In June 2008, the Supreme Court held that it was cruel and unusual punishment to use the death penalty against individuals convicted of raping a minor. In April 2008, the Supreme Court has held that lethal-injection procedures in Kentucky do not violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The action opens the way for an end to a de facto national moratorium on lethal injection executions that has been in place since the Supreme Court agreed to consider the issue. Many medical experts believe the method to be inhumane. In California, an execution was halted when physicians refused to participate because of such considerations.
The number of Americans supporting the death penalty has begun to decrease, although over 60% still support it. As China has become a more visible international power, its excessive use of the death penalty has come under increasing international scrutiny.
When did countries begin to abolish the death penalty?
Capital punishment was widely applied in ancient times throughout the world. The modern movement for the abolition of capital punishment began in the 18th century with the writings of Montesquieu and Voltaire. Some of the first countries to abolish capital punishment included Venezuela (1863), San Marino (1865), and Costa Rica (1877). Today, over half the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty either by law or through practice. (Click to see map) Since 2000, Chile, Yugoslavia, Serbia, Montenegro and Turkey have joined the list of abolitionist countries. Most executions occur in a handful of countries: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States. In Great Britain, it was abolished (except for cases of treason) in 1971; France abolished it in 1981. Canada abolished it in 1976. In 1977, the United Nations General Assembly affirmed in a formal resolution that throughout the world, it is desirable to "progressively restrict the number of offenses for which the death penalty might be imposed, with a view to the desirability of abolishing this punishment".
What has been the recent history of capital punishment in the United States?
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1972 struck down state death penalty laws, a ruling that also brought federal executions to a halt. In 1976, the court reinstated the death penalty after the adoption of new procedures. From 1982 to 1999, 250 to 350 persons were annually sentenced to death but in the last three years the number of death sentences has dropped dramatically. (Click to see chart) The number of executions has gradually increased as appeals have become exhausted. In 1999, the number reached 100 but it has dropped since. Among the 50 states, the death penalty is abolished in 13 states and 5 more states have not carried out any recent executions. Five states have carried out over 2/3 of the executions since 1977. There are also significant differences among the states in the way the death penalty is enforced as illustrated by the percentage of inmates on death row. In most states the method of execution is by lethal injection although in several states the prisoner may choose an alternative method. Nebraska stills mandates electrocution but a court decision has held that the method is unconstitutional.
Why has the death penalty again become controversial in the United States?
Two relatively recent developments have focused renewed attention on the practice of the death penalty in the United States.
In January 2000, Governor George Ryan of Illinois imposed a moratorium on the imposition of the death penalty in Illinois. In reviewing death penalty cases since 1977, he determined that 13 death row inmates in the state had been cleared of murder charges, compared to 12 who had been put to death. Some of the 13 inmates were taken off death row after DNA evidence exonerated them; the cases of others collapsed after new trials were