Implementation of the safeguards regarding death penalty

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                                                                       Implementation of the safeguards regarding death penalty


Capital punishment or the death penalty is the killing of a person by judicial process .Crimes that can result in a death penalty are known as capital crimes or capital offences. The term capital originates from Latin capitalis, literally “regarding the head” (Latin caput)[1]. Hence, a capital crime was originally one punished by the severing of the head.

Capital punishment has been practiced in virtually every society, excluding those with state religious proscriptions against it. It is a matter of active controversy in various states, and positions can vary within a single political ideology or cultural region. A major exception is in Europe, where Article 2 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union prohibits the practice.

Among countries around the world, almost all European and many Pacific Area states (including Australia, New Zealand and Timor Leste), and Canada have abolished capital punishment. In Latin America, most states have completely abolished the use of capital punishment, while some countries, however, like Brazil, allow for capital punishment only in exceptional situations, such as treason committed during wartime. The United States (the federal government and 36 of its states), Guatemala, most of the Caribbean and the majority of democracies in Asia (e.g. Japan and India) and Africa (e.g. Botswana and Zambia) retain it. In most places that practice capital punishment today, the death penalty is reserved as punishment for premeditated murder, espionage, treason, or as part of military justice. In some countries sexual crimes, such as rape, adultery and sodomy, carry the death penalty, as do religious crimes such as apostasy (the formal renunciation of one’s religion). In many retentionist countries (countries that use the death penalty), drug trafficking is also a capital offense. In China human trafficking and serious cases of corruption are also punished by the death penalty. In militaries around the world courts-martial have imposed death sentences for offenses such as cowardice, desertion, insubordination, and mutiny.

There is an ongoing crucial debate within the criminal justice system as to the moral status of the death penalty. Retentionists hold that the death penalty is morally justified; abolitionists argue that it is not. Scientific research and technological developments provide modest contributions to both arguments.

Modes of Execution

An appraisal of the administration of criminal justice of ancient times reveals that death penalty was commonly used in cases of heinous crimes. The common modes of inflicting death sentence on the offender were crucification, drowning, burning, boiling, beheading, throwing before wild beasts, flaying or skinning off alive (Skinning alive used to be inflicted in ancient Assyria, Saytha, and Persia), hurling the offender from rock, stoning (Stoning was a characteristic method of execution among ancient Hebrews for offences of adultery, unchastity, blasphemy, idolatry, dishonoring, parents etc. It is still in use in the Arabian countries of the Middle East), strangling, impelling, amputating, shooting by gun or starving him to death. Hanging the offender till death in public places has been a common mode of putting to an end to the life of an offender. These draconic and barbarous methods of punishing criminals to death were justified on the ground that they were the quickest and easiest modes of punishment and at the same time carried with them an element of deterrence and retribution[2]. They have however, fallen into disuse with the advance of time and modern humanitarian approach to penology.

At present, the common modes of execution of death sentence which are in vogue in different parts of the world are electrocution, guillotine, shooting, gas chamber, hanging, lethal injection etc. The method of execution by electrocution consists in subjecting the condemned prisoner to heavy charge of electric current. The method was first used at Auburn state prison, New York on August 6, 1890 and is now being extensively used in USA, UK, Soviet Union, Japan and most of the European countries.

The device of Guillotine for execution of criminals was introduced in France in 1792. It was a kind of machine erected for execution of criminals in western countries, particularly in France, Scotland and England. Shooting as a mode of execution of a condemned person was used for offences tried in military courts. In Russia and China and some East European countries death by firing squad is the customary mode of execution. More recently, gas chambers are being used in the western world for execution of death sentence. The condemned prisoners are put to death by being stripped in a chair in a sealed gas chamber into which poisonous fumes of cyanide are injected. The method of hanging the condemned prisoner till death has been commonly in use almost all the countries since ages. In India public hanging is now held to be unconstitutional.[3] Death sentence by means of lethal injection is relatively a later development. It was first adopted in Okhalahoma (USA) in 1977.[4]

History and Background

Capital punishment is the lawful infliction of death as a punishment and since ancient times it has been used for a wide variety of offences. In the history of punishment, capital punishment has always occupied a very important place.  The Romans also used it for a wide range of offenses. Yet capital punishment has been prescribed for many crimes not involving loss of life, including adultery and <href=”#15607″ title=”blasphemy”>blasphemy. The ancient legal principle Lex talionis (talion)—“an eye-for-an-eye, a tooth-for-a-tooth, a life-for-a-life”—which appears in the Babylonian <href=”#39076″ title=”Hammurabi, Code of”>Code of Hammurabi, was invoked in some societies to ensure that capital punishment was not disproportionately applied.

