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Capital punishment - The death penalty

Quotations and overview of practices
in the U.S. and the rest of the world

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bullet "People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty ... I have yet to see a death case among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court on eve-of-execution stay applications in which the defendant was well represented at trial." Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, U.S. Supreme Court.
bullet "Where would Christianity be if Jesus got eight to fifteen years with time off for good behavior?" NY State Senator James Donovan, speaking in support of capital punishment.
bullet "He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first." Yeshua of Nazareth (Jesus Christ) interrupting a public execution of a woman for adultery. John 8:7, (NKJ)

"If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call." John McAdams - Marquette University/Department of Political Science, on deterrence

bullet "Sometimes you just have the thin the herd." Dennis Miller
bullet "Does it make sense for the state to hire contract murderers to kill defenseless victims on death row, in order to prove that hiring murderers to kill defenseless victims is morally wrong?" Anon.
bullet "There are plenty of innocent people being killed by those on parole...The only cure for this kind of "sickness" is death. I know I may sound hard and cruel- but I for one, have had enough!" Posting to a feedback forum, Detroit News, 1999-MAR-2.
bullet "Barbarians. That's what we have become. We kill each other and instead of mourning the tragedy, we want the state to satisfy our bloodlust by killing the offender...we must learn to deal with these people in our midst - punish them, but do not become them." Another posting to the same feedback forum, 1999-MAR-2
bullet "As I read the New Testament, I don't see anywhere in there that killing bad people is a very high calling for Christians. I see an awful lot about redemption and forgiveness." James W.L. Park, former execution officer, San Quentin, California.
bullet "The death penalty is a poor person's issue. Always remember that: after all the rhetoric that goes on in the legislative assemblies, in the end, when the deck is cast out, it is the poor who are selected to die in this country." Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J.
bullet "I like it the way it is." Comment by Governor George W. Bush of Texas at the time that a law prohibiting execution of the mentally disadvantaged was defeated.
bullet "We oppose the death penalty not just for what it does to those guilty of heinous crimes, but for what it does to all of us:  it offers the tragic illusion that we can defend life by taking life." -- Most Rev. Joseph A. Fiorenza, President, National Conference of Catholic Bishops / U.S. Catholic Conference, 1999.
bullet " Canada, the death penalty has been rejected as an acceptable element of criminal justice. Capital punishment engages the underlying values of the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. It is final and irreversible. Its imposition has been described as arbitrary and its deterrent value has been doubted." Supreme Court of Canada, "United States v. Burns," 2001-FEB-15.
bullet "I do not believe any civilized society should be at the service of death. I don't think it's human to become an agent of the Angel of Death." Elie Wiesel
bullet "Capital punishment is our society’s recognition of the sanctity of human life." Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT)

Overview of U.S. capital punishment:

The word "capital" in "capital punishment" refers to a person's head. In the past, people were often executed by severing their head from their body. Today, in the U.S., prisoners on death row are generally executed by lethal injection.

The United States is one of the very few industrialized countries in the world which continues to execute criminals. Further, it is one of a handful of countries in the world which executes mentally ill persons, persons with very low IQ, and child criminals (i.e. persons who were under 18 at the time of their crime).

Surprisingly, a large percentage of American adults and most conservative religious denominations are both pro-life on matters related to abortion access, and "pro-death" when it comes to capital punishment. They often justify this position by saying that they are pro-innocent life.

As of 2010-NOV, 15 states have abolished the death penalty, and 19 have not executed anyone since 2009.

It is mainly the Southern states which continue to execute people. During 2002:

bullet 61 of the 71 executions were in Southern states.
bullet Outside the South, only three States (California, Ohio and Missouri) executed anyone.

Between 1976, when executions were resumed, until 2009-DEC-31, there have been 1,188 executions in the US. This includes:

bullet 66 during 2001.
bullet 71 in 2002.
bullet 65 in 2003
bullet 59 in 2004
bullet 60 in 2005
bullet 53  in 2006.
bullet 42 in 2007
bullet 37 in 2008.
bullet 52 in 2009.

The recent fluctuation in the annual rate of executions appear to have been caused by a botched execution that persuaded many states to postpone their scheduled executions until problems could be ironed out. Most states that execute people use a combination of drugs injected into the veins of the inmate. This sometimes can cause high levels of pain.

Suprisingly, the method that is the most pain free, the simplest, and which requires the least amount of training of any method of execution is never used in the U.S. It would involve placing a hood over the head of the inmate, and simply filling it with a gas like helium or nitrogen. The inmate would sink into unconsiousness in a matter of seconds, and die painlessly in a matter of minutes.

The Death Penalty Information Center maintains a data base of executions that is searchable by name, year, age at execution, race, gender, state, region, method and other factors. 5

By region from 1976 to 2009 inclusive:

bullet 981 have been executed in the South;
bullet 136 in the Mid-west
bullet 67 in the West
bullet 4 in the Northeast.

This is in spite of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which is supposed to guarantee equal treatment for citizens.

