Capital Punishment

The term “capital punishment” refers to the death penalty, which is the punishment for a crime by death. For example, capital punishment methods can include lethal injection, the electric chair or hanging. There is a great deal of controversy surrounding the issue of putting people to death, such that each state has different laws regarding this ultimate penalty. To explore this concept, consider the following capital punishment definition.

Definition of Capital Punishment


  1. The death penalty, or the punishment for a crime by way of death.



What is Capital Punishment Meaning?

Capital punishment is a form of punishment for the committing of a crime. Specifically, capital punishment refers to the death penalty, or the sentencing of an individual to death for a capital crime. While the prisoner is still in prison but awaiting execution, he is on “death row.”

Some people spend years on death row before the state puts them to death. Many individuals oppose capital punishment for several reasons, including the right to life and the possibility that states may be executing innocent people.

Public Perception of the Death Penalty

In November of 2010, the Death Penalty Information Center released the results of a study conducted to gain true insight into the public perception of the death penalty. The study included a poll conducted by Lake Research Partners wherein they polled 1,500 individuals, who reported a growing support for alternative methods of punishment. In other words, the public perception of the death penalty seems to be shifting from being in favor of the death penalty to opting for another type of punishment instead.

In order of most favorable to least favorable, most individuals polled said they would prefer such alternatives to the death penalty as:

  • Life in jail with no possibility of parole, but with restitution paid to the victim’s family
  • Life in jail with no possibility of parole
  • Life in jail with the possibility of parole

What is perhaps most interesting in the public perception of the death penalty is the opinion of the country’s police chiefs, who believe the death penalty is the least effective with respect to deterring crime. Criminologists agree that this harsh penalty does nothing to dissuade someone from committing murder.

History of Capital Punishment

The history of capital punishment goes back a very long time – to the very beginning of life as we know it. In fact, those who have researched the history of capital punishment have found that until prison systems were instituted around the 19th century, there existed no alternative as a punishment for a crime.

The authorities had no way to ensure they could keep criminals locked away from society, and they did not know of any other way to deter them from committing a similar crime in the future. So, the only viable solution, they decided, was to kill the criminal.

The history of capital punishment involves some brutal methods involving everything from drawing and quartering, to burning people at the stake, or boiling them alive. There was also flaying, impalement, and, of course, hanging. Today, prisons still rely on lethal injection, the firing squad, and the electric chair. Most historical records show that capital punishment has been a cornerstone in the development of the justice system in nearly every society.

Capital Punishment Examples

Many examples of capital punishment come out of the state of Texas. This is because Texas is the first state to actually carry out the death penalty. Texas was also the first state to carry out lethal injections specifically, when it put Charles Brooks, Jr. to death in 1982.

The first recorded execution in the state of Texas occurred in 1819, when the state executed George Brown for the crime of piracy. One of the earlier capital punishment examples to come out of Texas was of convicted murderer Nathan Lee, the last man to be hanged in the state since 1923.

There are also several capital punishment examples in Texas wherein people believed that the person executed was innocent. Take, for example, Cameron Todd Willingham, whom Texas put to death in February of 2004 for the murder of his three daughters by arson. The Texas Forensic Science Commission hired Dr. Craig Beyler to review the case, and he found that arson was not a guarantee in this situation.

Capital Crime

There are several crimes that qualify as a “capital crime,” and they tend to vary by country, and sometimes even by state. For instance, murder is almost always a capital crime, no matter where you go. What this means is that if a person kills someone, he risks the death penalty as a possible punishment.

Crimes against humanity, like genocide, also typically qualify as capital crimes. In some countries, crimes such as treason, espionage, and attempting to overthrow the government are all capital crimes. Other countries consider something as harmless as witchcraft or a minor drinking alcohol (not even being drunk, but simply drinking it) to be a capital crime.

Debate over Capital Punishment

As one might expect, there exists considerable debate over capital punishment. Some people do not believe in “an eye for an eye,” and instead believe that prisons should focus on rehabilitating inmates so they can be productive members of society when they eventually get out of prison. Another argument in the debate over capital punishment is that, in some cases, individuals who may be innocent might receive the death penalty, leading to a miscarriage of justice.

