Death Penalty: Statistics and Controversy, Global Perspectives

Death Penalty: Statistics and Controversy, Global Perspectives

In the history of the American colonies and the United States, burning, pressing, gibbeting or hanging in chains, breaking on the wheel, and bludgeoning were used for a small number of executions. Hanging was the most common method of execution. A black slave in South Carolina was the last person to be burned to death in August 1825.

John Marshall, a murderer, was the last person to be hung in chains in West Virginia on April 4, 1913. Thirty-seven out of 38 states and the federal government currently use lethal injection as a means to execute the death penalty. Nebraska uses electrocution.

Other states use gas chambers, electrocution, hanging, and the firing squad. From 1976 to 2004, out of 944 executions, 776 capital criminals were put to death by lethal injection, 153 by electrocution, 11 by gas chamber, 3 by hanging, and 2 by firing squad.

Minimum Age of Execution

Generally, the minimum age for execution is 18. Until March 2005, the United States remained one of only 8 countries to put juveniles on death row.

The other 7 nations are Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. In the 13 colonies, the United States, under the Articles of Confederation, and the current United States (both states and the federal government), has executed 364 juvenile offenders since 1642.

In seven states, 22 executions took place after 1976. Before 2005, of the 38 US states that allowed capital punishment:

  • 19 states and the federal government had set a minimum age of 18,
  • 5 states had set a minimum age of 17, and
  • 14 states had explicitly set a minimum age of 16, or were subject to the Supreme Court’s imposition of that minimum.

In 1988, the Supreme Court of the United States of America in Thompson V. Oklahoma held that 16 was the minimum permissible age. The Supreme Court pondered over the case Roper V. Simmons in March 2005, and by a 5-4 margin, found that executions of juvenile offenders were unconstitutional.

To conform to this decision, state laws have not been updated yet. Unconstitutional laws, under the constitutional dispensation of the US, need not be repealed; instead, they are held to be inoperative.

Death Penalty Worldwide

There were 3,797 executions in 25 countries in 2004, as revealed by Amnesty International’s annual report on official judicial executions. In the People’s Republic of China (PRC), 9 out of every 10 executions took place. Available data indicate that China carries out at least 3,400 executions every year.

From 1990 to 2003, the average number of executions per year was 2,242, as reported by Amnesty. Between 1990 and 2001, the PRC executed at least 20,000 people. Among them, 1,781 people were executed between April and July 2001 under a “Strike Hard” crime crackdown.

The 12 countries with the most executions in 2004 are as follows:

CountryExecutionsExecutions per 100
million residents
3. Vietnam64+77
4. USA5920
5. Saudi Arabia33+130
6. Pakistan15+9.4
7. Kuwait9+400
8. Bangladesh7+5
9. Egypt6+7.9
10. Singapore6+140
11. Yemen6+30
12. Belarus5+48

The number of executions in China is much higher than the report by Amnesty International reveals. Every year, there are 10,000 executions in China, which is collectively five times more than all death penalty cases from other nations.

Although China’s executions have always been a highly guarded state secret, this figure came to light when Chen Zhonglin, a National People’s Congress delegate, revealed it.

Singapore is the country with the highest per capita use of the death penalty. Between 1994 and 1999, the rate of executions was 13.57 per one million people. Death penalties are awarded and executed for the most serious offenses.

From 1999 to 2003, 138 persons were subjected to the death penalty. Among them, 110 were given the death penalty for drug-related offenses, while the rest were for murder and arms-related offenses. Executions are carried out by hanging on Friday mornings in Changi prison and are seldom publicized.

Capital punishment is used in most countries to punish murder or war-related crimes. In some countries, certain non-violent crimes are also punishable by death.

For example, in China, crimes related to drugs and business can result in the death penalty. In Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia, capital punishment is extensively used for drug-related crimes.

More than half of the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. As of September 2002, there are 111 abolitionist and 84 retentionist countries.

