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In both the USA and the world there are few punishments that are as old or as controversial as the punishment of death. In the international community the death penalty is as old as the code of King Hammaurabi of Babylon which called for capital punishment for some 25 different crimes. In the USA use of capital punishment dates to at least 1608 when Captain George Kendall of the Jamestown colony in Virginia was executed for allegedly being a Spanish spy. Today the death penalty still exists, though it is not as pervasive or as frequently used as in the past. As of 2009 there were 91 countries in the world that have abolished the death penalty as a possible punishment for any crime, 11 that have abolished it for ”ordinary crimes” but retain it for others such as treason, and 33 more countries that have not officially abolished it but can be considered to have abolished the death penalty in practice in that they have not executed anyone since the 1990s. In total, there are 135 countries around the world that have abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes either in law or in practice. There are 62 countries that have retained the death penalty for ordinary crimes: among these are China, Japan, Libya, Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the USA. Most of these international executions have occurred in China.
Although the USA is officially a ”death penalty country,” there is a great deal of diversity in its use with a handful of states using the death penalty relatively frequently, some using it infrequently and some that are abolitionist with no death penalty. As of January of 2009 there were 36 states that had the death penalty as a possible punishment (2 of these states, however, have not executed anyone since 1976), and 14 states (plus the District of Columbia) that have no death penalty. Within death penalty states there is great variation in its use. The rate of execution is as high as 0.235 per 10,000 population in Oklahoma to 0.002 in Colorado, a ratio of approximately 117 to 1. Clearly, then there is a great deal of heterogeneity across death penalty states in how aggressively it is imposed.
On January 17, 1977, the first execution in the USA in almost ten years took place when Gary Mark Gilmore was executed by firing squad in the state of Utah. Gilmore was what has become known as a ”voluntary” execution because he surrendered his legal right to appeal his death sentence, and his death begins the modern era of the death penalty in the United States. Since the resumption of executions in 1977 until February of 2009, there have been 1,149 executions in the USA. Two states, Texas and Virginia, account for nearly one-half (46 percent) of the total number, consistent with the past 83 percent of all executions in the USA having occurred in Southern states. The peak year for executions was 1999 when there were 98. Since then there has been a steady decline in the number of executions each year, and in 2008 there were only 37 executions. There are a number of reasons for the steady decline in the number of executions, one of the most important being the fact that there have been numerous ”death row exonerations” -instances where persons placed on death row awaiting execution were found upon further investigation (DNA evidence, for example) to have been innocent. Since 1977 there have been 130 death row exonerations, or 1 exoneration for every 9 executions. In the past, the most frequent method of executing someone in the USA was through electrocution. Since 1977, however, all death penalty states have moved toward the use of lethal injection as the preferred method of putting prisoners to death. Of the 1,149 executions since 1977, 85 percent were done by lethal injection.
In trying to figure out the future of the death penalty, it is unlikely to be completely abolished either in the world or in the USA in the near future. The majority of the death penalty countries in the world are countries with large Islamic populations where capital punishment is both practiced and widely accepted culturally. The death penalty is also not likely to be abolished in the USA. The majority of executions both today and in the past have been conducted in Southern states and also for cultural and religious (Christian Evangelical) reasons capital punishment enjoys popular support there.
- Bedau, H. and Cassell, P. (2004) Debating the Death Penalty. Oxford University Press, New York.
- Paternoster, R., Brame, R., & Bacon, S. (2008) The Death Penalty: America’s Experience with Capital Punishment. Oxford University Press, New York.