Everything You Need To Know About Capital Punishment

By Hazel Flynn

What you need to know about both sides of this contentious and divisive topic.

Capital Punishment

Start at the beginning: Capital punishment is the official, state-sanctioned killing of a person convicted of a criminal offence. Countries whose legal systems allow for this have “the death penalty”. Worldwide we’re moving away from this form of punishment, enacted since ancient times. But some countries remain committed to it despite often passionate opposition.

41: Countries known to have carried out capital punishment in 1995
22: Countries known to have done so in 2014

What’s Changed Over Time?

As a species we’ve been horribly inventive regarding capital punishment. The Romans used different methods for different crimes – those who committed parricide (killing one’s parents or a close family member), for instance, were sealed inside a bag with a dog, ape, rooster and viper and drowned. Burning at the stake was used in Europe and North America. And for hundreds of years English and Japanese traitors were hung, drawn and quartered, which often included live disembowelling. Advocates of capital punishment insist today’s methods, notably lethal injection, are far more humane.

“… capital punishment is a deterrent against future violence and will save other innocent lives.” Future US President George W. Bush, when he was governor of Texas

Who Does It?

According to Amnesty International’s latest data, 98 countries (including Australia, the UK and Scandinavian nations) have abolished the death penalty; seven others (including Brazil, Fiji and Israel) retain it only for “exceptional” crimes (not including murder); 35 (including Kenya, South Korea and Nauru) retain the law but haven’t executed anyone for at least 10 years; while 58 actively use it. China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the US were the top executioners in 2014.

Does It Reduce Crime?

Proponents insist it does, but numerous studies say the evidence they cite is flawed. In 2014 the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said, “There is no evidence of a deterrent effect of the death penalty. Statistics from countries that have abolished the death penalty indicate no increase in serious crime.”

“…judicial execution can never cancel or remove the atrocity it seeks to punish; it can only add a second atrocity to the original one. ” Journalist and commentator Auberon Waugh

Death by Firing Squad

In April 2015 eight prisoners convicted of drug crimes, including two Australians, were executed by firing squad in Indonesia. The previous month, the US state of Utah legalised the reintroduction of firing squads when lethal injection drugs aren’t available. Utah was the site of the infamous 1977 firing squad execution of murderer Gary Gilmore; raised a Mormon, he chose this method as “blood atonement”. Far from calling for mercy just before his death, Gilmore said, “Let’s do it” and three decades later ad man Dan Wieden admitted this inspired the 1988 slogan he created for Nike: Just Do It.


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