By 1500 in England, only major felonies carried the death penalty – treason, murder, larceny, burglary, rape, and arson. From 1723, under the “Waltham Black Acts”, Parliament enacted many new capital offences and this led to an increase in the number of people being put to death each year. In the 100 years from 1740 – 1839 there were a total of up to 8753 civilian executions in England & Wales, the peak year was 1785 with 307. Remember that the population in 1800 was just 9 million.

Reform of the death penalty began in Europe by the 1750’s and was championed by academics such as the Italian jurist, Cesare Beccaria, the French philosopher, Voltaire, and the English law reformers, Jeremy Bentham and Samuel Romilly. They argued that the death penalty was needlessly cruel, over-rated as a deterrent and occasionally imposed in fatal error. Along with Quaker leaders and other social reformers, they defended life imprisonment as a more rational alternative. It has been said that in 1780 there were some 240 crimes for which the death penalty could be inflicted in England, and in the reign of Henry VIII no less than 72000 people were reported to have been executed, mostly for trivial offences.[5]

By the 1850’s, these reform efforts began to bear fruit. Venezuela and Portugal were the first nations to abolish the death penalty altogether[6]. In the United States, Michigan was the first state to ban the death penalty, in 1847.[7] Britain effectively abolished capital punishment in 1965.

In the United Kingdom, it was abolished (except for treason) in 1973, the last execution having taken place in 1964. It was abolished totally in 1998. France abolished it in 1981; Canada abolished it in 1976 and Australia in 1985. 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”. Since World War II there has been a consistent trend towards abolishing the death penalty.

Arguments for and against Capital Punishment

Capital punishment or the death penalty is one of the most debated issues in the Criminal Justice System and is a very controversial issue among society. The two most common views are either completely for or against capital punishment. Most arguments against the death penalty are for moral reason. They view it as cruel and unusual punishment, whereas arguments for the death penalty say “an eye for an eye.”


Arguments commonly made for supporting the death penalty are:

Elimination of murderers by execution is fair retribution and saves potential futures victims.

Punishments must match the gravity of offence and worst crimes should be severely punished.

It shows how seriously society looks at the most heinous crimes. Societies must establish deterrents against crime. Death sentence serves as an effective deterrent.

Death is a just punishment and death penalty has been held constitutionally valid (Bachan Sing V. State of Punjab[8]).

Death penalty may deter prospective criminals and other people from committing capital crimes, although studies seem to deny this claim.

The right to life of the people, committing the offence of murder, must be forfeited.

It provides peace of mind for many victims of crime and their families.

Death penalty is the most effective way of protecting society from a felon.

In terms of expenditure death penalty is less expensive than imprisonment. Housing a convict into a prison is more expensive than executing the convict.

Without the death penalty, a person already serving a life sentence may have no reason not to kill in prison.

Death penalty is a just retribution because the criminals should suffer the same way as their victims did.

It enjoys democratic support of the people.

It recognizes humankind’s natural sense of justice.


Arguments commonly made to abolish the death penalty are:

Death constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment,”.

The death penalty is used disproportionately against the poor, who cannot afford expensive legal counsel, as well as racial, ethnic and religious minorities.

The death penalty is applied arbitrarily and inconsistently.

Wrongly convicted, innocent people have received death penalty sentences, and tragically, were killed by the state.

A rehabilitated criminal can make a morally valuable contribution to society.

Killing human life is morally wrong under all circumstances. Some faith groups, such as the Roman Catholic Church, oppose the death penalty as not being “pro-life.”

An execution arising out of miscarriage of justice is irreversible.

Capital punishment is lethal vengeance which brutalizes the society that tolerates it.

Capital punishment does not have deterrent effect. Hired murderers take the risks of criminal justice system whatever the penalties. Thus it has no rational purpose.

Death penalty brutalizes the society by conveying the message that killing people is sometimes right in certain situations.

The fear of the death penalty has never reduced crime. Through most of history executions were public and brutal. Some criminals were even crushed to death slowly under heavy weight. Crime was more common at that time than it is now. Evidence shows execution does not act as a deterrent to capital punishment.

The motives for the death penalty may be for revenge. Legal vengeance solidifies social solidarity against law breakers and is the alternative to the private revenge of those who feel harmed.

