Capital punishment

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Death Penalty World Map  Key:   Blue: Abolished for all crimes Green: Abolished, except for crimes committed under certain circumstances (such as crimes committed in time of war) Orange: Abolished in practice Red: Legal form of punishment
Death Penalty World Map
  • Blue: Abolished for all crimes
  • Green: Abolished, except for crimes committed under certain circumstances (such as crimes committed in time of war)
  • Orange: Abolished in practice
  • Red: Legal form of punishment

Capital punishment, also referred to as the death penalty, is the judicially ordered execution of a prisoner as a punishment for a serious crime, often called a capital offence or a capital crime.



  • Etymology. The term "capital" derives from the Latin caput, literally meaning "head" but also a pars pro toto for the whole individual. Thus, capital punishment is the penalty for a crime so severe that it 'deserves' death, either by decapitation (losing one's head) or otherwise.
  • Although it is the ultimate physical punishment, ending all bodily functions forever, and thus constitutes the perfect example of a corporal punishment, that term is often reserved for non-terminal punishments, generally intended to cause pain or other suffering while alive, such as mutilation.
  • Prisoners who have been sentenced to death are usually kept segregated from other prisoners in a special part of the prison pending their execution. In some places this segregated area is known as "death row".

Methods of execution

Electric chair as used for electrocutions. The electric chair was developed in the late 1880s with support from Thomas Edison (who had a financial interest in having direct current used in providing electricity, whereas the electric chair uses alternating current) and is still in use today.
Electric chair as used for electrocutions. The electric chair was developed in the late 1880s with support from Thomas Edison (who had a financial interest in having direct current used in providing electricity, whereas the electric chair uses alternating current) and is still in use today.

Methods of execution have varied over time, and include:

Scope of use

Some jurisdictions still practicing capital punishment restrict its use to a small number of criminal offences, principally murder, treason and equated mortal sins such as apostasy. Historically—and still today under certain systems of law—the death penalty was applied to a wider range of offences, including robbery or theft and kidnapping. It has also been frequently used by the military for crimes including looting, insubordination, and mutiny.


In mediaeval Europe, the method of execution would depend on the social class of the condemned. The nobility would usually be executed in as painless and honorable a method as possible, generally with an axe (which occasionally gruesomely failed). Those in the working class, serfs, peasants, and possibly the bourgeoisie would usually be executed publicly, in a more gruesome and painful method of execution, typically by hanging or by the wheel. Specific crimes would sometimes warrant specific methods of execution: suspected witchcraft, religious heresy, atheism, or homosexuality would typically be punished by burning at the stake. Unsuccessful regicides generally merited a horrible death. A wide range of offences could be punished by death, including robbery and theft, even if nobody was physically harmed in the action.

Such methods of execution continued into the modern era. In 1757 in France, Robert-François Damiens suffered a horrible but customary execution for his attempted regicide against King Louis XV. His hand, holding the weapon used in the regicide attempt, was burnt, and his body was wounded in several places. Then, molten lead and other hot liquids were poured on the wounds. He was then drawn and quartered, and what remained of his body was burnt at the stake. Inhumane methods of execution and class inequalities were abolished during the French Revolution, which imposed the guillotine, seen as a painless and instantaneous method of execution, for all. However, during The Terror, other forms of execution, such as massed cannon fire and mass drownings, were also used.

Although the death penalty was briefly banned in China between 747 and 759, the first country in the world to officially and permanently abolish the death penalty was the then-independent Granducato di Toscana (Tuscany). The Grand Duke Leopold II of Habsburg, famous enlightened monarch and future Emperor of Austria, was strongly influenced by the book of the Italian Cesare Beccaria Dei Delitti e Delle Pene ("On Crimes and Punishments"), published in 1764. In this book Beccaria aimed to demonstrate not only the injustice, but even the futility from the point of view of social welfare, of torture and the death penalty. On 30 November 1786, after having de facto blocked capital executions (the last was in 1769), Leopold promulgated the Reform of the penal code that abrogated the death penalty and gave the order to destroy all the instruments for capital execution wherever in his land. In the year 2000 Tuscany's regional authorities instituted an annual holiday on 30 November to commemorate the event.

