What is a Capital Sentence?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

When a defendant is convicted of a crime and sentenced to death, this is known as a capital sentence. This type of sentence is also popularly known as the “death penalty” in many nations. A great deal of controversy exists globally over capital sentencing, which has a number of staunch opponents and defenders.

San Quentin State Prison houses the only death row for male inmates in California.
San Quentin State Prison houses the only death row for male inmates in California.

When someone commits a crime which is punishable by death, the crime itself is also said to be capital. Typically, capital crimes are very carefully outlined in the legal codes of a nation. Murder is a common example of a capital crime, but courts may also issue a capital sentence for extremely violent crimes, sex crimes, treason, and even apostasy. The abuse of capital sentencing in extremely conservative nations is a cause for concern for some people, as some activists feel that the death penalty is an extremely harsh punishment for crimes such as adultery.

Acts of treason, such as disclosing military secrets, can be punished with a capital sentence.
Acts of treason, such as disclosing military secrets, can be punished with a capital sentence.

If someone is on trial for a capital crime in a nation which allows trial by jury, the jury may be Death Qualified (DQ). A DQ jury consists only of individuals who would feel comfortable with a capital sentence as a result of conviction. Jurors who express unease with the death penalty may still be allowed to sit on the jury, but people who are categorically opposed to it will be struck. This is out of concern that the juror's personal ethics may play a role in his or her decision about the defendant's guilt.

Murder is considered a capital crime.
Murder is considered a capital crime.

Supporters of capital sentencing argue that the practice discourages crime by setting a clear example to the rest of society. It also in theory permanently removes criminals from society, reducing the risk of recidivism. When carried out quickly and humanely, it also represents less expense to the state than keeping someone in prison for life.

Opponents, however, argue that death is a very extreme punishment, and that it should be used in very rare cases, if at all. People who do not support the death penalty have argued that the legal system may not always be fair, especially to minorities, and they are concerned about wrongful convictions. In the United States, many people claim that it constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment,” which is outlawed under the United States Constitution.

Supporters and opponents both agree that an excessive capital sentence may constitute a human rights violation. The use of a capital sentence for a non-violent crime, for example, is generally considered excessive. In a clear miscarriage of justice, the sentence is also generally deemed a human rights violation. Around the world, activists work to prevent human rights violations of this kind, in the hopes of making the world better for all.

When a convicted criminal is sentenced to death, that is known as a capital sentence.
When a convicted criminal is sentenced to death, that is known as a capital sentence.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

BigBloom

@SilentBlue

I disagree that there are no heroes of democracy, but agree that there should be more parties. Most Americans are actually somewhere near the middle these days, and there is considerably more political diversity than there used to be. I think we can thank the internet for this change. It is more difficult than ever for parties to hold dominance or wage petty political wars.

SilentBlue

@Qohe1et

In more conservative states, a theocracy would seem to be more favorable than a liberal and free democracy. This is the partisan issue in the US: there are no real heroes of democracy, but a manipulative political battle between the liberal and conservative camp. We need more parties.

TrogJoe19

Proponents of the death penalty argue that if we lifted it, then there would be more murders, since people would not be afraid of dying for killing. They also argue that it is biblical, or that it keeps with our core belief system. I would disagree with this. The bible is not a procrustean handbook for rigid rules in all of life. It is a guide, not a set of rules which are to be kept everywhere throughout history. As far as the argument for increased murders, I'm sure people had the same argument when arguing for keeping archaic torture methods. In eliminating these tortures, crimes did not increase, but people were able to be motivated by love rather than fear.

Qohe1et

I find it surprising that people who are opposed to the death penalty are not allowed to sit in as jurors in this kind of case. Aren't we a democracy? A democracy is supposed to be represented by all its constituents, regardless of whether or not they have moral qualms about the death penalty. If someone is against the death penalty, they shouldn't have to lie about their belief in order to get on the board of a jury.

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