The victim is already dead-you cannot bring him back. When the opponents feel “fear of death” will prevent one from committing murder, it is not true because most murders are done on the “heat of passion” when a person cannot think rationally.

Death penalty is a violation of the basic human rights.

Death penalty is irrevocable and should be avoided to avoid judicial murder.

The death penalty is killing. All killing is wrong; therefore the death penalty is wrong.

Death Penalty Worldwide

In total 58 countries retain the death penalty. More than two-thirds of the countries in the world have now abolished the death penalty either in law or in practice (abolitionist states).

Abolitionist states in law and practice

Abolitionist for all crimes: 94

Abolitionist for ordinary crimes only: 10

Abolitionist in practice: 35

Total abolitionist in law or practice: 139[9]

The 12 countries with the most executions in 2008:

China (at least 1,718), Iran (at least 346), Saudi Arabia (at least 102), USA (37), Pakistan (at least 36), Iraq (at least 34), Viet Nam (at least 19), Afghanistan (at least 17), North Korea (at least 15), Japan (15), Yemen (at least 13), Indonesia (10).

In 2008, only 25 out of 59 countries that retain the death penalty carried out executions. Two states abolished the death penalty for all crimes in 2008 (Uzbekistan and Argentina).

In 2008 the worldwide execution rate was at least 2,390, with the top 5 nations accounting for 93% of the total (China responsible for executing approximately 1,718, Iran 346, Saudi Arabia 102, the United States 37, and Pakistan 36)[10].

Most of the democratic countries of Europe and Latin America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand have abolished death penalty. Among western countries Portugal was the first to abolish death penalty. In Portugal the last execution took place in 1846, and the punishment was officially abolished in 1867[11].

Amnesty International revealed that more people were executed in Asia than in any other part of the world in 2008 because China carried out more executions than the rest of the world put together. By contrast, in Europe only one country continues to use the death penalty: Belarus. The report Death Sentences and Executions in 2008, which provides a world overview on the death penalty, found that between January and December 2008 at least 2,390 people were executed in 25 countries around the world with at least 8,864 sentenced to death in 52 states.

The good news is that executions are only carried out by a small number of countries, which shows that we are moving closer to a death-penalty free world,” “By contrast, the bad news is that hundreds of people continue to be sentenced to death and suffer in the many countries that have not yet formally abolished the death penalty.

In December, the United Nations General Assembly (UN GA) adopted by a large majority a second resolution calling for a moratorium with a view to abolish the death penalty. Europe and Central Asia is now virtually a death penalty free zone following the abolition of the death penalty in Uzbekistan for all crimes. There is just one country left – Belarus – that still carries out executions. In the Americas, only one state – the United States of America (USA) – consistently executes.

However, even the USA moved away from the death penalty in 2008. This year, the smallest number of executions since 1995 was reported in the USA. The majority of countries now refrain from using the death penalty. Furthermore, in 2008 Amnesty International recorded only 25 out of 59 countries that retain the death penalty actually carried out executions[12]. The practice of states indicates that there is increasing consolidation of majority international consensus that the death penalty cannot be reconciled with respect for human rights. Despite positive developments a number of tough challenges remain. Countries in Asia carried out more executions in 2008 than the rest of the world put together. The region with the second highest number of reported executions was the Middle East.

Capital punishment is used in most of the countries to punish murder or war related crimes. In some countries some non-violent crimes are punishable with death. Such as in China crimes relating to drug and business are punishable with death. In Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia capital punishment is extensively used for drug related crimes[13].

In 2008 the world moved yet closer towards total abolition of the death penalty. On 18 December 2008, the UN GA adopted resolution 63/168 (2008) “moratorium on the use of the death penalty”. Resolution 63/168 builds upon the 2007 UN GA resolution which expressed concern at the application of the death penalty and called on states that still retain it to, inter alia, respect international safeguards guaranteeing the rights of those facing the death penalty, to reduce the number of offences for which the death penalty may be imposed and to establish a moratorium on executions with the view to abolishing the death penalty.

In November 2008 the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights adopted a resolution calling upon state parties to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights to observe a moratorium with a view to abolish the death penalty. By adopting the resolution the African Commission has aligned itself with the global trend towards abolishing the death penalty.

Regional Trends of Execution of Death Penalty

The majority of countries now refrain from using the death penalty. The practice of states indicates that there is increasing consolidation of majority international consensus that the death penalty cannot be reconciled with respect for human rights. Despite positive developments a number of tough challenges remain. Countries in Asia carried out more executions in 2008 than the rest of the world put together. The region with the second highest number of reported executions was the Middle East.