Still another argument in the debate over capital punishment is that some believe there is a racial, ethnic, or class bias, and that members of one race, for instance, receive the death penalty more than members of any other race. In fact, research shows that white individuals are more likely to support the death penalty when the perpetrator is black.

Capital Punishment in the States

As far as capital punishment in the states goes, lethal injection is the most commonly used method in the 31 states that allow the death penalty. In 2008, the Supreme Court approved the use of a three-part cocktail of drugs to “humanely” execute an inmate. The drugs work by putting the individual into an unconscious state, relaxing his muscles and, finally, stopping his heart.

There is a backup, or secondary, method of execution to support capital punishment in the states. Specifically, if lethal injection is unavailable for some reason, these states also have permission to use another method of execution.

In some states, like Alabama, Florida, and South Carolina, the state may provide to the individual the option of an alternative method. Such alternatives can include electrocution, hanging, or even a firing squad. With regard to backup capital punishment in the states, however, the states must consult their statutes to ensure the secondary methods they choose to use are constitutional.

Capital Punishment Statistics

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) collects capital punishment statistics that include people who are on death row, as well as those whom the states have executed during a given year. They get these capital punishment statistics from the Federal Bureau of Prisons and from the state department of corrections from each state.

The BJS also compiles capital punishment statistics of executions scheduled to take place during the following year to provide a more accurate picture. In their database, the BJS includes everything from the individual’s race and offense, to their age at the time of the arrest, and the method of execution.

Capital Punishment Example Involving a Teenager

An example of capital punishment occurred in the matter of Roper v. Simmons in 2005. Here, 17-year-old Christopher Simmons wanted to commit murder, so he convinced his younger friends, Charles Benjamin and John Tessmer, to join him in the burglary and murder of Shirley Crook.

Ultimately, Tessmer decided not to join Simmons and Benjamin when they went to Crook’s home. Once there, the two bound Crook and drove her in her own minivan to a local park, where they then threw her off a bridge, leaving her to drown in the river below.

The next day, Simmons bragged to friends about the murder, and the police arrested him at his high school. Simmons waived his right to an attorney and confessed to the murder after two hours of interrogation. He even recreated the act on video for the officers.


Because he was 17 years old, the State of Missouri tried Simmons as an adult and convicted him for the murder. The state sought the death penalty as a possible sentence because of the nature of the crime. Simmons’ attorney argued that the court should grant leniency because of Simmons’ age, lack of a record, and personal testimony from his family about his good character.

The jury, however, agreed to the death penalty, and Simmons hired a new lawyer. Simmons’ new lawyer argued that Simmons’ troubled past lent to his tendency to act impulsively. Both the trial court and the appellate court upheld Simmons’ sentence.

Supreme Court

In 2002, in the case of Atkins v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court found the execution of a mentally disabled person was unconstitutional. The Missouri Supreme Court had stayed Simmons’ execution while awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the Atkins matter. Encouraged by this ruling, the Missouri Supreme Court then overturned the death penalty as a sentence for minors.

Simmons’ case then made its own path up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Following their Atkins precedent, the Court agreed with Missouri that the execution of minors was unconstitutional in that it violated the Eighth Amendment. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy wrote:

“Over time, from one generation to the next, the Constitution has come to earn the high respect and even, as Madison dared to hope, the veneration of the American people. (Citation omitted.). The document sets forth, and rests upon, innovative principles original to the American experience, such as federalism; a proven balance in political mechanisms through separation of powers; specific guarantees for the accused in criminal cases; and broad provisions to secure individual freedom and preserve human dignity.

These doctrines and guarantees are central to the American experience and remain essential to our present-day self-definition and national identity. Not the least of the reasons we honor the Constitution, then, is because we know it to be our own. It does not lessen our fidelity to the Constitution or our pride in its origins to acknowledge that the express affirmation of certain fundamental rights by other nations and peoples simply underscores the centrality of those same rights within our own heritage of freedom.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Appellate Court – A court having jurisdiction to review decisions of a trial-level or other lower court.
  • Restitution – The restoration of rights or property previously taken away or surrendered; reparation made by giving compensation for loss or injury caused by wrongdoing.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to rule in a civil matter.