The Interest

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Capital Punishment:

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Many distinctive doctrines in criminal law originated in efforts to restrict the number of capital crimes and executions. For instance, in the late 18th century, when all murder in the United States was punishable by death, Pennsylvania pioneered in dividing murder into two categories. The state enacted laws that authorized punishment of first-degree murder by death, while second-degree murder was punishable by imprisonment only. Elsewhere, penal codes uniformly required death for certain serious crimes. In these jurisdictions, discretionary powers to commute death sentences gradually expanded. (A commutation substitutes a lesser penalty for a more severe one—for example, replacing execution with a life sentence.) Today in many nations, including Turkey and Japan, the death penalty remains legal but the number of executions has declined over time.

Although many jurisdictions limited imposition of the death penalty, no government had formally abolished capital punishment until Michigan did so in 1846. Within 20 years Venezuela (1863) and Portugal (1867) had formally eliminated the practice as well. By the beginning of the 20th century the death sentence had been abolished in a handful of nations, such as Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Norway, and The Netherlands. Although not formally eliminated, it had fallen into disuse in many others, including Brazil, Cape Verde, Iceland, Monaco, and Panama.

The defeat of the Axis powers provided a foundation for the elimination of the death penalty in Western Europe. Some of the nations involved in the war saw abolition of capital punishment as a way to disassociate themselves from the atrocities that had taken place. Italy formally abolished the death penalty in 1947 and the Federal Republic of Germany did so in 1949. The British government instituted a Royal Commission to study capital punishment in 1950 and abolished the death penalty in 1965. (Northern Ireland did not abolish capital punishment until 1973.) By the early 1980s every major country in Europe had stopped executing criminals.

Coincident with this trend in Western Europe, many countries belonging to the Commonwealth of Nations, an association of countries formerly affiliated with the British Empire, eliminated capital punishment. For instance, Canada conducted its last execution in 1962 and abolished the death penalty in 1976. New Zealand held its last execution in 1957 and Australia stopped executing criminals ten years later. A similar burst of abolitionist activity coincided with the breakup of the Soviet Union. East Germany, the Czech Republic, and Romania all outlawed capital punishment between 1987 and 1990. Throughout the former Communist countries, abolition of the death penalty was a political act far removed from the...
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