Criminal Law

By Mara Dodson


Capital Punishment: Things to know today

Another US Presidential Cycle, another discussion of the Big Issues. As usual, Capital Punishment is right up there. In short compass, Joe Biden and the Democrats say abolish it. In a surprise to no-one, Trump is all about it, and has been for a long time. (He reminded us this week on Twitter, referring to the assailant who shot two police officers in Compton, California: If they die, fast trial death penalty for the killer. Only way to stop this![1])

The focus of this précis is not capital punishment in the US, but as one of the world’s leading economic, military and (I hesitate to say…) cultural powers, it’s worth mentioning.

In June of this year, the US Supreme Court declined to take up the case of four death row prisoners who challenged the Federal Government’s lethal injection protocol. This paved the way for the Trump administration to carry out the executions. On July 14 2020, the first federal death sentence in nearly 20 years was carried out. Two more took place in the subsequent days.

On a state level, it is a different story. There are currently 25 US states with the death penalty, 22 without, and three states which have a governor-imposed moratorium in place. In the last 12 months, there has been 24 executions by the States, and five executions on a Federal level.

Enough with the US – the global story is more interesting. Although most nations have abolished capital punishment, over 60% of the world’s population live in a country where the death penalty is retained. And it is not necessarily sanctioned for the crime of murder.

In 2019, most known executions took place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Egypt – in that order. China is the world’s top executioner – but the true extent of the use of the death penalty in China is unknown, as this data is classified as a state secret. The global figure of at least 657 recorded deaths excludes thousands of executions believed to have been carried out in China. China is also one of a small number of countries which is known to execute people for drug related crimes.

In 2019, Iran recorded 251 executions. In a horrifying sting, at least 13 of those were public executions. Saudi Arabia recorded 184 executions, and Iraq at least 100.[2]

Globally, over 26,000 people were under a sentence of death at the end of 2019.

Amnesty International regards the death penalty as the ultimate, cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment, and a breach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Furthermore, it is often used within skewed justice systems (for instance, based on torture-tainted evidence or inadequate legal representation), and the penalty disproportionately effects disadvantaged minorities.

What do proponents say?

An eye for an eye: Summed up in a Trump tweet of September 2014. The animal who beheaded the woman in Oklahoma should be given a very fast trial and then the death penalty. The same fate – beheading?[3]

It costs less than life imprisonment: Taxpayers don’t want to be spending money keeping really bad people alive in prison, right? This seems logical. Except it’s not. The average costs of a first-degree murder case, where prosecutors file a death notice, far exceeds the costs of a case where the death penalty is not sought. This is due to the grossly inflated costs of defending the accused, who most often cannot afford their own lawyer. The trials and appeals processes are longer. Even the post-conviction incarceration costs are greater, as inmates on death row require greater security.

It deters crime: Actually, there is no evidence that the death penalty deters crime any more than life imprisonment.

Putting these reasons aside, we cannot ignore that even in a well-run criminal justice system, mistakes can and do happen. In 2019, at least 11 exonerations of prisoners on death sentence were recorded – in Zambia and US. Since 1973 in the US, over 160 people have been released from death rows due to evidence of their wrongful convictions.[4]

I’m sure there are plenty more arguments both ways, which will no doubt get an airing in the lead up to the US election on 3 November 2020. In the meantime, let’s appreciate Australia’s freedom from state-sanctioned execution, and our fearless leader’s relative restraint on Twitter.


[2] Amnesty International, Death Sentences and Executions 2019


[4] Amnesty International,