Many distinctive doctrines in criminal law originated in efforts to restrict the number of capital crimes and executions. For instance, in the late 18th century, when all murder in the United States was punishable by death, Pennsylvania pioneered in dividing murder into two categories. The state enacted laws that authorized punishment of first-degree murder by death, while second-degree murder was punishable by imprisonment only. Elsewhere, penal codes uniformly required death for certain serious crimes. In these jurisdictions, discretionary powers to commute death sentences gradually expanded. (A commutation substitutes a lesser penalty for a more severe one—for ...view middle of the document...
(Northern Ireland did not abolish capital punishment until 1973.) By the early 1980s every major country in Europe had stopped executing criminals.
Coincident with this trend in Western Europe, many countries belonging to the Commonwealth of Nations, an association of countries formerly affiliated with the British Empire, eliminated capital punishment. For instance, Canada conducted its last execution in 1962 and abolished the death penalty in 1976. New Zealand held its last execution in 1957 and Australia stopped executing criminals ten years later. A similar burst of abolitionist activity coincided with the breakup of the Soviet Union. East Germany, the Czech Republic, and Romania all outlawed capital punishment between 1987 and 1990. Throughout the former Communist countries, abolition of the death penalty was a political act far removed from the usual domain of criminal justice policy-making. Eliminating the death penalty was one of many ways the citizens of these countries rejected unlimited state power over individual life. For example, in Romania the overthrow of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was followed by his execution and that of members of his family. Shortly thereafter, the new government abolished capital punishment, which was associated with Ceausescu’s brutal, tyrannical rule.
Critics of capital punishment contend that it is brutal and degrading, while supporters consider it a necessary form of retribution (revenge) for terrible crimes. Those who advocate the death penalty assert that it is a uniquely effective punishment that deters crime. However, advocates and opponents of the death penalty dispute the proper interpretation of statistical analyses of its deterrent effect. Opponents of capital punishment see the death penalty as a human rights issue involving the proper limits of governmental power. In contrast, those who want governments to continue to execute tend to regard capital punishment as an issue of criminal justice policy. Because of these alternative viewpoints, there is a profound difference of opinion not only about what is the right answer on capital punishment, but about what type of question is being asked when the death penalty becomes a public issue.
Execution by Guillotine During the French Revolution (1789-1799), King Louis XVI of France was tried as a traitor and condemned to death. His execution by guillotine, which took place in a crowded plaza in Paris, was a public spectacle. Early opponents of the death penalty opposed such brutal methods of criminal punishment.Corbis
Early opponents of capital punishment objected to its brutality. Executions were public spectacles involving cruel methods. In addition, capital punishment was not reserved solely for the most serious crimes. Death was the penalty for a variety of minor offenses.
The allegations of brutality inspired two different responses by those who supported executions. First, advocates contended that capital punishment was necessary...