Abolitionist states fall into three categories: those that have abolished it for all crimes, those that have abolished it for ordinary crimes, and those that are abolitionist in practice.

Countries whose laws do not provide for the death penalty for any crime are considered abolitionist for all crimes. 76 states have totally abolished capital punishment.

The second category includes countries whose laws provide for the death penalty for exceptional crimes, such as crimes under military law or crimes committed in exceptional circumstances.

15 states are abolitionist for ordinary crimes. The third category comprises states that retain the death penalty for ordinary crimes, such as murder, but in practice, they have not executed anyone in the past ten years.

They are believed to have a policy or established practice of not carrying out executions. This list also includes states that have made an international commitment not to use the death penalty. 20 states are abolitionist in practice.

Most democratic countries in Europe and Latin America, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have abolished the death penalty. Honduras abolished the death penalty in 1956, but a political debate is surfacing over whether it should be restored.

Among Western countries, Portugal was the first to abolish the death penalty. In Portugal, the last execution took place in 1846, and the punishment was officially abolished in 1867.

According to statistics from Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia, there are 89 countries that have completely abolished the death penalty, while another 28 countries have not executed anyone in the last ten years.

Additionally, 9 countries officially maintain the death penalty for “exceptional crimes.” The Federal Republic of Germany and Costa Rica were the first countries in the world to ban the death penalty in their constitutions in 1949. As of 2005, the constitutions of 42 countries prohibit capital punishment.

Countries that have retained the death penalty include Japan, the United States, and several countries in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Caribbean. Currently, 74 countries still use the death penalty.

Issues in Capital Punishment

Capital punishment is encompassed by a lot of issues. The main issues confronting society are:

  • Is the death penalty a much greater deterrent than any other form of punishment so that its abolition would result in an increase in murder?
  • Does the state have the right to take the life of a criminal?
  • Is there any satisfactory alternative?

Everything depends on what objective a society wants to achieve through capital punishment. If the objects of capital punishment are to be achieved by a fair measure, abolition of capital punishment would have to be considered.

Deterrent Effect of the Death Penalty

An easy way to determine the deterrent effect of the death penalty is to compare the homicide rate in states or countries that have the death penalty with those that have abolished it.

One statistic showed a comparison between states of the U. S. A. that abolished the death penalty with adjoining states that retained it. The comparison found that the states abolishing the death penalty had slightly lower homicide rates than the states that retained it.

However, whether any state had the death penalty or not did not have an important bearing on the comparison. The general culture and composition of the population are much more important than the presence or absence of the death penalty in determining homicide rates.

Another method of determining the deterrent effect of the death penalty is to compare countries that have abolished the death penalty with countries that have retained it.

European states that abolished the death penalty on average have lower homicide rates than states that retain the death penalty.

Another way to assess the deterrent value of the death penalty is to compare the homicide rate before and after the abolition in any specific country. This type of comparison concludes with findings that the states that abolished the death penalty had no unusual increase in homicide rates.

After a few years, some of these states revived the death penalty because of the assumption that the murder rate had increased greatly after abolition.

But the statistics painted a different picture. Other states that made no changes in their laws regarding the death penalty had homicide rates almost exactly parallel to those states that revived the death penalty.

Available data do not justify the argument that the death penalty has a significant deterrent effect. The relationship between the murder rate and the death penalty is relatively unimportant, as shown by the evidence.

Available data do not substantiate the death penalty as a deterrent. The basis of this argument relies on preconceptions rather than data. The preconceptions are drawn from the hedonistic principle, which suggests that humans are motivated by pain and pleasure.

If the punishment, the cost of the crime, is severe, people are less likely to commit those offenses.

However, statistics show that the death penalty does not have a substantial deterrent effect. Even premeditated murders are often committed under the pressure of great emotion or in a spur of the moment, and the murderers hardly consider the penalty.

Certainty of Punishment and the Death Penalty

People who favor the death penalty usually argue that it is more certain than imprisonment, which can be terminated by escape, pardon, parole, or probation. However, the death penalty is very uncertain in practice, as it is rarely imposed.