More people were executed in Asia in 2008 than in the rest of the world put together. At least 1,838 (76%) of all total reported executions were carried out by Asian states. The following 11 countries[14] are known to have carried out a total of at least 1,838 executions in 2008: China (at least 1718), Pakistan (at least 36), Viet Nam (at least 19), Afghanistan (at least 17), North Korea (at least 15), Japan (15), Indonesia (10), Bangladesh (5), Mongolia (at least 1), Malaysia (at least 1), and Singapore (at least 1).

The study highlights the abuse of law and procedure and arbitrariness and inconsistency in the investigation, trial, sentencing and appeal stages in death penalty cases. The death penalty in India has not been used only in the “rarest of rare cases” – as claimed. On the contrary, there is ample evidence to show that the death penalty has been an arbitrary, imprecise and abusive means of dealing with defendants. The death penalty is also used disproportionately against ethnic minorities, the poor or other disadvantaged groups. There were no reported executions in India in 2008. However, at least 70 people were sentenced to death.


The region with the second highest number (21%) of executions in 2008 was the Middle East and North Africa[15]. The following nine countries were known to have carried out a total of at least 508 executions[16]: Iran (at least 346), Saudi Arabia (at least 102), Iraq (at least 34), Yemen (at least 13), Libya (at least 8), Egypt (at least 2), Bahrain 1, Syria (at least 1) and the United Arab Emirates (at least 1). Amnesty International remained concerned about the application of the death penalty in Iran. Some of the cruel and inhumane methods used to execute at least 346 people in 2008 included stoning and hanging. The number of public hangings in Iran decreased in 2008 after the Chief Justice issued a decree banning them. In July 2008 Amnesty International and nine other human rights organizations issued a joint public statement calling for an end to the execution of juvenile offenders in Iran.


During 2008, 38 executions were known to have been carried out in the Americas – 37 in

The USA and one in the twin island state of St Kitts and Nevis[17]. At least 125 people were sentenced to death in six countries: USA (at least 111), Trinidad and Tobago (10), Bahamas (at least 1), Saint Kitts and Nevis (at least 1), Saint Vincent and Grenadines (at least 1), and Jamaica (1). The United States of America (USA) remains the only country in the Americas that regularly executes.

In USA, 37 executions were carried out by the authorities in nine states[18]: Texas (18), Virginia (4). Georgia (3), South Carolina (3), Florida (2), Ohio (2), Oklahoma (2), Mississippi (2), Kentucky (1). There is increasing evidence that the USA itself is slowly turning away from the death penalty. Sentences have continued to drop since the peak in the mid-1990s. The 37 executions carried out in 2008 represented the lowest number since 2005. Furthermore, a number of death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment, including in the case of a prisoner with a long history of mental illness. During 2008, four more men were released from death rows on grounds of innocence[19], bringing to more than 120 the number of such cases since 1975. Texas continues to execute more people than any other state in the USA. The state of Texas ignored international outcry, including appeals from the UN Secretary-General for the execution to be stopped. The authorities carried out the execution despite a 2004 judgement by the International Court of Justice which called for judicial review and reconsideration of convictions and sentencing of José Medellín and 50 other Mexican national also denied the right to consular services in violation of international law.

At the end of the year, six men held as “enemy combatants” in the US Naval Base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, were facing military commission trials at which the outgoing US

administration was intending to seek the death penalty. All six had been held in secret incommunicado detention by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for between two and three years before being transferred to Guantánamo Bay[20]. They were victims of enforced

disappearance and at least two of them had been subjected to a form of water torture known as “waterboarding” (simulated drowning). St Kitts and Nevis became the first country in the Americas outside of the USA to carry out an execution since 2003. On 19 December 2008 Charles Laplace was hanged despite remaining doubts as to whether all avenues of appeal had been exhausted[21].


In sub-Saharan Africa, there were only two known executions carried out in Botswana (1) and Sudan (1+). The only country to reintroduce the death penalty in 2008 was the state of Liberia[22].

