minimum ages (at the time of crime) for when the death penalty could be imposed. Other prohibitions have eliminated it for crimes other than murder, for those who are incapable of understanding why they are to be executed, and requiring a unanimous jury verdict.

The award-winning documentary The Thin Blue Line portrays the true story of the framing of an innocent drifter because the age of the real murderer was slightly below the legal minimum for imposing the death penalty. The crime was the heinous murder of a police officer during a routine traffic stop, and the outrage at the crime cried out for retribution with the death penalty. But the authorities were legally barred from executing the real murderer, and an adult drifter who was in the wrong place at the wrong time was convicted for it. He served years on death row before being released after the movie was widely seen: he could easily have been killed for a crime he didn't commit. Some would use this as an argument against the death penalty, as mistakes like this are sometimes made in court, but the death penalty ensures that when they happen, their effect is permanent.

See also

Further reading

  • Allen, Howard W. and Jerome M. Clubb. Race, Class, and the Death Penalty: Capital Punishment in American History (2008) 239 pp. heavily statistical excerpt and text search
  • Mandery, Evan J. Capital Punishment in America: A Balanced Explanation (2004) excerpt and text search
  • Masur, Louis P. Rites of Execution: Capital Punishment and the Transformation of American Culture, 1776-1865 (1991) excerpt and text search


  1. Multiple references:
  2. Why are Christians pro-life when it comes to abortion while at the same time in favor of the death penalty and supportive of war? GotQuestions. Retrieved October 15, 2019.
  4. Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century, Bernard Henri-Levy. p. 344
  5. A People's Tragedy. A History of the Revolution 1891-1924 by Orlando Figes
  6. 6.0 6.1 EU: Concerning the Abolition of the Death Penalty in all Circumstances
  7. Encarta: Capital Punishment Worldwide
  8. The Economist Pocket World in Figures 2008 Edition 2007, p. 99. London: Profile Books. ISBN 978-1846680908
  10. One of the companion cases to Gregg involved a Texas inmate. After Furman, Texas dramatically changed its laws to limit by statute what murders would qualify for the death penalty; the Supreme Court noted that Texas' statutory scheme would make the death penalty "an available sentencing option -- even potentially -- for a smaller class of murders in the state", somewhat ironic given that in the intervening years Texas has far and away carried out more executions than any other state.
  11. A rare exception in Texas of a death row inmate not receiving swift execution is a man who was on death row for 31 years (at the time the Los Angeles Times wrote an article on his story; the inmate would die three years later while still in custody). LA Times article
  12. ABC News/Washington Post poll: Death Penalty
  14. Studies: Death penalty discourages crime,2933,280215,00.html
  15. Deterrence (English). Death Penalty Information Center. Retrieved on 2007-08-21.
  16. Allen and Clubb (2008)
  17. Saudi Arabia Marks 136th Beheading of 2007, Associated Press, Fox News, November 25, 2007
  18. Document - List of abolitionist and retentionist countries (1 January 2007)
  19. Executions, Torture in North Korea 'Worse Than Animal Slaughter', Associated Press, Fox News, October 29, 2008
  22. Dr. John Gill (1690-1771) on Lv. 17:4, 14
  26. John Wesley's Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible
  27. John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible
  29. [John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56.]
  31. Paul VI, Humanae Vitae 1968
  32. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae 1995
  33. Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate 2009
  34. Problems with the Existing Doctrines of God
  35. Atheism and death penalty by Susan Jacoby
  36. See Roper v. Simmons.

External links