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.