Criminal Justice Degree Guide: Death Penalty
Perhaps the oldest form of justice and punishment in human history, capital punishment has long served as a means to permanently remove unwanted persons from society. Whether these persons are murderers, thieves or merely opponents of those in power, executions have provided a public manner of explicitly declaring what is not allowed or tolerated in a society.
The earliest recorded case of the death penalty is recorded in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, one of the oldest surviving forms of writing, dating back to 1700 BC. Throughout history, the death penalty has been an integral point of emphasis for justice systems, with examples from Rome, Greece, Japan and many other cultures. Today, approximately 60% of the world’s population lives in countries that authorize the death penalty. The manner of executions, their prevalence, the types of people who are executed and the types of crimes subject to the death penalty all give insight into the beliefs, values and social identity of cultures and their peoples.
As an ongoing effort to provide the best information on the death penalty, and Criminal Justice in general, compiled below are resources for greater understanding of this highly debated topic. The following resources include overviews and histories of the death penalty, along with analysis and discussions of the validity of capital punishment in the modern world. Additionally, resources covering statistics, research and legal information are included.
With the largest prison system in the world, both cumulatively and per capita, the United States currently has about 3,200 individuals on death row. 1982 marked the first year this figure rose above 1,000, and a highpoint was reached in 2000 when 3,593 inmates were on death row. The population of death row in America makes up approximately 1.4% of the total incarcerated population. Since the first execution in 1608, approximately 13,000 people have been executed on American soil since the founding of the colonies. The state of Texas has executed 405 people (as of 2008), 4 times more than the next state, Virginia.
The usage of the death penalty varies by state, with some banning the practice altogether. All states that apply the penalty do so almost exclusively as punishment for cases of aggravated murder. The average length of time for a prisoner to wait on death row varies between states but the national average stay is 169 months, or 14 years. This extended period of time has lead to the rise of a psychological phenomenon known as Death Row Syndrome, where intense anxiety, isolation and delays in executions can affect a prisoner’s mental state. Citing this extended stay, several countries have argued against extradition of suspects to America, opposing their possible placement on death row.
Part of the reason for such extended stays on death row is the lengthy appeals process for death row convictions, which determines whether a prisoner remains on death row. Besides granting an appeal, a court may also authorize a stay of execution for a period of years. These stays can be based off of evidence from the case, constitutional grounds or examinations of whether a prisoner’s condition will make an execution cruel and unusual punishment. The manner of execution is determined by the state, but the large majority of modern executions are done by lethal injection Death row inmates may appeal once but the process may move from the local to the federal level. The process goes through 4 stages; An Automatic Appeal, a State Habeas Corpus Petition, a Federal Habeas Corpus Petition, and finally, Clemency. Clemency is the unique ability of a governor, or the president, to make an executive decision to remove a prisoner from death row based on humanitarian reasons.
- Introduction to the Death Penalty – A historical account of the use of the death penalty across cultures. Includes an introduction to the main issues that are the subject of the death penalty debate.
- High School Curriculum on the Death Penalty – A resource for high school teachers wishing to use the death penalty debate in the classroom. While meant for teachers the lesson plans and databases on this site are useful for those outside of high school.
- History of the Death Penalty & Recent Developments – Featuring specific cases and legal amendments, this resource covers the development of the death penalty throughout US history. Also included are some indicative statistics regarding executions.
- The Death Penalty in the US – A brief overview of the capital punishment process in the United States. Includes a state-by-state breakdown of execution rates.
- An Impassioned Debate: An Overview of the Death Penalty in America – An introduction to the wide ranging public debate on the viability of the death penalty in America. Covers some important historical cases that have shaped capital punishment policy.
Death Penalty Issues
-Retribution and Justice
Perhaps the most common reason for opposition to the death penalty is an emotional or moral response to the act of execution. Religion and personal beliefs against killing lead many to argue against state sanctioned executions. The argument is often that killing is wrong, even as a form of justice, and that death penalties follow an ‘eye for an eye’ type of mentality, perpetuating violence.
At the other end is the argument that the families of victims deserve to have a sense of justice and closure from the execution of the individual who committed the crime. The worst punishment allowed by the state, the death penalty, should be applied to atrocious and extreme crimes. Additionally, moral and religious viewpoints may also play a role in the defense of this argument.
- Pro-Death Penalty Argument: Families of Victims for the Death Penalty – An organization of families of victims of crime who support the use of the death penalty. The use of the death penalty is advocated as a means of justice and closure for grieving family members.
- Anti-Death Penalty Argument: Capital Punishment is Unjustified Retribution – Part of a larger paper against capital punishment, this section deals with the idea of the death penalty as a means of retributive justice. The author argues that other forms of punishment, beyond execution offer meaningful and less violent forms of retribution.