Although authorized, juries are less willing to convict, and witnesses are less willing to testify if the penalty is death. In 1936, 1,628 persons were convicted of homicide in 29 states of the USA. Out of them, only 4 percent received capital punishment. In 1946, 1,923 persons were convicted of homicide, and only 4.6 percent were sentenced to death.

Many of those sentenced to death are not executed, indicating the uncertainty of the death penalty. Of those persons sentenced to death in 25 states from 1933 to 1939, 80 percent were executed; from 1940-45, 81 percent were executed. Between 1900 and 1959 in Massachusetts, 101 persons were convicted of first-degree murder.

Among them, 65 were executed, and 35 were given life imprisonment. In some states, the death penalty was and is commuted to life imprisonment. Not only is imprisonment uncertain, but the death penalty is also uncertain until it is actually executed.

Death Penalty and the Financial Economy

Some try to defend the death penalty on the grounds that it is less expensive than life imprisonment. If the government has to expend $1,000 for a prisoner each year, and if the life term terminates at the end of twenty years, the total cost will be $20,000.

If an execution costs less than this amount, then the death penalty will be cheaper than life imprisonment.

However, whether execution is cheaper than life imprisonment is doubtful.

First, the trials of cases that end with the death penalty are much longer than the trials of other cases.

Second, expenditures for death houses and the cost of maintaining close contact with death convicts are not included in the total cost of executions. If all the costs are computed, then the death penalty is not cost-effective compared to life imprisonment.

Death Penalty and Inseparability of Error

Error in awarding the death penalty is irreparable because, after executing capital punishment, no one can bring the executed person back. Every judicial system has some mechanism to minimize the mistakes of capital sentences.

Nevertheless, mistakes occur for various reasons, including inadequate circumstantial evidence, framed and simulated evidence, perjury, unreliable expert evidence, overlooking and suppressing of evidence, and excessive zeal on the part of investigators and prosecutors. Lawes pointed out that between 1889 and 1927, 406 persons were sentenced to Sing Sing for execution.

Upon reconsidering the decisions, it was found that 50 out of 406 persons were sentenced in error. In Michigan, from 1942-1951, 759 persons were given life imprisonment for murder in the first degree. Hartung found that judges and juries erred in 10.9 percent of the above 759 life imprisonment convictions.

Arguments for Capital Punishment

Moral Justification for the Death Penalty

Many people’s moral sensibilities allow for the execution of murderers as it represents the closest pursuit of justice, although it does not provide complete justice for the victim. Without the life of the murderer being taken, the injustice against the murder victim continues and intensifies with time until the killer’s death.

Deterrence and Prevention through Capital Punishment

Deterrence: The death penalty may deter potential criminals and others from committing capital crimes, even though studies appear to refute this claim.

Prevention: It incapacitates offenders, thereby preventing them from committing further crimes. Offenders cannot rejoin society, ensuring that people remain safe from becoming potential crime victims.

Retribution: Balancing Justice for Victims

Retribution: When a person is killed, their close relatives grieve. Unless the murderer is given the death penalty, the victims’ sense of vengeance cannot be assuaged. The death penalty is therefore imposed as a means of “balancing justice” to some extent for the committed crime.

Societal Implications of the Death Penalty

It demonstrates how seriously society regards the most heinous crimes.

The right to life of individuals committing the offense of murder must be forfeited.

The value of the general populace, particularly the inviolable value of the victim, is respected through the death penalty.

Impact on Innocents and Victims’ Families

It affects fewer “innocent persons” than alternative penalties, as there are many prisoners and ex-prisoners who relapse into new crimes, affecting additional “innocent persons.”

It provides peace of mind for many victims of crime and their families.

Protection of Society and Cost Considerations

The death penalty is the most effective way of protecting society from a felon.

Compared to prolonged imprisonment, the death penalty is considered less cruel regarding the rigorous conditions of prison.

