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What Is a Death Warrant?

An electric chair in the former Louisiana State execution chamber.
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  • Written By: Kyla G. Kelim
  • Edited By: Angela B.
  • Last Modified Date: 16 April 2014
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A death warrant — also known as an execution warrant — is a formal writ issued by a court or government official that authorizes a prison official to carry out the execution of an inmate for capital crimes. The death warrant will specify the time period and the method in which the execution must be carried out. If the execution is not accomplished before the death warrant expires, a new warrant must be issued before the execution can take place. In the United States, a judge or governor issues a death warrant after all appeals are exhausted. It is largely a routine administrative act, but signing a death warrant is symbolically significant to supporters of the inmate and the victim, as well as proponents and opponents of capital punishment.

Worldwide, 58 countries used capital punishment as of 2010. In the United States, there are a number of due process steps in place throughout the capital punishment system, including the issuance of the death warrant and the execution itself. Many other countries widely publicize the details of the punishment and issuance of the death warrant as a deterrence to its citizens. Some countries do not have those transparent safeguards in place, making it difficult to know how many of its citizens are executed. The largest number of reported executions in 2009 were in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

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Famous figures and high drama are associated with death warrants that have survived for hundreds of years. Queen Elizabeth I reportedly agonized over signing the death warrant for her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1587. King Charles I was executed for treason following the civil war in the 1640s that also led to the rise of Oliver Cromwell’s brief republican government. His son, restored King Charles II, ordered the executions of many signers of his father’s death warrant. Both of these documents are in London collections.

A death warrant is a term sometimes used by countries that are publicly condemning a person for actions or views at odds with the regime. That country is actually giving license to kill a person who has been alleged to have committed a crime but is not presently incarcerated. A license to kill is permission to use deadly force in the arrest of the subject, and not the specific terms of carrying out an execution following a trial.

The phrase “death warrant” is part of our popular culture. Unpopular views or laws are described as a death warrant to an affected group, idea or way of life. The idiom “signing one’s own death warrant” describes an unwise course of action in personal, political or business pursuits.

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