Punishment by death. Capital punishment is retained in 92 countries and territories (1990), including the US (37 states), China, and Islamic countries. It was abolished in the UK 1965 for all crimes except treason. Methods of execution include electrocution, lethal gas, hanging, shooting, lethal injection, garrotting, and decapitation.
The reduction in the number of capital offenses in Britain in the 19th century followed campaigns from 1810 onward by Samuel Romilly (1757–1818) and others. Several acts were passed, each reducing the number of crimes liable to this penalty. From 1838 it was rarely used except for murder.
In Saudi Arabia execution is by beheading in public. In the first four months of 1995 there were 90 such executions, up from 53 in 1994. Nearly 70% of those executed were foreigners.
The first state to abolish capital punishment was Michigan 1847.
Countries that have abolished the death penalty fall into three categories: those that have abolished it for all crimes (44 countries); those that retain it only for exceptional crimes such as war crimes (17 countries); and those that retain the death penalty for ordinary crimes but have not executed anyone since 1980 (25 countries and territories). The first country in Europe to abolish the death penalty was Portugal 1867. In the US, the Supreme Court declared capital punishment unconstitutional 1972 (as a cruel and unusual punishment) but decided 1976 that this was not so in all circumstances. It was therefore reintroduced in some states, and in 1990 there were over 2,000 prisoners on death row (awaiting execution) in the US.
Many countries use capital punishment for crimes other than murder, such as drug offenses (Malaysia and elsewhere). There were 1,500 executions in China 1983–89, and 64 in the USSR 1985–88, although the true figure may be higher in both cases. After the fall of communism, Czechoslovakia and Hungary abolished the death penalty 1990. In June 1995, South Africa's highest court abolished the death penalty. During the apartheid era, hundreds of people had been executed there each year by hanging, and over 1,500 death sentences were passed 1978–1987.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1977 ruled out imposition of the death penalty on those under the age of 18. The covenant was signed by President Carter on behalf of the US, but in 1989 the US Supreme Court decided that it could be imposed from the age of 16 for murder, and that the mentally retarded could also face the death penalty.
Another name for capital punishment.