Public executions in early New England were a very solemn and sorrowful occasion, sometimes attended by large crowds, who would also listen to a gospel message and remarks by local preachers and politicians, before or after the hanging. The Connecticut Courant records one such public execution on December 1, 1803, saying, "The assembly conducted through the whole in a very orderly and solemn manner, so much so, as to occasion an observing gentleman aquainted with other countries as well as this, to say that such an assembly, so decent and solemn, could not be collected anywhere but in New England."

Around the present world

Main article: Use of death penalty worldwide

According to Amnesty International's annual report on official judicial execution, in 2004 there were 3,797 executions in 25 countries. Nine out of every ten executions took place in the People's Republic of China (PRC) which carried out at least 3,400 executions. From 1990 to 2003, the average number of executions per year was 2,242 as reported by Amnesty. The PRC has executed at least 20,000 people between 1990 and 2001, with 1,781 people executed between April and July 2001 in a "Strike Hard" crime crackdown. The higher total in 2004 resulted from a change in Amnesty's method of estimating executions in China. Both methodologies are suspected of yielding low results. (See Capital punishment in the People's Republic of China)

The twelve countries with the most executions in 2004:

Country Executions Executions per 100 million residents
1 China 3,400+ 260
2 Iran 159+ 230
3 Vietnam 64+ 77
4 USA 59 20
5 Saudi Arabia 33+ 130
6 Pakistan 15+ 9.4
7 Kuwait 9+ 400
8 Bangladesh 7+ 5
9 Egypt 6+ 7.9
10 Singapore 6+ 140
11 Yemen 6+ 30
12 Belarus 5+ 48

Conservative American political activist Phyllis Schlafly provides a much higher count of executions in China than Amnesty International:

"...every year China has nearly 10,000 death penalty cases that result in immediate execution. That is five times more than all death penalty cases from other nations combined. China's executions have always been a closely guarded state secret, but these totals were revealed by Chen Zhonglin, a National People's Congress delegate." [1]

According to the United Nations Secretary-General's quinquennial report on capital punishment, the highest per capita use of the death penalty is in Singapore, with a rate of 13.57 executions per one million population for the period of 1994 to 1999. The death penalty is meted out for what is considered the most serious of offences. Out of 138 persons sentenced in the period from 1999 to 2003, 110 were for drug-related offences, while the rest for murder and arms-related offences. Executions by hanging occur on Friday mornings in Changi prison, and are seldom publicized.

In most countries that have capital punishment, it is used to punish only murder or war-related crimes. In some countries, like the People's Republic of China, some non-violent crimes, like drug and business related crimes, are punishable by death. Capital punishment is used widely in Asia for drug related crimes, including in Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Most democratic countries today have abolished the death penalty, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, almost all of Europe, and much of Latin America, though in Honduras there is a political debate raging about whether, having been abolished in 1956, it should be restored. Among western countries, the first to abolish capital punishment was Portugal, where the last execution took place in 1846, and the punishment was officially abolished in 1867. In all, 89 countries have abolished the death penalty altogether, another 28 countries have not executed anyone in the last ten years, and 9 officially maintain the death penalty only for "exceptional crimes" (e.g., war crimes).

In 1949, Federal Republic of Germany and Costa Rica became the first countries in the world to ban the death penalty in their constitutions. As of 2005, the constitutions of 42 countries prohibit capital punishment.

Countries that retain it include Japan, the United States, and a number of countries in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Caribbean. Altogether, 74 countries still use the death penalty.

