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Capital Punishment

History, an introduction to death penalty

The death penalty is a punishment of a prisoner for serious crimes or a capital offence. The term “capital”, derives from Latin word “capitalis” meaning head, “caput” because capital crime was punished by severing the head.

The methods have been changed over the centuries and prisoners who are sentenced to death are locked up in an area in prison called the “death row”.
The first death penalty law was established in the 5th century BC as Roman law. The methods were crucifixion, drowning, beating to death, burning alive and impalement.

In the 7th century BC, the Draconian Code of Athens would punish all crimes with death. King Hammurabi of Babylon established and ordered death penalty for 25 different crimes in the 18th century BC.

Then in the 10th century, hanging was the most usual method in Britain, but later on William the Conqueror would only hang prisoners in the times of war. This continued until the reign of Henry VIII were almost 72,000 have been executed but the methods was extended to boiling, burning at stake, hanging, beheading and drowning. Some of the crimes could be marrying a Jew, not confessing to a crime and treason.

By the year 1700, the number of capital crimes had risen to 222 and they included stealing, cutting down a tree and robbing. Anyone could be executed for the smallest thing or for nothing.

Strangulation and decapitation was the common methods used in the Tang dynasty. Strangulation was sentenced for those who harmed parents or grandparents, kidnapping someone to sell them for slavery or opening a coffin with the result of desecrating a tomb. Decapitation was used for more serious crimes as treason and sedition.

Death penalty in America

When European settlers arrived to America, they also brought the practice of capital punishment with themselves. The first execution was of Captain George Kendall in Jamestown colony of Virginia in 1608 accused of being a spy for Spain.

Then in 1612, Virginia Governor Sir Thomas Dale extended the death penalty crimes so much that minor offenses such as stealing grapes, killing chickens and trading with Indians, denying true God or striking one’s parents was enough to be executed. The next one to pay with his life was Daniel Frank in the colony of Virginia in 1622 for theft. From then until today, the methods has been different and changed throughout the world from Crucifixion, drowning, beating, to death, stoning, burning alive, impalement, firing squads as former, and hanging, shooting, lethal injection, electrocution, gas chamber  and beheading as present day methods. Some historical documents reports about boiling to death, flaying, slow slicing, crushing (including from elephant), stoning and sawing.

Movement for abolishment

China today is the only country that has the largest number of executions but ironically the death penalty was actually banned in China between year 747 and 759 by Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (reign 712-759) but restored back as a response to the An Lushan Rebellion.

In Japan, Emperor Saga abolished the death penalty in 818 under the influence of Shinto and that lasted up until the year 1156.

The first person in USA to revise Virginia death penalty laws was Thomas Jefferson who proposed that death penalty only should be used for murder and treason but it was defeated by only one vote and in 1846, Michigan became the first state to abolish the death penalty for all crimes except treason followed by Rhode Island and Wisconsin who also abolished death penalty for all crimes.

The Roman Republic banned the capital punishment in 1849 followed by Venezuela in 1863, San Marino in 1865 and Portugal in 1867.

By the end of the century, countries like Netherlands, Costa Rica, Brazil and Ecuador removed the death penalty as well. While these countries removed execution, America built and introduced the electric chair in the end of the 18th century and in 1890; William Kemmler was the first to be executed in it and in the early years of 19th century, many states reduced the number of capital crimes and built up state penitentiaries.

United Kingdom kept the death penalty for treason, piracy with violence, arson in royal dockyards and a number of military offences under war for 5 years. The last execution took place in 1964 and was abolished five years later in 1969. Canada abolished the death penalty in 1976, Australia in 1973 and France in 1981.

Humane executions

France developed the guillotine in the end of the 18th century for a quick death.

In Britain, hanging by turning the victim off a ladder or by kicking away the stool under his feet was replaced by “long drop hanging” where the person is dropped long distance to dislocate the neck and sever the spinal cord.

The Shah of Persia introduced throat cutting and shooting with a gun to cause a quick and painless death instead of the inhuman methods they used to practice before.

Some states in the US introduced the electric chair and gas chamber were introduced and used instead of hanging but now lethal injection is more used even if it has been criticized for being too painful.

