The dramatic decline of the death penalty

Last bastions: Fifty-eight countries in the world still use the death penalty.

The number of executions recorded worldwide in 2016 fell by 37% on the previous year, including a sharp drop in the USA. Is it time America fully abandoned capital punishment?

Nearly 2,000 years after the most famous execution of all time — the crucifixion of Jesus Christ — an Amnesty International report has found that the number of judicial killings fell dramatically in 2016.

According to the report, at least 1,032 people were executed by their governments last year, down from 1,634 in 2015. The drop was mainly due to fewer deaths in Iran and Pakistan, although the figure is likely to be much higher because China, which executes more people than every other country put together, was not included due to a lack of reliable data.

The world has slowly been turning away from the death penalty since the mid-19th century, when pioneers like Venezuela and Portugal first abolished it. The decline gathered pace after the second world war; the last execution in Canada took place in 1962. In the UK it was 1965. In France it was 1977. The tide of history marched on.

But the most recent US execution occurred just four weeks ago, as James Eugene Bigby was killed by lethal injection in Texas. He had spent 29 years on death row for murdering a father and his infant son.

Even in the USA, which executed 20 people last year, public opinion seems to be turning against capital punishment. A Gallup poll from October last year showed that 60% of Americans favoured it — the lowest level since 1972. And 19 states have already abolished it — most recently Maryland in 2013.

The Americans who were executed last year spent an average of 20 years on death row, exhausting the appeals process before finally meeting their fate. Many of those sentenced to death are never executed at all.

Dylann Roof, the perpetrator of the Charleston church shooting of 2015, was sentenced to death by a federal court in January, but he agreed to plead guilty in his trial in a state court: this means he will avoid the death penalty in return for life in prison without parole.

Is it time for America to join the rest of the Western world and abolish capital punishment?

Dead end

It is disgraceful that the USA retains the death penalty, say some. It is archaic, costly, slow and most importantly, cruel. The death penalty is an explicit rejection of the notions of forgiveness and redemption. It has been proven to fail as a deterrent, and its finality allows for the haunting possibility of an innocent person being put to death. Abolish it now.

Objections on the grounds of process are irrelevant in what is fundamentally a moral question, reply others. Some people, such as mass murderers, simply do not deserve life, and it is a waste of money to keep them alive in prison. And in any case it is arguably less cruel than forcing someone to spend the rest of their life behind bars.

You Decide

  1. Do you believe in the death penalty? If so, for which crimes?
  2. Will the USA still have the death penalty in 100 years’ time?


  1. Come up with your five best reasons for your stance on the death penalty, and rank them in order of importance. Explain your choices.
  2. Imagine you are a judge at the trial of someone who has committed a terrible crime. Write a speech in which you sentence the defendant and explain your choice of punishment.

Some People Say...

“We should give murderers the choice: life imprisonment or execution.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
That there has been a general historical trend away from capital punishment. Just over a quarter of the world’s countries still use the death penalty, most of them in Asia and North Africa. We know that in some countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, homosexuality and adultery are still punishable by death.
What do we not know?
Whether the death penalty will continue to decline. The history of the 20th century suggests it will, but it could go the other way: in many countries that have long since abolished the death penalty, opinion polls show that a majority favour bringing it back.
What do people believe?
Some believe that capital punishment is a necessary part of a serious, strict criminal justice system, while its opponents see it as a relic of a violent, cruel past.

Word Watch

Pakistan’s execution rate dropped from 326 recorded deaths in 2015 to at least 87 in 2016. The high number reported in 2015 followed the lifting of a seven-year halt on executions in December 2014 in response to a Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar.
The number of people executed in China is a closely guarded state secret. The country’s use of the death penalty has been heavily criticised for its lack of transparency and its disregard for notions such as the presumption of innocence.
Texas executes more people than any other US state by a large margin. Since 1976 it has killed 542 criminals, followed by Oklahoma and Virginia, who are level on 112.
The number of appeals to which a death row convict is entitled depends on the circumstances of each case, such as the evidence available. It can also depend on individual state laws.
Never executed
One reason for this is a shortage of the drug used in lethal injections — by far the most common method of execution in the USA today.
Cases involving the death penalty cost an average of $1.26m.

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