- Paul KaplanPaul KaplanSchool of Public Affairs, San Diego State University
The death penalty, also referred to as capital punishment, is the process whereby a state government orders a sentence of death for a person found guilty of a particular set of criminal offenses. In the United States, the primary capital crime is first-degree murder with an additional aggravating factor, usually called a “special circumstance” (e.g., murder of a law enforcement officer). Capital punishment is a complex process that includes a criminal charge, an involved legal process, sentencing, special “death row” prison housing, post-conviction appeals, and the ultimate execution of the defendant. Persons sentenced to death are called condemned. Execution refers specifically to the process in which the defendant is killed.
Capital punishment has been practiced throughout human history, with considerable variation across eras and regions. In the last 50 years, the use of capital punishment has declined across the globe, and there are relatively few countries that use it regularly as a form of punishment, most notably China. Some countries have abolished the death penalty completely, such as all member states of the European Union. Most other countries have seen a decline in its use. For instance, only 31 out of 50 states in the United States currently have death penalty statutes (there are also federal death penalty statutes, which are rarely used). The other 19 U.S. states are referred to as “abolitionist.”
The “modern era” of capital punishment in the United States was spurred by two important Supreme Court cases. The Furman v. Georgia (1972) decision ruled that arbitrariness in the application of the death penalty deemed its use unconstitutional. The reversal of that ruling four years later in Gregg v. Georgia (1976) reestablished the death penalty in America, and experts refer to the modern era as 1976 to the present.