In the United States, the issue of capital punishment is largely left up to the individual states; the federal government reserves the right to perform executions, but does so extremely infrequently. A number of states do not use the death penalty, having either legally abolished it or by declaring a moratorium on its use, as has been done in Illinois under Governor George H. Ryan. The most comprehensive source lists less than 15,000 people executed in the United States or its colonial predecessors between 1608 and 1991. [2] More accurate statistics list 4,661 executions in the United States in the period 19302002 with about two-thirds of them occurring in the first twenty years.[3] Additionally the U.S. Army executed 160 soldiers between 1930 and 1967. The last U.S. Navy execution took place in 1849. (See also: Capital punishment in the United States)

Only six countries practice the death penalty for juveniles, that is criminals aged under 18 at the time of their crime. In the 1980s and 1990s, most executions for juvenile crime took place in the United States, although, due to the slow process of appeals, no one under age 19 has been executed in recent years. [4] [5] In 2005, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that the death penalty cannot be applied to persons who were under age 18 at the time of commission of the crime. That decision resulted in 72 convicted murderers being taken off death row. In the United States and ancestor bodies politic since 1642, an estimated 364 juvenile offenders have been put to death by states and the federal government. Although the People's Republic of China accounts for the vast majority of executions in the world, it does not allow for the executions of those under 18. [6] Execution of those aged under age 18 has occurred in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and Iran since 1990. [7]

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which among other things forbids capital punishment for juveniles, has been signed and ratified by all countries except the USA and Somalia (Somalia at the present time is unable to ratify).[8]

There are a number of international conventions prohibiting the death penalty, most notably the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Sixth Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights. However, such conventions bind only those that are party to them; customary international law does not prohibit the death penalty.

Several international organizations have made the abolition of the death penalty a requirement of membership, most notably the European Union and the Council of Europe. The European Union and the Council of Europe require abolition of the death penalty by states wishing to join, but are willing to accept a moratorium as an interim measure. Thus, while Russia is a member of the Council of Europe, and practices the death penalty in law, it has not made use of it since becoming a member of the Council. Another example is Latvia which entered a moratorium in 1996. Latvia retains the death penalty in extraordinary circumstances, and is the only member of the European Union not to have ratified the 13th Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights (which prohibits the death penalty in all circumstances). Latvia's parliament has, however, signed the 13th Protocol.

Turkey has recently, as a move towards EU membership, undergone a reform of its legal system. Previously there was a de facto moratorium on death penalty in Turkey as the last execution took place in 1984. The death penalty was removed from peacetime law as in August 2002, and in May 2004 Turkey amended its constitution in order to remove capital punishment in all circumstances. As a result of this, Europe is a continent free of the death penalty in practice (all states having ratified the Sixth Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights), with the sole exception of Belarus, which is not a member of the Council of Europe. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has also been lobbying for Council of Europe observer states who practice the death penalty, namely the United States and Japan, to abolish it also or lose their observer status.

Views and opinions concerning the death penalty

Support for the death penalty varies widely, and it can be a highly contentious political issue, particularly in democracies that use it. A majority of adults in the United States appear to support its continuance (though like most political issues, the numbers vary widely depending on the phrasing of the question asked), but a highly vocal, organised minority of people in that country do not, and non-governmental organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch lobby against it globally. In many parts of Asia where it is maintained including Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia the death penalty appears to have large amounts of public support, and there is little public movement to abolish it.

In countries where it has been abolished, debate is sometimes revived by particularly brutal murders, though few countries have brought it back after abolition. However, some opinion polls in Europe and Canada suggest that the death penalty has similar support there to the United States. Others show that the support of the death penalty dropped significantly in the years after the abolition in Western European countries while in most former communist countries there is still a majority for the reintroduction. A recent poll in Italy showed only 23% of respondents in favour of the death penalty.[9] In many countries that have abolished it, it is a matter of policy that the government will oppose its use in any country. This is generally based on the idea that the capital punishment is inherently wrong and can never be justified, which is frequently the reason given for maintaining an abolishment of capital punishment. However, controversially, on some specific occasions a government may choose to ignore this policy; for example the Australian government has refused to condemn, and in fact has on occasion even seemed to offer tacit support of, the use of capital punishment against those involved in the Bali bombing.

There is an ongoing debate as to whether capital punishment reduces crime rates; ideally, potential offenders would be too scared of the punishment to commit the crime. The counterargument is that it doesn't affect the crime rate, because potential criminals think that they won't be caught, so they do not care about punishment until it is too late.

