For centuries the death penalty, often accompanied by barbarous refinements, has been trying to hold crime in check; yet crime persists. Why? Because the instincts that are warring in man are not, as the law claims, constant forces in a state of equilibrium.
~Albert Camus


Why do we kill people to punish them for killing people? They say most civilized countries have given up the death penalty. Well, if they executed people, when were they ever civilized?  In fact, most countries period have given up the death penalty. Most countries have either completely abolished it or abolished it for every offense but a special few. Mostly war crimes. Many other countries are slowly moving away from it and have not executed an individual in a decade or more.

In 2010 the United States executed 46 people. That puts us fifth over all, right behind Yemen at 53+. China executed about 5,000 people but that’s China, so they don’t rally count. Executions are like a national pass time for their government. Saudi Arabia, at number 6, only executed about 30 people. They still sentence juveniles so at least we got that going for us. But we only stopped doing that about 8 years ago so we can’t exactly brag. That’s right. We use to sentence juveniles to death not too long ago.  And people actually said they deserved it.



Executions probably predate society. When everyone got together to build cities, we started getting legal about it. Early on almost everything you did was punished by death. No shit. Murder was, of course, a death sentence, but so was stealing a loaf of bread or knocking over an important person. Always watch where you’re going. Wait, lemme go back. Murdering a man was cause for execution. Murdering a woman  meant you had to pay  a few bucks to her husband. A few more if she was pregnant. Also, in some cultures, rape was punishable by death. Though many times it was the woman who was killed for “shaming herself”. This was prevalent in some early Greek and Persian societies. The “You Shouldn’t Have Worn That Dress” Law.

The reasons people were executed differed depending on the culture. Killing another person was an almost universal capital offense, but, even in the earliest codes of law, exceptions were made for self defense. Though many codes still required you to give some compensation to the family of the man you killed since he was their only source of food or income. Early, early on in human civilization, killing was crude and sloppy. Most often a person was exiled from a tribe or village in lieu of killing him. One of the earliest forms of execution to gain wide spread popularity was disembowelment.  The victim is slit, horizontally, across the abdomen and his “guts” are removed. Often times the person would be held up at an angle so that the force of gravity would take care of it for them when their belly is cut open. It didn’t take long for people to realize that this shit was fucking terrible!

Even before anyone had heard of, let alone conceived of, humane treatment, disembowelment became appalling. In Japan many samurai engaged in ritual disembowelment to “purify their  spirit” after committing heinous crimes or failing to honor their code and lord. Even then a second man would stand by, ready to cut the samurai’s head off once he pulled the blade across. But this was just the beginning of the idea machine. Turns out we’re kind of sadists. Torture became a prototype for elaborate executions. A bed of nails is  a pretty excruciating torture. And these aren’t those beds that have all the nails evenly spaced to absorb your weight without poking you to death. Just sharp spikes we laid you across til you confessed your crime, or accepted Marduk, or whatever was going on that Tuesday. But what if we just shoved the spikes in? No! Fuck that shit! We’ll build a giant, vertical, human shaped coffin and line the insides with razor sharp spikes! Yes! YES! Then we just put them in close it up. Adn we’ll give it an awesome name like Iron Maiden.

The iron maiden was  a pretty useful device.  You could torture or kill someone or, torture and kill someone. It’s the total package. And there’s no end to the sharp, pointy death toys. One of the earliest depicted forms of execution is impalement.  It’s really lazy. You just jab a sharp stick through someone. Totally brutal and freaky looking, but lacking any flair. It was good enough for Vlad Tepes though, and that dude is frickin’ Dracula! Impalement led to a slightly less gruesome form of execution we call crucifixion. Instead of impaling them on a piece of wood, we nailed people to it. Literally.  Crucifixion is a well known form of execution even to this day as it was the form of execution used on Jesus of Nazareth. Many Christians wear crucifixes around their neck to symbolize it. Kinda morbid but whatever.

Elsewhere in the sharp blade category we have dismemberment and beheading.  Both old school practices that still have life in some areas of the world today. Decapitation has been around as long as just about any form of execution. If done correctly it’s quick, clean, and relatively painless.  However, not everyone cares to keep their blades the sharpest and this can result in some pretty gruesome spectacles. You slice the head off. You don’t hack it away like a fucking tree branch. Cutting off  a thieve’s hand is  a mild form of dismemberment that has existed for millenia along side beheadings. Shit got crazy in Medieval times though. It was a time of lords and kings so any crimes of treason or other various offenses against the crown were particularly frowned upon.

The ultimate punishment for disloyalty was to be hanged,drawn and quartered. An exceedingly popular execution in medieval England.  They would hang the victim til he was almost dead, cut him down, disembowel him, then pull the corpse apart limb from limb. Why? Fuck You! That’s why! And that’s really what it was. It was  a message. If you betray the crown we won’t just kill you. We’ll kill you three fucking times! Then we’ll probably display pieces of your body near areas that need a good scare. Poor people, political activists, the French.