Who is on death row has also been the cause of much debate. Racial lines are often cited as examples of injustice, with approximately 40% of the death row population being black. Racial factors in a case are one of the primary reasons for the granting of clemency. The argument is that the evidence of racial imbalance on death row may mean that race was a factor in the application of the death penalty. Additionally, other factors such as mental capacity, psychological disorders and juvenile convictions are cause for criticism of the placement of convicts on death row.
- Pro-Death Penalty: Pro & Con: The Death Penalty in Black and White – An analysis of the racial demographics of death row inmates, arguing that race is a mitigating factor in death sentence convictions. An examination of statistics is used to back up this argument.
- Anti-Death Penalty: Race and the Death Penalty – An analysis of the ways in which race can affect whether a prisoner is sentenced to death row. Includes evidence from the landmark case McCleskey v. Kemp, in which the racial demographic of Georgia’s death row was challenged.
Another argument against the death penalty is the claim that the chance of innocence is too great of a risk to apply a death sentence to a prisoner. The chance of killing of an innocent person seen as immoral, and once a prisoner is executed there is no chance for overturning a conviction. Opponents of this argument claim that the lengthy appeals process is more than sufficient for establishing the possibility of innocence.
- Pro-Death Penalty: The Guilty and the “Innocent’ – Law professor Paul Cassell gives a lengthy critique of the claims of the anti-death penalty movement that the innocent are at risk of execution in capital punishment cases. The author finds that the safeguards already present in the appeals system are more than sufficient.
- Anti-Death Penalty: The Execution of the Innocent – An argument that the risk of executing innocent people through capital punishment is too high to warrant its current levels of use. This paper examines the prevalence of innocent inmates on death row and provides possible remedies to this issue.
Death vs. Life
Another common argument against the death penalty is that a life sentence is preferable to the death sentence. This argument is based largely on moral reasons, but is also debated through the lens of criminal justice and finance. Both sides in the debate over capital punishment have argued that their stance involves a more cost effective method of punishment. Supporters of life sentences argue that the numerous court trials and appeals required to ensure an execution, the specialized confinement of death row inmates and lengthy stays on death row all add up to make death sentencing more costly than life sentences. Opponents make a similar claim in regards to the indefinite length of time a prisoner must stay incarcerated, which includes such costs as medical care in old age and heightened security. Additionally, violent criminals sentenced to life in prison may have the opportunity to kill again inside the prison, or upon an escape attempt.
- Pro-Death Penalty: The Next Time Someone Says the Death Penalty Costs More Than Life in Prison, Show Them This Article – A critique of the claims that the death penalty process is more costly than life imprisonment. Features a criticism of studies on the costs of the death penalty, as well as an emphasis that the cost of capital punishment is not a relevant issue.
- Anti-Death Penalty: Millions Misspent: What Politicians Dont Say About the High Costs of the Death Penalty – A financial based analysis of the costs of capital punishment in America. Also discusses how the money saved from removal of the death penalty could be better served to further other aspects of criminal justice.
Death Penalty as a Deterrent
A popular argument from pro-death penalty supporters is that the death penalty acts as a deterrent for possible criminals and an example for society as a whole that extreme and violent crimes will be punished with the harshest penalty allowed. Opponents of the death penalty counter this claim by stating that people who commit murders do not often rationally analyze the legal consequences of their actions beforehand. The argument here is that life imprisonment is equally as deterring as the death penalty.
- Pro-Death Penalty: The Deterrent Effect of the Death Penalty – A summary of recent research into the deterrent effect of the death penalty, this paper argues that it does indeed have an effect in lowering murder rates. Based on the claim that negative consequences are deterrence for criminals and offers some statistical data to back the claim.
- Anti-Death Penalty: Deterrence and the death penalty: the views of the experts – Featuring the opinions and analysis of criminal justice experts, this scholarly paper concludes that the death penalty has no real deterrence to crime. This paper contains a literature review of the works of researchers who found evidence countering the claim that the death penalty is an effective deterrent.
There are currently 68 countries that sanction the death penalty. These include the three largest populations on the planet in China, India and the United States. The majority of the Western nations have abolished execution, with Belarus being the only current European nation sanctioning the death penalty. Japan, South Korea, and the United States are the only democracies that regularly conduct executions.
China consistently ranks as the top country for executions, often carrying out thousands every year. In the last decade Iran has consistently ranked number two, with the USA often taking fifth place. While Iran executes the most people per capita, China, the world’s most prolific death penalty nation, executes more people than the rest of the world combined. The official statistics are disputed for China, as the number of executions is a state secret. As in the United States, an appeals process is present in China, with two levels of court appeals. Approximately 15% of convictions are overturned by appeal. Once an appeal process is completed and sentencing final, executions are usually carried out within a week. This quick stay on death row is a sharp contrast to the lengthy stays of prisoners in America’s death row.
