Capital punishment, the death penalty, or execution is the sentence of death upon a person by the state as a punishment for a crime. Crimes that can result in a death penalty are known as capital crimes or capital offenses. The term capital originates from the Latin capitalis, literally "regarding the head".
"While most of the prisoners whose executions we participated in accepted responsibility for the crimes for which they were punished, some of us have also executed prisoners who maintained their innocence until the end," the wardens wrote. "It is those cases that are most haunting to an executioner."
Escalating numbers of DNA‐based exonerations have conclusively demonstrated that wrongful convictions are concrete and real, putting human faces on a construct once tenuous and abstract (Garrett, 2008; Leo, 2005, pp. 205–206). Between 1973 and August 2010, 138 individuals convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in this country were formally exonerated, frequently after spending a decade or more on death row and sometimes coming within days or hours of execution (Death Penalty Information Center, 2010a).
Somewhere between the poles of confident enforcement and abandoning capital punishment resides another approach, an attempted accommodation, in which authorization for the death penalty is conditioned on enacting extraordinary protections against executing innocent persons.
U.S. students were most likely to feel that innocent people are sentenced to death. In multivariate analyses, deterrence was the strongest correlate of death penalty views among Chinese and Japanese respondents, followed closely by retribution.
In a 1990 report, the non-partisan U.S. General Accounting Office found "a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty." The study concluded that a defendant was several times more likely to be sentenced to death if the murder victim was white. This has been confirmed by the findings of many other studies that, holding all other factors constant, the single most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is the race of the victim.
"We simply cannot say we live in a country that offers equal justice to all Americans when racial disparities plague the system by which our society imposes the ultimate punishment."
The possibility of executing the innocent has emerged as some abolitionists' most salient argument, displacing debates over such issues as fairness, deterrence, and cost. Innocence has managed to move to the fore of the debate in part because of the success of death penalty opponents in attaching epistemological certainty to one particular category of postconviction exonerations, those vouched for by the authority of DNA evidence.
In their examination of New York Times abstracts from 1960 to 2004, Baumgartner, De Boef, and Boydstun (2004) found that the death penalty underwent a dramatic new issue redefinition beginning in the mid-1990s from a focus on morality and constitutionality to charges that innocent people may be on death row and, later, a focus on charges of racial bias in the application of the death penalty.
The latest Gallup poll on the subject found that most Americans continue to support the death penalty. "The current 64% support level is roughly equal to what Gallup has found through most of this decade," reports the pollster. So not much has changed, even as the list of exonerated death-row inmates grows.
Professor Jones disagreed that the preponderance of guilty convicts on Death Row merits the continuation of executions. "Whether you are for or against, no one can execute the innocent," he said. "How can we have a system that can execute innocent people?"