There are even studies that have concluded that the death penalty appears to encourage murder. However, like many questions in the social sciences, actual research data on this question can be (and is) interpreted very differently by people with differing predispositions towards capital punishment. In any event, the actual effectiveness (or lack thereof) is largely irrelevant to many who feel strongly about the debate, as their views are based on other factors.

Arguments against

Some of the major arguments used by those opposed to the death penalty include:

  • The death penalty is killing. All killing is wrong, therefore the death penalty is wrong. According to Victor Hugo: «Que dit la loi? Tu ne tueras pas! Comment le dit-elle? En tuant!» ("What does the law say? You will not kill! How does it say it? By killing!").
  • The death penalty is claimed by some to be a violation of human rights primarily Article 3 and Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Some also assert that it violates the "natural rights" laid out by 17th-century English philosopher John Locke who set out many of the foundations of American law. The American Declaration of Independence also includes the "right to life" as the first listed of the natural rights. While those against capital punishment might claim this as an irrevocable right, proponents may claim that, as protection from abuse is the basis of such rights, that the right was forfeit by the seriousness of the crimes.
  • Torture and cruelty are wrong. Some executions are botched, lethal injection in the US having the highest rate according to Amnesty International. This is often due to the fact that qualified medical professionals are prohibited from taking part. This leads to unqualified staff often taking extreme measures such as cutting into the arms of prisoners when they have been unable to locate a vein in lethal injection procedures. This undoubtedly causes those executed to suffer extended pain. Even those who die instantly suffer prolonged mental anguish leading up to the execution. Other procedures, including the electric chair, cyanide gas chamber and hanging are rarely fast or effective processes and are not designed to minimize pain and suffering.
  • Criminal proceedings are fallible. Many people facing the death penalty have been exonerated, sometimes only minutes before their scheduled execution. Others have been executed before evidence clearing them is discovered. While criminal trials not involving the death penalty can also involve mistakes, there is at least the opportunity for those mistakes to be corrected. This has been particularly relevant in cases where new forensic methods (such as DNA) have become available. Since 1973, 119 people in 25 US states have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence.
  • Within US court proceedings some low-income defendants end up being represented by court-appointed attorneys whose credentials are distinctly mediocre. Opponents argue that the prosecution has an unfair advantage. However, in recent years some death-penalty advocates have publicly supported the idea of using the French inquisitorial system in capital cases, instead of the adversarial proceedings currently followed in virtually all US courts today, thus addressing this issue. In addition, some states that have the death penalty – most notably New York – have established an office of "Capital Defender," either appointed by the state's governor or popularly elected (this system has since become obsolete in the particular state in question as capital punishment was declared unconstitutional in 2004, see List of individuals executed in New York).
  • As there is the possibility of executing an innocent person, there is often an extended system of judicial appeals. The cost of these appeals will often exceed that of keeping a prisoner captive for his natural life. [10]
  • In the US the race of the person to be executed can also affect the likelihood of the sentence they receive. Death-penalty advocates counter this by pointing out that most murders where the killer and victim are of the same race tend to be "crimes of passion" while inter-racial murders are usually "felony murders"; that is, murders which were perpetrated during the commission of some other felony (most commonly either armed robbery or forcible rape), the point being that juries are more likely to impose the death penalty in cases where the offender has killed a total stranger than in those where some deep-seated, personal revenge motive may be present. A recent study showed that just 44% of Black Americans support the death penalty. [11]
  • It can encourage police misconduct. For example, the documentary film The Thin Blue Line describes a case in the late 1970s in which an innocent man, Randall Adams, was framed by the Dallas County police department for the murder of a police officer because they knew the more likely suspect, David Harris, was still a minor and thus ineligible for the death penalty.
  • The death penalty is not a deterrent; in the US recent studies do not support the view that capital punishment acts as a deterrent. [12]. It is also argued that anyone who would be deterred by the death penalty would already have been deterred by life in prison, and people that are not deterred by that would not be stopped by any punishment. This argument is typically supported by claims that those states that have implemented the death penalty recently have not had a reduction of violent crime. A stronger variant of this argument suggests that criminals who believe they will face the death penalty are more likely to use violence or murder to avoid capture, and that therefore the death penalty might theoretically even increase the rate of violent crime. [13].
  • Some people argue that the death penalty brutalises society, by sending out the message that killing people is the right thing to do in some circumstances.
  • It is claimed that the death penalty psychologically harms the executioners, in some cases contributing to "Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress", and that even when this does not occur, killing a helpless person in a situation in which the executioner is not in danger may harm the executioner in other ways, such as decreasing his or her sense of the value of life. The suggested conclusion is that when capital punishment is not absolutely necessary to defend society, society has no right to ask executioners to risk their own mental health in such a way.
  • It denies the possibility of rehabilitation. Some hold that a judicial system should have the role of educating and reforming those found guilty of crimes. If one is executed he will never have been educated and made a better person. A Christian variant of this argument woud be that no one can place themselves beyond salvation, so society should never give up hope of rehabilitation.
  • It is argued that in many countries there is greater public support for alternatives or simply public opposition to the death penalty. An International Gallup poll undertaken in 2000 found that 60% of western Europeans opposed the death penalty. In France, a TNS Sofres poll revealed that twenty years after abolition of capital punishment, 49% of respondents opposed reintroduction of the policy compared with 44% who wanted to reinstate capital punishment. In 2000, a poll in Germany found the percentage of West Germans in favour of capital punishment at just 23% the lowest level in Europe. For East Germans, polling found that just 37% of respondents were in favour of capital punishment in 2000. (Financial Times, August 22, 2003) A recent US study found that 41% of the public voted in favor of capital punishment, whilst a higher percentage of 44% voted against the death penalty when voters were offered alternative sentences. The most popular alternative to capital punishment being "life without parole plus restitution to the families of murder victims". [14]
  • Capital punishment has been used politically to silence dissidents, minority religions (see Falun Gong) and activists. A major exponent of this is the People's Republic of China from which there are many reports of the death penalty being used for politically motivated ends. [15]
  • Capital punishment may actually cost more money than life in prison due to the extra costs of the courts such as mistrials, appeals, and extra supervisions. Additionally, many (if not a majority) of death sentences are overturned on appeal. So the cost is incurred, regardlesss of the result.

