Last updated on: 12/13/2023 | Author:

History of the Death Penalty

Practiced for much, if not all, of human history, the death penalty (also called capital punishment) is the “execution of an offender sentenced to death after conviction by a court of law of a criminal offense,” according to Roger Hood, professor at the Centre for Criminological Research at the University of Oxford. [1]

For more on the death penalty, including the history of the punishment, visit Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Amnesty International lists the United States as just one of 55 countries globally with a legal death penalty for ordinary crimes as of May 2023. Another nine countries reserve the death penalty for “exceptional crimes such as crimes under military law or crimes committed in exceptional circumstances,” according to Amnesty International. Meanwhile, 112 countries have abolished the death penalty legally and 23 have abolished the punishment in practice. [2]

As of 2024, 24 U.S. states have the death penalty; three have the death penalty but have imposed moratoriums, halting executions; and 23 states and Washington, D.C., have abolished the death penalty. The punishment remains legal at the federal level. Since 2003, capital punishment of federal prisoners has only been used in 2020 and 2021 during the Trump administration when 13 men were executed. Prior to 2020, the federal government had executed three people since 1963, all under President George W. Bush. That group included Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in 2001. [3] [4] [5] [6]

According to 2022 and 2023 Gallup polls, 55% of Americans believe the death penalty should be legal and 60% believe the punishment to be morally acceptable. [7]

For more on the history of capital punishment, see ProCon’s Historical Timeline: History of the Death Penalty.