Capital punishment

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Execution of a war criminal in 1946
The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1883).
Let the punishments of criminals be useful. A hanged man is good for nothing; a man condemned to public works still serves the country, and is a living lesson. ~ Voltaire

Capital punishment, also known as the death penalty, is the execution of a convicted criminal by the state as punishment for crimes known as capital crimes or capital offences. Historically, the execution of criminals and political opponents was used by nearly all societies—both to punish crime and to suppress political dissent.


  • Capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated, can be compared. For there to be an equivalency, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date on which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not to be encountered in private life.
  • A punishment that penalizes without forestalling is indeed called revenge.
  • What will be left of the power of example if it is proved that capital punishment has another power, and a very real one, which degrades men to the point of shame, madness, and murder?
    • Albert Camus, “Reflections on the Guillotine,” Resistance, Rebellion and Death (1961).
  • In the disposition of capital cases in the United States, the median elapsed time between sentence and execution is approximately seventeen months. [...] However, even an attorney of moderate talent can postpone doomsday year after year, for the system of appeals that pervades American jurisprudence amounts to a legalistic wheel of fortune [...].
  • Capital punishment kills immediately, whereas lifetime imprisonment does so slowly. Which executioner is more humane? The one who kills you in a few minutes, or the one who wrests your life from you in the course of many years?
    • Anton Chekhov, The banker in The Bet, Works, vol. 7, p. 229, “Nauka” <1254>
  • No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
  • The chief and worst pain may not be in the the bodily suffering but in one's knowing for certain that in an hour, and then in ten minutes, and then in half a minute, and then now, at the very moment, the soul will leave the body and that one will cease to be a man and that that's bound to happen; the worst part of it is that it's certain. When you lay your head down under the knife and hear the knife slide over your head, that quarter of a second is the most terrible of all. You know this is not only my imagination, many people have said the same. I believe that so thoroughly that I'll tell you what I think To kill for murder is a punishment incomparably worse than the crime itself. Murder by legal sentence is immeasurably more terrible than murder by brigands.
  • The ability of so many people to live comfortably with the idea of capital punishment is perhaps a clue to how so many Europeans were able to live with the idea of the Holocaust: Once you accept the notion that the state has the right to kill someone and the right to define what is a capital crime, aren't you halfway there?
  • I have reached the conviction that the abolition of the death penalty is desirable. Reasons: 1) Irreparability in the event of an error of justice, 2) Detrimental moral influence of the execution procedure on those who, whether directly or indirectly, have to do with the procedure.
    • Albert Einstein p.83, Albert Einstein-The human side, Princeton University Press 1979.
  • Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good. Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption. Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.
  • I would draw distinction between killing and detention and even corporal punishment. I think there is a difference not merely in quantity but also in quality. I can recall the punishment of detention. I can make reparation to the man upon whom I inflict corporal punishment. But once a man is killed, the punishment is beyond recall or reparation. God alone can take life, because He alone gives it.
    • Mahatma Gandhi, Young India, 8th November 1925. Quoted in Bishan Sarup Sharma, Gandhi as a Political Thinker, Indian Press, 1956 (p.108).
  • Capital punishment is our society's recognition of the sanctity of human life.
    • Orrin Hatch, quoted from David Milsted, The Cassell Dictionary of Regrettable Quotations (1999)
  • The pain was maddening. You should pray to God when you're dying, if you can pray when you're in agony. In my dream I didn't pray to God, I thought of Roger and how dearly I loved him. The pain of those wicked flames was not half so bad as the pain I felt when I knew he was dead. I felt suddenly glad to be dying. I didn't know when you were burnt to death you'd bleed. I thought the blood would all dry up in the terrible heat. But I was bleeding heavily. The blood was dripping and hissing in the flames. I wished I had enough blood to put the flames out. The worst part was my eyes. I hate the thought of gong blind. It's bad enough when I'm awake but in dreams you can't shake the thoughts away. They remain. In this dream I was going blind. I tried to close my eyelids but I couldn't. They must have been burnt off, and now those flames were going to pluck my eyes out with their evil fingers, I didn't want to go blind. The flames weren't so cruel after all. They began to feel cold. Icy cold. It occurred to me that I wasn't burning to death but freezing to death.