Arguments for

  • The pursuit of justice: Although execution of a murderer does not provide full justice for the victim, it is the closest form of justice that would be allowed by the moral sensibilities of most people. Without the use of the death penalty for murder, the injustice against the murder victim continues and increases with time until the murderer eventually dies.
  • Deterrence — it may deter other people from committing capital crimes. Some studies (see above) seem to deny this claim, while others provide support for it.
  • Prevention — it prevents offenders from ever returning to society (life sentences hold out the possibility, however remote, of eventual release), thereby preventing them from committing further crimes.
  • Retribution — the death penalty is imposed as a way of "balancing justice" to a limited degree for the crime committed.
  • It shows how seriously society looks at the most heinous crimes.
  • People committing the most heinous crimes (usually murder in countries that practice the death penalty) have forfeited the right to life.
  • The death penalty shows the greatest respect for the ordinary man's, and especially the victim's, inviolable value.
  • It provides peace of mind for many victims of crime and their families.
  • It is the most effective way to protect society (its structures and its individuals) from a felon.
  • It is less cruel than prolonged imprisonment, especially under the conditions that might be popularly demanded for heinous criminals.
  • It provides extra leverage for the prosecutor to deal for important testimony and information.
  • It enjoys democratic support of the people (in countries where this applies).
  • From an economic point of view, it may be less expensive to execute a convict than to house him or her as a prisoner for life.
  • Just as the virtuous deserve reward proportionate to their good deeds, so too the vicious deserve punishment proportionate to their bad deeds. One might even hold, with Kant, that respect is shown to the criminal as someone who has chosen a particular path in life by visiting the appropriate punishment on the criminal.
  • Criminals may be led to rethink and reconcile their lives by the pressing expectation of death.
  • It upholds the rule of law, because it discourages vigilantism on the part of the victim's family or friends (in the form of lynching or retaliatory murder). If not controlled, such actions can lead to extremely destructive vendettas or blood feuds.
  • In some areas where prison overcrowding is becoming a problem, capital punishment is viewed as a way to free up more prison space.
  • Without the death penalty, a person already serving a life sentence may have no reason not to kill in prison.
  • If the death penalty were abolished, a criminal would have little or no reason not to kill potential witnesses during the commission of a robbery (assuming that robbery would earn the criminal a life sentence or a very lengthy prison sentence).
  • Friends and family members deserve justice. A murder shatters not only the victim's life but many others as well.

