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The death penalty, or capital punishment, has been used by many countries in one form or another throughout history. Although many countries have abolished the use of capital punishment, as of 2011, almost 60 countries still consider capital punishment acceptable for death penalty crimes. Which offenses are considered death penalty crimes vary by country; however, as a rule, if a country authorizes the use of capital punishment, then murder is considered one of the death penalty crimes. Certain other violent crimes, terrorism, and drug-related crimes are also among the death penalty crimes in some countries.
The majority of the nations where the death penalty is still used can be found in Africa and the Middle East; however, three of the most populist countries in the world — The United States, The People's Republic of China, and India — also still allow use of the death penalty. Most European and Latin American countries have abolished the death penalty. In the countries that retain the use of the death penalty, the movement has been to change archaic methods, such as the use of gas or electrocution, to more humane methods, such as death by lethal injection.
Within the nations where capital punishment is practiced, murder is the most common of the death penalty crimes. In some cases, only felony or aggravated murder qualifies for the death penalty. In the United States, for example, use of the death penalty for lesser crimes, such as rape, has been found to be unconstitutional. Aside from murder, terrorism is the next most common crime that is found to be among the death penalty crimes in many countries.
Among the almost 60 countries that still use the death penalty, 20 of those also allowed capital punishment as a possible sentence for drug-related offenses as of 2011. Of those countries that allow the death penalty for drug-related offenses, the vast majority are found in the Middle East or on the continent of Africa. Simple possession of illegal drugs does not generally rise to the level of a crime for which the death penalty may be imposed. In most cases, drug-related death penalty crimes are crimes that involve trafficking in large quantities of illegal controlled substances.
In most countries that retain the use of capital punishment, there are certain classes of offenders that may not be sentenced to death. Juvenile offenders, in most death penalty countries, cannot receive the death penalty; however, there are countries that do execute juvenile offenders, such as The People's Republic of China and the Pakistan, among others. In addition, offenders who are considered to be mentally disabled, and therefore unable to fully realize the severity of their crimes, are often excluded from eligibility for the death penalty.
In the United States, these crimes are usually called "capital crimes," meaning the death penalty is always a possible sentence at trial, if the defendant is found guilty.
Capital murder is almost always murder committed with "intent," murder of a police officer or murder committed in the commission of another felony. For instance, if a person robs someone in their home, the initial felony is robbery or home invasion. If the perpetrator then kills the person who has been robbed, it's capital murder, because the murder was committed while the perp was also committing a robbery.
Usually, capital murder charges are very tightly defined, because of the death penalty possibility in states that have executions. A death sentence in such
a case also always triggers an automatic appeal.
Many defendants who realize they have little chance of being acquitted in a trial will plead guilty to avoid the death penalty. This usually results in a life sentence, with or without parole, depending on the circumstances.
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