  • Many of us do not believe in capital punishment, because thus society takes from a man what society cannot give.
  • If we could do away with death, we wouldn’t object; to do away with capital punishment will be more difficult. Were that to happen, we would reinstate it from time to time.
  • Yea, such is the law of England, the tenderest law in the world of a man's life. I say again, that no such trial for life is to be found in the world, as in England. In any place but in England, a man's life may be taken away upon two or three witnesses; but in England two or three witnesses do not do it: For there are two juries besides, and you have four-and-twenty men returned; you have one-and-twenty men upon their oaths and consciences that have found you guilty: And yet when you have done that, it is not enough by the law of England, but you are also to have twelve rational understanding men of your neighbours to hear all over again, and to pass upon your life. This is not used in any law in the world but in England, which hath the most righteous and most merciful law in the world.
    • Lord Keble, C.J., Lilburne's Case (1649), 4 How. St. Tr. 1311; reported in James William Norton-Kyshe, The Dictionary of Legal Quotations (1904), p. 240-241.
  • Problems or successes, they all are the results of our own actions. Karma.... As you sow, so shall you reap. It's a very old proverb of mankind... Sometime you may have killed that man, and then sometime now he comes to kill you... What we have done, the result of that comes to us whenever it comes, either today, tomorrow, hundred years later, hundred lives later, whatever, whatever. And so, it's our own karma... That is why that philosophy in every religion: Killing is sin. Killing is sin in every religion. Whosoever sins, whoever is killed, it doesn't matter. It's a sin. And sin.. is a punishable offense. Because when you sin, when you've killed some man, what you are killing? You are killing the cosmic potential within the individual. Individual is cosmic. Individual potential of life is cosmic potential. Individual is divine deep inside. Transcendental experience awakens that divinity in man... When you kill a man like that you deprive him from getting to his human right.
  • The burning of the house of the offender is not a permissible punishment for arson. The rape of the offender is not a permissible punishment of a rapist. Why should murder be a permissible punishment for murder?
  • It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.
    • Maimonides, Sefer Hamitzvot [Book of the Commandments], commentary on Negative Commandment 290, as translated by Charles B. Chavel (1967); also in Defending the Human Spirit : Jewish Law's Vision for a Moral Society (2006) by Warren Goldstein, p. 269
  • If you would take a man's life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die. A ruler who hides behind paid executioners soon forgets what death is.
  • Bran Stark: Our way is the old way.
  • Ned Stark: The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.
    • Dialogue in scene above, as adapted by David Bonioff and D.B. Weiss for "Winter is Coming", the first episode of the television series Game of Thrones.
  • ... for if [abrogation] comes it will be their doing, and they will have gained what I cannot but call a fatal victory, for they will have achieved it by bringing about... an effeminacy in the general mind of the country.
    • John Stuart Mill: Utilitarianism and the 1868 Speech on Capital Punishment, p.68. (Sher, ed. Hackett Publishing Co, 2001)
  • The murder of one person is called unrighteous and incurs one death penalty. Following this argument, the murder of ten persons will be ten times as unrighteous and there should be ten death penalties; the murder of a hundred persons will be a hundred times as unrighteous and there should be a hundred death penalties. All the gentlemen of the world know that they should condemn these things, calling them unrighteous. But when it comes to the great unrighteousness of attacking states, they do not know that they should condemn it. On the contrary, they applaud it, calling it righteous.
