The Life and Times of Capital Punishment

Noah Fram


Since this is the first time you’ve met me, I thought I’d start things out in style.  Normally, the topics discussed here will include things like the role of feminism in politics, or the development of the political campaign, or the march toward state-run medicine in the United Kingdom and Canada (for example).  Fairly non-controversial, run-of-the-mill political punditry.  However, in journalism we have what is referred to as a “hook,” to try and keep readers coming back week after week so our supervisors are happy with us and give us a larger cubicle in the next reorg.  So here is my hook, in case the photo wasn’t a giveaway:

Today I want to discuss the death penalty.

Before I begin, I need to make one thing absolutely clear.  While I may take a satirical tone in many of these columns, I will never seriously discuss any issue on any grounds except the practical.  Moral questions are, to me, the province of the individual and not suited for analytical debate.  So, for the purposes of this discussion, I will not attempt to deal with the morality of capital punishment.


Unlike most other topics, there is no clear beginning to the death penalty.  The Old Testament contains numerous references, ranging from smiting individuals (e.g. Lot’s wife) to demolishing the majority of the human race (Noah’s Flood, which was an alternate title for this column until I realized how much writing that would entail).  It also recommends death for a number of crimes, frequently marital or sexual in nature.  Clearly, capital punishment is no longer pursued to quite this degree.  So, to make matters somewhat simpler, let’s focus on when the death penalty was abolished, since there tend to be excellent dates on this.

The table below (click to expand) shows when each of the 97 countries that has officially banned capital punishment formally did so:

Notably, none of the top ten countries in terms of population have joined the abolitionist club, although the situation in the United States is a bit more complicated (more on this later).  This means that, while the developed world is dominated by non-capital judicial systems (all but two European countries have eliminated the death penalty, along with Australia, New Zealand, and Canada), the world’s population as a whole is overwhelmingly subject to this particular set of laws.

Within the United States, 17 states have independently abolished the death penalty, after the Supreme Court suspended it between the Furman v. Georgia (1972) and Gregg v. Georgia (1976) cases.  Also, the Coker v. Georgia (1977) decision barred capital punishment for rape and implied that it was barred for the vast majority of offenses at the federal level.  Since then, while there have been several other cases concerning particular incidences of the death penalty, the overall statute has remained fairly constant.

Assuming this is a rational decision (a highly suspect assumption, but an assumption nonetheless), this implies one of two broad scenarios.  Either a) capital punishment is a cost-effective deterrent to heinous crime, or b) abolishing capital punishment would be an unacceptable strain on the judicial system.

The former case is the primary arena for debate, in the American context at least.  Researchers such as Naci Mocan and Joanna Shepherd have found conditions under which they claim the death penalty has a positive deterring effect.  By contrast, polls of police chiefs have indicated a lack of faith in its ability to prevent violent crime, and various psychological studies have dispelled the idea of “extensively pre-meditated murder” as at all commonplace.  However, none of these are concrete or methodologically unassailable, so this is a valid political debate, and has been so throughout the “modern” period of capital punishment (1977-present).

Inarguable are the facts that death row is incredibly expensive, racially unbalanced (with respect to the general population), and occasionally results in wrongful execution.  All of these are used by the abolitionist constituencies far more than the “ineffective deterrent” argument, a reasonable tactical decision given their lack of ambiguity.

However, domestic politics may be nothing more than a temporary foible in this case.  As the timeline indicates, the rate at which countries are abolishing capital punishment is increasing worldwide.  To the extent that the United States’ continued execution of prisoners is a diplomatic issue, there will likely be increasing pressure to severely limit, if not ban outright, such judicial practices.  It remains to be seen how much the American government cares about international pressure in this case.


So.  Interested?  I promise future articles will be much less serious, likely shorter, and probably have more interesting graphics.  But as a reward for slogging through that entire horribly depressing analysis, I’ll give you both a Monty Python video (my guilty pleasure) and the title of next week’s article:

“A Myth is a Female Moth”

Thank you for reading!  I’ll see you back next week.