Religious views at the time were almost universally accepting of the death penalty. The differences came when you compared individual sects within each religion. Mainstream Christian religion was pro-death penalty. Actively pro-death penalty. In many smaller sects, capital punishment was forbidden. As was violence in general. In Muslim societies executions were permitted but mercy was most often emphasized. Like any leader Muslim rulers executed tons of people but, for most Muslims who followed the dreaded Sharia Law(BOO!), forgiveness and mercy were much more celebrated qualities. The Church of England is viewed today as a very “open minded” church and has shown that in the past, often having views against punishment of almost any kind. As summarized in this hilarious video from British comedian Eddie Izzard:

It’s not that societies at this time didn’t believe in rehabilitation and forgiveness for all our sins, they just had few ways to deal with criminals. This was before prisons as we think of them and executions weren’t  a special kind of punishment, it was the punishment. It wouldn’t be til the implementation of the modern prison system in the 19th century that reform and rehabilitation would be strongly considered in the Western world. Prisons had already been around but they were really just cages we kept people in til we killed them. No one was really considering punishing people in this fashion. The idea of imprisoning offenders and attempting to rehabilitate them became instantly popular.

Despite what you may have seen in some movies or read in books, people did not enjoy public executions. Many times your attendance was mandatory. Entire villages were shut down to witness a hanging or a dismemberment or whatever was good that day. Of course there were people with cruel or morbid attitudes and they reveled in it. Most were disgusted but it. As they would be today. Human existence was rough in the Middle Ages. Your life expectancy was almost entirely tied to what class you were born into. If you are born poor it was very likely you may not even see your 10th birthday. Sickness and disease were prominent and many people’s lives hung on the whims of sociopaths appointed by a distant monarch.

When democratic change began sweeping the West a majority of people were on board for a better way to police our societies.  Which of course led to regulated state run prisons, a police force, and a somewhat ordered society. In Arab and Persian societies, where the European Renaissance and Enlightenment periods find their roots, many leaders were moving toward more “humane” forms of execution. The most awesome of which was “blowing from a gun”. In this Jackass stunt gone horribly wrong, the convicted is tied to the mouth of a cannon and then the fuse is lit. I’ll let you guess what happens next. America, not to be outdone, turned to the electric chair and the gas chamber. They were immediately outdone as both executions proved to be exceedingly inhumane.

William Kemmler was the first person to ever be electrocuted in America. His sentence was carried out on August 6, 1890. Electricity was still a fairly new concept. But we knew it’d sure kill the shit out of somebody. Within a decade of the first power centers going up, we were killing people with it. Slowly and painfully. It took 8 minutes to kill Bill Kemmler. The first round of volts merely knocked him out. After waiting for the generator to fire back up, they hit him again. And again. They basically cooked him. Witnesses to the execution were horrified. The electric chair began to spread to prisons nationwide as electricians “worked out the bugs”. Ever the equal opportunity nation, the first woman was electrocuted nine years later. Opponents of the electric chair began electrocuting animals to death to point out it’s inherent flaws. Not it’s inhumane torture aspect but it’s use of the wrong current. Most notably, professional asshole Thomas Edison.  I’m sure their hearts were in the right place. Their dead, emotionless  hearts. The gas chamber got off to a similar start in the early 20th century.  Executions were messy, prolonged affairs and prisoners often died painful, drawn out deaths.  But, like the electric chair, we figured we would get the hang of it eventually. The events uncovered in the Nazi concentration camps during World War 2 did little to dissuade our feelings on killing people with gas. Being the morbid business it is, I’m sure various executioners were taking notes.

So, if I asked you why we decided to go with lethal injections in the late 19th century, what would you say? Obviously you would think it’s because we’re decent people and we don’t want to watch the suffering of others, regardless of their crimes. You’d be wrong but that is what we would all think. No, we went with electrocutions because we thought it would be more humane than hanging. We went with lethal injection to save a few bucks. I have no idea how much rope cost in 1890 but apparently drugs were heaper. On paper lethal injections seem pretty humane compared to being cooked like a sausage or choking on your own vomit. The concept seemed simple. An anesthesia was applied to knock the prisoners out, then the lethal drugs were administered. They would die in their sleep. Opponents of lethal injection are not so sure. The people applying he drugs don’t have any experience with knocking people out. Given the types of drugs used and inexperience of those using them, the odds of people being aware as we poison their insides is pretty good.