At least 362 people were known to have been sentenced to death in 19 African countries[23]: Uganda (114), Sudan (60), Democratic Republic of Congo (at least 50), Nigeria (at least 40), Ethiopia (39), Mali (at least 15), Chad (at least 12), Mauritania (8), Botswana (4), Ghana (3), Guinea (3), Sierra Leone (3), Gambia (2), Burkina Faso (1), Burundi (1), Niger (1), Kenya (+), Madagascar (+), and Tanzania (+). In a particularly regressive move Liberia reintroduced the death penalty for the crimes of robbery, terrorism and hijacking.25 Liberia reintroduced the death penalty despite being a party to Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

In Uganda civilian courts continued to impose the death penalty but there were no executions. Military courts continued to hand down death sentences and order executions of soldiers in Uganda’s armed forces. It was not clear whether there were any executions. In Nigeria at least 40 death sentences were handed down. This brings the total estimated number on death row to 735, including 11 women. Hundreds did not have a fair trial. Approximately 140 people have been on death row for longer than 10 years; some for over 20 years. Around 80 were denied the right to an appeal as they were sentenced before 1999 by the Robbery and Firearms Tribunal[24].

Approximately 40 were under the age of 18 at the time of the offence and should not have been sentenced to death[25]. The Federal Government ignored the recommendations by the National Study Group on the Death Penalty (2004) and the Presidential Commission on Reform of the Administration of Justice (2007) to adopt a moratorium. In July 2008, a bill to abolish the mandatory death penalty under the Robbery and Firearms Act and replace it with life imprisonment was defeated in the House of Representatives. By the end of 2008, most prisoners whose forthcoming release was announced by the Federal Minister of Information in May 2007 were still on death row. Five men had their sentences commuted by the Ogun State governor. In November, the President pardoned a man who had spent 22 years on death row. No confirmed executions were carried out in 2008. In the Democratic Republic of Congo military courts sentences at least 50 people to death during the year, including civilians.

In Sierra Leone civil society pushed hard for the death penalty to be abolished as part of the review of the Constitution. The current draft Constitution provides for the death penalty in cases of treason, murder and armed robbery with violence.


Europe is the only virtually death penalty-free region of the world, the only exception being Belarus where at least four people were known to be executed and at least one more sentenced to death in 2008. In Europe there is a solid and long-standing trend towards abolition of the death penalty. The Russian Federation has held a moratorium on executions and death sentences for more than ten years but still needs to abolish the death penalty in law. In Central Asia, there is a clear move towards abolition. Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan retained the death penalty when they gained independence in 1991. However, by September 2008 Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan had abolished the death penalty in law. Tajikistan has moratoria on executions and death sentences. Belarus is the last country in Europe and in the former Soviet Union that is still carrying out executions. All information on the death penalty in Belarus is kept secret. There are no available statistics for the number of executions, but Amnesty International estimates that as many as 400 people may have been executed since Belarus gained its independence in 1991.

Since gaining its independence from the USSR Belarus has taken some significant steps towards ending the use of the death penalty. It has reduced the scope of the death penalty, and a Constitutional Court decision in 2004 found that the death penalty was in conflict with the Constitution and that it could be abolished by the President and Parliament.

Capital Punishment under Indian Penal Code

The recent trend in India is clearly towards the abolition of death sentence and it appears that at present the death sentence is being allowed only in cases where there is not the slightest trace of any extenuating circumstances[26]. In Ediga Anamma V. State of Andhra Pradesh[27], the supreme court of India observed: “While murder in its aggravated form in the extenuating factors connected with crime, criminal or legal process, still is condignly visited with death penalty, a compassionate alternative of life imprisonment in all other circumstances in gaining judicial ground.”[28]

In Raghubir Sing V. State of Haryana[29], although the Supreme Court accepted the contention that the murder was treacherous, death sentence was reduced to life imprisonment.

In Bachan Sing V. State of Punjab[30], the Supreme Court held by a majority of four to one that the provision of death sentence as an alternative punishment for murder in section 302 of the Indian penal Code is not unreasonable and is in the public interest. Earlier in Jagmohan Sing v. State of U.P[31] the Supreme Court held that death penalty per se is not violative of Article 19 of the Indian constitution. The provision of death sentence as an alternative punishment for murder does not violate Article 21 of the Constitution. The framers of the Constitution did not consider death sentence for murder as a degrading punishment which would defile “the dignity of the individual”. To commit a crime is not an activity guaranteed by Article 19(1) of the constitution.

