The death penalty, also known as Capital Punishment, is a sentence handed out by the state as a punishment for a crime. This sentence can be traced back though out history, into the depths of our ancestors, and has been dealt out for a myriad of reasons, from treason to murder. Currently, roughly 58 nations still practice Capital Punishment, although only three of these execute people considered minors (under 18.)
The earliest known form of written law is that of The Code of Hammurabi, which is a well-preserved Babylonian code of law in ancient Iraq. It dates back to roughly 1772 BC, when the sixth Babylonian king, Hammurabi enacted a total of 282 laws for his people to follow. Accompanied by each law was the individual punishment that would be served if the law was broken. Many punishments were lex talionis (an eye for an eye), which also included one of the earliest forms of the death penalty.
- Ex. Law #196. “If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. If one break a man’s bone, they shall break his bone. If one destroy the eye of a freeman or break the bone of a freeman he shall pay one mana of silver. If one destroy the eye of a man’s slave or break a bone of a man’s slave he shall pay one-half his price.”
Examples of crimes which were worthy of death are as follows:
- Ex. Law #15: “If any one take a male or female slave of the court, or a male or female slave of a freed man, outside the city gates, he shall be put to death.”
- Ex. Law #22: “If any one is committing a robbery and is caught, then he shall be put to death.”
In ancient history, the vast majority of cultures used Capital punishment as a way of punishing those who rebel, and deterring others away from crime. The Romans were renowned for executing their prisoners for a vast array of reasons, as did the ancient Greeks. In 621 BC, the death penalty was applied for the majority of crimes in Greece, and even when new laws were published, the original homicide statutes remained.
In China, the death penalty was not in mainstream use until 759, and even then it was used scarcely compared to other countries. There were 24 executions is 730, and 58 six years later in 736. The preferred methods of execution in China were strangulation and decapitation, the latter being reserved for more serious crimes, such as treason. The ancient Chinese believed that it was disrespectful to one’s ancestors to return send a body to the grave dismembered, which is why strangulation was the preferred method. However, those who committed heinous crimes were not afforded this sign of respect.
The death penalty plays a large role within the Bible, and the Torah (first five books of the Old Testament.) The Torah, also known as the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Christian Old Testament) also condones the death penalty for murder, kidnapping, violation of the Sabbath, sexual crimes, blasphemy and magic.
- Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”
- Exodus 21:12: “Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall by put to death.”
- Exodus 21:15: “Whoever strikes his father or mother shall be put to death.”
- Exodus 21:16: “Whoever steals a man and sells him, anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.”
- Exodus 21:17: “Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death.”
- Leviticus 20:27: “A man or a woman who is a medium or a necromancer shall surely be put to death. They shall by stoned with stones; their blood shall be upon them.”
- Deuteronomy 24:16: “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.”
MEDIEVAL AND EARLY MODERN PERIODS
In the middle ages and early modern Europe, the death penalty was used as the main form of punishment. During the reign of Henry VIII, an estimation of up to 72,000 people were executed under his orders, and this was not a rare occurrence in during this era. In Wallachia in the 15th century, Vlad III was busy conducting his own penalty system, in by which most crimes resulted in the slow death by impalement. He was feared amongst his peers and rivals, not to mention his citizens.
It was between the 15th and 18th centuries that the witch trials spread across Europe, then to North America. Widespread fear of Satanic witches captivated the Christian societies, threatening to undermine their beliefs and principles. As a result, tens of thousands of women were prosecuted and executed.
When the European settlers came to America, they brought with them their laws and punishment system, including the death penalty. According to reports, the first execution to take part on American soil was in 1608 in the British North American colonies.
The death penalty was once a primary method of punishment in many countries across the world. It was administered to those convicted of a range of crimes, from cutting down trees in public places and cattle theft, to murder and treason, and viewed as a deterrent by the ruling governments.
Throughout the centuries, executions have been carried out as a form of punishment in the majority of cultures. The methods have changed throughout the years, in an attempt to make the process more effective and humane.