Religious attitudes towards the death penalty

Judaism and capital punishment

These Jewish view of all laws in the Bible is based on the reading of the Bible as seen through Judaism's corpus of oral law. These oral laws were first recorded around 200 CE in the Mishnah and later around 600 CE in the Babylonian Talmud.

The laws make it clear that the death penalty was only used in very rare cases. The Mishnah states that "A Sanhedrin that puts a man to death once in seven years is called destructive. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says: a Sanhedrin that puts a man to death even once in 70 years. Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Tarfon say: Had we been in the Sanhedrin none would ever have been put to death" (Mishnah, Makkot 1:10).

  • if there were two witnesses to the crime
  • if the witnesses verbally warned the person that they were liable for the death penalty
  • if that person then acknowledged that he/she was warned, yet then went ahead and committed the sin regardless.
  • Further, an individual was not allowed to testify against him- or herself.

As such, the death penalty was effectively legislated out of existence. Today, the State of Israel only uses the death penalty for extraordinary crimes. The last – and only – execution in Israel took place in 1962 against convicted Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.

In Orthodox Judaism, it is held that in theory the death penalty is a correct and just punishment for some crimes. However in practice the application of such a punishment can only be carried out by humans whose system of justice is nearly perfect, a situation which has not existed for some time.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan writes: "In practice, however, these punishments were almost never invoked, and existed mainly as a deterrent and to indicate the seriousness of the sins for which they were prescribed. The rules of evidence and other safeguards that the Torah provides to protect the accused made it all but impossible to actually invoke these penalties…the system of judicial punishments could become brutal and barbaric unless administered in an atmosphere of the highest morality and piety. When these standards declined among the Jewish people, the Sanhedrin...voluntarily abolished this system of penalties." (Kaplan, Handbook of Jewish Thought, Volume II, pp. 170-71)

Rabbi Yosef Edelstein, Director of the Savannah Kollel, writes:

So, at least theoretically, the Torah can be said to be pro-capital punishment. It is not morally wrong, in absolute terms, to put a murderer to death....
However, things look rather different when we turn our attention to the practical realization of this seemingly harsh legislation. You may be aware that it was exceedingly difficult, in practice, to carry out the death penalty in Jewish society...
....I think it's clear that with regard to Jewish jurisprudence, the capital punishment outlined by the Written and Oral Torah, and as carried out by the greatest Sages from among our people (who were paragons of humility and humanity and not just scholarship, needless to say), did not remotely resemble the death penalty in modern America (or Texas).
In theory, capital punishment is kosher; it's morally right, in the Torah's eyes. But we have seen that there was great concern—expressed both in the legislation of the Torah, and in the sentiments of some of our great Sages—regarding its practical implementation. It was carried out in ancient Israel, but only with great difficulty. Once in seven years; not 135 in five and a half.