The offences which are punishable with death sentence under the Indian Penal code 1860 include:

Waging war against the state ( Sec. 121)

Abetment of mutiny ( Sec.132)

Murder ( Sec. 302)

Abetment of suicide committed by a child or insane ( Sec 305)

Attempt by life-convict to murder ( Sec 307)

Kidnapping for ransom ( Sec 364A)

Dacoity with murder ( Sec 396)

It is significant to note that although the aforesaid offences are punishable with death but there being alternative punishment of life imprisonment for each of them, it is not mandatory for the court to award exclusively the sentence of death for these offences. In fact where the court is of the opinion that the award of death sentence is the only appropriate punishment to serve the ends of justice in a particular case it is required to record ‘special reason’ justifying the sentence stating why the award of alternative punishment i.e. imprisonment for life would be inadequate in that case. (Sec.354 (3) Code of Criminal Procedure).

While observing in Bachan sing that “standardization” of the sentencing process in relation to capital punishment is an almost impossible task, the court nevertheless attempted to provide some guidelines[32] regarding the choice to be made between death sentence and life imprisonment:

If the murder has been committed after previous planning and involves extreme brutality or

If the murder involves exceptional depravity or If the murder is of a member of any of the armed forces of the Union or of a member of any police force or of any public servant and was committed- while such member or public servant was on duty or in consequence of anything done or attempted to be done by such member or public servant in the lawful discharge of his duty as such member or public servant whether at the time of murder he was such member or public servant as the case may be, or had ceased to be such member or public servant or if the murder is of a person who had acted in the lawful discharge of his duty under section 43 of the Code of Criminal Procedure,1973, or who had rendered assistance to a magistrate or a police officer demanding his aid or requiring his assistance under section 37 and Section 129 of the said Code.”

The court gave examples of the circumstances which to be given due consideration in the determination of a sentence[33]:

That the offence was committed under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance. If the accused is too young or old, he shall not be sentenced to death. The probability that the accused would not commit criminal acts of violence as would constitute a continuing threat to society. The probability that the accused can be reformed and rehabilitated. The state shall by evidence prove that the accused does not satisfy conditions (3) and (4) above.

That in the facts and circumstances of the case the accused believed that he was morally justified in committing the offence.

That the accused acted under duress or domination of another person.

That the condition of the accused showed that he was mentally defective and that the said defect impaired his capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct.

Capital punishment in USA

Recent trend in America is to restrict capital punishment only to the offence of murder and rape. Another thing is that last couple of years it tried to make the process of execution private, painless and quick as against the old methods of public execution which were brutal, painful and time consuming[34]. Several American states have abolished death punishment with beneficial results. Mr. Justice Brennan and Mr. Justice Marshall of the U.S Supreme Court in a well known decision Furman v. The State of Georgia[35], observed that death penalty was unconstitutional per se and should be outlawed on the ground that it was an anachronism degrading to human dignity[36]. But most of the judges did not agree with the view that the 8th amendment of the American Constitution which prohibits capital punishment for all crimes and under all circumstances is a good law. Some of the American decisions[37] suggest that the courts are convinced that death penalty per se is not violative of the constitution.

After the Court’s decision in Furman Case, an international movement to abolish the death penalty has grown based on the human rights principles of the right to life and the right to be protected from cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment both of which can be found in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, borrowing from the American Bill of Rights, emphasizes the right to life. The death penalty inherently contradicts this principle. In 1976, the United Nations adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which, in Article 6, recognizes the death penalty as an exception to the right to life. Article 6 includes safeguards for implementation of the death penalty and denotes abolition of the death penalty as its ultimate objective. The United States signed the ICCPR in 1992, entering a reservation on Article 6.

In 1989, the UN General Assembly adopted the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR Aimed at the Abolition of the Death Penalty. The United States is not expected to sign the Second Optional Protocol because countries are unable to make reservations to optional protocols.

While an average of two countries per year outlaw capital punishment, the United States, which considers itself a leader in the protection of human rights, has rejected this trend. The statistics indicate that a majority of Americans support the use of the death penalty and it is generally perceived by the public to be applied with sufficient due process.

Despite this image, great concern exists about the application of the death penalty in the United States. In February 1997, the American Bar Association issued a statement calling for an immediate moratorium on executions until policies can be instituted which “(1) ensure that death penalty cases are administered fairly and impartially, in accordance with due process, and (2) minimize the risk that innocent persons may be executed.”

Rather than join the international movement toward abolition of the death penalty, the United States adheres to the belief that execution is not cruel and unusual punishment if it is applied in a non-arbitrary and nondiscriminatory manner. In the seminal case Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court criticized the lack of standards for implementing the death penalty. Three years later, the Court in Gregg v. Georgia[38] held that the death penalty does not violate the Constitution. The Court explained that its concerns in Furman could “be met by a carefully drafted statute that ensures that the sentencing authority is given adequate information and guidance.