It provides additional leverage for the prosecutor to secure important testimony and information.

Democratic Support and Financial Implications

It enjoys democratic support from the people (in countries where it applies).

In terms of expenditure, the death penalty is less expensive than imprisonment. Housing a convict in prison is more costly than executing the convict.

Philosophical Perspective on Punishment

Just as virtuous individuals deserve a reward commensurate with their good deeds, so too should the vicious receive punishment proportional to their bad deeds. One might even argue, following Kant, that respect is shown to the criminal as someone who has chosen a particular path in life by imposing the appropriate punishment on them.

Potential for Reform and Maintenance of Law

Criminals may reconsider and reform their lives due to the impending expectation of death.

The death penalty helps maintain the rule of law because it discourages vigilantism or self-help on behalf of the victim’s family or friends. Without the balancing effect of the death penalty, such self-help could lead to highly destructive vendettas or blood feuds. The absence of capital punishment might result in anarchy prevailing in any society.

Practical Benefits in Correctional Facilities

In cases of overcrowded prisons, some people advocate for execution to free up more space in the correctional facilities.

Without the death penalty, a person already serving a life sentence may have no reason to refrain from violence within the prison.

Arguments Against Death Penalty

Ethical Considerations of the Death Penalty

The death penalty, regardless of language or format, constitutes killing. All forms of killing are inherently wrong; hence, the death penalty is ethically unjustifiable.

Human Rights Violations by the Death Penalty

The death penalty directly violates Article 3 and Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Additionally, it contradicts the “natural rights” articulated by the 17th-century English philosopher John Locke, including the fundamental right to life. “The right to life” is an absolute entitlement for every human being, mandating protection against any infringement upon this right.

Torture and Cruelty in Execution Methods

The execution of capital criminals involves acts of torture and cruelty, which are unequivocally unethical. Certain executions are botched, with lethal injection procedures often being negligently administered. Lethal injection is associated with the highest rate of problems in the USA.

Moreover, the absence of qualified medical professionals often leads to unskilled staff resorting to drastic measures, such as cutting into prisoners’ arms when they struggle to locate a vein. This subjects condemned individuals to extended pain and suffering. Even those who die immediately may endure prolonged mental distress leading up to the execution.

Other methods of execution, such as the electric chair, cyanide gas chamber, and hanging, are not designed to minimize pain and suffering; they are neither swift nor efficient means of carrying out the death penalty.

The Inherent Flaws of Criminal Proceedings

Criminal proceedings are inherently susceptible to error. Some individuals sentenced to death are exonerated only moments before their scheduled execution, while others have been executed before evidence of their innocence was uncovered. In cases where errors occur in death penalty judgments, there is no means to compensate for the loss of a life.

Adequate mechanisms must be in place to reduce the margin of error to zero, particularly in instances where new forensic methods, like DNA analysis, are available. In the United States, 119 individuals have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence since 1973.

Representation Inequality in Death Penalty Cases

Many death penalty cases involve defendants who are inadequately represented or not represented at all due to their poverty, resulting in greater injustices.

Low-income defendants in US courts are typically assigned attorneys with subpar credentials, placing the prosecution at an unfair advantage. In recent years, legal professionals from common law countries have increasingly supported the adoption of the inquisitorial system used in civil law jurisdictions for capital cases.

They contend that the inquisitorial system is better suited to handling capital cases compared to the adversarial system employed by common law countries. In some US states, “Capital Defender” offices have been established, either appointed by the state’s governor or popularly elected.

Economic Costs of the Death Penalty

An extensive system of judicial appeals exists to prevent the execution of innocent individuals. The cost of these appeals far exceeds the expenses associated with incarcerating a prisoner for their natural life.

Questioning the Deterrent Effect of the Death Penalty

Contrary to claims of deterrence, the death penalty does not effectively deter crime. Those who the death penalty might deter could similarly be influenced by the prospect of life imprisonment.