But, since the 19th century, many countries have banned executions. 16 states have banned executions, the first being Michigan way back in 1846. In the mid 20th century debates over the use of the death penalty reached the United States Supreme Court. In 1972, using the case of Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was a violation of the Constitution’s protection against “cruel and unusual punishment”. A 4 year moratorium was placed on executions in America. Some states still executed people but where now following stricter guidelines regarding the sentence of death. In 1976 the Court overturned it’s ruling by basically pointing out that American juries were still handing out death sentences, there was no great outcry from the public, and most stated were quickly adopting the new guidelines for executing prisoners. The public showed no signs that it felt execution was a cruel and unusual punishment. The issue did not stop there and the Court has made several rulings on the death penalty since then, including rulings concerning the execution of the mentally impaired and juveniles. For most of the last century in this country civil liberty groups  have been fighting what they feel is a racist system that uses this punishment. There is a hugely disproportionate number of minorities on death row in this country. The crime statistics do not match up with what our prions look like.

Use of the death penalty is at an all time low around the world. Recent decades have seen many countries either moving away from the practice or outright banning it nationwide. In 2010 only 23 countries were documented as having carried out state approved executions. There is renewed hope among abolitionists that the practice of state run executions will eventually be barred worldwide. In America, 14 states and the District of Columbia have completely banned the use of the death penalty. Several more state legislatures currently have referendums to end executions making the rounds in the statehouse. The death penalty is still law on the federal level but  a majority of states abandoning the practices could probably influence future Supreme Court decisions on the matter. After all, one of their arguments for allowing it was the public’s acceptance of it.


On September 21, 2011 the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis. Davis was sentenced to death for the 1989 murder of a police officer, based almost entirely on eyewitness testimony. In the 2 plus decades since his sentencing the case had changed dramatically. Eyewitnesses admitted to coercion and flat out lying. New ballistics evidence called into question the  shell casings used against Davis. The lawyers for Davis took the case all the way to the Supreme Court but were rejected multiple times. In the aftermath of his execution a new discussion on capital punishment began. Davis may very well have been guilty. The problem many have is that the state of Georgia, and to a lesser extent the SCOTUS , didn’t appear to have a solid case. In our justice system the burden is always on the state. You do not have to actually prove your innocent. The state must prove you are guilty beyond all reasonable doubt and it is your attorney’s job to find and exploit that doubt. So there is a chance he was innocent. Even if it were only a 1% chance, this is too much for many. This has become the new rallying cry for death penalty abolitionists. New advancements in DNA technology have cleared many people sitting on death row but it’s not perfect. The DNA evidence must meet strict guidelines or it can’t even be studied.

Personally I don’t think we should have capital punishment. But I understand. People want retribution. Some sort of closure. But is it worth innocent men dying? Every reason we’ve had to execute people has proven to be a weak one. Crime persists. It’s no deterrent.   Attempts to create more “humane” ways of killing people, which is quite a sentence to type, have had mixed results. It’s still a cruel, barbaric procedure. It’s not worth the risk of killing innocent people to give you “peace of mind”. You want justice, kill the person yourself. Don’t pass it off to the state. That should be the new law. YOU have to execute the criminal who wronged you.  You have to pull the switch that ends their life. Get a taste for death. It’ll do you good. Give you that perspective you’ve been looking for. As society has advanced the death penalty has been left behind more and more. Human society has never been without it but I feel one day it will be eradicated.

Until that day do not do anything illegal in Texas. They will fucking kill you for it.




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Outstanding article, Adonai.
We don’t have the death penalty here in Canada.

Orcas Island
Orcas Island

Excellent post Adonai. I’ve seen that whole Eddie Izzard comedy skit and I was in tears.

What this planet needs is a god-smackin asteroid impact. Give some other species a chance.


Hi Adonai – the death penalty waned when capitalism discovered the value of the human body. You might want to read Michel Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish” as he shows the move toward incarceration to control the spirit of the human to “break” them and bend them to the will of the master. The rise of the death penalty comes in direct proportion to the decline of manufacturing and other jobs where the human body makes money for others. We kill our surplus.

It might interest you to know, however, that ALL mainline and progressive Christian denominations today are OPPOSED to the death penalty. Only the religious right salivates over its use. For mainline denominations, this is a major step forward. And that’s good.


c’lady, as the RW discovers the “value” of slave prison labor in for-profit prisons, I wonder if we’ll start to see a decline in the use of the death penalty once again. These folks are nothing if not cynical and calculating.


kes, I watched a good doc about the “War On Drugs,” in America, and they talked about this. Prisoners in private, for profit prisons get money from the state for each prisoner and they get money again for making prisoners work.

They actually trade on Wall Street based on the number of people they incarcerate. I kid you not.


Slavery is alive and well, KT, isn’t it? And that’s no surprise. If we’re looking at Capitalism that is totally unregulated and “red in tooth and claw,” slavery is almost inevitable. The closer they can get labor costs to zero (have to toss a little food their way every now and then, and make a feeble effort to keep them from freezing to death I suppose), the more profit they make.