In Conservative Judaism, the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards approved a 1960 responsa by Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser on capital punishment. It states, in part:

The Talmud ruled out the admissibility of circumstantial evidence in cases which involved a capital crime. Two witnesses were required to testify that they saw the action with their own eyes. A man could not be found guilty of a capital crime through his own confession or through the testimony of immediate members of his family. The rabbis demanded a condition of cool premeditation in the act of crime before their would sanction the death penalty; the specific test on which they insisted was that the criminal be warned prior to the crime, and that the criminal indicate by responding to the warning, that he is fully aware of his deed, but that he is determined to go through with it. In effect this did away with the application of the death penalty. The rabbis were aware of this, and they declared openly that they found capital punishment repugnant to them…There is another reason which argues for the abolition of capital punishment. It is the fact of human fallibility. Too often we learn of people who were convicted of crimes and only later are new facts uncovered by which their innocence is established. The doors of the jail can be opened, in such cases we can partially undo the injustice. But the dead cannot be brought back to life again. We regard all forms of capital punishment as barbaric and obsolete…"
Proceedings of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards 1927-1970 Volume III, p.1537-1538

Christianity and capital punishment

Christians believe that Jesus underwent the death penalty by crucifixion. His trial was affected by popular opinion. His death is frequently depicted in religious art, and the cross, either with or without his body on it, is the primary symbol of Christianity. Christians believe that his death was the price for the sins of the world and brings about their redemption.

Christians are divided on the issue of capital punishment—some are in favour, some are against it under all circumstances. As a matter of practice among Christians, there are two broad patterns. Firstly, there is a tendency for Christian opinions to match those of the countries they live in; many Christians based outside the USA are against capital punishment, while some Christians of largely American denominations are in favour of it. Often overlooked is the fact that virtually all of the mainline Christian churches in the United states have maintained official positions against the death penalty since the 1950s and early 1960s. [See People of Faith Against the Death Penalty] Secondly, various Christian groups, including the more liberal members of the Roman Catholic Church, tend to oppose it while most conservative Protestant groups support it—exceptions to this rule include the Amish and Mennonites; they oppose the death penalty. Pope John Paul II described capital punishment as part of a "culture of death". Many Roman Catholics, especially in America, tended to agree with his view, which is a clear testament to his influence over the Roman Catholic Church of his time. However, the Church as a whole is not completely opposed to the death penalty under all circumstances as a matter of doctrine; rather, John Paul II, as an individual, was opposed to it. Catholics are called to oppose the death penalty if the condemned can be successfully kept behind bars to protect soceity. If, however, the condemned poses a threat to the well-being of society and is not likely to be able to be kept behind bars then capital punishment is permissable. However, this last exception in the mondern day world seems extremely rare.

Those in favour of capital punishment often point to passages in the Old Testament that advocate the death penalty such as Genesis 9 which states, "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man." Those against tend to select their passages from the New Testament that advocate love, forgiveness, and mercy. In Matthew 5:38-39, Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven."

In John 8, a story is told of a woman who was caught in the act of adultery. The Old Testament Law demanded that she be put to death by stoning; Jesus saves her life by requiring that the first stone be cast by someone who has never sinned, and rather than take that role himself, simply tells the woman not to transgress again. (It should be noted that the passage in question is absent from some early manuscripts, which may indicate that it is a later addition to the text.)

Interpreting the Bible as a story of man's redemption through repentance to Christ, some Christians argue that by executing a murderer we are cutting short his life and taking away his opportunity to repent. Some conservative Christian groups who believe in a literal Hell argue that all who die without repentance automatically go there, and point out that many serial killers, including Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy, became born again Christians in prison. The less forgiving might observe that the families of their victims are unlikely to be comforted by the prospect of these men entering heaven.

It should be pointed out that Christianity is based on the teachings of Christ, few would contest this. Therefore advocating the Old Testament over the New Testament has been argued by groups such as Quakers and some non-Christian critics to show inconsistency in the views of pro capital punishment Christians.

In Fiction

In films

Capital punishment has been the basis of many motion pictures including Dead Man Walking based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean, The Green Mile, and The Life of David Gale.


On the television drama The West Wing episode called "Take This Sabbath Day", President Bartlet and his senior staff face the moral and political struggle associated with the death penalty.

External links

Anti-Death Penalty
Pro-Death Penalty
Historical documents
Jewish views of the death penalty

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