Criminals not dissuaded by the threat of imprisonment are unlikely to be swayed by any form of punishment.

For instance, US states that practice the death penalty have not experienced a reduction in violent crimes. Criminals facing the death penalty are more likely to resort to violence or murder to evade capture. In theory, the death penalty may actually contribute to an increase in violent crime rates.

Societal Impact of the Death Penalty

The death penalty has a brutalizing effect on society, as it sends the message that killing is permissible in certain circumstances.

In death penalty cases, helpless individuals are executed, which can result in “Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress” for the executioners or diminish their regard for the sanctity of life. Society should not require executioners to jeopardize their mental well-being when capital punishment is not an absolute necessity for societal defense.

Denial of Rehabilitation Opportunities

The death penalty eliminates the possibility of rehabilitating and reforming capital offenders. The criminal justice system should provide sufficient mechanisms to educate and reform individuals found guilty of capital crimes. When a person is sentenced to death, the potential for their rehabilitation is entirely denied.

Public Opinion on the Death Penalty

In many countries, a significant portion of the population either opposes the death penalty or supports alternative measures.

An international Gallup poll conducted in 2000 found that 60% of Western Europeans do not endorse the death penalty.

In France, a TNS Sofres poll indicated that 49% of respondents opposed the reinstatement of the death penalty, while 44% favored it. A 2000 poll in Germany showed that only 23% of West German respondents supported the death penalty, while 37% in East Germany did. A recent US study found that 41% of respondents supported the death penalty, while 44%

were against it. When presented with alternatives to the death sentence, most people preferred “life without parole plus restitution to the families of murder victims.”

Political and Discriminatory Misuse of the Death Penalty

Furthermore, death sentences are sometimes employed to suppress political dissidents and target ethnic or religious minorities.

Capital Punishment in International Treaties and Response of Different Countries

Three international treaties provide for the abolition of the death penalty. Two of these are regional, while one has worldwide scope. The Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989.

It calls for the complete abolition of the death penalty but permits state parties to retain it during times of war if they make a reservation to that effect when ratifying or acceding to the Protocol.

To date, 37 countries have ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which concerns the abolition of the death penalty, was adopted by the Council of Europe in 1982.

It advocates for the abolition of the death penalty during peacetime, with an exception allowing state parties to retain it for crimes committed “in time of war or of imminent threat of war.” As of now, 30 countries have ratified Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention.

The Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights for the Abolition of the Death Penalty was adopted by the General Assembly of the Organization of American States in 1990.

This protocol calls for the complete abolition of the death penalty but permits state parties to retain capital punishment during wartime if they make a reservation to that effect when ratifying or acceding to the Protocol.

To date, six countries have ratified the Protocol to the American Convention regarding the abolition of the death penalty.

  1. Brazil
  2. Costa Rica
  3. Ecuador
  4. Panama
  5. Uruguay, and
  6. Venezuela

Abolition of the death penalty is a precondition for membership in several international organizations, with the European Union and the Council of Europe being the most notable among them.

States seeking to join the European Union or the Council of Europe are required to abolish the death penalty or, at the very least, demonstrate a willingness to accept a moratorium as an interim measure.

For instance, Russia is a member of the Council of Europe, and although it has the death penalty in its legal framework, it has not carried out any executions since becoming a Council member. Another example is Latvia, which implemented a moratorium in 1996.

Despite Latvia’s Parliament signing the 13th Protocol, it remains the only European Union member that has not ratified the 13th Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, allowing it to retain the death penalty in extraordinary circumstances.

In Turkey, there has been a de facto moratorium on the death penalty, with the last execution taking place in 1984. Turkey’s legal system recently underwent reforms as part of its efforts to attain EU membership.

In August 2002, the death penalty was removed from peacetime law, and in May 2004, Turkey amended its constitution to eliminate capital punishment under all circumstances.

In practice, Europe stands as a continent free of the death penalty. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has actively advocated for observer states within the Council of Europe to abolish capital punishment.