The Death Penalty


Capital punishment, also referred to as the death penalty, is the killing of a criminal who has been sentenced to death by a court. In most cases it is used for murder, but the death penalty has also been applied to rape, treason and other crimes.

Although most countries around the world have abolished capital punishment, it is still a form of punishment in the United States, where it is a much-discussed topic, China and about 60 other countries, including many states of the Middle East.

Capital Punishment Around the World
Image:KamalthebestCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

History of Capital Punishment

The death penalty goes back a long time in history. Almost all ancient civilizations have used some form of killing people for a serious crime. In Ancient Greece, many criminals were put to death, including Socrates, who was killed by a poisonous drink. During the Middle Ages thousands of Europeans were executed because they were against the church. In revolutionary France 40,000 people were executed by the guillotine, a beheading machine.

Towards the end of the 18th century nations started banning the death penalty as a form of punishment. In the last two centuries many countries have abolished capital punishment completely, others use it only during wartimes. Many of the world’s big religions have used the death penalty over the centuries.

Guillotine during the French Revolution
Image: Musée de la Révolution françaiseCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Arguments for and against the death penalty



The Death Penalty in the USA

In the United States about half of all the states still exercise the death penalty. After it had been suspended by the US Supreme Court, the highest court of the country overturned its ruling in 1976 and stated that the death penalty corresponded with the constitution. Since then over 1300 executions have been carried out. Although California is the state with the most death row inmates, Texas has carried out the most executions of all American states.

After the turn of the millennium some states reviewed their attitude towards capital punishment. Illinois, for example, declared that there would be no further executions after a series of cases had shown that some defendants were wrongfully convicted or innocent.

In 2005 the American Supreme Court ruled that executing a mentally disabled person was against the constitution.

Death Penalty by State

Image:Death Penalty Information Center –

Methods of Execution


Hanging was used as a main method of execution throughout the Middle Ages up to the beginning of the 20th century. It is still used in some states today. This method of execution depends on the length and strength of the rope. The noose is waxed or oiled so that it slides better. The criminal stands on a platform and falls through a trap door. Death comes fast if the neck snaps but slowly if a prisoner dies from suffocation.

Firing Squad

An inmate stands or sits in front of a wall with sandbags around him to absorb blood. The firing squad is made up of five to six shooters, one of whom gets blank ammunition. In most cases the prisoner is blindfolded before an execution.

Electric Chair

Towards the end of the 19th century governments looked for a more humane way of killing. The first electrocution took place in 1890 in New York. Today, the electric chair is only used in some states. An inmate is strapped into a wooden chair with metal clips attached to his arms and legs. A wet sponge is put between a shaven head and a metal plate so that electricity can pass better. About 500 – 2000 volts of electricity pass through the body for about half a minute, then a doctor comes to determine death. Electrocution results in severe burns of the body.

Gas chamber

In the 1920s the first prisoner was executed by gas in Nevada. It was thought to be an alternative to the electric chair. The prisoner sits in a chair while cyanide gas flows into an airtight chamber. Eyewitnesses have reported that death seems to be very painful as inmates struggle against their fate. The heart does not get the oxygen that it needs.

Lethal injection

Lethal injection is the primary method of killing an inmate in the United States. It was first used in 1977 in Oklahoma.

A prisoner is strapped to a gurney and a needle is inserted into the bloodstream. The execution takes place in three stages. First, an anaesthetic puts them to sleep, then a solution paralyses muscles and stops breathing. The third liquid is potassium chloride, a chemical that stops the heart from beating. Death comes in the form of a heart attack.

While doctors proclaim the death of an inmate, they are not allowed to take part in the killing, because it is unethical. This is done by special wardens of the prison.

Lethal injection table
Image: Ken PiorkowskiCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Methods of execution in ancient times

Different forms of execution have dominated civilisations throughout history. Sometimes criminals were strapped to a wheel, where their bones and legs were broken. During the Inquisition of the Middle Ages the Roman Catholic Church persecuted many non-believers. Especially women, convicted as witches, were burned to death at a stake.

Beheading was a common form of killing in ancient times. The most popular instrument was the guillotine, which decapitated thousands of criminals and innocent civilians during the French Revolution.

In ancient times crucifixion was a widespread method of execution. People were nailed to the cross and died a slow and painful death. It was practised until the 4th century AD. Stoning and beating were also common methods of execution. They are still used in some states of the Middle East and Asia.

Death Penalty Statistics

Here are some statistics about the death penalty in the United States. Source : Death Penalty Information Centre –

Additional Resources



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