In the companion case to Gregg, Woodson v. North Carolina[39], the Court held that North Carolina’s revision of its death penalty statute, which implemented a mandatory death sentence for capital crimes, was unconstitutional. The Court explained that the mandatory imposition of the death penalty in certain cases insufficiently addressed the concerns regarding unguided discretion in sentencing outlined in Furman. The Court held that North Carolina’s statute failed to account for the individual facts of each case and was over-inclusive. Mandatory sentencing did not eliminate arbitrariness or discrimination within the system, and was unable to accommodate the possibility of error or mitigating factors. The U.S. death penalty system today is a complex system of layers. The state legislature defines the structure of the system, including such factors as whether the sentence is imposed by judge or jury, how defense counsel is assigned to indigent defendants and the aggravating and mitigating factors to be considered for sentencing. Once a person is sentenced to death, they may file appeals, if possible, to the Supreme Court.

In Strickland v. Washington (1984), the Court adopted a “highly deferential” standard of “reasonably effective assistance” for counsel. To maintain a claim of inadequate counsel, the petitioner carries a heavy burden, not only of proving counsel was inadequate, but that this prejudiced the trial. In Furman, the Court recognized that execution holds a unique position in the criminal justice system, and structured the debate over capital punishment in terms of the procedures used to obtain the sentence, rather than on the validity of the act under the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. The Court continued its analysis in Trop v. Dulles (1958) case, in which Chief Justice Warren wrote that the “Eighth Amendment ‘must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.'” Because the death penalty continues to have strong support in the United States, the Court believes execution is not considered cruel and unusual in American society. Thus, for the United States to demonstrate an “evolving standard of decency” in conjunction with the rest of the world, the use of capital punishment must be challenged in the public arena if it is ever to be prohibited in the legal arena.

Use of the Death Penalty against Child Offenders

Although most of the countries that still practice the death penalty have turned away from executing child offenders, children are still not totally safe from this outdated practice. Article 6(5) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966 and Article 37(a) of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1995 prohibit anyone under 18 years old at the time of the crime being sentenced to death. The ICCPR, the American Convention on Human Rights 1969 and the CRC all have provisions to this effect.

Nine countries since 1990 are known to have executed prisoners who were under 18 years old at the time of the crime — China, Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, USA and Yemen[40]. China, Pakistan, USA and Yemen have now raised the minimum age to 18 in law. The USA and Iran each executed more child offenders than the other seven countries combined before the US Supreme Court ruled in March 2005 that the execution of children under the age of 18 was unconstitutional.

The U.S Supreme Court abolished capital punishment for offenders under the age of 16 in Thompson v. Oklahoma[41], and for all juveniles in Roper v. Simmons[42]. Between 2005 and May 2008, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen were reported to have executed child offenders, the most being from Iran.

In 2002, the US Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the execution of individuals with mental retardation, in Atkins v. Virginia.[43]

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1995, which forbids capital punishment for juveniles under article 37(a), has been signed by all countries and ratified, except for Somalia and the United States. A country that sentences a child offender to death or executes them is violating international law in three ways: (i) it is violating its treaty obligations; (ii) it is violating customary international law; and (iii) it is violating a peremptory norm of international law (jus cogens)[44]. In Japan, the minimum age for the death penalty is 18 as mandated by the internationals standards. But under Japanese law, anyone under 20 is considered a juvenile. Iran, despite its ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is currently the world’s biggest executioner of child offenders, for which it has received international condemnation.

In 18th century, the executions of children’s and juveniles, who were under 18 years of age, were a very common and simple matter to all. Most of the offenders were about 13, 14 or 17 years of age and especially they did the offence of House-breaking and murder.

In 19th century, Children, like adults, continued to be sentenced to death for a very large number of felonies up to 1838 although it was normal for younger children to have their sentences commuted for the less serious crimes as there was increasing public disquiet about hanging children. There is little actual evidence of anyone under 14 years old being hanged in the 19th century, despite what you might read in some books to the contrary. As stated earlier, executions were decreasing rapidly, both for adults and young offenders after 1838, as the number of capital crimes reduced and public attitudes changed. Eighteen 17-19 year old boys were privately hanged between 1868 and 1899.