    • Mozi, Book 5: Condemnation of Offensive War I
  • A bedouin came and said, "O Allah's Apostle! Judge between us according to Allah's Laws." His opponent got up and said, "He is right. Judge between us according to Allah's Laws." The bedouin said, "My son was a laborer working for this man, and he committed illegal sexual intercourse with his wife. The people told me that my son should be stoned to death; so, in lieu of that, I paid a ransom of one hundred sheep and a slave girl to save my son. Then I asked the learned scholars who said, "Your son has to be lashed one-hundred lashes and has to be exiled for one year." The Prophet said, "No doubt I will judge between you according to Allah's Laws. The slave-girl and the sheep are to go back to you, and your son will get a hundred lashes and one year exile." He then addressed somebody, "O Unais! go to the wife of this (man) and stone her to death" So, Unais went and stoned her to death.
  • Within your system, to kill is obviously a moral crime, but to kill another in punishment only compounds the original error. Someone very well known who established a church -- if you will, a civilization -- once said, "Turn the other cheek if you are attacked." The original meaning of that remark, however, should be understood. You should turn the other cheek because you realize that basically the attacker only attacks himself. Then you are free, and the reaction is a good one. If you turn the other cheek without this understanding, however, and feel resentful, or if you turn the other cheek out of a feeling of pseudomoral superiority, then the reaction is far from adequate.
  • As regards capital cases, the trouble is that emotional men and women always see only the individual whose fate is up at the moment, and neither his victim nor the many millions of unknown individuals who would in the long run be harmed by what they ask. Moreover, almost any criminal, however brutal, has usually some person, often a person whom he has greatly wronged, who will plead for him. If the mother is alive she will always come, and she cannot help feeling that the case in which she is so concerned is peculiar, that in this case a pardon should be granted. It was really heartrending to have to see the kinfolk and friends of murderers who were condemned to death, and among the very rare occasions when anything governmental or official caused me to lose sleep were times when I had to listen to some poor mother making a plea for a criminal so wicked, so utterly brutal and depraved, that it would have been a crime on my part to remit his punishment.
  • The Bible identifies 15 crimes against the family worthy of the death penalty. Abortion is treason against the family and deserves the death penalty. Adultery is treason to the family; adulterers should be put to death. Homosexuality is treason to the family and it too, is worthy of death.
  • Scroggs, L.C.J: My rule is this, in doubtful cases, when men are upon their lives, I had rather hear what is impertinent, than not let them make a full defence.
    North, L.C.J: I had rather hear things at a venture, than forbid things at a venture.
    • Whitehead's Case (1679), 7 How. St. Tr. 388; reported in James William Norton-Kyshe, The Dictionary of Legal Quotations (1904), p. 241.
  • In the case of murder, the death penalty - issued by way of putting the culprit to sleep to then apply the lethal injection - is the time delayed procedure of self-defense as carried out by the representatives of the victim(s) who, at the time of the incident and due to the then existing circumstances, was/were unable to defend itself/themselves from the willful murderous attack.
  • I personally have always voted for the death penalty because I believe that people who go out prepared to take the lives of other people forfeit their own right to live. I believe that that death penalty should be used only very rarely, but I believe that no-one should go out certain that no matter how cruel, how vicious, how hideous their murder, they themselves will not suffer the death penalty.
  • No man e'er felt the halter draw,
    With good opinion of the law.
  • The most marked indication of society's endorsement of the death penalty for murder is the legislative response to Furman.
  • But we are concerned here only with the imposition of capital punishment for the crime of murder, and when a life has been taken deliberately by the offender, we cannot say that the punishment is invariably disproportionate to the crime. It is an extreme sanction suitable to the most extreme of crimes.
    • Ibid.
  • After a four-year moratorium on executions in California, multiple proceedings in federal court, a state administrative law proceeding, and state court appeals, it is incredible to think that the deliberative process might be driven by the expiration date of the execution drug.
  • Let the punishments of criminals be useful. A hanged man is good for nothing; a man condemned to public works still serves the country, and is a living lesson.
    • Voltaire, "Civil and Ecclesiastical Laws," Dictionnaire philosophique (1785-1789)

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