As in America, the majority of executions worldwide are carried out for murder convictions. However, there are numerous exceptions, with Iran and other theocratic nations applying death sentences to violations of religious laws. Rape is also another crime that merits a death sentence. In China, death penalties are applied mostly for large drug offenses and murders, but can also be applied for economic and property crimes. These types of crimes are often not subjected to death penalties anywhere else in the world. China also has a unique legal procedure, entitled ‘death sentence with two years probation’. In this sentence a defendant is placed on probation for two years, after which if the defendant has committed no further crimes, they are released from a death sentence.
The manner of executions also varies across the world. Lethal injection, the standard form in America, is also common in China, where the other legalized form is the firing squad. Iran and other Middle Eastern nations practice an unofficial form of execution by stoning, a form of punishment for capital offenses of adultery. The gas chamber and electrocution remain largely American forms of capital punishment. Hangings and firing squads are most common forms of punishment outside China and the USA. Beheadings are still practiced in Saudi Arabia.
- Executions Around the World – Rankings of executions by country. Provided by Amnesty International, this resource also gives brief explanations on the statistical distribution of the data.
- Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China – A resource from the United States Commission on China containing the full legal code of the People’s Republic of China. Scroll to Chapter 3, Section 5 for information specific to the death penalty.
- The Death Penalty in the Asia-Pacific Region – A detailed examination of the policies of countries in the Asia-Pacific region regarding the death penalty. Includes information for how the death penalty is applied and its rate of use.
- The Death Penalty Worldwide – A listing of countries’ policies regarding the death penalty. Details when countries abolished the death penalty and which ones still practice capital punishment.
- Q&A: Capital punishment in China – Some basic information on the death penalty system of China. Presented in a Q & A format, this article covers gives a simple explanation of China’s unique capital punishment laws.
- Global Executions Decline – An analysis of worldwide execution statistics, with an emphasis on a decline in global executions. Features an examination of countries that still use the death penalty and their respective capital punishment systems and methods.
Links to Statistical Data on the Death Penalty
The following links include statistical data for capital punishment in the United States and worldwide. These resources are useful for students and activists involved in the death penalty debate.
- Death Penalty Data – Selected data on death penalties, executions and death row inmates from across America. Compiled by the organization Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, this data also compares US policies with other ‘western’ countries.
- Time on Death Row – A Statistical analysis of the make-up of the death row inmate population. Covers social, educational and racial data as well as an examination of the time inmates spend on death row.
- Bureau of Justice Statistics – Capital Punishment – The official database of statistical information on capital punishment from the US Justice Department. Features publications, press releases and data tables.
- Cornell study reveals surprising findings on death row, race and the most death penalty-prone states – The results of a study at Cornell University on the demographics of death row inmates across various US states. The findings of this study seem to counter traditional viewpoints on the make-up of the US death row population.
- Survey of the Federal Death Penalty System – An internal review of the US Federal Death Penalty System, published by the US Department of Justice. Includes a good deal of statistical data, presented in table format.
- A Few Reflections on Capital Punishment – The personal stance of an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi on the topic of capital punishment. Rabbi Yosef Edelstein applies the teachings of the Torah to use of the death penalty.
- Wrestling With the Death Penalty – A critique of the Catholic Churches’ opposition to the death penalty. Written by a fellow Catholic, this examines the arguments for and against the death penalty that are present within the Roman Catholic Church.
- Why Capital Punishment is un-Islamic? – An examination of the validity of the death penalty from the perspective of Islam. The argument presented is based off interpretations of the Qur’an.
- Buddhism and Capital Punishment – An analysis of the relationship between the Buddhist faith and capital punishment. Examines the current political issue as well as the historical usage of the death penalty in Buddhist cultures.
- The Death Penalty: Why the Church Speaks a Countercultural Message – An examination of the stance of the Catholic Church and the death penalty and its relationship to the stance of the American public.
Pro-Death Penalty and Anti-Death Penalty Organizations
- Amnesty International – The worldwide organization dedicated to ending ‘cruel and unusual punishment’, Amnesty International publishes a good deal of information and resources on the death penalty.
- Death Penalty Issues – A directory of news and recent events that impact the death penalty debate. Includes articles and overviews of specific death penalty cases and legal rulings.
- Death Penalty and Sentencing Information In the United States – A pro-death penalty argument presented in a research paper format. Includes counter arguments and data to challenge common anti-death penalty claims.
- Death Penalty Focus – An organization dedicated to improving public knowledge of the capital punishment system in America and finding viable alternatives to the death penalty.
- Fight the Death Penalty – An opinionated critique of the death penalty policies of the United States. Features a focus on the brutality of executions.
- Center on Wrongful Convictions – A legal organization dedicated to the appeals of wrongfully convicted inmates on death row. Includes details on successful appeals processes and the stories of inmates who were wrongfully convicted.
- Justice for All – An organization committed to the defense of capital punishment in the United States. The focus of this group is on the rights of the families of victims of death row criminals.