Capital punishment, or the death penalty, is the killing of a person by judicial process as a punishment for an offense. Crimes that can result in a death penalty are known as capital crimes or capital offences.
The first established death penalty laws date as far back as the Eighteenth Century B.C. in the Code of King Hammaurabi of Babylon, which codified the deathpenalty for 25 different crimes. The death penalty was also part of the Seventh Century B.C.'s Draconian Code of Athens, which made death the only punishment for all crimes and in the Fifth Century B.C.'s Roman Law of the Twelve Tablets. Death sentences were carried out by such means as crucifixion, drowning, beating to death, burning alive, and impalement.
In the Tenth Century The number of capitalcrimes in Britain continued to rise throughout the next two centuries. By the 1700s, 222 crimes were punishable by death in Britain, including stealing, cutting down a tree, and robbing a rabbit warren. Because of the severity of the death penalty, many juries would not convict defendants if the offense was not serious. This lead to reforms of Britain's death penalty. From 1823 to 1837, the deathpenalty was eliminated for over 100 of the 222 crimes punishable by death.
Britain influenced America's use of the death penalty more than any other country. When European settlers came to the new world, they brought the practice of capital punishment. The first recorded execution in the new colonies was that of Captain George Kendall in the Jamestown colony of Virginia in 1608. Kendall wasexecuted for being a spy for Spain.
The 1960s brought challenges to the fundamental legality of the death penalty. Before then, the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments were interpreted as permitting the death penalty. However, in the early 1960s, it was suggested that the death penalty was a "cruel and unusual" punishment, and therefore unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.
In theaftermath of World War II, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This 1948 doctrine proclaimed a "right to life" in an absolute fashion, any limitations being only implicit. Knowing that international abolition of the death penalty was not yet a realistic goal in the years following the Universal Declaration, the United Nations shifted its focus tolimiting the scope of the death penalty to protect juveniles, pregnant women, and the elderly.
During the 1950s and 1960s subsequent international human rights treaties were drafted, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the American Convention on Human Rights. These documents also provided for the right to life, butincluded the death penalty as an exception that must be accompanied by strict procedural safeguards. Despite this exception, many nations throughout Western Europe stopped using capital punishment, even if they did not, technically, abolish it. As a result, this de facto abolition became the norm in Western Europe by the 1980s.
Despite growing European abolition, the U.S. retained the death penalty,but established limitations on capital punishment.
In 1977, the United States Supreme Court held in Coker v. Georgia (433 U.S. 584) that the death penalty is an unconstitutional punishment for the rape of an adult woman when the victim was not killed. Other limits to the death penalty followed in the next decade.
• Mental Illness and Intellectual Disability
In 1986, the Supreme Courtbanned the execution of insane persons and required an adversarial process for determining mental competency. The Court held that executing persons with "mental retardation" was not a violation of the Eighth Amendment. However, in 2002 in the Court held that a national consensus had evolved against the execution of the "mentally retarded" and concluded that such a punishment violates the Eighth...