Christopher Hitchen’s Debate
an American case study
Capital punishment or the death penalty is a legal process whereby a person is put to death by the state as a punishment for a crime. The judicial decree that someone be punished in this manner is a death sentence, while the actual process of killing the person is an execution. Crimes that can result in a death penalty are known as capital crimes or capital offences. The term capital originates from the Latin capitalis, literally “regarding the head” (referring to execution by beheading).
Capital punishment has, in the past, been practised by most societies (one notable exception being Kievan Rus); currently 58 nations actively practise it, and 97 countries have abolished it (the remainder have not used it for 10 years or allow it only in exceptional circumstances such as wartime). It is a matter of active controversy in various countries and states, and positions can vary within a single political ideology or cultural region. In the European Union member states, Article 2 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union prohibits the use of capital punishment.
Currently, Amnesty International considers most countries abolitionist. The United Nations General Assembly has adopted, in 2007, 2008 and 2010, non-binding resolutions calling for a global moratorium on executions, with a view to eventual abolition. Although many nations have abolished capital punishment, over 60% of the world’s population live in countries where executions take place, such as the People’s Republic of China, India, the United States of America and Indonesia, the four most-populous countries in the world, which continue to apply the death penalty (although in India, Indonesia and in many US states it is rarely employed). Each of these four nations voted against the General Assembly resolutions.
Capital punishment is a controversial issue, with many prominent organizations and individuals participating in the debate. Amnesty International and some religions oppose capital punishment on moral grounds, while the Innocence Project works to free wrongly convicted prisoners, including death row inmates, based on newly available DNA tests. Other groups, such as the Southern Baptists, some law enforcement organizations, and some victims’ rights groups support capital punishment.
The United States is one of only four industrialized democracies that still practice capital punishment. From the others, Japan and Singapore have executed prisoners, like the United States, while South Korea currently has a moratorium in effect. In 2011, the USA was the only source of executions (43) in the G8 countries or Western Hemisphere.
Elections have sometimes turned on the issue; in 1986, three justices were removed from the Supreme Court of California by the electorate (including Chief Justice Rose Bird) partly because of their opposition to the death penalty.
Religious groups are widely split on the issue of capital punishment, generally with more conservative groups more likely to support it and more liberal groups more likely to oppose it. The Fiqh Council of North America, a group of highly influential Muslim scholars in the United States, has issued a fatwa calling for a moratorium on capital punishment in the United States until various preconditions in the legal system are met.
In October 2009, the American Law Institute voted to disavow the framework for capital punishment that it had created in 1962, as part of the Model Penal Code, “in light of the current intractable institutional and structural obstacles to ensuring a minimally adequate system for administering capital punishment.” A study commissioned by the institute had said that experience had proved that the goal of individualized decisions about who should be executed and the goal of systemic fairness for minorities and others could not be reconciled.
In total, 142 prisoners have been either acquitted, or received pardons or commutations on the basis of possible innocence, since 1973. Death penalty opponents often argue that this statistic shows how perilously close states have come to undertaking wrongful executions; proponents point out that the statistic refers only to those exonerated in law, and that the truly innocent may be a smaller number. Statistics likely understate the actual problem of wrongful convictions because once an execution has occurred there is often insufficient motivation and finance to keep a case open, and it becomes unlikely at that point that the miscarriage of justice will ever be exposed. In the case of Joseph Roger O’Dell III, executed in Virginia in 1997 for a rape and murder, a prosecuting attorney bluntly argued in court in 1998 that if posthumous DNA results exonerated O’Dell, “it would be shouted from the rooftops that … Virginia executed an innocent man.” The state prevailed, and the evidence was destroyed.
Capital punishment. (2014, May 29). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:22, June 4, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Capital_punishment&oldid=610700562
Capital punishment in the United States. (2014, June 4). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:23, June 4, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Capital_punishment_in_the_United_States&oldid=611462110