What is a Capital Offense?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 06 February 2020
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A capital offense is a crime that may warrant the maximum penalty in a legal system. In many countries, capital offenses may qualify the prisoner for execution, also known as the death penalty. In regions without the death penalty, life in prison is sometimes referred to as the capital punishment for a capital offense. Many legal scholars only use the term to describe crimes that may lead to a death sentence.

Throughout history, it has been very common for societies to define crimes by their amount of damage and destruction, as well as their effect on the society as a whole. A capital offense is typically considered the most dangerous, deadly, or destructive type of crime. In many modern countries, the designation of capital offense is usually reserved for particularly heinous murders or severely devastating crimes that damage society.


Aside from the question of whether a governing body has a right to execute prisoners, legal systems and cultures have always struggled to define the proper circumstances that constitute a capital offense. Under the ancient system of laws in the Hawaiian islands, for instance, literally hundreds of offenses were punishable by death, including eating with members of the opposite sex, fishing on sacred grounds, and letting a person's shadow fall on the chief's. In 16th century England, King Henry VIII had not one but two of his wives executed on the grounds that adultery was a form of treason against the king, which was a capital offense.

The many modern definitions of what constitutes a capital offense tend to be significantly more limited. Murder, acts of terrorism, drug trafficking, and human trafficking are crimes that are punishable by the death penalty in many countries and regions. Under some legal systems, murder qualifies only if there are aggravating circumstances, such as contract killing, multiple murders, robbery, or sexual crimes. The age of the victim and method of the crime can also alter the chances of receiving a death sentence; crimes against children, or those that involve torture or kidnapping are often treated as more severe by legal systems.

Depending on the legal system, certain factors may remove the possibility of the death penalty even if the crime committed is considered a capital offense. In most countries, executing those considered to be minors is not permitted. Some legal systems may also have provisions that protect the mentally ill or disturbed from being considered for capital punishment, as they may not be competent to understand the nature and severity of the crime.


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Post 3

I think that a good argument for capital punishment also involves the fact that it serves as a deterrent for others attempting a similar crime. I value human life immensely which is why I believe in the death penalty because some people don’t place the same value on life and have taken the life of others for a simple robbery.

A capital crime like murder has to have the ultimate punishment because although people still commit murder, the numbers are far less in death penalty states than states that do not carry such a punishment. I think that there has to be some fear of potential consequences because if not people will commit crimes of murder and know that the punishment will be minimal.

Post 2

@starrynight - I'm sorry, but I just don't agree with you. Capital punishment is perfectly appropriate in many circumstances. Do you really think a serial killer should be allowed to live? I don't.

I think you should have a little bit more faith in our legal system. Maybe a few innocent people were convicted of crimes in the past, but I think we've made leaps and bounds in forensic technology.

But seriously. Just imagine if you someone close to you was killed in a gruesome way, and they found out beyond a shadow of a doubt who did it. Are you really saying you don't think that person should be put to death?

Post 1

I am completely against capital punishment. I think the possibility of an innocent person being executed is just too high.

I remember a few years ago when DNA evidence started being more widely used, a few people were released from prison because evidence proved they were innocent. If this type of mistake was made once, I think it could be again.

Also, DNA evidence isn't available in all cases. In some cases people are convicted mainly because of witness testimony, which is the most unreliable kind.

Not to mention the fact that it's actually more expensive to execute someone than to just keep them in prison.

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