About two out of three executions are conducted in only five states: Texas, Virginia, Missouri, Florida and Oklahoma. Texas leads the other states in number of killings. During 2008, they killed 19 prisoners; during 2009, the number increased to 24. From 1976 to 2009 inclusive, Texas has executed 447 people, Virginia 105 and the remaining states of the U.S. have executed fewer than 69 each.

102 have been exonerated and freed since 1973, mainly after having been proven innocent by DNA evidence.

In spite of the slight increase in U.S. executions between 2001 and 2002, the number of new death sentences decreased significantly. The Washington Post commented in late 2002 that "outside of a few states, the death penalty remains in decline....a few states account for the overwhelming majority of all executions. The more isolated they become, the greater the pressure for reform will be."

Some convicts have been able to have the evidence used against them reexamined using DNA analysis. By 2000-JAN, tests had proven that 13 inmates on Illinois' death row were innocent. Governor G.H. Ryan announced a moratorium on executions in that state until after an administration review of the death penalty.

Scholastic Update reported in 2007-FEB:

"Last year [2006], executions were at least temporarily halted in eight states-Florida, California, Maryland, Arkansas, Delaware, Missouri, Ohio, and South Dakota-over concerns that supposedly humane lethal injections might actually produce intense pain. And in [2007] January, a commission appointed by the New Jersey Legislature recommended that the state abolish the death penalty. The commission found 'no compelling evidence' that capital punishment serves a legitimate purpose and increasing evidence that it 'is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency'." 3

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U.S. public support:

When asked whether they prefer to keep or abolish the death penalty, various surveys have shown that about 70 of American adults say that they want to retain capital punishment. Numbers vary depending upon the precise wording of the question asked by the pollsters.

However, when they are asked whether they would like to see executions continue or have them replaced with a system that guaranteed:

bullet life imprisonment with no hope for parole, ever, and
bullet that the inmate would work in the prison to earn money, and
bullet that the money would be directed to helping the family of the person(s) that they killed,

About 55 to 60% of Americans prefer the latter system.  Unfortunately for those on death row, few if any legislators seems to be listening or caring.

Capital punishment in Canada:

Canada eliminated the death penalty for civilians with Bill C-84, passed in 1976-JUL-14. There were two main results from this action:

  • The homicide rate decreased from 2.8 per 100,000 in 1976 to 1.8 in 2009. 7 This effect is often seen in countries that abolish executions.
  • The overall conviction rate for first degree murder doubled, from less than 10% to about 20%. 8

However, the death penalty was retained as an option for some military offenses including treason and mutiny. On 1998-DEC-10 capital punishment for these were also eliminated.

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Capital punishment in the rest of the world:

As of 2010-NOV, 136 of the 192 member states (71%) of the United Nations have abolished the death penalty, either by law or by practice. The U.S. joins with a number of states with poor human rights records like China, Iran, Iraq, and most predominately Muslim countries, and still executes people.

On 2010-NOV-11, the United Nations General Assembly’s Human Rights Committee called upon member states to establish a moratorium on executions as the first step towards abolishing the death penalty in their countries. The vote was 107 in favor -- including Russia for the first time, -- 38 voting against and 36 abstentions. The U.S. voted against the resolution.

Jacqueline Macalesher, the Anti-Death Penalty Project Manager of Penal Reform International said:

"The results are encouraging for abolitionists worldwide. This resolution received more support than in previous years, and less direct opposition, indicating a growing global movement towards abolishing this cruel and arbitrary sentence and commitment to upholding the right to life." 9

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Comparison of intentional homicide rates in various countries:

Most recent data from a sampling of countries: 7

Country Intentional homicide rate
per 100,000 persons
El Salvador
Puerto Rico
United States
United Kingdom

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References used:

  1. "Worth repeating: The year on America's death row," Toronto Star, Toronto, Canada, 2003-JAN-1, editorial page. Edited excerpt from an editorial in the Washington Post: "The Year in Death," 2002-DEC-30, Page A16, Section B.
  2. "The Death Penalty in 2002: Year End Report," The Death Penalty Information Center, at:  You need software to read these files. It can be obtained free from:
  3. Adam Laptak, "The Death Penalty Debate," Scholastic Update, 2007-FEB-05, at:
  4. "Number of executions by state and region since 1976," Death Penalty Information Center, at:
  5. "Cardinal's gay slur prompts Vatican rap," Sydney Morning Herald, 2009-DEC-04, at:
  6. "Searchable execution database," Death Penalty Information Center, at:
  7. "List of countries by intentional homicide rate," Wikipedia, as at 2010-NOV-11, at:
  8. "The death penalty in Canada: facts, figures and milestones," Canadian Coalition agaisnt the death penalty, 2005, at:
  9. "The world moves closer towards universal abolition of the death penalty," Penal Reform International, 2010-NOV, at:

Copyright 1995 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally published: 1995-JUN-8
Last updated 2010-NOV-16

Author: Bruce A Robinson

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