58 nations all together practice the death penalty while 96 have abolished it. Almost all of the European and Pacific states including Australia, New Zealand and Timor Leste and Canada have abolished capital punishment. As most of the states in Latin America has completely abolished the use of capital punishment, while some countries such as Brazil allows for capital punishment only in situation as treason committed during wartime. South Africa, which is probably the most developed African nation, and which has been a democracy since 1994, does not have the death penalty.

Religion, culture and tradition

Today the crimes for capital punishment vary from country to country. In most places the crimes are murder, espionage, treason and military justice. Other countries carry out the death penalty for sexual crimes such as rape, adultery, incest, sodomy and religious crimes including blasphemy especially in Islamic countries.

In China, human trafficking, drugs and serious cases of corruption is enough to be put to death.

From the religious perspective, the Torah (Jewish Law and first five books of the Christian Old Testament) lays down death penalty for murder, kidnapping, black magic, violation of the Sabbath, blasphemy and sexual crimes.

In Islam there is also similar crimes punished with death. The Qur’an legalizes the death penalty for murder but forgiveness and compassion is also strongly encouraged to the victim’s family. They can choose to pardon the perpetrator and accept blood money for their loss.

The second crime is “Spreading mischief in the land” and means to affect the community in a negative way and destabilize the society. Then there is treason and apostacy, terrorism, land, sea or air piracy and sexual crimes.

The Old Testament civil laws imposed the death penalty for murder, kidnapping, bestiality, witchcraft, false prophet hood and sexual crimes such as rape, adultery and prostitution.

Some countries settle down feuds in religious and traditionally way by involving tribal leaders to negotiate and settle down compensation. This can be blood money, exchange of brides and grooms or transfer property. But these tribal communities, ancient republics and monarchies where united together with common linguistic and religious ties as neighboring countries were conquested and new traditions arrived.

In previous centuries, if a minister or an officer above received a death sentence, the emperor would allow him to commit suicide instead of execution. He would also be granted food and driven to the ground in a cart instead of walking there.

As for the Tang dynasty, all the executions would take place in public and the heads of the executed displayed on poles as a warning to the citizens. In cases of rebellion and sedition, the punishment would be extreme by imposing the punishment not only on the guilty person but on the relatives as well even if they were innocent.

Methods used today                                                                                                                                   Execution by shooting – Indonesia and Vietnam uses firing squads while Yemen lays down the prisoner on the ground as a single executioner shots a bullet in the head with an automatic rifle.

Lethal injection – Thailand and Guatemala use this method. USA used this method for 51 executions in 2010. China has not reported use of lethal injection but in some parts they perform it. Beijing announced before 2010 that they would move over to this method.

Hanging – Bangladesh, Botswana, Iraq, Japan, Singapore, Sudan and Iran performs hanging. Iran is the only country among the rest to perform public hanging using either short drop or hoists the prisoner into the air with a hydraulic crane jib (used mostly for public hangings for both genders). Public and private hangings took place in Iran, all the rest being in private.  Iran uses either a short drop or hoists the prisoner into the air with a hydraulic crane jib (used at least for public hangings). It is not reported how Sudan performs it, but the rest of the countries gives the prisoner a calculated drop

Beheading – Saudi Arabia is the only country using this method. They publicly beheaded 65 men and 2 women for murder and drug offences during 2009 in relation to 2008 when 102 were beheaded.

Juveniles and women Despite its ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Iran is currently the world’s biggest executioner of juvenile offenders, for which it has received international condemnation for years.

Today there are currently 140 people on death row for crimes committed as juveniles. The opponents of death penalty has for years argued about that many innocent prisoners have been killed in the name of revenge and that jail sentence should have been used instead of death penalty for a crime done under the age of 18.

As for women, 1% of all the executions carried out worldwide, Iran is leading with being the only country with large number of female executions by both hanging and shooting, followed by China, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Vietnam.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                The penalty codes of most countries prohibit the execution of pregnant women but they become liable for execution after they have given birth. Women are different from men as they tend not to commit the more heinous murders except for passion murder in some cases and drug trafficking and sexual offences.

Overall if we think about it, we kill people who have killed others to show the rest of the world that killing is wrong. Does it make sense?

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