The death penalty (also known as capital punishment) goes back as far as the 18th-century BCE. The Code of King Hammurabi established the first death penalty laws for 25 different crimes. The Hittites, Athenians, and Romans also utilized capital punishment. As societies change, the death penalty changes, too. Here are ten facts about the death penalty in the past, present, and where it might go from here.
#1. The crimes punishable by death vary significantly through the years
In the past, many crimes came with the death penalty. In King Hammurabi’s code, anyone caught committing a robbery would be killed. If someone accused an elder of a crime, but the accused was found not guilty, the accuser was executed. The first recorded death sentence took place in 16th-century BCE Egypt. A member of the nobility was found guilty of performing magic. The form of execution? Suicide.
#2. Historically, the death penalty was different depending on your social status
In many countries, the death penalty was slightly different based on a person’s class. If the Egyptian man accused of magic had not been a nobleman, he would have most likely been executed with an ax. Depending on if you were a nobleman, citizen, or slave, your death was different. Many say the United States treats convicted criminals differently based on their ethnicity. In a report from the Death Penalty Information Center, Black people are overrepresented on death row in the United States. Those who kill Black people are less likely to receive the death penalty than those who kill white people.
#3. Methods for execution vary
The countries that still use execution vary in their methods. In 2019, there were executions by beheading, electrocution, hanging, lethal injection, and shooting. In the United States, the Supreme Court has never declared a method of execution unconstitutional, but state courts disagree. Lethal injection is the most common method, though drug manufacturers often resist participating. States will allow alternative methods if they can’t use lethal injection.
#4. Venezuela was the first country to abolish the death penalty for all crimes
In 1863, President Juan Crisostomo Falcon abolished the death penalty for all crimes in Venezuela. San Marino (a European country) was the first country to enact a de facto ban, which means the laws remain on the books but aren’t enforced. San Marino abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes in 1848, but Venezuela was the first to abolish it for all crimes.
#5. The use of the death penalty is declining
Countries have been gradually abolishing the death penalty for many years. Between 1991 and 2017, the number of countries that formally abolished capital punishment grew from 48 to 106. Now, more than 70% of the world’s countries have abolished the death penalty.
#6. Amnesty International tracks the countries that perform the most executions
In 2019, AI recorded 657 executions in 20 countries. This is the lowest number of executions in at least a decade. China executes the most people each year, but the data is a state secret, so it’s very difficult to know exactly how many die. After China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Egypt perform the most executions.
#7. The United States is the only developed Western nation still using the death penalty
When the United States consisted of British colonies, it modeled its death penalty on England’s system. In 1998, Great Britain abolished the death penalty for all crimes, but the United States still uses capital punishment. Texas remains the leading executing state. During the last days of the Trump presidency, the Justice Department resumed federal executions after a 17-year pause. 13 people were put to death.
#8. Americans have complicated feelings about the death penalty
According to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey of 5,109 adults, 60% of US adults favor the death penalty for those convicted of murder. Only 27% “strongly favor” it. 39% oppose the use of capital punishment while 15% strongly oppose it. At the same time, 78% of those surveyed believe there’s a risk that an innocent person will be executed. Only 21% think there are sufficient safeguards to stop that from happening.
#9. Evidence strongly suggests that the death penalty does not deter crime
According to Amnesty International, capital punishment doesn’t lead to less crime. A study in the US showed that the average murder rates for states that use the death penalty are actually higher than states that don’t. In Canada, which abolished the death penalty in 1998, the murder rate fell. Also, the idea that the threat of death affects would-be criminals doesn’t line up with how most criminal acts work. People who commit violent crimes are either not thinking about the consequences or they don’t care about their own safety.
#10. Death Penalty as human rights violation
There’s much discussion about the death penalty as a human rights violation. Many point to Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “everyone is entitled to life, liberty, and security of person” or to the prohibition of torture and inhumane and degrading treatment (Art. 3). Human rights law attempts to mitigate the harm of death penalty by stating, it can only be imposed for the most serious crimes; it should cause the least suffering possible; it shouldn’t be imposed on pregnant women, anyone under 18, or anyone over 70; and anyone sentenced to death has the right to seek pardon or commutation.