In 20th century, The Children’s Act of 1908 stipulated for the first time a minimum age for execution of 16 years[45]; however there is no record of anyone under the age of 18 being hanged in the 20th century, although quite a few 18/19 year old males were executed. In addition 17 nineteen year old males were hanged for murder in England during the 20th century. Seven teenage girls were condemned to death during the 20th century, although all were reprieved.

International Agreements to Abolish the Death Penalty

The community of nations has adopted four international treaties providing for the abolition of the death penalty. One is of worldwide scope; the other three are regional. States may become parties to international treaties either by acceding to them or by ratifying them. Following are short descriptions of the four treaties and current lists of states parties and countries which have signed but not ratified the treaties.

The Second Optional Protocol to international covenant on civil and political rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989 is of worldwide scope. It provides for the total abolition of the death penalty but allows states parties to retain the death penalty in time of war if they make a reservation to that effect at the time of ratifying or acceding to the protocol. Any state which is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights can become a party to the protocol.

States Parties (70)[46]




The Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights to Abolish the Death Penalty which has been ratified by 11 states and signed by one other in the Americas. It was adopted by the general assembly for the organization of American states in 1990. It provides for the total abolition of the death penalty but allows states parties to retain the capital punishment in war time if they make a reservation to that effect at the time of ratification or acceding to the protocol.

States Parties (11)[47]


Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (European Convention on Human Rights), concerning abolition of death penalty was adopted by the Council of Europe in 1982 which has been ratified by 46 European states and signed by one other ( Russian-Federation). It provides for the abolition of the death penalty in peace time, but state parties may retain the death penalty for crimes “in time of war or of imminent threat of war”.

States Parties (46)[48]


Protocol No. 13 to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (European Convention on Human Rights), concerning the abolition of the death penalty in all circumstances, adopted by the Council of Europe in 2002 provides for the abolition of the death penalty in all circumstances, including time of war or of imminent threat of war. Any state party to the European Convention on Human Rights can become a party to the protocol.

States Parties (40)[49]


Signed but not ratified: ARMENIA, ITALY, LATVIA, POLAND, and SPAIN.

In 1984, the UN Economic and Social Council adopted the Safeguards Guaranteeing Protection of the Rights of those facing the Death Penalty. Those minimum safeguards strengthened and explain Article 6 of the ICCPR.

1. The safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty, as contained in the annex to Economic and Social Council resolution 1984/50 of 25 May 1984, are as follows:

(a) In countries which have not abolished the death penalty, capital punishment may be imposed only for the most serious crimes, it being understood that their scope should not go beyond intentional crimes with lethal or other extremely grave consequences;

(b) Capital punishment may be imposed only for a crime for which the death penalty is prescribed by law at the time of its commission, it being understood that if, subsequent to the commission of the crime, provision is made by law for the imposition of a lighter penalty, the offender shall benefit thereby;

(c) Persons below 18 years of age at the time of the commission of the crime shall not be sentenced to death, nor shall the death sentence be carried out on pregnant women, or on new mothers, or on persons who have become insane;

(d) Capital punishment may be imposed only when the guilt of the person charged is based upon clear and convincing evidence leaving no room for an alternative explanation of the facts;

(e) Capital punishment may only be carried out pursuant to a final judgment rendered by a competent court after legal process which gives all possible safeguards to ensure a fair trial, at least equal to those contained in article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights[50], including the right of anyone suspected of or charged with a crime for which capital punishment may be imposed to adequate legal assistance at all stages of the proceedings;

(f) Anyone sentenced to death shall have the right to appeal to a court of higher jurisdiction, and steps should be taken to ensure that such appeals shall become mandatory;

(g) Anyone sentenced to death shall have the right to seek pardon, or commutation of sentence; pardon or commutation of sentence may be granted in all cases of capital punishment;

(h) Capital punishment shall not be carried out pending any appeal or other recourse procedure or other proceeding relating to pardon or commutation of the sentence;

(i) Where capital punishment occurs, it shall be carried out so as to inflict the minimum possible suffering.

2. Further to the above-mentioned safeguards, the Council, in its resolution 1989/64 of 24 May 1989, recommended that Member States take steps to implement the safeguards and strengthen further the protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty, where applicable by:

(a) Affording special protection to persons facing charges for which the death penalty is provided by allowing time and facilities for the preparation of their defence, including the adequate assistance of counsel at every stage of the proceedings, above and beyond the protection afforded in non-capital cases;

(b) Providing for mandatory appeals or review with provisions for clemency or pardon in all cases of capital offence;

(c) Establishing a ma