[Editor’s Note: The terms “death penalty” and “capital punishment” are frequently used to mean the same thing. However, some people believe that a difference exists because “death penalty” refers to the penalty received and not necessarily its implementation while “capital punishment” refers to the execution itself. Other people believe that penalty means punishment and capital refers to death so any difference between the terms is negligible. Rather than present these definitions on separate pages, we have presented them on one page so our readers can see what differences, if any, exist between the terms.]
Encyclopedia Britannica, in an entry titled "Capital Punishment," retrieved from its website on Apr. 25, 2008, offered the following definition:
"[A]lso called death penalty - Execution of an offender sentenced to death after conviction by a court of law of a criminal offense. Capital punishment should be distinguished from extrajudicial executions carried out without due process of law. The term death penalty is sometimes used interchangeably with capital punishment, though imposition of the penalty is not always followed by execution (even when it is upheld on appeal), because of the possibility of commutation to life imprisonment."
The Columbia Encyclopedia, in its 2008 sixth edition, under the heading titled "Capital Punishment," offered the following:
"Capital punishment: Imposition of a penalty of death by the state. Capital punishment was widely applied in ancient times; it can be found (c.1750 BC) in the Code of Hammurabi. From the fall of Rome to the beginnings of the modern era, capital punishment was practiced throughout Western Europe...
Some of the first countries to abolish capital punishment included Venezuela (1863), San Marino (1865), and Costa Rica (1877). As of 2004, 81 countries had entirely abolished the death penalty, including the members of the European Union. Some other countries retained capital punishment only for treason and war crimes, while in others, death remained a penalty at law, though in practice there had not been any executions for decades.
Since the 1970s almost all capital sentences in the United States have been imposed for homicide. Today, 36 states and the federal government have reinstituted the death penalty... some 75% of executions now employ lethal injection. The gas chamber, hanging, the firing squad, and, most commonly, the electric chair are still used in some states... In 2002 the Court ruled that the death penalty must be imposed through a finding of a jury and not a judge."
The Catholic Encyclopedia, a compilation of Catholic teachings and definitions originally published in 1907, in an entry titled "Capital Punishment," stated:
"The infliction by due legal process of the penalty of death as a punishment for crime. The Latins use the word capitalis (from caput, head) to describe that which related to life, that by which life is endangered. They used the neuter form of this adjective, i.e., capitale, substantively to denominate death, actual or civil, and banishment imposed by public authority in consequence of crime. The idea of capital punishment is of great antiquity and formed a part of the primal concepts of the human race."
The Federal Judicial Center, in an April 2004 "Resource Guide for Managing Capital Cases," offered the following:
"...the death penalty [is] a sentencing option for over sixty offenses. In addition, the The Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994... established a procedure for conducting the sentencing phase of a capital trial and set forth the prerequisites for imposing the death penalty, including information on aggravating and mitigating factors and appointment of counsel.
Furthermore, the jury is required to return special findings with respect to the aggravating factors. The Federal Death Penalty Act provides that a finding of a statutory aggravating factor must be unanimous, whereas a finding of a mitigating factor may be made by a single jury member. Similarly, the Act directs the jury to 'consider whether all the aggravating factor or factors found to exist sufficiently outweigh all the mitigating factor or factors found to exist to justify the death sentence.'
In the event of a death sentence, the Act directs the U.S. marshal to supervise implementation of the sentence in the manner prescribed by the law of the state in which the sentence was imposed. If the death sentence is handed down in a state that does not have the death penalty, the court will 'designate another state, the law of which does provide for the implementation of a sentence of death, and have the prisoner executed in accordance with the law prevailing there."