Death Penalty

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The death penalty is a punishment meted out by the government for what is considers its most serious crimes against the state and its people. Historically, the death penalty was used far more widely, for violent and non-violent crimes alike. In the late 1700s, there were over 200 capital crimes in England. In contemporary societies the death penalty is limited generally to murder, espionage and treason. In some countries, other death-eligible crimes include drug trafficking, sexual crimes, breaches of military codes of conduct, and, in China, human trafficking and corruption.


Capital punishment in the United States

The United States is the only Western country that continues to utilize the death penalty. Its Supreme Court has so far refused to find it unconstitutional, holding that it does not offend "the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society." It is left to the individual states to determine whether or not to implement capital punishment. To date, sixteen of the fifty states have abolished the death penalty, Illinois in 2011 being the most recent.

The death penalty as a human rights violation

Internationally, the death penalty has been seen increasingly as a violation of human rights and human dignity. In a trend towards abolition that began after the Second World War, more than two thirds of the countries in the world no longer use the death penalty.

In 1989, the UN General Assembly adopted the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which asserts that the death penalty is a violation of human rights, specifically, the right to life. In 2011, Benin became the 74th country to join the Second Optional Protocol. Other international treaties of regional scope which provide for the abolition also have been adopted. The European Union has long maintained staunch opposition to the death penalty and abolition is a pre-condition for entry into the Union.

Countries that execute

China, however, continues to execute thousands of people every year. Twenty-two other countries carried out executions in 2010, the following with more than ten: Iran, North Korea, Yemen, United States, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Syria. In 2009, 19 countries were known to have used the death penalty, with China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, United States and Yemen with more than ten.

Methods of execution

Over time methods of execution have evolved in an effort for more sanitized and less painful procedures. Thus, the guillotine became the preferred method to replace the less precise beheading with a sword and the gruesome breaking wheel. Scientific advances led to the invention of gas chambers and electric chairs, which in the United States replaced hanging in many states. Most recently, lethal injection has become the most popular method, although substantial questions have been raised as to whether it is as painless as it may appear, and whether one of the drugs used in the “lethal cocktail,” a paralytic, masks the excruciating pain the condemned may be suffering.

Arguments for and against the death penalty

While it has long been argued by death penalty proponents that capital punishment is necessary to deter crime, it has never been conclusively proven to have a deterrent effect. Albert Camus’ essay against the death penalty, Reflections on the Guillotine (1957), includes a refutation of the deterrence argument that remains salient today. Camus, citing an earlier study which described pickpockets plying their trade at the public hanging of other pickpockets, goes on to explain that  the complexity of human nature is not so easily controlled by law: “When law ventures, in the hope of dominating, into the dark regions of consciousness, it has little chance of being able to simplify the complexity it wants to codify.”[1]

Another primary justification for the death penalty is retribution, a punishment, as Camus put it, “as old as man; it is called the law of retaliation.”[2] A closely-related argument is that there are some people who have committed acts so despicable that they simply do not deserve to live. They are irremediable – beyond redemption. A common refutation this argument, even assuming for the sake of argument that there are human beings beyond redemption, is the inability of any system designed by human beings to truly determine who is and who is not irremediable.

Death penalty opponents have marshaled various arguments against the death penalty. First and foremost is that putting to death another human being is immoral and an affront to human dignity. Another argument increasingly gaining traction after such advances as DNA testing have resulted in exonerations is the fallibility of the legal system in determining guilt, which has created the risk that innocent people have been or will be put to death.

It is also contended that the death penalty is arbitrarily applied such that many escape the death penalty while others similarly situated do not. Stephen Bright, a legendary death penalty lawyer in the United States has decried the lack of properly trained and prepared death penalty lawyers, convincingly arguing that the death penalty is often used for those with the worst lawyers not those who commit worst crimes. There is strong statistical and anecdotal evidence demonstrating that the decisions to seek and impose the death penalty are influenced by factors not directly tied to the nature of the crime, such as the race, ethnicity and gender of the defendant and/or victim, is disproportionately imposed on the poor, and often depends on factors such as geography and politics.


  • 1. Camus 143
  • 2. Camus 150


Camus, Albert, "Reflections On The Guillotine", in Resistance, Rebellion and Death (1960) published by The Modern Library.

Additional resources


Author: Andrew Love